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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: July 2017

2 - Perception without Intermediaries: Olivi's Critique of Species


Peter John Olivi was one of the most interesting, and perhaps the most recalcitrant, thinkers of the late thirteenth century. Not only was he sceptical about realist theories of universals and launched a penetrating critique of divine illumination, but Olivi also appears to have been the first to formulate an extensive critique of species theories of perception. As we shall see, Olivi believed that a commitment to species automatically implied a commitment to an indirect realism that rendered genuinely perceptual cognition of external reality impossible, jeopardizing our knowledge of the world we inhabit.

To be sure, with Olivi's critique of species also came the challenge of formulating an alternative account of human perception and representation. In the latter half of this chapter, therefore, I will focus on his attempt at rethinking perceptual cognition in such a way as to avoid representational devices that might come in between subject and object of cognition. But while his account of perceptual cognition suggests a picture of Olivi as an uncompromising defender of direct realism, we will find that this picture needs shading. For when it comes to analysing post-perceptual modes of cognition, Olivi was happy to rely on species as cognitive intermediaries. Indeed, it is only when Olivi's criticism of species is taken a step farther that later Franciscans such as Peter Auriol and William of Ockham will envision accounts of imagination, recollection and conceptual thought from which all intermediary devices have been eliminated.

In section 2.1 below, I present Olivi's principal challenges to species theories of perceptual cognition. Sections 2.2 through 2.4 delineate Olivi's attempt to find an alternative account of perception and representation that avoids the problems of indirect realism. Finally, section 2.5 explores the limits of Olivi's direct realism by concentrating on his account of conceptual cognition.

Challenging the Species Theory

For Aquinas, species were the principles or sources of our cognitive acts, and Olivi, too, sees the species theory first as theory of the causation of perceptual acts. Specifically, he presents it as an alternative to the Aristotelian idea that our perceptions are directly caused by external bodies.

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Representation and Scepticism from Aquinas to Descartes
  • Online ISBN: 9781316855102
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