Reading Natural Philosophy: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science and Mathematics

By David B. Malament | Go to book overview

5
Some Fruit for Howard:
Descartes's Melon
and Newton's Apples

ROBERT PALTER


Introduction

In the course of my research for a book entitled The Duchess of Malfi's Apricots, and Other Literary Fruits, I came across certain—-as I call them— “philosophical fruits”; two of these were apples and pomegranates. The very banality of ordinary apples may be precisely what permits them to enter that class of commonsensical pedagogical paradigms (including white envelopes, red tomatoes, and brown sticks) so much favored in recent epistemological exercises designed to distinguish “the real” from mere simulacra, illusions, or—a late-twentieth-century technological wrinkle— holographs. It may occasion some surprise, though, that the notion of such a “philosophical” apple goes back at least as far as the Roman writer Macrobhis in the early fifth century C.E., in whose Saturnalia, written for the edification of his son, Eustachius, Macrobius concludes the fifteenth and penultimate chapter of the seventh and last book with an analysis of reason and the senses as sources of knowledge:

the reason does not always find the evidence of a single sense enough to estab-
lish the identity of an object; for, if I see from afar an object with the shape of
the fruit called an apple, it does not necessarily follow that the object is an
apple—it might have been made from some material to resemble an apple. I
must therefore call for the advice of a second sense and let smell judge. But, if
the object had been placed in a heap of apples, it could have acquired the smell
of an apple, and so at this point I must consult my sense of touch, which
enables me to judge by the weight. But there is a risk that this sense too may
itself be deceived, should a cunning craftsman have chosen a material equal in
weight to an apple's. I must therefore have recourse to my sense of taste, and,
if the taste of the object agrees with its appearance, then I have no hesitation
in regarding the object as an apple. (Davies 1969, 505–6)

-113-

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