- Form Without Matter: Empedocles and Aristotle on Color Perception by Mark Eli Kalderon
Kalderon describes his book as "an essay in the philosophy of perception written in the medium of historiography" (vii). It is an example of what has sometimes been called 'philosophical scholarship' or 'philosophical exegesis'—that is, scholarship on a historical thinker that is intended to bring to light a view of enduring philosophical significance and to commend it to the attention of contemporary philosophers working on the relevant issues. This is an especially challenging genre, and I do not think that Kalderon navigates it successfully, but he has nonetheless produced a book of great value to students of Aristotle's theory of perception—especially students who are also interested in contemporary work on perception. Philosophers of perception who do not have a strong antecedent interest in Aristotle will find material of value as well, but this material may not be prevalent or prominent enough in the book to sustain their interest.
The first two chapters develop the puzzle of how to reconcile the idea that the objects of vision are at a distance from the perceiver with the idea that perception involves contact between the sense organ and its object. Kalderon attributes this puzzle to Empedocles, who he thinks attempted to reconcile the two ideas by identifying color as an effluence that proceeds from the distant object into the eye. Having been "ingested" thusly by the perceiver, the distant object's color can be present in awareness. Plato attempted a somewhat different reconciliation, and a host of philosophers attempted to resolve the puzzle by denying (in one way or another) that perception is an awareness of distant objects. (Kalderon mentions Parmenides, Melissus, Democritus, and Protagoras as ancient thinkers who took this tack, and he names Berkeley as a modern exponent; I take it that the entire representationalist tradition falls within this camp as well.)
The remaining seven chapters describe how Aristotle resolves the puzzle by denying that perception involves literal contact between organ and object, but respecting the facts that make the metaphors of contact and ingestion apt. Kalderon's Aristotle rejects as a category error the view that color can travel or touch things, but he holds that "in seeing, we take in the scene before us by assimilating the chromatic form of the particulars arrayed in the scene, by our experience being constitutively shaped by their color" (191). Thus, in perception, the external world is present to the mind in a way that would be impossible if perception were a mere effect of external objects. The presence is due to a physical process in which the distant object affects a medium and sense organs made of that medium, without literally traveling through them into the perceiver.
This theory, which is most fully stated in the book's final chapter, is developed gradually through a series of discussions of knotty passages (mostly) from De Anima 2 and De Sensu. Kalderon's interpretations of these texts are plausible, and his commentary is often insightful—particularly as regards why positions that strike modern readers as absurd would have seemed compelling to Aristotle, and how (sometimes non-obvious) variants of these positions might be defensible in a contemporary context. I found the discussion of the view that "the chromatic hues result from the proportion or ratio of light and dark" (110) especially helpful in this respect. [End Page 343]
Concise discussions of prominent competing interpretations make the book a good point of entry to the secondary literature on the relevant Aristotelian chapters. However, these discussions are often too brief to enable the reader to assess Kalderon's interpretation. More importantly, little is said about the significance of each of his interpretive claims to the book's argument. This does not diminish the book's value as a commentary on specific passages, but it makes it hard to read as an "essay in the philosophy of perception." It is difficult to tell digressions from essential content, and readers who are unconvinced of Kalderon...