Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception

Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception

Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception

Descartes on Seeing: Epistemology and Visual Perception


In this first book-length examination of the Cartesian theory of visual perception, Celia Wolf-Devine explores the many philosophical implications of Descartes' theory, concluding that he ultimately failed to provide a completely mechanistic theory of visual perception.

Wolf-Devine traces the development of Descartes' thought about visual perception against the backdrop of the transition from Aristotelianism to the new mechanistic science- the major scientific paradigm shift taking place in the seventeenth century. She considers the philosopher's work in terms of its background in Aristotelian and later scholastic thought rather than looking at it "backwards" through the later work of the British empiricists and Kant. Wolf-Devine begins with Descartes' ideas about perception in the Rules and continues through the later scientific writings in which he develops his own mechanistic theory of light, color, and visual spatial perception. Throughout her discussion, she demonstrates both Descartes' continuity with and break from the Aristotelian tradition.

Wolf-Devine critically examines Cartesian theory by focusing on the problems that arise from his use of three different models to explain the behavior of light as well as on the ways in which modern science has not confirmed some of Descartes' central hypotheses about vision. She shows that the changes Descartes made in the Aristotelian framework created a new set of problems in the philosophy of perception. While such successors to Descartes as Malebranche, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume accepted the core of his theory of vision, they struggled to clarify the ontological status of colors, to separate what is strictly speaking "given" to the sense of sight from what is the result of judgments by the mind, and to confront a "veil of perception" skepticism that would have been unthinkable within the Aristotelian framework.

Wolf-Devine concludes that Descartes was not ultimately successful in providing a completely mechanistic theory of visual perception, and because of this, she suggests both that changes in the conceptual framework of Descartes are in order and that a partial return to some features of the Aristotelian tradition may be necessary.


The main focus of this essay is historical. I consider how descartes' theory of vision contributes to the victory of mechanistic natural philosophy over physical theories of a broadly Aristotelian sort and sets up a framework within which a whole new set of problems arises in the philosophy of perception. By Berkeley's time, for example, it is simply assumed that ideas are the immediate objects of perception, that colors have no existence outside the mind, and that a sharp distinction can be drawn between seeing and judging in vision. Descartes' theory of vision is very important to the genesis of all of these ideas -- especially his understanding of the role of the retinal image in vision.

In addition to its historical significance, however, Descartes' theory of vision is also of value for anyone interested in the problems of mind/body dualism because in this theory Descartes grapples with what really happens in sensation more concretely and in more detail than he does anywhere else in his writings. Hence, Descartes' theory of vision exposes the points at which Cartesian dualism encounters difficulties with explaining perception. It is also a valuable case study showing a genuine two-way interaction between science and epistemology. Descartes' scientific account of perception has consequences for the scope and reliability of our knowledge of nature, but philosophical considerations also sometimes influence him when he formulates hypotheses about the structure and functioning of the visual system.

The epistemological ramifications of Descartes' theory of perception as developed in his scientific writings and its connection with his more properly philosophical works have come under scrutiny recently by several scholars. Nancy Maull, for example, argues that the Dioptrics(La Dioptrique) is foundational to Descartes' scientific program in that it establishes the applicability of Euclidean geometry to nature. and Ronald Arbini argues that Descartes' Dioptrics and related texts provide a "clear, coherent account of sense perception" intended "to solve the well known problems impugning 'external sense' perception advanced, but never resolved in his philosophical work," and he notes that the sorts of illusions Descartes cites in the First Meditation to discredit the senses involve distance, size, and shape perception -- the very things he undertakes to explain in his optical writings.

Although I believe that Descartes' optical writings do shed light on epistemological issues arising elsewhere in his writings, they must be read as much as possible in light of his own intentions, and I do not find either Maull's or Arbini's accounts of these persuasive. Maull cites no textual evidence that Descartes was . . .

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