Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Reid's critique of Aristotelian accounts of perception

Reid thinks that the Aristotelians make the same mistake as the Lockeans and Berkeleians: they all think that the phenomenal qualities or “ideas” (in the Lockean sense) in our minds are similar to the properties of physical objects. Thus, the sensation of hardness when I press my hand on the table is supposed to be similar to the physical hardness of the table. But Reid thinks that a bit of reflection shows that the mental entity is quite different from the physical entity.

Presumably, the reason the Aristotelian is accused of this mistake is that the Aristotelian is supposed by Reid to think that a single objectual quality, such as hardness, is found in the table and in the mind (presumably in different ways).

However, I think the criticism of the Aristotelian fails. Let’s take the Aristotelian theory to be as Reid seems to think of it. We still have a choice as to what item in the Aristotelian view we identify with the phenomenal qualities. There is

  1. the hardness itself


  1. the sort-of-but-not-quite-inherence relation between the mind and the hardness.

Which one of these is the phenomenal quality or “idea”? The difficulty here is that Reid seems to accept two claims about Lockean “ideas”:

  1. we always have immediate awareness of “ideas”


  1. “ideas” are the states of awareness.

On the Aristotelian view in question, (1) satisfies (3) and (2) satisfies (4). But (1) does not satisfy (4), and I don’t think the Aristotelian should allow that (2) satisfies (3).

The Aristotelian can now give this story in response to Reid. If we identify (1) as the phenomenal quality, the “what I feel”, then there is nothing absurd about saying that what I feel—namely, hardness—is what is in the extramental table. If we identify (2) as the phenomenal quality, on the other hand, then the Aristotelian will agree with Reid that the phenomenal quality is not found in the extramental object, because the inherencish relation is only found in the mind.

In fact, the Aristotelian’s refusal to accept that there is a single sense of “ideas” that satisfies (3) and (4) is a very good thing. For if we accept both (3) and (4), then for anything we are aware of, our state of awareness will itself be something we are aware of, and any awareness will immediately imply infinitely many levels of higher-order awareness, which is empirically false.

I am not a Reid scholar, however. I might be badly misreading Reid.


Michael Gonzalez said...

What if there are no ideas or qualities in our minds? Why can't the Aristotelian just say that some objects are hard (they possess particular passive and active powers not possessed by "softer" objects; such as the ability to shatter windows when thrown at particular velocities or the ability to resist certain amounts of pressure without themselves shattering) and that we have particular perceptive powers to detect hardness by interacting with the object in certain ways?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, there is SOME state of our minds when we are aware of something. One can call that a quality or idea if one wishes.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Does that take for granted that our minds are objects that can be in states and contain qualities or objects in them? What if "mind" talk is just talk of characteristic properties of the living animal? We certainly have mental states, but they aren't states our minds are in, they're states we are in. They are labeled as states "of mind" to distinguish them from more corporeal aspects of us (living animals). I don't see why we should believe "ideas" or "qualities" exist in minds; especially because I see no reason to believe in minds. As Wittgenstein would say, they are not a nothing, but they are not a thing either.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, whether they are states of a mind or states of us, we can call them qualities or ideas.