Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: THE PERCEPTION OF SPECIAL OBJECTS. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER IX.: THE PERCEPTION OF SPECIAL OBJECTS. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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THE PERCEPTION OF SPECIAL OBJECTS.
§ 46. The several mental processes treated of in the last chapter, must be briefly glanced at under their obverse aspect. We analysed Classification and Recognition as particular forms of the act by which surrounding things become known to consciousness. It remains to be pointed out that surrounding things can become known to consciousness, only by acts of Classification or Recognition. Every perception of an external body involves a presentation of it to the mind as such or such—as a something more or less specific; and this implies, either the identification of it as a particular thing, or the ranging of it with certain like things. As there can be no Classification or Recognition of objects without Perception of them; so there can be no Perception of them without Classification or Recognition. Every complete act of perception implies an expressed or unexpressed “assertory judgment”—a predication respecting the nature of the perceived entity; and as is generally admitted, the saying what a thing is, is the saying what it is like—what class it belongs to. The same object may, according as the distance or the degree of light permits, be identified as a particular negro; or more generally as a negro; or more generally still as a man; or yet more generally as some living creature; or most generally as a solid body: in each of which cases the implication is, that the present impression is like a certain order of past impressions. The instances in which, from mental distraction, we go on searching for something we have in our hands, or overlook that which is directly under our eyes, clearly show that the mere passive reception of the visual image or group of sensations produced by an object, does not constitute a perception of it. A perception of it can arise only when the group of sensations is consciously co-ordinated and their meaning understood. And as their meaning can be understood only in virtue of those past experiences in which similar groups have been found to imply such and such facts; it is clear that the understanding of them—the act of perception, involves the assimilation of them to those similar groups—involves the thinking of them as like those groups, and as having like accompaniments. The perception of any object, therefore, is impossible save under the form either of Recognition or Classification.
The only qualification of this statement, that may seem in strictness required, concerns cases in which some species of thing is presented to consciousness for the first time—cases, therefore, in which a thing is known not as like, but as unlike, the things previously known. Though, however, it may appear that there is here no Classification—seeing that there exists no previously-formed class—further consideration will show that there is a classification of a general, though not of a special kind. Suppose the object to be a new animal. Though in the act of perception it may not be thought of under the class, mammals, or the class, birds; it is still thought of under the class living beings. Suppose there is doubt whether the object is animate or inanimate. It is nevertheless, perceived as a solid body, and classed as such. The primary act then, is still a cognition of likeness of a more or less general kind; though there may subsequently arise a cognition of a subordinate unlikeness to all before-known things. Whether this law holds when we descend to the simplest kinds of cognition, it would be premature here to inquire; for at present we have to do only with those more complex cognitions, by which surrounding objects are severally distinguished in their totality. To cover all possible criticisms, however, the statement may be qualified by saying, that a special perception is possible, only as an intuition of the likeness or unlikeness of certain present attributes and relations, to certain past attributes and relations.
§ 47. It requires further to be observed, that the perception by which any object is known as such or such, is always what is called an acquired perception. The truth exhibited at length in the last chapter—that Classification and Recognition are inferential acts—is even deducible from the current theory that inferences are implied in the interpretation of every group of sensations. All psychologists concur in the doctrine that most of the elements which go to make up the cognition of an observed object, are not known immediately through the senses, but are mediately known by an instantaneous and unconscious ratiocination. Before a mere visual impression can be developed into a perception of the thing causing it, there must be added in thought those attributes of solidity, trinal extension, size, quality of surface, &c. &c., which when united, constitute the nature of the thing as it is known to us. Though these seem to be given in the visual impression, it is demonstrable that they are not so; but have to be reached by inference. And the act of knowing them is termed acquired perception, to signify the fact that whilst really mediate, it appears to be immediate.
Not only, however, do the Classification and Recognition of individual objects imply acquired perceptions; but acquired perceptions are implied in the Classification and Recognition of those various actions and changes which objects exhibit. If an adjacent person at whose back we are looking, suddenly turns half round; the only thing immediately known is the sudden change in the character of the visual impression. Standing alone this change has no meaning; and comes to have one, only when by accumulated experiences it is found, that all such changes are accompanied by alterations in the relative positions of the parts, as ascertained by touch. We do not see the turning: we infer the turning. We conceive a certain relation between visual and mechanical changes like the numberless previously experienced relations; we classify the present relation with a series of past relations; and we signify it by a word like the words used to signify those past relations. The visible transformation which a piece of melting lead undergoes, can convey no knowledge, unless it is before known that certain appearances always coexist with fluidity. And what seems to be a perception of the melting is, in reality, a rational interpretation of the appearances—a classing of them with the like appearances before known, and an assumption that they stand towards certain mechanical phenomena in relations parallel to the before-known ones. Endless illustrations to the same effect might be cited; but the above will suffice to indicate that those apparently simple though really complex cognitions, by which we guide ourselves from moment to moment, in the house and in the street—cognitions which chase each other through consciousness too rapidly even for enumeration—are all of them acquired perceptions; all of them involve the classification or recognition of attributes, groups of related attributes, and the relations between such groups; all of them embody inferences; all of them imply intuitions of likeness or unlikeness of relations.
§ 48. And here we see again illustrated, the fact, that the divisions we make between the various mental processes have merely a superficial truth. At the conclusion of Chapter VII. Reasoning was defined as the indirect establishment of a definite relation between two things; in contrast to Perception, in which the relation is established directly. But now we find that all those Perceptions by which complex objects become specifically known to us, also involve the indirect establishment of relations. Though, if uncritically received, the verdict of consciousness would seem to be, that on contemplating the lights and shades and perspective outlines of a building, the fact that it is a solid body is immediately known; yet analysis proves that its solidity is known mediately. And this analysis is fully confirmed by the stereoscope, which, by simulating the evidence of solidity, induces us to conceive as solid, that which is not solid. It would appear, therefore, that practically, the indirect is merged into the direct by long-continued habit. Just as the meaning of a word in a new language, though at first remembered only by the intermediation of the equivalent word in a known language, by and by comes to be remembered without this intermediation; so, by constant repetition, the process of interpreting our sensations becomes so rapid, that we appear to pass directly to the facts which they imply. Still more manifest will appear the purely relative truth of this division, when it is observed, not only that what are known to be indirect cognitions become direct by habit, but that what seem unquestionably direct cognitions are united by insensible gradations with indirect ones. Thus, if I stand a hundred yards from the front of a house, the shape of that front seems to be known immediately: the relations of the parts are all directly presented to consciousness: nothing is inferred. But if I stand within a yard of the front and look up at it, the outlines, as then presented to my eye, are not in the least like those seen from a distance; and any conception which I may now form of the shape of the front, must be inferred from the greatly distorted outlines I see. Yet between a hundred yards and one yard, there are ten thousand points from which may be had as many views, each differing inappreciably from its neighbours. Evidently, then, the transition from the directly perceived shape to the indirectly perceived shape is insensible. And when to facts of this kind, we add the familiar fact that in reasoning we constantly skip the intermediate steps of an habitual argument, and pass at once from the premisses to a remotely involved conclusion—when we thus see that in conscious reasoning also, the tendency is for indirect processes to become more and more direct; it becomes manifest that from the most elaborate demonstration, down to the simplest intuition, the directness or indirectness with which the relation is established, is wholly a matter of degree; that the extremes are united by a series of insensible transitions; and that thus it is only relatively, and not absolutely, that Reasoning is distinguished from Perception by its indirectness.