Review of Mark Eli Kalderon, Form without Matter (Phil. Rev. 2017 ...

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Philosophical Review BOOK REVIEWS Mark Eli Kalderon, Form without Matter: Empedocles and Aristotle on Color Perception. ...

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Philosophical Review

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Mark Eli Kalderon, Form without Matter: Empedocles and Aristotle on Color Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 216 pp. In this stimulating study, Mark Kalderon enlists the history of philosophy to pursue a philosophical end. He argues for a form of direct realism through an exploration of Aristotle’s theory of color vision, as a way of “attending to the phenomena under investigation” (ix). In Kalderon’s view, Aristotle is a selfconscious defender of the manifest image, in reaction to predecessors such as Empedocles and Democritus, whom we might regard as more “modern.” Examining Aristotle’s response to such theories, he believes, affords us an attractive way of recapturing an alternative, “premodern” form of realism, in which colors are real, objective properties of external objects, which present themselves to us in visual awareness in such a way that we can grasp their character directly (vii, 165, 184). Kalderon sees it as closely allied to Oxford realism and its more recent descendants (xi). Kalderon understands Aristotle’s theory of vision as a response primarily to “Empedoclean puzzlement.” Accepting the naive intuition that colors are located on the surface of distant objects, one might wonder about the saltatory character of vision, about how one manages to see the colors of objects over there from one’s vantage point over here. Empedocles’s solution is to posit a physical mechanism for bridging this gap. Objects, on his view, continually emit “effluences” or streams of matter, which flow outward in all directions. Since this matter originates from the object, it possesses many of the object’s qualities, including its color; and when some of it finds its way into the orifices or “channels” of our sense organs, we are able to perceive the distal object’s color. Perception is understood on the model of ingestion: by means of effluences, we are not only able to make contact with distant objects, we also drink in their colors and other sensible qualities (chapter 1). Aristotle’s response, as is well known, is to reject not just effluences but also the idea that direct contact with the object is needed. On the contrary, he argues that were an object placed directly on our sense organ, we could not perceive it, even in the case of touch, and that therefore a medium is always needed. In vision, we do not perceive some intermediary, but the color of the object itself, which stays just where the object is. This, at any rate, is how perception “presents itself ” to us, Kalderon notes, the ordinary phenomenology to which Aristotle tries to do justice. All we receive from the object is its form, through a continuous series of changes: the object affects the

Philosophical Review, Vol. 126, No. 3, 2017 q 2017 by Cornell University

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medium in a certain way, which in turn affects the peripheral sense organ in a similar way, which then results in perceiving (chapter 2). So far, so familiar. But that’s not where Kalderon leaves things, of course, and there is much in the details that is novel and refreshing. Some of the most valuable chapters, I found, were the ones on the transparency of the visual medium (chapter 3) and Aristotle’s account of color properties themselves (chapter 4), which take both accounts more seriously than they generally have been in the literature. He stresses the importance of Aristotle’s concept of illumination as due not merely to the presence of a fiery substance but to its activity, something Kalderon claims can explain the directionality of light (44 – 45, 81– 82) and ultimately the point of view of the perceiver (78, 149, 177–80), despite the fact that, according to Aristotle, light does not move through space, a position Kalderon defends, siding with H. A. Prichard against Burnyeat (48 – 51). There is also a valuable discussion of appearing through a medium (54) and the difference between color appearance and presented color (56 –58, 117). Colors are not the only visible objects for Aristotle, and Kalderon’s reflections on his views about luminous objects (69 – 73), as well as the differences between the color of a transparent volume and surface color of opaque objects, reflection, and “borrowed” color (78 – 81, 91), are all—forgive me—illuminating. Color itself is defined independently of its being seen, in terms of its power to affect the illuminated medium, which Kalderon explains as the ability to “promote or restrict” in different ways the activity of the fiery substance that illuminates it (82 – 84, 88 – 91). Aristotle’s account of colors as a mixture of light and dark, its place in the history of Greek accounts more generally, and his extended criticism of rival accounts, is treated in more detail and with greater sympathy than perhaps anywhere else in the secondary literature (chapters 5–6). There are marvelous comparisons to nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories of color, including Benham tops (93 –95) and the suggestion that Aristotle’s view is an “ancient prefiguration of modern reflectance theories” like Hilbert’s (93, 134– 36). Kalderon also offers a series of criticisms of Aristotle’s theory, regarding the similarity ordering of colors, the endpoints of the continuum between light and dark, his failure to distinguish the brightness of colors and of light, and whether the production of colors is a subtractive or additive process (131–33). At this point, the book turns inward to discuss vision itself, starting with the eye. As has long been recognized, the water within the eye, being transparent, seems like a kind of portable medium on Aristotle’s theory. But Kalderon goes further, with the unusual claim that it must be illuminated if the external object is to be perceptually available—“the eyes, in seeing, . . . are filled with light” (151, 162, 169)—and it is for this reason that Aristotle invokes Empedocles’s lantern metaphor (144– 45). The vitreous jelly is, in Kalderon’s view, affected by color in a similar way to the external medium, “promoting or retarding” the activity of the fiery substance in it and “affecting its direction of influence” (147– 50). The textual basis for this seems to be just On Perception 2, 438b11.

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But when developed in this way, Aristotle’s claim in the immediately preceding lines that the perceptive part of the soul is not on the surface of the eye, but “within,” must be taken as referring to something further in than the eyes, which of course only pushes questions about vision back a step. Commentators have long taken this and other passages from the Parva naturalia to indicate that perceptual awareness for Aristotle is located in the central sensorium, which for him is the heart. But Kalderon unfortunately does not discuss the issue, indeed he barely acknowledges it (see 149). Given the book’s focus, this is surprising, even if there are limits to what can be concluded from Aristotle’s scattered remarks. The final chapter examines Aristotle’s doctrine that the senses receive perceptible forms without the matter and how this “non-material mode of assimilation” offers a response to Empedocles’s “ingestion model” (169). Kalderon begins by contrasting Aristotle’s comparison of the senses to sealing wax with Plato’s analogy of the mind to a wax block in the Theaetetus. The latter, Kalderon thinks, involves a stylus and a writing tablet rather than a seal, and so is committed to the conception of a mental language, such as we find in Ockham and Fodor (172); Aristotle would then be rejecting this conception by switching to talk of signet rings. But this is mistaken: unlike Aeschylus, Pindar, and other Greek authors who speak of “inscribing words on the tablets of the heart,” Plato does not use terms for writing here but, like Aristotle, speaks of impressions, stamps, and signet rings (191d, 193c, 194b), into which incoming perceptions are supposed to line up or fit (193ce, 194b). There is a writing tablet, of course, in Philebus 38e – 39a, as in Aristotle On the Soul 3.4. But that just shows that the alleged contrast here is a mirage. More substantively, Kalderon argues that the object makes an impression on the “mind’s wax” in a “non-causal sense” (173): he distinguishes a constitutive sense of shaping, exemplified by the way St Paul’s can be said to shape the London skyline (174), from the more literal causal sense in which an impression is shaped, and then argues that if sensory impressions are understood in a causal sense, they will not be individuated by their objects, whereas in a constitutive sense they can be, since those objects are a part of the experience (175). In perceptual experience, we “simply confront” the object and “cannot be confronted truly or falsely, correctly or incorrectly” (176; see 68, 165). So understood, Aristotle’s views would align with those of McDowell, Martin, and Kalderon himself. The character of the experience “depends upon and derives from the character of the object”: more strongly, what it is to be that perception depends on what it is for that object to be what it is, and this holds for anything that is perceptible in itself (kath’ hauto), including common sensibles (176). This dependence does not require that the perceiver or the experience actually take on the character of the object (178) or enmatter the object’s sensible form—in fact, Kalderon explicitly denies that it does (185–86, 190). Nevertheless, perceivers, “or perhaps their experience,” become like the object in quality or state: they are assimilated to it, in a way distinct from material assimilation (180).

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Color perceptions thus “resemble” the colors that cause them (184), even though “there is no color in the perceiver’s soul” (186). This assimilation, in turn, is supposed to “underwrite the objectivity of perceptual content”: it is impossible for both the experience to be as it is and the object to be other than it is in its sensible features (191), and so Aristotle’s position eludes the Cartesian demon (193). It is not clear how exactly to understand this nonliteral assimilation. Some of Kalderon’s phrasing about the dependence of the character of experience on the character of the object sounds like it might be nothing more than causal covariation. But other remarks suggest that he understands this specifically in terms of phenomenal character: as he later says of seeing the sun, “what that perceptual experience is like depends on and derives from what the sun is actually like prior to perception, namely, brilliant white” (182, emphasis mine); elsewhere he speaks of “the qualitative character of visual experience” (191). This seems to ascribe to Aristotle a notion of phenomenal character or qualia, for which no textual evidence or argument is given. One might think that this is not so different from Kalderon’s frequent characterization of the exercise of our sensory capacities in phenomenological terms, as consisting in “the presentation of [their] primary object[s] in sensory awareness” (66; see 26 –27, 62, 86 – 87, 145), which likewise goes beyond Aristotle’s express formulations. If that were all, I think we could spot Kalderon the terms: if those texts are compatible with such rich and suggestive descriptions, that is an interesting and important fact about the Aristotelian position. The problem in the present case is that some of his key doctrines are construed in a way that depends essentially on elements that are not explicit in the text: in seeing an object, we become like it in so far as the phenomenal character of visual experience depends on and derives from the object’s colors. If we are given no reason to think that Aristotle even has the notion of phenomenal character, it is much harder to believe that this is the point of his doctrine. What of the “premodern realism” attributed to Aristotle, that in perceptual experience we simply confront the object, which is directly present to us and constitutes part of the experience itself ? Here there are more serious reasons for doubt, though I can only outline them here. To begin with, Aristotle ascribes truth and falsehood to perception generally, as distinct from the representations produced from them or the perceptual judgments formed on their basis. It is not enough to stress, as Kalderon does, the negative formulations of infallibility for perceiving special perceptibles (“never mistaken”) and to wave off positive formulations (“always true”) as “merely loose talk, if not indeed a slip” (67 – 68). At On the Soul 3.3, 428b18– 429a2, Aristotle distinguishes the truth and falsehood of representations from the truth or falsehood of the three types of perception from which they stem; and in On Dreams (1, 458b21–23; 2, 460b22 – 25), he characterizes the nature of misperceptions and the cause of perceptual error in general. Aristotle is thus comfortable speaking of true and

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false perceptions. He says nothing, in contrast, about simply confronting objects in our presence. Aristotle, moreover, explicitly characterizes the object of perception in causal terms throughout On the Soul and the Parva naturalia, as well as in the Categories and Metaphysics, and it is reasonable to understand the discussion of the signet ring in On the Soul 2.12 in just the same way. Kalderon has to concede this, of course, and so in the end maintains that an impression must be understood in both a causal and a constitutive sense, where the former brings about the latter (182). Now, there can be no doubt that the causal interaction results in perception and so our “standing in a perceptual relation to the object” on anybody’s reading. So what secures the constitutive sense of an impression, in the distinctive sense needed for Kalderon’s naive realism, where the object itself is part of the experience and so secures its objectivity? I am hard-pressed to think of any text that expresses such an idea or entails it, including ones where it would have been natural. In On Perception 6 (446b17 – 21), Aristotle answers a sophistic objection—probably from Gorgias (MXG, 980b9 –14)—against the possibility of two subjects perceiving a single object, on the grounds that it would then be separated from itself. Instead of saying that we all stand in relation to the same public object, which forms a part of each experience, Aristotle argues instead that while the cause (the object) is one and the same, its effect, the experience and change in different perceivers, is different in number and exclusive to each (b21 – 26). Compatible, perhaps, but odd if the constitutive sense is important to him. Such disagreements are rewarding, though, in a good philosophy book, as this very much is, since one is invited to think in new and different ways, and challenged to get clearer on what is at stake and what exactly the texts commit Aristotle to. But Kalderon’s book is also a pleasure to read. It is wonderfully engaging, sprinkled liberally throughout with allusions and delightful anecdotes from literature and the history of philosophy, and brings in relevant research from recent color science and psychology. It does not engage the secondary literature on Aristotle in detail or comment on the nuances of the texts in their original language. But Kalderon has read widely in this literature and examines the primary texts closely in a sensitive and sympathetic way. He takes his authors seriously, as well as the long tradition of which they are a part, to find ways in which we can still learn from them. As a result, there is much we can learn from him. Victor Caston University of Michigan Philosophical Review, Vol. 126, No. 3, 2017 DOI 10.1215/00318108-3878503

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