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Perceptual Acquaintance

Perceptual Acquaintance: From Descartes to Reid

John W. Yolton
Copyright Date: 1984
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Perceptual Acquaintance
    Book Description:

    Philosophers, wrote Thomas Reid in 1785, “all suppose that we perceive not external objects immediately, and that the immediate objects of perception are only certain shadows of the external objects.” To Reid, a founding father of the common-sense school of philosophy - and to many others before his time and since - John Locke’s “way of ideas” threatened to supplant, in human knowledge, the world of physical objects and events - and to point down the dreaded path to scepticism. John Yolton finds Reid at least partly responsible for this standard (and by now stereotypic) account of Locke and his eighteenth-century British successors on the subject of perception. By carefully examining the writings of Descartes and the Cartesians, and Locke and his successors, Yolton is able to suggest an alternative to this interpretation of their views. He goes back to a wide range of original texts - those of the period’s major philosophers, to Descartes’ scholastic precursors, to obscure pamphleteers, and to writers on religion, natural philosophy, medicine, and optics - all in an effort to help us understand the issues without the interference of modern labels and categories. The subtle changes over time reveal an important transformation in the understanding of perception, yet one that is prefigured in earlier work, contrary to Reid’s view of the past. Included in Yolton’s reevaluation is a full account of the role of Berkeley and Hume in the study of perceptual acquaintance, and of the connection between their work.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5560-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-17)

    Early in his survey of accounts of perception and our knowledge of objects, Thomas Reid (Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785) echoes a theme found in other writers before him: the conflict between the philosopher’s account of our world and the ordinary person’s beliefs about that world.

    An object placed at a proper distance, and in a good light, while the eyes are shut, is not perceived at all; but no sooner do we open our eyes upon it, than we have, as it were by inspiration, a certain knowledge of its existence, of its colour, figure, and...

  5. Chapter I Perceptual Cognition of Body in Descartes
    (pp. 18-41)

    That observation and experimentation are important for our knowledge of the world about us is a truth amply illustrated by Descartes’s scientific work. There is, however, no systematic account of the nature of observation in his writings. There is a detailed physiology inLa Dioptrique, Le Monde ou Traité de la lumière, andTraité de I’homme. The sixth of hisMeditationscontains an elaborate argument for the conclusion that body exists, even though body may not be as it seems. There is also the doctrine of the objective reality of ideas, a doctrine which tantalizes by its brevity and metaphor,...

  6. Chapter II Malebranche on Perception and Knowledge
    (pp. 42-57)

    Any discussion of Malebranche’s theory of perception and of the role of ideas in that theory must take account of a number of other doctrines held by him. (1) His view of matter makes matter infinitely divisible and limits its properties to motion, figure, and extension. (2) His view of causation limits it to God; second causes aremobilebut notself-moving. The first of these doctrines has the consequence that most of the properties we think we see as properties of bodies cannot be the properties of bodies. Malebranche does not appear to want to say that perceived motion...

  7. Chapter III Direct Presence among the Cartesians
    (pp. 58-75)

    One of the assumptions at work in Malebranche’s account of perceptual knowledge is that what we know, certainly what we know without inference (i.e., what we are acquainted with), must be intimately present to or united with the mind. The direct presence to the mind of the object known was a prevalent demand in accounts of perception in both centuries. It is a concept plagued with ambiguities, however. If it is meant as a metaphor, the metaphor must be interpreted. If that concept is taken literally, the sense in which two immaterial beings — minds and ideas or objects —...

  8. Chapter IV British Presence
    (pp. 76-87)

    Arnauld may not have developed a full cognitive psychology, but he at least attempted to explain the metaphors. Commitment to the notion that the object known must be present to the mind, acceptance of the dictum of no action (including cognitive action) at a distance, led Malebranche to follow the way of ideas as entities in his theory of knowledge. The differences between Arnauld and Malebranche, over the nature of ideas and over the application of these principles of presence and no action at a distance, are repeated in eighteenth-century British philosophy. The most familiar British version of the notion...

  9. Chapter V Locke and Malebranche: Two Concepts of Idea
    (pp. 88-104)

    The doctrine that what is known must be present to the mind is found in Locke’sEssay. In discussing the question of how bodies produce ideas in us, especially ideas of the original or primary qualities, Locke says this can only be done by impulse, “the only way which we can conceive bodies operate in” (2.8.11). He then gives a more detailed account of the production of ideas.

    If then external objects be not united to our minds when they produceideasin it and yet we perceivethese original qualitiesin such of them as singly fall under our...

  10. Chapter VI Ideas in Logic and Psychology
    (pp. 105-123)

    The terminology of ideas was part of a general and developing interest in the workings of the mind, of human understanding. Locke’sEssayon that topic was just one in a long line of treatises devoted to perceiving, understanding, and reasoning. Such treatises fell into two categories. The first comprised works of psychology, or works that contained sections on psychology. In Britain, most of these treatises have the word ‘soul’ in the title, but other works addressed to principles of religion or to the search for truth included some discussion of the cognitive faculties. These treatises were modeled after, in...

  11. Chapter VII Perceptual Optics
    (pp. 124-146)

    In disagreeing with those who claimed that thought might be a property of matter, Humphrey Ditton was careful to distinguish between perception and the physical causes of perception. Motion produces reaction in the sense organs, but that reaction is not perception. “How is this Reciprocal Agitation of anEyeor anEar, my apprehension of the Thing seen or heard?” Ditton finds neither “Similitude nor Relation, between mere Vibrations or Undulations of some fine Threads or Fibrillae in the Machine, and that Acquaintance which I have with an Object, in what I call an Act of Perception.”¹ Along with works...

  12. Chapter VIII Hume on Single and Double Existence
    (pp. 147-164)

    In the 1730s, when Hume began reading in preparation for writing a treatise on the human understanding, there were a number of traditions in philosophy that had been widely explored, concepts and principles that were generally used in dealing with perception and knowledge. One tradition invoked the dictum that what is known must be present to the mind: i.e., there is no cognition at a distance. Several optical treatises addressed the question of where and how the visual image is located on or near the object. Some philosophers, such as Hobbes and Berkeley, had adapted the knowledge of the structure...

  13. Chapter IX Hume on Imagination: A Magical Faculty of the Soul
    (pp. 165-180)

    In the eighteenth century there was an aesthetic response which Eric Rothstein has characterized as creating in the imagination aspects of scenes, parts of figures, not presented in the poetry or painting. Illusory realism, or what he tells us Lord Kames called ‘ideal presence’, was practiced by artists and poets: the spectator was expected to fill out what was only hinted or suggested. Rothstein quotes a remark by Jean Starobinski (The Invention of Liberty, 1964) that the eighteenth-century observer’s pleasure “lay in completing mentally, in a complicity of the imagination, the work that the artist has abandoned.” Using the art...

  14. Chapter X Hume’s Ideas
    (pp. 181-203)

    The accounts of perceptual acquaintance in eighteenth-century Britain were a mixture of optical and psychological analyses. To the extent that the optical analogy dominated, writers were pushed toward skepticism; the optical array becomes a screen obscuring the external world, or the question becomes one of discovering the conditions under which that array is located on the object. To the extent that writers were able to distinguish optical from psychological or cognitive language, the traditional questions about our knowledge of an external world were turned into questions of conception, of understanding. This latter move is closely related to perceptual optics, for...

  15. Chapter XI Sense and Meaning
    (pp. 204-224)

    Thomas Reid identified a natural prejudice of humans:

    to conceive of the mind as having some similitude to body in its operations. Hence men have been prone to imagine, that as bodies are put in motion by some impulse or impression made upon them by contiguous bodies; so the mind is made to think and to perceive by some impressions made upon it, or some impulse given to it by contiguous objects.¹

    The same natural prejudice leads us to conceive “that what is an immediate object of thought, and affects the mind, must be in contact with it” (p. 56)....

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-238)
  17. Index
    (pp. 241-248)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-249)