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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 593-596

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Book Review

Perception and Reality: A History from Descartes to Kant

Current Trends in Cartesian Scholarship

John W. Yolton. Perception and Reality: A History from Descartes to Kant (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). Pp. 240. $39.95 cloth.

We often delight in books that defend bold and controversial theses and attempt to dislodge our long-established interpretations of historical figures and movements. Such writings don't always convince but at least provoke us to rethink our all-too-tidy understandings of the past. John Yolton's latest offering is one such work. In it the esteemed Locke scholar attempts to rewrite the philosophical history of the theory of perception and knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The standard history of this topic, which Yolton seeks to upset, goes something like this: the rise of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ushered in a new conception of matter and, with it, a new conception of how material objects are to be perceived. On medieval scholastic accounts, adapted from Aristotle, material objects were conceived as composites of matter and immaterial "forms." The notion of soul-like forms, inherent in all things, lent itself to Christian philosophy intent on underscoring the spiritual element in the universe. It also made sense perception easy to explain. Objects transmit their forms through a medium to the perceiver; the result is that the very same form exists both in the object and in the intellect of the perceiver.

The modern revolution in science, with its reconception of matter in purely physical, mechanical terms, could not abide immaterial forms. Rejecting such entities, however, challenged philosophers to explain how purely material objects can become part of, and can be cognized by, the mental realm of perceivers. To meet this challenge, Descartes, Locke, and others introduced a doctrine that came to be known as "the new way of ideas." According to this new theory, physical objects are not perceived directly but through the medium of ideas. Ideas were regarded as representative proxies standing between the perceiver and the objects represented. In keeping with the optical metaphors of the time, the mind was regarded as a kind of mirror in which physical objects were "reflected," and ideas were the sometimes clear, other times obscure, reflections in this mirror.

It is the last part of this history that Yolton rejects. Indirect or representational realism is replaced, on his reading, with a form of "direct realism" whereby ideas are conceived not as third things veiling our perception of physical objects but as acts of cognition which allow us to grasp objects immediately. Yolton attributes this theory first and foremost to Arnauld, the purportedly faithful adherent of Cartesian philosophy, but he also claims that it can be found in Descartes himself and in several later figures, including Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. His thesis is more subtle, however, than it would first appear. Although he attributes direct realism to many writers from Descartes to Kant, he also wants to trace a development beginning with theories that treat ideas as ontological entities to theories that conceive ideas epistemically. Reference to this development helps to explain certain exceptions to the general trend toward direct realism. Malebranche, for example, is presented as the conservative who resists the "epistemic shift" and instead develops the ontological side of Descartes' theory of ideas. Ideas not only mediate our perception of the world but reside in God's mind as quasi-substances. [End Page 593]

The development thesis also reveals modern theories of perception to be continuous with their scholastic predecessors. There is not the sharp break between medieval and modern accounts as presumed by the standard interpretation. Early modern philosophers may abandon forms but they do not abandon the general principle that cognition requires its object to be "present" ontologically to the mind. Descartes' notion of objective reality, borrowed from the scholastics, provides Yolton with a convenient way of illustrating this point. Objects enjoy one mode of being ("formal reality") as occupants of the external world. But the very same...


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