Skip to main content

Rationality in Perception: Transformations of Mind and Cognition 1250-1550

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - RiP (Rationality in Perception: Transformations of Mind and Cognition 1250-1550)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2020-03-31

Central to the question of how we come to know the external world, objects and their properties, are the processes through which this information is acquired, interpreted, identified, stored. The ways to account for these different aspects have varied throughout the history of philosophy. Medieval authors shared the belief in human capability to perceive the world as it is both because they believed that we share with the world the same metaphysical structures – matter and form, substance and accident – and because we are naturally endowed with the necessary cognitive powers to grasp how things are. Perception is, in the context of the dominant Aristotelian philosophy of perception, understood as a particular case of a general theory of causation. But medieval thinkers were intrigued about the cognitive mechanisms that made it possible to be aware not just of isolated qualities but of objects endowed with certain specific properties. Although scholars have dwelt into medieval accounts of these mechanisms and the powers responsible for them, the precise nature of the relation between the senses and intellect remains to be thoroughly investigated. The present project investigates the roots of this question in late medieval theories of perception, especially in the period ca. 1250-1550.

The project is led by the research hypothesis of whether the development of a unified view of the mind is associated with an active account of perception in the Augustinian tradition. In order to do this, the project investigates the relation between the senses and intellect interact in perception-related functions, how are non-veridical perceptual experiences (hallucinations, sensory illusions) explained, what is the role (if any) of imagination and the cogitative power in actual in actual perception, whether judgment of any sort occurs with perception as in the perspectivist model of visual sensations, etc. The project has two main objectives:

(1) to offer the first systematic study of late medieval theories of perception, focusing on the relation between the senses and intellect

(2) to retrace the shift in late medieval philosophy of perception that led to the (a) progressive questioning of direct realism in cognition and (b) incremental reduction of all psychological functions to the mind.

With that purpose in mind, the research focused on four main interconnected areas of inquiry: A) The role of reason in perceptual experience, B) The nature of perceptual experience, C) The metaphysical issue of the compositional versus simple nature of the soul, D) The active versus passive nature of perception.

The project has lead to a novel interpretation into the constitution of the modern conception of mind and rationality, by providing a better understanding of the medieval accounts of the role of reason in perceptual experience, the ontological nature and functional unity of mind, and the activity in perception.
The project has provided a novel conceptualization of what rationality and perception mean in philosophical sources in the late medieval period. In terms of rationality, we need to consider that the scope of rational is not obviously limited to human beings, but that other animals show rational-like behavior (Silva, Perceptual Judgment; Oelze, Theories; Oelze, Animal). At the same time, studies on numerous medieval thinkers showed that lower (non-rational) cognitive faculties in rational beings display a level of processing that is rational-like (Rubini, Accidental; Silva and Di Martino forthcoming; Oelze, Konnen). Reasoning and discursivity here are not to be taken in the sense of what we could call ‘strong rationality’, that is to say processing of information that uses conceptual resources, which are only available in beings that have the power of reason. Instead, reasoning and discursivity here mean use of consequence and inference like processes (or even association) that do not depend on conceptual resources (Silva and Kny, Nicholas; Rubini, Accidental). We could call this ‘weak rationality’. The example are kind identification and category recognition in authors such as Thomas Aquinas and the perspectivists (Alhacen, Bacon). The difference between weak and strong rationality does not apply only to the human-animal divide but seems to apply also to different levels of processing of information in the human cognitive system.

The project has also contributed to a serious reflection of how was perception conceived in the medieval period, in particular about four main issues (aligned with the four main areas of inquiry in the DoA): first, the content of perceptual experience (Silva, Perceptiveness; Silva and Kny, Nicholas; Silva and Toivanen, Internalismi); second, the powers involved in the perceptual process (Silva, Blasius; Silva Stop; Oelze, Geschichte; Kny, Messen; Verboon, La perception); third, the active versus passive nature of perception (Silva, From Agent to Active; Silva, Intentionality; Silva, Chameleonic; Silva, Perception; Silva, Blasius; Silva, forthcoming); fourth, the veridical nature of perception (Silva and Toivanen, Perceptual Errors; Silva and Glenney, The Senses and the History of Philosophy). As the result, researchers in the project have successfully challenged the status quo and brought new insights into the tradition of a single internal sense (Peter John Olivi, John Buridan, Francisco Suárez), the model of incidental perception (Thomas Aquinas, John of Jandun, Francisco Suárez) (Silva and Di Martino, Suárez (in review)), or the non-rational vs rational divide (Albert the Great, Nicole Oresme).

In the same way, research done by team members has showed the inherent polysemy of active perception. Not only this concept can be understood in different ways by different philosophical traditions (Aristotelianism, Augustinianism, Perspectivism, Averroism) but also by different strands within one the same philosophical tradition. RiP researchers have showed the way late medieval period is characterized the development of these strands and by the creative use of elements of all these traditions by individual thinkers. A clear case in point is the (argued) merging of the debates about the Averroist agent sense and the Augustinian active sense (John of Jandun, John Buridan, Manuel De Góis). Work on authors in the so-called second scholastic provide new insight into the transition from the medieval to the early modern period of the debates on perception and the nature of the mind, with special emphasis on the Cartesian picture of the mind and the phenomenon of consciousness (Lähteenmäki, L’Attention).
The research conducted during the project allowed the research team to elaborate on the starting hypotheses and identify limitations in the existing literature. The work done has contributed to a re-evaluation of dominant accounts of medieval theories of perception, as passive and separated from conceptual/rational resources. By offering a more extensive understanding of the (variety of) solutions historically presented to the questions about the nature of perceptual experience and the role of reason in it, the project allows for a better understanding of the original problem of conceiving of perception in the medieval context.
Image Used for the Project Website