Přednáška prof. Victora Castona (Michigan): The Veil of Perception (23. května, 17:00)

All are cordially invited to a lecture entitled The Veil of Perception which will be delivered on the 23th of May at 5 pm in room nr. 225 by Prof. Victor Caston (University of Michigan).


Abstract: This paper concerns the history of representationalism, specifically a change in how mental representations came to be viewed: from something that enables us to perceive, thereby revealing the world to us, to something that occludes or cloaks it, enclosing us “within the circle of our own ideas.” So conceived, representations do not merely distort reality, they hide it from us completely. It is often thought, moreover, that the “veil of perception” constitutes a decisive objection against representationalism and that our only means of escape from sceptical worries is to abjure representations entirely and understand perception instead in radically different terms. Historically, it has been invoked both by idealists and naïve realists.

In this paper, I will not be concerned with alleged consequences of the veil, such as scepticism, or the assumptions that are thought to lead to it, like the argument from illusion. I will focus instead on the thesis itself, which I take to have roughly the following form:

All we have direct awareness of [perceive, apprehend, know] are our representations [impressions, experiences, appearances, sense-data, ideas], and not the objects in the external world they seem to be from, of, or about.

It is standardly thought that this assumption and the notion of subjectivity it embodies are early modern inventions. But versions of the thesis can already be found in antiquity, and what interests me is precisely when and why it arises.

After an initial exploration of the metaphor of veils, which exercises such a powerful grip on us, I turn to the underlying idea, tracing it backwards in time. We find a clear version in Plotinus and another in Sextus Empiricus, as criticisms of earlier philosophers — if Sextus is right, it is endorsed by the Cyrenaics in particular, but both Sextus and Plotinus seem to have the Stoics and Aristotle in mind as well. These are all misreadings, however: these earlier forms of representationalism are not guilty of the charge. So the question remains why later thinkers came to think so almost reflexively.

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