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Euclid and the Sceptic: A Paper on Vision, Doubt, Geometry, Light and Drunkenness

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image of Phronesis

Philosophy in the period immediately after Aristotle is sometimes thought to be marked by the decline of natural philosophy and philosophical disinterest in contemporary achievements in the sciences. But in one area at least, the early third century B.C.E. was a time of productive interaction between such disparate fields as epistemology, physics and geometry.

Debates between the sceptics and the dogmatic philosophical schools focus on epistemological problems about the possibility of self-evident appearances, but there is evidence from Euclid's day of a quite different response. The sceptical challenge provoked the development of theories explaining error formation, showing how illusions can be studied systematically and are subject to prediction. Such theories do not legitimate claims about the nature of the underlying entities perceived, but provide justification for forming expectations about future perceptions. While it overtly focuses on purely geometrical considerations, the Euclidean model of optics nonetheless provides support for certain views about the nature of vision and the physics of light. Moreover, by offering a model in which the image received is not thought to be a perspicuous mirroring of the object seen, Euclid may have helped promote a view of perception as something reconstructed from information received, not as a mere form transferred into the eye. The ancient sceptic may indeed have fulfilled his promise to promote inquiry by focusing attention on problems that escape the attention of a hasty theorist.


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