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The Appearance of Reality: Peter Aureol and the Experience of Perceptual Error

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 27-52 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0042

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THE APPEARANCE OF REALITY: PETER AUREOL AND THE EXPERIENCE OF PERCEPTUAL ERROR Having considered a variety of accounts concerning the nature of intuitive and abstractive cognition, Peter Aureol (d.1322) prepares to offer his own. Aureol, a member of the Friars Minor who had studied and taught for several years in Bologna and Toulouse before beginning his Paris lectures on Peter Lombard's Sentences in 1316 or 1317,' proposes to defend his theory in two ways. Not only will he offer a priori reasons in support of his position, he will also look to experience for support. In fact, he notes, "one should adhere to experience more than to any logical reasonings, since both science and the common understanding which are the principles of the arts have their origin in experience."2 The appeal to experience was certainly not unique to Aureol, nor for that matter were the experiences to which he appealed. The various cases of perceptual error which Aureol describes had already had a long philosophical career. Indeed, many had been employed by his contemporaries. What was unique, at least for the time, was the way in which he utilized these particular experiences. Aureol believed these experiences of perceptual error offered the key evidence around which his theory of intuitive cognition and his entire epistemology needed to be shaped. Aureol, of course, is not alone in his desire to place experiences of error at the heart of epistemology. The ancient world had certainly had its share of sceptics and sceptical schools of thought. And three centuries after Aureol's death in 1322, Descartes would find it necessary to deploy methodic doubt as a defense against the ever present possibility of error in even the simplest and most evident of cognitions. Regardless, Aureol differs from both the 1On dating Aureol's works, Katherine H. Tachau, Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham (Leiden: EJ. Brill, 1988): 88. 2Peter Aureol, Scriptum Super Primum Sententiarum, prooem. s.2, ed. Eligius M. Buytaert, 2 vols (St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1953-56) [I: 198, lin. 40-44]: "Prima siquidem via experientiae, cui adhaerendum est potius quam quibuscumque logicis rationibus, cum ex experientia habeat ortum scientia, et communes acceptationes quae sunt principia artis inde sumantur, secundum Philosophum I Metaphysicae." 27 Franciscan Studies, 55 (1998) 28DALLAS DENERY ancient sceptics and from Descartes. Not only is Aureol not a sceptic, he does not even believe the experiences of error pose any particular threat to the general enterprise of human knowledge. For Aureol, the cases of error are valuable simply because they reveal aspects of perception and cognition which otherwise would have remained concealed. This, however, brings us to the heart of the problem. What allowed and even compelled Aureol to employ experiences of error in this manner? It certainly is not the only possible approach. In Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, for example, error is a peripheral concern. The model for cognition is drawn from successful experiences of knowing and perceiving. As a result, errors and mistakes take on a secondary role. They are explained in terms of aberrations and defects which have somehow been introduced into an otherwise properly functioning process.3 Though certainly not pessimistic about the existence of human knowledge, Aureol contends that the presence or possibility of perceptual error does not reveal aberrations in the cognitive process. Rather, it reveals the process itself. Aureol's displacement of error from the periphery to the center of epistemology is not an isolated moment in fourteenth century thought. The attention which later theologians such as William Ockham, Walter Chatton, and Adam de Wodeham paid to Aureol's discussion of error should already indicate as much. The growing concern with specific experiences of perceptual error is, in the final analysis, part and parcel of a more general transformation in theories of knowledge which occurred between the mid-thirteenth century and the first decades of the fourteenth century. Indeed, it is a revolution whose contours are best charted through its confrontation with error, a confrontation which reveals a specific shift in man's cognitive relation to the world. Aureol's analysis of perceptual error allowed him to make a very subtle and very nuanced (not to...