The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 10  Perceptual Error

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CONSTRUCTION of the object in a problematic situation takes place only in so far as the stimulus which called out the wrong response, or failed to call out the expected response, calls out a successful response within the field within which the corrected action goes on. This response may be only that of ignoring the stimulus, or it may be a response which is so interrelated with other responses that the results do not interfere with continued action. It may be a social response which implies an attitude of malice on the part of the thing, or it may become so elaborated that we state the error in terms of the mechanical world in which we state the successful stimulus. Thus the bent stick in the water is stated in terms of the theory of light by which we state also the relation of objects that call out anticipated responses. In the case of the social explanation, i.e., in the attitude of primitive man, things are en rapport with us as they are friendly or unfriendly. We explain the mistake by the hostility of things. This amounts to stating the world of things in terms of the responses by which the error is corrected, i.e., in terms of the reconstruction of the object which allows action to continue. A magic formula enables us to continue to act even with reference to things which do not react as they should. We avoid the hostile object and seek to render it innocuous by the use of a charm. But this is possible only if we act toward all the rest of the world as if it also were friendly or unfriendly to us. The logic of physical explanation is the same. The refraction of the light ray passing through water can be the nature of the bent stick only if we find in the other facts of vision an action of light rays through other media. This statement of the phenomena in the erroneous experience involves the statement of the self within which they are placed in the same terms. In the case of the primitive man the

(155) self is a being who is friendly or unfriendly toward the world about him, is in social relations with the world about him, and in social relations which must be acted on not only in irritation against what reacts wrongly but in constant maintenance of social connections with all things about him. This self which has in it attitudes and impulses which are counterparts of the hostile and friendly conduct of things is not the individual of immediate experience. In the self are imbedded the impulses, attitudes, memories, the social values, etc., which are not in immediate experience. The self is a social object like other social objects and is reconstructed like other objects in reflective experience. The individual is mistaken in himself as he is in others, and he states the conduct of others in terms of his own attitudes and responses. He is aware of others only in so far as they affect him. It is his own self that reflects others to him. Now there is the same break between the perceiving individual which experiences himself in relation to others and others in their relations to himself that exists between the perceiving individual and the physical organism with its physical environment. It is possible to state the whole process of mutual social stimulation and response, and still the being aware of what is taking place would not be a part of the process. In the same manner it is true that one can state the whole process of physical stimulation and response, and the so-called consciousness of this process would not be a part of the statement.

If one undertakes to introduce the consciousness of the process into the statement I in terms of the organism and its environment, one finds that this so-called consciousness also would be stated in neurological terms, while back of this neurological expression of being conscious would lie another state of consciousness of this that is going on in the system. So- called consciousness appears in experience when the social or physical individual appears as an object and exists for the perceiving individual. By a metaphysical tour de force the perceiving individual and the individual as object may be identified; but, if one has abandoned the tour de force de métaphysique, one must seek some other way of stating the relationship between the per-

(156) ceiving individual and one's physical or social self as an object. The psychologist has introduced the conception of parallelism to state, if not to account for, the situation. The process of explanation in this case is in terms of the errors of so-called sense perception. These errors refer to the indications that the contact experience called out by the distance experience would not be that which the initiated act calls for. The explanation sets up a mechanical world in which both the erroneous and the correct thing, and an individual in which both the futile and the appropriate response, have the same reality. This world is not the world within which the error has taken place, for in that world the error was not an error but an object. When an error becomes an error, abstraction is made from its former objective character, and the field is cleared for its explanation. Furthermore, the statement of the experience as an erroneous experience, in terms of its explanation, omits its objective character. The statement of the refracting medium, the rays of light, and the optic apparatus, which explains the bent stick in the water, is just as much a statement of the vision after one has learned the truth about it as it is of the experience before the error is recognized as such, that is, when the bent stick is a bent stick. The explanation of the error in further psychological terms, i.e., in terms of imagery and habitual response, does not present material which belongs to the perceiving individual. It, like the sensuous experiences, is referred to the self, i.e., to the individual as object to himself. All this material becomes subjective just in so far as its reference to the self makes possible the successful reconstruction of the fractured object.

While the metaphysical psychologist, perhaps unconsciously, is placing the occurrences in the central nervous system parallel to the experience of the perceiving individual, the actual parallelism lies between the neurological occurrences and experiences which are referred to the self in the social process of reflection. Thus the physical mechanism presents a series of phenomena that answer to the so-called sensations which are referred to the self as a social object.


The situation implied here can be best presented in a detailed analysis of an instance of perception.

The illustration already suggested is that of the recognition of error in the perception of the apparently bent stick in the water. This calls for the comparison of the stick as felt with its apparent bend as seen. The comparison is either between the anticipated bent contour and the felt contour or between the anticipated seen contour when grasping it in the water and its seen bent contour. It comes back, therefore, to a conflict between an image of the result of an act and the experienced result. There is a conflict because the experienced result calls out a different response from that which an object would have called out which was what the so-called image indicated. One acts in a different way toward a bent stick and a straight stick, in particular one acts differently toward a straight stick that can be depended upon to remain straight and one that treacherously becomes crooked when partially immersed in water. The immediate undertaking is to state the straight and the bent stick as one, in order that one may act with reference to it. This can be done only in so far as direct values for immediate experience are canceled and one can substitute for the stick of one's immediate vision an inferred object of molecular structure reflecting motions of ether that reach and influence the retinas of the eyes and so affect the central nervous system. From this standpoint the stick is the same, and its straightness and its crookedness are stated in the same terms, and one's reaction to these stimuli is stated in the same molecular terms. It is a method which inevitably puts the object and the perceiving individual in terms which are not and cannot be those of immediate experience. It leaves, therefore, the perceiving individual and his world on one side and the corresponding physical and so-called psychological states parallel to each other.

This perceiving individual and his world of immediate experience, however, is that in which this explanatory statement must find its test, if conduct is to go on. Both the physical and the psychical series are, however, referred to this individual of

(158) immediate experience, but they cannot be stated in terms of immediate experience.

The parallelism is an expression of the relation between the erroneous perception as a fact referred to the individual-the self-and that statement of the object which abstracts from the reaction that the character of the object demanded, e.g., reaching for the bent portion of the stick in the water, and could never lie between these series and the world of immediate experience; that is, when this is undertaken-when we state that the real world is the mechanical order of corpuscles plus the stream of consciousness of the self and that the world of immediate experience is found in the latter-clearly this is conceivable only for the observation of an individual in a world which is not itself the direct subject of observation. This is a recognition of the attitude of so-called common sense. The independent reality of the physical corpuscle and of the imagery, of significant symbols, and affective contents as contents of mind, pass into the full reality of immediate experience, and in that immediate experience these elements, into which the object was analyzed when conflicts arose in its meanings, lose their independent character. The world of immediate experience is not a permanent world, nor is the assurance that comes from the experimental test one which springs from the fitting-in of the hypothesis into a structure of experience which is unchanged. It is important to recognize that the value of the experimental test lies in the fitting-in of the hypothesis into the world of conduct the rendering of continued action possible. That such continued action implies some sort of order is no doubt true, but it is an order which may change. The world into which the hypothesis must fit is fixed in so far as the problem remains defined, but, with the change in the form of the problem or with the appearance of new problems, this world into which the hypothesis must fit changes; its permanence is relative to the immediate situation. In each situation the permanence of the world about the problem seems entirely permanent, except in so far as the problem seems to shift.


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