Descartes' psychology of vision and cognitive science: The optics (1637) in the light of Marr's (1982) vision

Philosophical Psychology 11 (2):161 – 182 (1998)
In this paper I consider the relation between Descartes' psychology of vision and the cognitive science approach to psychology (henceforth CS). In particular, I examine Descartes' the Optics (1637) in the light of David Marr's (1982) position in CS. My general claim is that CS can be seen as a rediscovery of Descartes' psychology of vision. In the first section, I point to a parallel between Descartes' epistemological revolution, which created the modem version of the problem of perception, and the cognitive revolution. These fundamental revolutions in theoretical psychology were both inspired and legitimated by a revolution in mathematics. They took place in accordance with one of Marr's maxims: “To the desirable via the possible”. In the second section, I demonstrate that in the Optics, Descartes explains perception of metrical properties in a way that — on a detailed level — is in accordance with how Man argues that complex information processing systems have to be explained: both Descartes and Man emphasize the co-ordination of logical and physical analysis. In the third section, I claim that Descartes' arguments for a sharp distinction between mechanical transmission of sense data (sensation) and non-mechanical inferences on those sense data (thinking) are sound arguments seen from Man's position in CS. Descartes' arguments are based on his logical and physical analysis. Malebranche's radicalized version of Cartesian dualism turns Descartes' empirically-based assumption that mechanisms cannot realize inferences into a metaphysical assumption. In the final section, I argue that this metaphysical assumption contributes to an understanding of perception as a non-symbolic, non-inferential bottom-up process in mainstream monistic and mechanistic scientific psychology until the cognitive revolution.
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