Plate 15 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Overview

 

In Stradanus's depiction of the invention of spectacles, the tradespeople and scholars at the right side of the print make use of the spectacles and magnifying glasses that the glass grinder sells at the left. In the background, a blind man is guided by a dog. An emphasis on visual observation and demonstration was only one component of new attitudes to experience that emerged in the early modern period. Like so much else about human experience, vision is shaped and understood not only by unchanging human senses and cognitive abilities but also by historically specific cultural understandings about that perception and cognition.

A particularly wide variety of understandings about human experience gained currency beginning in the fifteenth century in Europe. The classic source for understanding human cognition and perception was Aristotle's De Anima (On the Soul) in which the powers of the soul are described, including the place of the senses and thinking and the relationships between them. Aristotle, however, was only one of the authorities whose writings shaped experience and sensory perception. Renaissance humanists undermined the authority of Aristotle by claiming to recover even older sources of wisdom, such as Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Hermeticism.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) drew on astrological and Neoplatonic theories to link the balance among the humors of the human body and its spirits to the cosmic forces emanating from the World Soul. Ficino developed his enormously influential views as he studied, translated, and commented upon the Neoplatonic corpus of texts from late antiquity by philosophers such as Plotinus and the Hermetic corpus. The latter was actually a group of Neoplatonic texts written around the third century CE, but thought to be the writings of one Hermes Trismegistus, who lived before Moses and transmitted divine wisdom. Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) and Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) exemplified a tradition known as natural magic that sought to decode the secrets of nature and recover knowledge that was older than the original revelation. Another influential ancient source was Pliny the Elder's (ca. 23-79) Natural History, an encyclopedic collection of all kinds of observations about nature. It may partially explain the fascination with particulars (especially wonders and marvels) in early modern Europe and the many attempts to compile and catalogue them.

Early modern experiences were not just informed by the legacy of the past but also by the present structures of nature and society. The rhetoric of novelty was often employed to privilege the new over the old. Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) opposed the longstanding tradition of Galenic medicine by locating the source of disease outside the human body and emphasizing firsthand observation and manipulation of natural things in the development of remedies for disease. Artisanal experience and the everyday experience of ordinary people also gained status during these centuries. The exploration of previously unknown continents and increased commercialism imparted greater value to artisanal practices and their products. Social practices, such as patronage, enabled the legitimation and diffusion of new forms of experience and knowing. Intellectual practices began to demonstrate a new notion of intelligibility, which applied mathematics to physics and emphasized knowing how to produce effects over understanding the purpose for which they occurred.

The term "texture" was used by Robert Boyle (1627-1691) to designate the different configurations of material particles which account for our experience of a world of colors, sounds, tastes, smells, pains, and pleasures. In the new mechanistic philosophy of the seventeenth century, textures came to replace the forms and real qualities that Aristotelian philosophers attributed to physical things. The mechanists sought to explain all physical phenomena in terms of the motions and interactions of particles of a uniform matter. An example may illustrate the difference: For Aristotle (384-322 BC) and his medieval followers, sugar is sweet because sweetness belongs to the form that makes sugar what it is, and we taste that sweetness when the form of the sugar makes an imprint on our bodily fluids, as when one presses a seal on molten wax. For the mechanists, sugar tastes sweet to us because the sizes, shapes, and motions of the sugar particles set off a chain of motions in our bodies causing us to experience sweetness.

The early mechanist, René Descartes (1596-1650), made this distinction between the quantifiable features of physical objects and the qualitative features of our experiences of objects the basis for a dualist metaphysics. Descartes reduced material substance to geometrical properties and relegated those aspects of our experience that resisted such a reduction to a separable and distinct substance called the mind. Descartes incorporated the nutritive soul into extended matter and attributed perception and thought to mind or soul, thus making the individual soul fully separable from the body.

Descartes' dualism is often blamed for various ills of the modern world, most notably, the alienation of mind from body, individual from world, and thought from action. Clearly Descartes divides the world up very differently than Aristotle, and this affects the way we, as post-Cartesians, situate ourselves in and experience the world. Nevertheless, as John Sutton illustrates in his book Philosophy and Memory Traces, if one ventures beyond the canonical texts of the history of philosophy, it is also apparent that there was a great deal of continuity from the Ancients to Descartes.