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The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz.

The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz. A Bradford Book. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. 366 pages. $35--This is a beautifully clear, detailed, and compelling revision of the received histories of late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century German psychology and philosophy of mind. It focuses on the seemingly constant tension between what Hatfield calls normativism (the tendency, derived from Descartes and continued by Kant, to consider the mental as a power of knowledge to be explained through analysis and interpretation of its own immanent standards of justification and validity) and naturalism (the tendency, derived from Hobbes and Hume, to consider the mental as a range of activities to be explained by something like scientific method in terms of certain simple elements and [associative] laws). Participants in this story are often both philosophers and psychologists (and, in Helmholtz's case, physiologists and physicists as well), in a mix in which it is difficult to see the differences. Hatfield presents us with the formative history of our present, uneasy distinction between "philosophical" and "psychological" approaches to the mind.

The test case here is spatial perception. By the mid-eighteenth century, thanks in good part to naturalistic (empiricist) critique of Descartes, the human ability to know the spatial properties of things, as well as the status of those spatial properties, had become deeply controversial. As he dealt with these issues, Kant sought to establish a sharp line between his philosophical investigation of the mind and naturalistic approaches.

As Hatfield very nicely shows, however, Kant's successors immediately misunderstood his efforts to guarantee the objectivity of geometry and of physical science by normative (in his terms, transcendental) arguments to the effect that Euclidean space must taken to be a "form" of human sensibility. Both defenders (such as Fries and Tourtural) and critics (such as Herbart and Steinbuch) read Kant to have made the naturalistic, "psychological" claim that the ability to perceive a three-dimensional world is not learned, but innate. This happened despite the fact that Kant considered causal questions about the mind to be independent of transcendental ones; and he actually accepted the view, common from the time of Berkeley, that the eyes only present us objects in a plane, requiring that the perceiver be educated by touch to see the shapes of things in depth. By giving a full picture of Kant's views, Hatfield shows us how to take Kant's transcendental psychology seriously while absolving Kant of the charge of psychologism. Moreover, by filling in the extensive debate over visual processes among the nativist and empirist psychologists who followed Kant, Hatfield prepares the way for a full understanding of the context within which Helmholtz undertook his remarkable work.

Hatfield's long discussion of Helmholtz is marvelously helpful: it shows the curious mixture of Kantian and non-Kantian beliefs which he took to be faithfully Kantian. We see Helmholtz banishing metaphysics from philosophy, taking a radically naturalistic attitude toward the mind, experimenting in psychophysics, and developing his distinctive theory that we acquire our ability to perceive the spatial properties of things through a lawful process of association among nonspatial sensations (from retinal stimulation and eye movement). We see him treating this as an account in keeping with Kant's view of the subjectivity of spatial perception, while arguing that Kant was mistaken in believing that Euclidean axioms must apply either to visual or physical space. Hatfield explains how the tension builds, in Helmholtz's thinking, between Helmholtz's commitment to a complete associationism, according to which scientific inference is itself but a conscious development of an unconscious tendency to make associations, and his equally strong conviction that science yields objective knowledge of natural causes. Here, internalized, is the conflict between naturalistic and normative approaches to the mind. Helmholtz seems to have resolved it, in the end, by taking the law of cause as a practical necessity only.

Hatfield's final chapter offers a thoughtful assessment of current efforts to naturalize the mind in "reductive" or "eliminative" ways. He concludes, with a nice sense for the self-referential character of the matter, that even with a neuroscience as complete as you please there could be no sufficient account of the contingent concepts humans have acquired historically, science included. Thus, we have to understand ourselves historically, that is, in terms of cultural norms, with the result that "no natural-scientific imperative can eliminate normative epistemology" (p. 270). A happy thought.--John J. Compton, Vanderbilt University.
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Author:Compton, John J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:730
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