Project Description

Brief description

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 order to do this, the project explores the notion of active perception in the Augustinian tradition and the way authors in this tradition deal with relevant questions of perceptual experience: what is the nature of perceptual acts? what is the ontological status of species? what explains non-veridical perceptions? what is the relation between the senses and intellect? do beliefs (habits and education) play a role in perception? etc. The project assumes the existence of a medieval Augustinian philosophy of perception and that the answers to these questions will yield new understanding of medieval theories of cognition and mind.

The project aims to provide a more detailed and systematic account of the models of cognition that developed in the period 1250-1550. For this we will study as comprehensive as possible the relation between the senses and intellect in what concerns normal perception, non-veridical perceptual experiences (hallucinations, sensory illusions), how the intellective and sensitive parts of the soul interact in perception related function, what is the role (if any) of imagination and the cogitative power in perception, whether judgment of any sort occurs with perception as in the perspectivist model of visual sensation, how can cognition of the singular be explained in non-Aristotelian theories?

How to non-causal theories of perception account for realism and how are their accounts of intentionality and representation to be understood? As the range of sources is vast, the project starts with the most common and well-known medieval thinkers and will proceed incrementally to less studied ones. The aim is not to be exhaustive but to allow for the mapping of a partially neglected tradition.

Although the project will not be able to provide answers to all these questions, we hope to be able to advance new interpretations to the existing sources and new sources, to map the developments of later medieval epistemology and in this way to offer new insights into the philosophy of mind that is found in the transition to the early modern period.

Long description 

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, with emphasis given on the acquisition to processing direction; less attention was paid to how existing content and structures influence the way sensory information is acquired. This state of affairs has changed in recent years with questions relating to cognitive penetrability of perceptual experience, i.e. the interference of higher cognitive resources at basic sensory level, becoming a central topic of research in contemporary philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception.

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, especially with respect to cognitive resources available in perception. The present project investigates the roots of this question in late medieval theories of perception, especially in the period ca. 1250-1550.

The project has therefore 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 (a) a progressive questioning of direct realism in cognition and (b) the incremental reduction of all psychological functions to the mind.

At a general level, the project aims at investigating the developments of the Augustinian model of mind and cognition in the late middle ages and renaissance. Such an understanding of perception places great emphasis on the activity of the perceptual subject, whose role is not merely to be at the receiving end of sensory information from without. This Augustinian active theory of perception places intentionality and top-down processing at the centre of mental life. Therefore, at a more specific level, the project aims at understanding the modes of realisation of this model, in particular what it means to hold a theory of active cognition.  The project proposes to explore its developments, leading to its dominance by mid-fourteenth century and its transformation, by the sixteenth century, into a unified model of the human mind and human cognition. The understanding of this development in late medieval epistemology, here designated by ‘mental turn’, is essential to further our understanding of the conception of rationality that became the paradigm for philosophy of mind. With that purpose in mind, the research focuses on four main areas of inquiry:

A) The role of reason in perceptual experience, that is to say how human perception becomes increasingly intellectualized in late medieval theories of cognition. The project investigates the hypothesis that by the late medieval period a theory of the mind emerged according to which the borders between these different functions became blurred. This explains the puzzle in historical philosophical research of the constitution of a conception of psychological functions characterised by an all-encompassing rationality.

B) The nature of perceptual experience: this line of research will focus on medieval debates over the veridical versus illusory perception; this will be done in an original way, by approaching the issue from the viewpoint of the functional partition of the soul, that is to say the relation between the different capacities (powers or faculties in medieval parlance). This also includes the issue of self-awareness in the perceptual process.

C) The metaphysical issue of the compositional versus simple nature of the soul: this concerns the ontology of soul, i.e. the nature of the structures and operations of mental life that is relevant to understand what kind of entity the mind is and how it operates. It includes also the issue of the distinction between human and non-rational animals.

D) The active versus passive nature of perception: this will offer the first systematic mapping of the main strands of medieval theories of perception, preliminarily grouped into the two main philosophical traditions of Aristotelianism and Augustinianism.

These four different lines are of course interconnected, as e.g. the question of the nature of the soul in terms of composition cannot be considered without reference to the issue of functional partition. These aspects, together with the division into the three chronological periods of 13th, 14-15th, 16th centuries, will be the backbone of the project, allowing the mapping onto it the tasks of each team member.

Although there are many studies dealing with medieval faculty psychology, their interest is on how to distinguish the faculties from the point of view of their proper objects and the historical sources for that distinction, rather than the integration of their functions in a systematic account of the process of coming to know external things and their properties. This focus provides us with a better understanding about the structures of mental life but gives us little insight into the foundations of knowledge.

In traditional accounts of medieval perception, two intuitions conflate: that the perceiver is defined as an active recipient of sensory information and the other that the perceiver is the agent of perceptual acts by means of which the things external things come to be known. For medieval Aristotelians the issue of perceptual activity had to be addressed by emphasising the role of the common sense and fantasia in assembling the data received from the particular senses. For those influenced by the Neoplatonism of Augustine and Avicenna, on the other hand, the need to accommodate strong substance dualism and the activity of the soul led to the development of an active theory of perception.

Activity is the way for a dualist theory of human beings, according to which soul and body are two distinct substances with the former using the latter as its instrument, to sustain a realist conception of knowledge of external material things. But that activity in turn is expressed in terms of top-down causality (from the soul to the body) or outwards causality (from the soul to the world), thus placing great emphasis on the perceptual process to the rational operations of judging and of recognition. It includes also reflection on the corrective role of previous knowledge in current perceptual acts, whatever the source of this previous knowledge (innate ideas, divine illumination), the directing of attention to certain objects or features of objects in the external world – all theses central to late Augustinian accounts of cognition.

The research will be conducted by means of analysis of primary sources – such as De anima and Sentences commentaries as well as treatises on logic – exploring the concepts utilised by the different philosophical strands in their historical context, as well as the significance of these medieval accounts for the early modern to contemporary debates on the philosophy of perception. The project aims at contributing to the contemporary understanding of the complexity of medieval theories of perception as well as substantially advance our knowledge of the interconnected areas that constitute the core of this project: role of reason in perceptual experience, ontological nature and functional unity of mind, activity in perception. The project will hopefully lead to a novel interpretation into the constitution of the modern conception of mind and rationality.