Arabic Sciences and Philosophy

Research Article

Ptolemy, Alhazen, and Kepler and the Problem of Optical Images

A. Mark Smith

“Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the [visible] representations of objects should be considered as paintings [picturae] that are actual[ly projected] on paper or some other screen.” While not intended as a historical generalization (“up to now” having surely been meant within the narrow context of the treatise itself), this claim nonetheless reflects historical reality. Virtually all visual theorists before Kepler did, in fact, conceive of optical images as subjective, not objective constructs – or, to put it in modern terms, as virtual rather than real entities. By current lights, of course, the distinction between virtual and real images is both obvious and common-place: whereas the latter can be physically projected upon a screen, the former cannot.

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