Activity and Passivity in Theories of Perception: Descartes to Kant

In José Filipe Silva & Mikko Yrjönsuuri (eds.), Active Perception in the History of Philosophy: From Plato to Modern Philosophy. Cham [Switzerland]: Springer. pp. 275–89 (2014)
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In the early modern period, many authors held that sensation or sensory reception is in some way passive and that perception is in some way active. The notion of a more passive and a more active aspect of perception is already present in Aristotle: the senses receive forms without matter more or less passively, but the “primary sense” also recognizes the salience of present objects. Ibn al-Haytham distinguished “pure sensation” from other aspects of sense perception, achieved by “discernment, inference and recognition,” which included perception of properties such as size and distance as well as similarity, difference, and beauty. Descartes regarded light and color as experiences passively caused in the mind by bodily processes, but he also included distance, perceived through accommodation and convergence, as an immediately caused sensory idea. On the perception side, most theorists held that size and distance perception occurs through unnoticed psychological operations, whether mediated by judgment or associative processes. Association is, in a sense, passive, as it occurs through nonreflective habit formation. But such habits mark a contribution of the subject to perception and are in that way active. The decision of whether sensation and perception are active or passive is highly sensitive to what counts as activity and to what is included as sensation or perception. There is no simple formula, but the generalization that sensation is for the most part passive and perception for the most part active may stand as an imprecise summary of early modern thought on the topic



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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania

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