Is it possible to be a direct realist about all modes of cognition? As we saw in the last chapter, Olivi did not think it was. Perceptual acts immediately reach out to the external world, but acts of memory, imagination and conceptual thought are mediated by inner representations or species.
In this chapter, we will look at Peter Auriol (1280–1322) and William of Ockham (1287–1347). Auriol has been cast as someone who further developed Olivi's critique of species, and in the literature the two Franciscans often emerge as congenial foes of indirect realism. Sections 3.1 and 3.2, however, will argue that this picture needs shading. As we will see, it is true that Auriol, like Olivi, rejected species for perception. Moreover, it will be suggested here that both Franciscans share a broadly relational understanding of the structure of cognition. But notwithstanding that common ground, they disagree about the role of species in post-perceptual cognition. Whereas Olivi, as we have seen, harkened back to the species theory to account for mnemonic and imaginative cognition, Auriol is critical about this approach.
Sections 3.3 and 3.4 discuss Ockham's critique of species. According to a number of commentators, Ockham criticized the species theory on the ground that, from behind the veil of species, it is impossible to establish that a given species is trustworthy. But I will challenge that reading. Given his further epistemological commitments, raising this kind of criteriological objection is problematic for Ockham. Moreover, a close reading of the relevant texts points in another direction. Section 3.5 briefly turns to the way in which the mature Ockham conceived of conceptual cognition. This will help us see more clearly in what way the mature Ockham parted ways with both Olivi and Auriol.
Auriol on Perception
Many medieval thinkers developed their views on cognition by carefully studying paradigmatic cases of veridical cognition. On this basis, the workings of our senses and other cognitive powers were explored, and illusions and misrepresentations were treated as deviant cases, in which one of the success factors of veridical cognition was missing. Now it is one of the many interesting aspects of Auriol's thought that he chooses to turn this procedure upside down.
When Descartes broke with scholastic hylomorphism, the concomitant theory of cognition as formal assimilation came under pressure too. In its place came a philosophy of ideas that, in the eyes of many of Descartes's contemporaries, ruled out direct access to the external world. And the fear that occupied his readers was that, if we cannot see things directly, maybe we do not think about them at all. And to the extent that we do, we may for all we know be mistaken many more times than we would hope and think. Sceptical worries about our access to the world thus came on the coat tails of a new theory of cognition and representation. As Hilary Putnam once put the point, it was Descartes's ‘disastrous idea’ that we see the world through the interface of ideas in the mind that gave birth to a difficulty, which has remained with us ever since, of seeing how we could ‘be in genuine contact with the external world’.
But as our knowledge of medieval psychology has increased, the idea that worries about the drawbacks about indirect cognition are a typically modern phenomenon has become increasingly hard to sustain. Thus thanks to the studies of Robert Pasnau, Christophe Grellard, Henrik Lagerlund and Dominik Perler, for example, we now know that sceptical arguments were eagerly discussed by medieval philosophers and theologians, and that the pitfalls of indirect realism were hotly debated in the medieval universities. And medievalists have not unoften observed that the criticism of species in authors such as Olivi and Ockham looks remarkably similar to the later critique of ideas in the reception of Descartes.
Thus as one scholar has put it, in these Franciscan discussions of cognition and indirect realism, we find just the kind of difficulty that ‘the critics of the theory of ideas singled out as the main problem of representationalism’. Again, scholars who have explored the scholastic background to the Cartesian theory of ideas, find that the critical reception of ideas was foreshadowed by medieval scepticism about species. Thus, Olivi's argument against species, it has been claimed, was ‘basically the same’ as the veil-of-ideas criticism leveled against Descartes in the seventeenth century.
How do objects in external reality become cognitively present to us? To answer that question, medieval scholasticism formulated many different accounts of representation. One of these accounts had it that external objects are represented to us by means of special representational devices, called species. But although this theory had influential proponents such as Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent, Franciscan philosophers in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries soon made the species theory the object of critical discussion.
In these discussions, the theory was often construed as saying that species make their objects present to us by being themselves objects of apprehension. Peter Olivi, for example, did not see how species could make objects present to us without themselves being apprehended, and concluded that any philosopher who claims that species are needed to represent the world ipso facto commits herself to indirect realism. Similarly, Peter Auriol, in his treatment of representation, introduced the species theory as an answer to the question of what meets the mental eye in thought, and one of the central arguments in Ockham's discussion of species presupposes that if species represent things to us, they will do so in much the same way as statues do: by being objects of apprehension that bring to mind other objects.
But how did this construal of the species theory relate to the kind of account that we get in major proponents of species? This question will be addressed in Chapter 1, which takes a brief look at the account of species in Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent. Although the point is controversial, we will see that Aquinas likely held that external objects are made present to us via the apprehension of species that represent them. A similar position was put forth by Henry. The idea that we come to the cognition of external objects in virtue of apprehending species will thus be seen to have a textual basis in at least these two proponents of the species theory.
In the course of the last years of the seventeenth century, a number of anti-Cartesian publications saw the light, the author of which identified himself as I.S. According to the English Cartesian, Antoine Le Grand, these initials must surely stand for ‘ideistarum spretor’, or scorner of the ideists. As Le Grand knew well enough, however, in reality they stood for John Sergeant (1623–1707), but the nickname was well chosen. For according to this Catholic philosopher, the way of ideas posed a threat, not only to human knowledge of the world, but also to religious stability. In response to this threat, he dedicated the harvest of his career to what was to become one of the most extensive attacks on ideas by an early modern writer to see the light.
As we will see, Sergeant believed that the only way to counter the scepticism inlaid in the Cartesian way of ideas was to return to an account of cognition as formal assimilation that traces back at least to Aquinas. Now, all by itself, the fact that Sergeant should defend such an account of cognition by the end of the seventeenth century need not come as a surprise. Both in and outside of the universities, indeed, many people were still working in a broadly scholastic tradition. What makes Sergeant special, however, is the fact that he systematically presents a return to formal assimilation as an answer to problems that arise within modern theories of knowledge and representation.
In using formal assimilation as a remedy against scepticism, indeed, Sergeant differed, not only from Aquinas himself, but also from some of the early modern Aristotelians closest to him, such as Thomas White and Kenelm Digby. In Sergeant's hand, then, the account of cognition as formal assimilation received a new function, and this raises the question of whether it can indeed carry the weight of the tasks he sees for it. This is a question that we will come back to towards the end of this chapter. But before we can turn to the charge of scepticism that Sergeant levels against the ideists, we first need to look a bit closer at his fear that the way of ideas will lead to religious instability.
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.
Surely the most important task of species and ideas was to represent objects in the external world to us. But can such devices actually do this job? According to representation problems, they cannot. We find this kind of problem in the medieval reception of species and the early modern reception of ideas alike, and this raises the question of whether the critics of species and ideas developed the issue in the same way.
In some respects they did. Thus as we will see in section 7.1 below, philosophers from both periods worried that, if all we ever see directly are species or ideas, it is not clear that we will actually see these devices as representations of other, external objects. As a result, even though all by themselves, devices like species and ideas may well have the potential to make us think of external objects, this is a potential that will remain largely unused by a perceiver lacking direct access to these objects. The ultimate worry here is that she will just see the devices present to her as objects in their own right.
But although philosophers from both periods voiced this worry, section 7.2 will explore an important difference between the critical receptions of species and ideas. As we will see there, not only did early modern philosophers question whether someone behind a veil of ideas would actually see the direct objects of perception as representations, but moreover, they doubted whether ideas in the immaterial mind had the potential to represent external objects at all. The fear was that, by their very nature, ideas are just not the kind of things that could be about extension and thus make us think of the material world we live in. It was this worry that, according to one scholar, was eventually to lead to the downfall of the Cartesian psychology. But for all its prominence in the early modern reception of ideas, section 7.2 will argue that this problem had no clear counterpart in the earlier criticism of species.
A proponent of the species theory himself, the Franciscan theologian John Peckham (1230–1292) in his questions de anima defends the theory by going through a number of possible objections.
From Cicero's Academica, we learn that, according to the Academic thinker Antiochus of Ascalon, ‘the criterion of truth and falsity’ should be at the centre of philosophical inquiry:
The criterion of truth and the ethical end are, he argued, the two principal issues in philosophy: no one can be wise while they're ignorant of either.
This passage was written somewhere in the first century before Christ. But roughly two thousand years later, the American philosopher Roderick Chisholm would offer an astonishingly similar assessment of the importance of criteriological questions in philosophy:
‘The problem of the criterion’ seems to me to be one of the most important and one of the most difficult of all the problems of philosophy. I am tempted to say that one has not begun to philosophise until one has faced this problem.
As I will construe it here, the Problem of the Criterion centres around the following question: given that we depend on representations for our knowledge of external objects, how can we tell of any given representation that it is veridical?
Now this question may well pose a challenge to any account of cognition that postulates representations, and earlier chapters have suggested as much. But it has often been seen to raise a difficulty for indirect realism in particular. For as long as we never see external objects in themselves, its critics have argued, we will have no test or criterion to assess the quality of a representation.
Now as we have seen, this was a problem that early modern philosophers after Descartes would come back to time and again, and which motivated them to either modify, or in some cases to dismiss, the philosophy of ideas. But important as the problem was in the early modern reception of ideas, this chapter will claim that medieval philosophers on both sides of the debate regarding species showed no similar interest in it. This is not because they, to borrow Chisholm's words, had never begun to philosophize. Rather, their tepid interest in criteria sprang from a general optimism about our cognitive make-up that later philosophers in the seventeenth century would not share.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Cartesian way of ideas came increasingly to be seen as a source of scepticism. But although there were many who raised the spectre of scepticism for Cartesianism, few were as adamant as the French Academic, Simon Foucher (1644–1696). The author of over a dozen tracts on knowledge and scepticism, Foucher was relentless in confronting the Cartesians with what he found were the sceptical implications of their way of ideas. Time and again, Foucher would argue that ideas in the Cartesian mind can teach us nothing about bodies, and that from behind the veil of representations, we can only guess about what the world is really like. And if the steady flow of Foucher's own publications would arguably have been enough, all by itself, to put Cartesianism under serious pressure, his challenges to Descartes's system were moreover being picked up by later authors, including influential writers such as Bishop Pierre Daniel Huet and the Parisian scholar Jean Duhamel. This, historians have argued, allowed Foucher's provocations to make a defining impact on the French reception of Cartesianism, which Richard Watson has famously summed up in the claim that it was Foucher's critical questions that led to the gradual erosion, and eventually to the breakdown of, the Cartesian way of ideas.
But Foucher's questions did not remain unanswered. And the first Cartesian to extensively engage Foucher's challenges to Cartesianism, was the Benedictine theologian Robert Desgabets (1610–1678). In a detailed rebuttal of Foucher, Desgabets argued that there is a secure route from ideas to external reality, and that this route was in fact more straightforward than even Descartes himself had seen. The fact that Desgabets was the first to seriously take up Foucher's challenges on the Cartesians’ behalf, makes it important to explore how he develops his account of ideas, and how he thinks the representations in our minds can be tied to external objects in such a way as to silence the kind of sceptical doubt voiced by Foucher.
Moreover, Desgabets provides one of the most interesting cases of a Cartesian philosopher hoping to address the difficulties surrounding ideas by combining Cartesianism with much older philosophies.
Before addressing the reception of Descartes's philosophy by his readers and critics in the seventeenth century, something first needs to be said about the Cartesian way of ideas itself. Much like Descartes's contemporaries, his modern commentators are split over the status and function of ideas. According to some, Cartesian ideas are just acts of the mind that direct us to the external things in our environments. Others, however, read Descartes as saying that we indirectly perceive objects in virtue of perceiving our own ideas. In these scholarly debates, the problems that philosophers such as Reid raised for the way of ideas in the eighteenth century, are never far away. On Reid's interpretation of Descartes, since we only see external objects in their ideas, we never really get to see the real things outside of our minds. This classical line of criticism has proven to be a major source of inspiration for direct-realist interpretations of Descartes.
In section 4.1 of this chapter, I will re-examine some of the passages from the Meditations that are most often adduced in virtue of reading Descartes as an indirect realist. I will argue that, although they at first may give the impression that it is via the perception of our ideas that we indirectly perceive external objects, on closer inspection, the texts do not support this reading. Moreover, I will argue that Cartesian ideas are just not the kind of things that could block our cognitive access to the things themselves. On the contrary, there is a real sense in which for a Cartesian mind to turn to its idea of the sun is for that mind to have the sun itself present to it. The fear that Descartes's philosophy of ideas will interpose an opaque veil of intermediaries between us and the world, then, needs to be mitigated. To appreciate why this is the case, a number of key distinctions and concepts that Descartes introduces in outlining his theory of ideas need to be clarified, and this is what the lion's share of section 4.1 will be dedicated to.
When Descartes wrote that at the foundation of all knowledge stand clear and distinct ideas, he gave the starting sign for a long and intense debate about representation and scepticism. For inside and outside the Cartesian tradition, philosophers wondered precisely what kind of things these ideas were supposed to be. Sometimes, Descartes simply described them as acts of perception. But at other times, he described them as objects of perception, leading many of his readers to construe the way of ideas as a kind of indirect realism. Accordingly, the question of how we can know a world that we do not directly perceive, soon took centre stage in the reception of Cartesian psychology.
This question occupied critics and admirers of Descartes alike. Among his admirers, Nicolas Malebranche and Antoine Arnauld devoted some twenty years and thousands of pages to debating the virtues and vices of indirect realism. As Malebranche understood it, the way of ideas was a kind of indirect realism, and he put considerable time and effort in showing how ideas can give us knowledge of a world we cannot directly see. Arnauld, however, was sceptical of Malebranche's efforts. They distorted Descartes's original meaning by construing the way of ideas as a branch of indirect realism, and moreover, Arnauld remained unconvinced by Malebranche's attempt at showing that indirect perception can give us knowledge. Ideas give us direct access to things themselves, Arnauld argued, and they do not come in between us and external reality.
Among Descartes's critics, Simon Foucher was one of the most insistent thinkers to question the way of ideas. Ideas veil the world, he argued, and they cannot give us knowledge of material things. An Academic sceptic, Foucher himself welcomed this conclusion. What he criticized the Cartesians for, however, was not so much the sceptical implications of their psychology, but rather a lack of intellectual honesty. What they should have acknowledged but failed to do, he argued, was that there can be no knowledge of a world that we never see but through inner ideas. Although Foucher's arguments met with a detailed defence of Cartesianism by Robert Desgabets, they soon found their way to Descartes's later readers.
We have seen that, like the medieval critics of species, those who engaged the problems surrounding ideas often looked to direct realism for solutions. Echoing the terminology of scholastic psychology, in fact, Cartesians such as Arnauld and Desgabets described ideas as means rather than objects of direct perception. Also, to deal with the problems surrounding ideas, early modern philosophers often drew inspiration from more specific medieval notions and concepts, which they believed would help them anchor knowledge of external objects.
But were the problems that these early moderns saw for ideas the same as those that the medieval critics of species saw for species? Some scholars have ventured comparative remarks here, suggesting that the later critics of ideas may well have seen the same problems for ideas as the medievals saw for species. Nevertheless, no systematic comparison of the critical receptions of species and ideas has so far been undertaken. On the basis of the first two parts of this book, however, we should now be in a better position to say something more about the extent and nature of the similarities and differences between the medieval attacks on species and the later criticism of representation and cognitive mediation.
To facilitate comparative discussion, it will be useful to briefly remind ourselves of the basic kind of account that we have seen the critics of species and ideas target. This account typically comprises two basic claims. The first of these says that cognition involves devices that resist reduction to cognitive acts, and which represent external objects to us: these devices represent external objects, causing us to envision, or to think of them. And the second is that some of these devices will likely represent their objects correctly, while others will be misrepresentations. Those that represent their objects correctly are potential sources of knowledge. But those that misrepresent their objects will make us think of objects otherwise than they are, and may lead us into error.
Many philosophers have raised substantial problems for this account. These problems have appeared in diverse contexts and have received different formulations. But for the most part, they have tended to fall into two basic categories, each focusing on one of the two claims above.
In the extensive criticism of species that we find in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, species are often construed as devices via the apprehension of which we come to the cognition of external objects. But would defenders of the species theory such as Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent agree that species mediate our access to the world in this way?
The case of Aquinas (1225–1274) is particularly puzzling here. For on the one hand, there is a widespread agreement among commentators that Aquinas's species theory was a ‘touchstone for all subsequent discussions’, and that it was the ‘standard target of the critical discussions’ that would develop around species. But at the same time, most of his commentators deny that Aquinas held that we gain access to reality by apprehending species. There seems to be a mismatch, then, between Aquinas's canonical formulation of the species theory on the one hand, and the account targeted by the critics of species on the other. As one commentator has pointed out, if the standard reading of Aquinas is right, the criticism of species in later Franciscan writers may well be ‘far less interesting than one might suppose’.
In the first three sections of this chapter, I argue that, a majority of Aquinas's modern commentators notwithstanding, Aquinas likely was committed to the idea that we access objects in external reality by apprehending species that resemble them. This position was there in his earlier writings, and there are no compelling reasons to believe that he abandoned it in his later works. When they critically engaged the idea that accessing reality involves apprehending species, therefore, Franciscans such as Olivi and Ockham were not tilting at a straw man, but rather engaged an idea that has a basis in the philosophical psychology of Aquinas.
The case of Henry of Ghent (1217–1293) is more straightforward. When discussing species in the opening questions of his Summa, it is pretty clear that he takes them to be objects of apprehension, and that the apprehension of these representational devices is what makes the world present to us.
In his Meditations, Descartes set out to demolish, once in his life, everything he had learned, and to subject all of his previously acquired beliefs to an increasingly challenging series of sceptical arguments. The goal of this project, Descartes confided to Mersenne in a 1641 letter, was to ‘destroy’ the foundations of Aristotelian natural philosophy, and to pave the way for a new physics (AT III 297–8, CSMK 173). Famously, this new physics dismissed the scholastics’ analyses of bodies in terms of matter and form, aiming to replace their hylomorphic language for a vocabulary of matter in motion that was at the same time plainer, and more exact.
But Descartes's parting of ways with Aristotelian tradition here raises fundamental questions about his account of cognition and representation too. For traditionally, scholastic cognitive psychology had been firmly rooted in Aristotelian ontology. According to Thomas Aquinas, for example, for me to perceive a red object was for my eye to take over the form that gives the object its colour. Generally speaking, all cognition consisted in the assimilation of subject and object of cognition, the former taking over the latter's form. But once the Aristotelian ontology of forms came under attack in the seventeenth century, it became necessary for philosophers such as Descartes to rethink this account of cognition. As one scholar has put it, the origins of early modern cognitive theory ‘lie in Descartes's rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic ontology and its accompanying account of human cognition’.
But if the foundations under Aristotelian theories of cognition had fallen into disrepute, what did Descartes put in their place? Ever since the seventeenth century, Descartes's readers have struggled with this question, but one influential answer has it that, in the Meditations, Descartes put forth a specific variety of representationalism or indirect realism. According to that theory, the cognition of any thing involves at least three entities: an act of cognition, an inner representation or ‘idea’ and finally an external object. In this scheme, the inner representation is the immediate or direct object of cognition. The external object, by contrast, is cognized mediately or indirectly.
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