Dublin born Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (26 March 1829 – 18 December 1913) is probably best known for his translations of Kant’s ethical works published in 1873 which remained the standard English texts into the 1940s (Duddy, 2004). He had a wide range of scholarly interests, being professor various of Moral Philosophy, Greek and Hebrew in Trinity College Dublin. However his greatest philosophical contribution was made in his early career, where he disputed the theory of vision outlined by (fellow Trinity man) George Berkeley.
The roots of Berkeley’s theory are in Locke. Just before he introduces (William) Molyneaux’s Problem, in his Essay on Human Understanding (IX, 8) Locke states that “When we set before our eyes a round globe of any uniform colour […] it is certain that the idea thereby imprinted on our mind is of a flat circle”. The roundness we think we see, says Locke, is the effect of experience, which differentiates what we see: “…only a plane variously coloured, as is evident in painting.” He does not, however, claim we cannot tell that the sphere is at a distance.
William Molyneaux does claim this, however, in his Dioptrica Nova (1692, 113):
Distance of itself is not to be perceived. For it is a line (or a length) presented to our eye with its end toward us which must therefore be only a point, and that is invisible.
Berkeley expands these ideas in A Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709/1732), referenced previously in relation to the Moon Illusion. Berkeley agrees with Molyneaux that distance cannot be seen (II): Continue reading “Small and Far Away: Thomas Kingsmill Abbott”
When, therefore, the Horizontal Moon is said to appear greater than the Meridional Moon; this must be understood, not of a greater Visible Extension, but of a greater Tangible Extension; which, by reason of the more than ordinary Faintness of the Visible Appearance, is suggested to the Mind along with it.
Berkeley on the Moon Illusion in his 1709 An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision. These lines are from section LXXIV. The Moon Illusion is discussed from section LXVII – note in LXXV his mention of the “gross blunders” of Descartes, Hobbes and Gassendi, shown up by Mr Molyneaux (not William but his brother Thomas.) Thomas Molyneaux’s paper in Philosophical Transactions is here.