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Direct Realism and Visual Distortion: A Development of Arguments from Thomas Reid SUSAN WELDON DOES SIGHT acquaint us with the spatial qualities and relationships of external things? Can we perceive the spatial qualities and relationships of objects by sight without intermediaries such as ideas or sense-data? Among eighteenth-century ideal theorists, such as Berkeley, as well as among more recent writers on perception--in particular, sense-datum theorists -it is often assumed that in answering these questions about the possibility of a direct-realist account of visual spatial perception, the problem is to determine whether objects appear to the observer to have the spatial qualities and relationships they really do have.' It is taken for granted that whenever an object appears other than it is, the visual observer is not aware of the object's qualities or relationships. If an object really is round but looks to an observer elliptical, for example, it is argued that his experience is not of the object's shape nor of any quality or relationship actually belonging to the ' See, for example, George Berkeley's Essay towards a New Theoryof Vision, in The Worksof GeorgeBerkeley,Bishop of Cloyne,A. A. Luce and T. E.Jessop, eds. (London: Thomas Nelsonand Sons, 1948), vol. 1 (hereafter cited as NTV). Also, A. J. Ayer'sversion of the argument from illusion, in The Foundatior~ of Empirical Knowledge 094o; reprint ed., London: Macmillanand Co., 1969),pp. 3-5. For a more recent example, see PhillipCummins'sarticle "Reid'sRealism," in Journal of the History of Philosophy 12, 2 (July 1974):317-4o. [355] 356 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY object. For how can the experience of an elliptical shape be an experience of anything that belongs to the object when the object is not elliptical? Even as late as 1974, this argument is presented by Phillip Cummins: "Perspective is an undeniable and pervasive feature of visual perception, so that if a direct realist admits that in even one instance a material object is seen from two or more points of view, he must acknowledge and account for perspectivai variation or distortion. Let us assume, then, that [he attempts] to apply his analysis or model to the case of successively seeing a coin from two different angles. Can he succeed in doing so? The answer is no." The direct realist "holds that presented objects and their features are the sole determinants of what is perceived." Thus, "he must hold that what is experienced when [a] coin appears circular is circular, and that what is perceived when a coin appears elliptical is elliptical9 In this paper I want to argue against this view that the possibility of a direct-realist account of sight depends upon whether objects appear to the visual observer to have the spatial qualities and relationships they really do have. There is no inconsistency, I intend to show, in claiming that objects appear to have a magnitude and figure different from their real magnitude and figure or that they appear to exist in a space different from real space, while maintaining, as the direct realist does, that nothing is seen that is not a real quality or relationship of external objects. Thomas Reid, I will further argue, proved that there is no such inconsistency when he developed, in An Inquiry into the Human Mind, 3 a direct-realist theory of vision that accorded with George Berkeley's claim that "distance from the eye," or "depth," is not seen. 4 On this theory of Reid's, the visual observer is aware of nothing that is not a real quality or relationship of external objects; yet he experiences universal visual distortion. Objects appear to have a magnitude and figure they do not really have and to exist in a space different from real space. Since this theory is a coherent direct-realist 2 Cummins, pp. 331-32. The direct realist to whom Cummins is referring here is what he calls an "E-relation" direct realist. 3 In Thomas Reid: Philosophical Works (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967), vol. t (hereafter cited as Inquiry): 4 NTV, p. 171. When Berkeley and Reid claimthat depth cannot be seen, they mean that it cannot be perceived...


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