The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 8 Mediate Factors in Perception

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WHITEHEAD recognizes that a perceptual object implies the assumption that the object would be there for an indefinite number of other percipient events besides the one in whose perspective it lies., This recognition on his part seems to spring from the seeming assimilation of other points of view than that of the particular percipient event in his perception. He does not present the values of other perspectives as inherent in that which goes to make up perception. The essentials of perception he finds in the sense object and its firm association with other sensa, plus its "conveyance" of still other sense characters, not immediately given in the sense process. It is the permanence of this association including the "conveyance," which for Whitehead is the peculiar value of the percept. These characters belong to the perception in the perspective of the particular percipient event. While other values may come to the percept through this fusing of other perceptual perspectives with that of the particular percipient event, they appear as additions without playing a constitutive part in the percept as such. In other words, from Whitehead's account of the essentials of the percept, these fused values could be omitted and the percept would retain its character as a percept.

Furthermore, Whitehead indicates no apparatus by means of which these values from other perspectives can be brought within the perspective of the particular percipient event. It is true that he does not undertake to give a psychological account of perception. He is dealing principally with the percipient event as the seat of the awareness of the mind, that is, as the body within which this awareness is situated. However, he does indicate in his account what is the mechanism involved in the

(126) process. This mechanism is that of the sense organs and the central nervous system of which they are essential parts. The stuff of the percept are the sensa, which are the immediate deliverances of the sense organs with their apparatus. That which besides the firm association of certain of these sensa is "conveyed"[2] by these sensa comes in large degree from recollection and memory. What comes in this fashion may perhaps be assumed to come in the form of other perspectives of other experiences of the percipient event, and it may be further assumed that the percipient event or his mind utilizes the same mechanism by which he organizes the past perspectives of the individual percipient event to introduce the perspectives of other percipient events into the percept. It is at least important to recognize that the same mechanism is involved in the two phases of the process. Some further light is shed on the process by Whitehead's statement that our percepts lie in a field of nature which is common to others of the community. He distinctly pushes to one side the problem of this common content of experience, or rather this experience which appears as common. One further passage which throws a little light on the matter is found in his treatment of motion in the specious present, as an experience of the percipient event. Here he is taking his example from the traveler in the train. The traveler is spoken of as cogredient with the train as at rest, while the landscape flies past him. But he recognizes a double cogredience here. The traveler finds himself cogredient not only with the train as at rest but also with the landscape, i.e., he perceives the landscape as that which at rest is passed through by the train, while he feels himself at rest on the seat of the train, which so far as his body is concerned remains a consentient set. Here again we are left without any discussion of the mechanism by which such divergent attitudes are organized in a unitary process of perception.

The problem lies in fitting together the deliverances of different perspectives into a single perspective. We may deal first

(127) with spatial perspectives, which lie in what Whitehead calls the permanent space of some time system, i.e., the time system of the percipient event in question. When one sees a house and has as a part of his perception some recognition of the back of the house as it lies in its relationship to the front which he is immediately observing, he is using a perspective of some former observation when he viewed the back of the house as he is now viewing the facade. There may be in his perception only such an organization of attitudes of response as would lead him if he went around the house to be ready to act toward the back door as he has acted in the past. This would not involve his seeing the house as having the back which he saw on previous occasions but only such familiarity with the house as he might have with a well-known path. He would feel ready to act with reference to it without any sensuous reconstitution of the object. On the other hand, one may in seeing the house so reconstitute the construction of the back of the house that he has some part of the structure of the back present with 'what is before his eye. The critical import of this sort of sensuous or perceptual construction is found in the situations in which what is actually present in, say, the visual datum is seen in the form in which it would be seen if one were in another situation. Here is found the much belabored penny, that is seen as round though the contour that is presented to the eye is an oval or a line. A favored perspective practically supplants that which is immediately given in the so-called sense datum.

The problem which is involved in this phase of perception is that it cannot be accounted for by a mere fusing of one content with another. One cannot fuse an oval with a circle. Nor is it a mere substitution in the fashion in which the visual deliverance of one retina is substituted for that of the other in certain situations. For in this case one can recover the image which is rejected and hold also that which is selected for perception, and this cannot be done in this case. One cannot hold over against each other in the perception the oval penny and the round penny as actual so-called sensa. This can be stated in terms of

(128) interpretation, in terms of Berkeley's theory of vision. The datum in this case is there never as a mere visual content but as an indication of the experience of manipulation, and our percept of the penny is then in terms of the action under the conditions of most advantageous conduct. This still leaves the question open of the visual contours in the two situations. However they are interpreted, the two contours are facts of experience. One can see the oval, and one can see the circle. One does not fuse them, and one does not push one aside and see the other.

What is evident is that the attitude of the use of the penny, the manipulation, becomes the dominant attitude and controls the act of perception. We act toward it as round. In Whitehead's terminology the oval form "conveys" the roundness of that which one handles. It is this conveyance which carries the problem.

The conveyance involves not simply one final attitude but a number of such attitudes. We are ready to do various things or carry out various acts or parts of acts with reference to the things and utensils which we manipulate, and we carry these different attitudes in an organization within which they do not conflict with one another. We see the oval penny as round, and its ellipticity is just that which, given our situation, enables us to see it as round. There is involved in this a temporal character. A movement will give us the round penny, and there is the same entrance of the movement as that which we find, for example, in seeing the hammer as that with which we drive the nail. The percept is a collapsed act. The degree to which roundness and the ellipticity enter in as visual contents of course varies, and as a rule what takes place is that we select out those characters which set the attitudes into activity and prepare for later steps.

In certain cases, such as that of the bent stick in the water, the lines of railway tracks approaching each other at the horizon, and the psychological puzzles, it is not possible to organize the attitudes so that the content of the perception becomes one

(129) univocally answering to an ultimate attitude. Perceptual judgment comes in to rectify these illusions of perception, and these shade off into mirror illusions and the seen distances of heavenly bodies. In all these cases, however, there is a percept which itself is the product of an organization of attitudes, though it is to an object of reflection that we respond rather than to that of direct perception.

The important distinction to be drawn is between an organized act which does not carry with it the content of the stimulus, or some portion of it, to which later stages of the act will respond, but simply leaves the organism ready to respond to these stimuli when the earlier portion of the act is accomplished, and the perceptual act which does carry at least portions of these stimulations, so that they pass into the content of the percept. We see the object as hard or round; we see the man at a distance as the one with whom we will shake hands when he is immediately before us. It is these contents in their organization which give to the experience its perceptual character.

The problem is to discover the principle of this type of organization. There seem to be different acts. There are the sight of the object and the response involved in moving toward it. There is also the attitude of readiness to handle the object, and perhaps a series of such successive acts in its manipulation; and for each one of the acts there may be elements in the object which act as specific stimuli. On the other hand, as already remarked, there may be no identification of these peculiar elements in the object which answer to the successive responses. In this case it is not until the later situation arises that the element in the object becomes a stimulus to the individual to respond in the proper fashion. But even in this case the ease with which the earlier step in the complex act goes off may be ail indication that this step is an organized part of a disposition or nervous structure, in which each step leads up to the next involving a susceptibility to the proper stimulus to set this step free. I take it that it is this sort of attitude which passes under the name of the "feeling of familiarity." As contrasted with this

(130) we have the situation in which we not only respond to the stimulus which calls out the first step of the composite act but also are susceptible to the element of the object which will call out the next step of the act. Such susceptibility, however, implies some sort of response to the stimulus. It may be laid down as a principle of our experience that the presence of stimuli in the conduct of an organism implies also response to those stimuli, there being no entrance to stimulations unless some door of response is open. The nervous mechanism is a system of paths. In recognizing this principle, it is necessary to recognize also that language is ambiguous. We refer to the object under the same term, when so far as response is concerned there are two objects present. The door that is bolted on the other side is referred to as a door, though it is a barrier from which we withdraw. It is to different characters of the object which we respond, one gate being closed while another is open to response or nervous conduction. The term "response," however, must cover not only the completed muscular contraction but also those processes in the upper reaches of the central nervous system in which the co-ordinations take place which make complex reactions possible. We may refer to these processes as attitudes. Thus in reaching for a hammer we already have in the organism the attitude of striking with the hammer. If now there are present in the experience not only the visual stimulus to reach for the object but also the characters of the object which initiate the response of striking with the object, we have excited those nervous elements which are responsible for the beginning of this later act in its co-ordination with the earlier phase of reaching for the object. Also there enters into the experience what is called the imagery of the result of the response. We feel the hardness of the hammer handle and something of its balance in the hand before we actually get it into the hand. Now all these phases of experience are essential to the perception. The organization of a composite act and the imagery of the result of the act as giving the situation from which later conduct goes out make out of mere distance stimulation a percept. It seems

(131) to be this which Whitehead refers to under the term "conveyance." I see the object as I may later respond to it.

It is important to recognize that this attitude plays a most important part in determining the actual content that appears as the distance experience. What I see will depend upon what I am going to do later. There are selection and organization in the perceptual process. It is the subsequent attitude of greeting and conversing with the distant friend that enables me to see him not only as a friend but in the dimensions which he will have when I am near enough to him to carry on the conversation, and it is the putting of the penny in the purse that enables me to see it as the object which I will have between the fingers in the spatial form which it will present to me at that time, for that spatial form will be the stimulus which will direct the hand in its pursing of the penny. All this is essential, at least in attitude, toward our distance experiences, to render them physical things.

Now readiness to respond at a later moment under the conditions which will obtain at that moment, owing to the carrying-out of the earlier part of the process, has in it implicitly the perspective of that phase of the act. The development of this implication one can experience in examining a cliff which one thinks of climbing. He sees not only the cleft above him but has only to develop the percept to feel himself in it and reaching for cracks and protuberances for the further advance. He gets in some degree the face of the cliff as it will extend above him when he is there. He has the sense of unbalance or insecurity which the situation will bring with it. We have, of course, to distinguish sharply between the immediate perceptual situation and that of the perceptual judgment. In the latter case one definitely isolates elements of the situation and follows out their meaning by the use of symbols. One argues that such a position will be insecure from the character of the rock, or that the cleft is too narrow to afford a footing. And this argument may be carried on in the inner forum with very exiguous logical apparatus, but the distinctive mark of the judgment is there: the passage from some character to a consequence by way of an

(132) indicated meaning. The passage is already accomplished in the percept, i.e., one perceives the insecurity. Undoubtedly the character of the rock is effective in conveying this perceptual attitude, but the resultant insecurity is an attitude which is given in the experience. The judgment is then an elaboration of a situation in which the relation between stimulus and response is isolated by the use of a symbol. But a situation that is so analyzed may lead to a synthesis. The separation of the stimulus from the resultant response opens the door to other possible responses. Perhaps I should say that the separation of the stimulus from this response makes possible the recognition of different characters within it which opens the door to other responses. In any case, another response has become possible and, with further experience, will appear in the conveyance of this resultant directly in the percept. This may take place without reflection in the so-called trial-and-error process. We come through unreflective experience to perceive in the objects of our use contents which were not originally there, but the learning of the human animal can proceed logically from the analysis which frees the stimulus from a specific response and thus opens the door to other responses. There is, however, a difference in the results of learning by trial and error and learning through reflective experience. In the first, one acquires familiarity merely, while, in the latter, one may retain the different values of the stimulus and hence the different possible responses. In the latter case, as the result of past judgments, one now immediately perceives what we call the meaning of the characters of the percept and consequently the different attitudes corresponding to the different characters of the stimulus.

It is this situation that I referred to above as in some sense carrying different characters which would be mutually inconsistent if they belonged to the same temporal phase of the act, but which become consistent when they mediate the attitudes which represent the successive steps in the act. From one position we see the penny as round even though it is an oval form that registers itself upon the retina, because its oval character

(133) is the stimulus to the movement which will bring it into what is the standard form for our conduct with reference to the penny. To see the penny in the character of initiating the movement to bring it into the normal position is to see it as round, for that is the resultant of that motion which arises from past experience to justify this organization of attitudes. The content of ellipticity is there not as resultant but as stimulus to bring about the normal content which imagery may supply. The selective power of perception reduces ellipticity from a resultant to a mediate character of our spatiotemporal environment, which is organized to lead up to a certain goal. The imagery from past experience supplies the visual form of that goal, as it supplies the content of much that we read upon the printed line. Changing the goal of our attitude toward an ellipse at once places the present visual form of the penny in a final instead of a mediate situation, and we make the mistake of assuming that it was there in that character in the earlier situation. We are familiar enough with this shift in values in perception, and hence a shift in the actual datum of experience. Looking through a landscape toward a distant goal, what lies between us and the goal is organized with reference to the passage to the goal. Each intermediate object has a definite value for conduct as the clue to the step and direction of the step which it indicates. It is a map of the traject in which contents of the intervening objects sink almost entirely into marks of the path. But let some movement take place within this environment which leads to a different orientation, a possibly different goal, and the objects (or some of the objects) fill out into percepts that were absent from our former perception, though a photograph from the position of the individual would have given just those characters which are absent from Ills earlier experience. Mr. Russell's substitution of cameras for the visual apparatus entirely suppresses this character of perception.

I have argued here as if the visual datum in imagery were always and fully present in perception, which is, of course, a condition contrary to fact. It not only ignores the vast differ-

(134) -ences in individuals but also ignores wide differences in the dominance of different types of imagery in the same individual. So much, 1 am confident, is correct that in so far as a percept of the spatiotemporal object is present, as distinct from the simple familiarity with the intervening landscape which may lead to the same goal, in so far some content out of past experience, which stands in the place of the result of the act, is always there in the percept giving us our feel of the reality of the construct which is in any case to some degree hypothetical. Seeing is believing, but it is believing and it never passes out of the range of probability until it is supplemented by the Thomasian touch. Some imagery of the result which is the surrogate of this Thomasian touch conveys the assurance which goes with perception. We could not perceive an utterly novel object.

We may now return to the different forms of perspectives which the temporal nature of the act implies, and which justify its description as a collapsed act. In the organism 1 have spoken of these as attitudes or co-ordinations which in the higher centers of the central nervous system are the organizations of different responses that in their temporal succession will accomplish the act which a perception stands for, at least as a possibility. If they were taken in their severalty, each one would involve a different perspective, and we may so disengage them, for example, in the perception of the cliff to be scaled. The eye of the adept climber may take in the cliff with a glance that has in it different stages of the ascent. A careful survey will isolate each of these and place the alpinist in each critical spot, with the elevation which the cliff will present from that pied-a-terre, and his final grasp will group these in one map of his objective. It is this sort of mapping of his environment that goes on in the experience of the baby as it advances from reaching to creeping and from creeping to walking. Perception of the room means the slowly acquired collapsing of various separate excursions into charts of more elaborate undertakings.

As we have seen, this may come out in simple familiarity, and one may not perceive his room as a whole but go securely from

(135) clue to clue accomplishing his concatenated activities. It is fair to assume that this is the sort of landscape within which animals other than ourselves do live. The mark of the perception is that it carries contents which are not the immediate stimuli for the next step in the act but are occasions for other responses. These responses, in the first place, locate the object either as an objective toward or away from which motion is aroused or in its relationship to other objects which form the field within which such motion with reference to an objective takes place. That is, they form parts of a variously diversified landscape that is organized with reference to some actual or potential conduct. In the second place, in so far as this is possible, and in certain regions of stimulation this is only vaguely possible, we perceive objects as physical things, and this means that we perceive them in terms of contacts of the body, but more particularly in terms of the contacts of the hands. These responses give us the detailed dimensions of things, and they give them within the radius of our possible manipulation. In other words, they establish the absolute size of things as over against the relative deliverances of our distance experiences. The initiation of the attitudes of tactual response, particularly of manipulation, provides us with percepts which are physical things of certain dimensions and magnitudes.

We have traveled so far from infancy that it is with difficulty that we can get behind the tabula rasa doctrine of perception and regard percepts as more than sensa associated together with varying degrees of permanence. The difficulty is enhanced by the fact that we act so much in a field of a fifth dimension of the social symbol, the field of language, leaving action so largely to trained automatisms. Still it remains true not only that the world of physical things arises out of' locomotor responses to distance stimulation and our contact responses (especially of the hand) but also that it is just these varied possible responses which the physical thing holds in experience which offer the primitive logical field within which the social symbol can operate. The multitude of possible responses which constitute medi-

(136) -ate things that lie between our impulses and their consummations opens up the field of indication and reference out of which language can arise, though the two processes undoubtedly work together,

By placing the perception of physical things within the act, we find that such perception is not the final character in experience. This is commonly termed "consummation." The common illustration is that of eating. If we retreat to the dog, we must locate the analogue of the physical thing in his experience in the contacts of his jaws. In the act of eating we are not able to separate here the physical thing from the experience of satisfying the impulse. When the dog carries a stick or the bitch picks up a puppy, the beginnings of the experience of a physical thing can be detected, but the physical thing must play a vanishingly small part in the dog's experience. What calls for emphasis in this genetic approach is that the place in the act at which we must locate the experience of existence or reality practically vanishes. In the dog's experience hunger, fearing, anger, the sex and the parental impulses are present, and satisfactions and dissatisfactions, but there could be no mediate things that simply exist, that can lead to other things or to consummations, or any assurance of existence. There would be the unease and distress which belong to want, but no world within which the presence or absence of the object of desire could be placed. Consummation is satisfaction and, if you like, happiness, but in itself it is no assertion of the existence of the things enjoyed or of the enjoyment itself. Existence in the field of experience belongs to mediation, and mediation belongs to percepts in the sense in which we have presented them. The degree to which these things can enter into the experience of apes depends upon the degree of use to which the ape puts the objects of his manipulation. Kohler certainly found certain situations within which the beginnings of things could be located, but even here they must occupy an utterly insignificant part of the ape's experience.

There is another comment which this genetic approach calls

(137) out, and that is the enormous distance which the socializing of the human animal places between his things and the consummations to which they ultimately lead, on the one hand, and, on the other, the indirect relationship between the individual's own consummation and the things in their mediate sense with which he operates. A moment's comparison of human society and the society of the ants, termites, and bees perhaps brings out the import of the remark most clearly. In these societies the biological end is one that cannot be brought within the experience of the different individuals that make up the societies because these results are reached through physiological differentiation. There is one hymeneal flight, one insect that lays all the eggs; there are neuter forms that care for larvae, and fighting forms. What has made human society possible has been a co-operation through communication and participation. The very stimulus which one gives to another to carry out his part of the common act affects the individual who so affects the other in the same sense. He tends to arouse the activity in himself which he arouses in the other. He also can in some degree so place himself in the place of the other or the places of others that he can share their experience. Thus the varied means which belong to complicated human societies can in varied degrees enter into the experiences of many members, and the relationship between the means and the end can enter the experience of the individual, but notwithstanding this psychological apparatus of sociality the distance between means and ends in human life is enormous and is never completely overcome, and the operation of society is largely dependent upon a social differentiation which takes the place of the physiological differentiation of the insect, so that the individual end generally fails to expand through communication and participation into the social end which is the raison d'Ítre of the co-operative process. just this distance, however, and the effort to overcome it stimulate the logical and ethical processes involved in communication and participation.

It follows from what has been said that a physical thing as it

(138) exists in experience answers to an organization of attitudes. The physical thing itself has a certain structure which belongs to it in independence of the organism within which lies this organization of attitudes. A broken branch of a tree had a structure of its own before a primitive man seized it and by his use made a club of the broken branch, and the piece of flint had a certain density and friability in advance of its use as a knife. The woods and metals which we use in our elaborate manufactures have certain molecular and grosser structures which adapt them to our service before they enter into the world of human things.

The recognition of such structures in their independence of human utensils brings before us the question of organisms lower than animate forms and their relation to the world in which they exist. In Whitehead's definition any structure which is the seat of a process that reproduces a certain pattern is an organism if it requires a certain temporal stretch within which to be what it is. To such an organism, in Whitehead's terms, the world must be "patient." This is the condition of its continued existence. In other words, such an organism has an environment, and in the mutual adjustment of organism and its environment we may find a perspective. Whether Whitehead assumes that such an organism determines a time system and thus a "here and there, and a now and then" I am not sure, though this seems to me a logical conclusion of his position. The implications of Whitehead's doctrine, especially as interpreted in the note added to his second edition of the Principles of Natural Knowledge, is that what anything is, i.e., its substantiality, is to be found in a process, and the elements of the structure, such as the electrons, are abstractions from these processes. The element would then only be found in the momentary cross-section of a process, which Whitehead admits is only an ideal state which does not exist but is sought in thought as the limit of the process of extensive abstraction, for the purpose of the formulation of the exact laws of nature.

If this is a correct interpretation of Whitehead, the process

(139) within its "epoch" is the ultimate existent and constitutes the event. This event, however, in so far as it determines a "here-now," is conceived as at rest and I in that attitude would determine a time system. The "patience" of the world to the organism is found in this time system which includes all events in a duration. The difficulty that arises in this interpretation of Whitehead is bound up with his conception of ingression. The pattern of the process, which constitutes it what it is, has ingression into the event, i.e., the pattern must be conceived of in independence of the event. The event must be there in logical precedence to the pattern. This may be overcome by the reference of the patterns to a world of subsistence, the world of eternal objects, in Whitehead's nomenclature. Ingression in this case would be an abstraction which does not exist in nature.


  1. See A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, (1920), pp. 110-12.
  2. Ibid., pp. 154-55.

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