The Sensory Core and the Medieval Foundations of Early Modern Perceptual Theory

Isis 70 (3):363-384 (1979)
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This article seeks the origin, in the theories of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), Descartes, and Berkeley, of two-stage theories of spatial perception, which hold that visual perception involves both an immediate representation of the proximal stimulus in a two-dimensional ‘‘sensory core’’ and also a subsequent perception of the three dimensional world. The works of Ibn al-Haytham, Descartes, and Berkeley already frame the major theoretical options that guided visual theory into the twentieth century. The field of visual perception was the first area of what we now call psychology to apply mathematics, through geometrical models as used by Euclid, Ptolemy, Ibn al-Haytham, and Descartes (among others). The article shows that Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image, which revolutionized visual anatomy and entailed fundamental changes in visual physiology, did not alter the basic structure of theories of spatial vision. These changes in visual physiology are advanced especially in Descartes' Dioptrics and his L'Homme. Berkeley develops a radically empirist theory vision, according to which visual perception of depth is learned through associative processes that rely on the sense of touch. But Descartes and Berkeley share the assertion that there is a two-dimensional sensory core that is in principle available to consciousness. They also share the observation that we don't usually perceived this core, but find depth and distance to be phenomenally immediate, a point they struggle to accommodate theoretically. If our interpretation is correct, it was not a change in the theory of the psychology of vision that engendered the idea of a sensory core, but rather the introduction of the theory into a new metaphysical context.

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania


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