Early Modern Philosophy
I have always been fascinated by perception, for it is through perception that we make our most basic contact with the world. Descartes has been called the “father of modern philosophy,” and I think that there is a lot to this. With his work, philosophy turns a corner; the very questions philosophers ask and the terms in which they address those questions become different after Descartes. On one level the driving force behind these changes was the growing influence of the scientific revolution, as the new mechanistic physics came to replace that of the Aristoteleans. But Descartes’ attempt to reconcile the new science with Christianity, thus developing a workable and acceptable alternative to the Aristotelean system in both science and philosophy, was particularly influential. His work was successful on a popular level, as well as among philosophers; the problems subsequent philosophers felt they needed to resolve were Descartes’ problems.
During the Early Modern period, one of the branches of science most popular among the educated public was Optics. The formation of the retinal image had been discovered by Kepler, and the nature of light and color was hotly debated throughout this period. I came to my interest in Descartes’ theory of vision backwards, in a sense. I read Berkeley’s NewTheory of Vision and found his views fascinating and rather frightening because the effect of his arguments was to leave the mind directly and immediately in touch only with its own ideas. In trying to trace how such a view could have emerged, I read around in his predecessors, and found this view, or its immediate antecedents in many Early Moderns. Finally the trail led back to Descartes, and particularly to his theory of vision, a theory taken for granted by his successors. The retinal image, I thought, served as a model for an “idea.”
My dissertation “The Retreat from Realism: Philosophical Theories of Vision from Descartes to Berkeley,” then, explored the epistemological ramifications of the way vision was understood during this period. In order to understand the significance of Descartes’ work, I wrote a preliminary chapter on Aristotle’s understanding of perception, and visual perception in particular, to serve as a kind of a foil for the Early Modern material. This enabled me to see how the changes Descartes made in the traditional Aristotelean system affected his theory of vision, generated new problems, and ultimately paved the way for Berkeley’s theory of vision.
I subsequently published a version of the Descartes and Aristotle material in the Journal of the History of Philosophy Monograph series under the title Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception. In this, I carefully probe Descartes’ theory of visual perception, bringing out some of the fault lines in his account, particularly in his explanation of visual spatial perception. I conclude by calling for a return to a realist theory of vision, suggesting that the work of James J. Gibson provides a promising way to recover certain valuable features of Aristotle’s theory.
Since then I have written two articles for Descartes’ Natural Philosophy, edited by Stephen Gaukroger and John Sutton – one on Descartes’ attempt to construct a mechanistic theory of vision, and one on John Yolton’s interpretation of Descartes. I intend, during my retirement to turn the dissertation into a book, which will expand the later part that did was not included in the monograph, and develop a concluding chapter on J.J. Gibson and some recent developments in the theory of vision. The question I will try to answer in this chapter is whether the new resources which Gibson brings to bear on understanding visual perception enable us to successfully defend a direct realist view of perception