Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI.: THE PERCEPTION OF RESISTANCE. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER XVI.: THE PERCEPTION OF RESISTANCE. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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THE PERCEPTION OF RESISTANCE.
§ 73. We may conclude, à priori, that of the various impressions received by consciousness, there must be some most general impression. The building up of our experiences into a complex structure, implies a fundamental experience on which the structure may rest. The great mass of our sensations, and of the perceptions we form out of them, being merely signs, there must be something which they are signs of; and this something, whatever be its special modifications, must have an essential element. By successive decompositions of our knowledge into simpler and simpler components, we must come at last to the simplest—to the ultimate material—to the substratum. What is this substratum? It is the impression of resistance. This is the primordial, the universal, the ever-present constituent of consciousness.
It is primordial, alike in the sense that it is an impression of which the lowest orders of living beings show themselves susceptible, and in the sense that it is the first species of impression received by the infant—alike in the sense that it is appreciated by the nerveless tissue of the zoophyte, and in the sense that it is presented in a vague manner, even to the nascent consciousness of the unborn child.
It is universal, both as being cognizable (using that word not in the human but in a wider sense) by every creature possessing any sensitiveness, and usually as being cognizable by all parts of the body of each—both as being common to all sensitive organisms, and in most cases as being common to their entire surfaces.
It is ever present, inasmuch as every creature, or at any rate every terrestrial creature, is subject to it during the whole of its existence. Excluding those lowest animals which make no visible response to external stimuli, and those which float passively suspended in the water, there are none but what have, at every moment of their lives, some impressions of resistance; proceeding either from the surfaces on which they rest, or the reaction of their members during locomotion, or both.
Thus, impressions of resistance, as being the earliest that are appreciated by the sensitive creation regarded as a progressive whole, and by every higher creature in the course of its evolutions; and as being appreciated by almost all parts of the body in the great majority of creatures; are necessarily the first materials put together in the genesis of intelligence. And as being the impressions continuously present in one form or other throughout life, they necessarily constitute that thread of consciousness on which all other impressions are strung—form, as it were, the weft of that tissue of thought which we are ever weaving.
But leaving general statements, let us go on to consider these truths somewhat in detail.
§ 74. That our perception of Body has for its ultimate elements impressions of resistance, is a conclusion to which all the foregoing analyses point. In the order of thought (and of any other order we can know nothing) resistance is the primary attribute of body; and extension is a secondary attribute. We know extension only through a combination of resistances: we know resistance immediately by itself. All space-attributes of body are unknowable save by synthesis; while this primordial attribute is knowable without synthesis. Again, a thing cannot be thought of as occupying space, except as offering resistance. Even though but a point in space, if it be conceived to offer absolutely no resistance, it ceases to be anything—becomes no-thing. Resistance is that by which occupied extension (body) and empty extension (space) are differentiated. And the primary property of body, considered as a different thing from not-body, must be that by which it is universally distinguished from not-body: namely resistance. Moreover, it is by resistance we determine whether any appearance is body or not. Resistance without appearance, we decide to be body; as when striking against any object in the dark. Appearance without resistance, we decide not to be body; as in the case of optical illusions. Once more there is a thing which we know to be body only by its resistance; namely, air. We should be ignorant that there was such a thing as air, were it not for its resistance. And we endow it with extension by an act of pure inference. Thus, not only is it that body is primarily known as resistant, and that subsequently, through a combination of resistances, it is known as occupying space, but it is that there is one kind of body which presents to our senses no other attribute than that of resistance.
That our cognition of Space can arise only through an interpretation of resistances, is an obvious corollary from preceding chapters. As was shown, the ultimate element into which our notion of Space is resolvable, is that of the relation between two coexistent positions. And that such two coexistent positions may be presented to our consciousness, it is necessary that they should be occupied by something capable of impressing our organism; that is—by something resistant. As admitted on all hands, Space, in itself, having no sensible properties, would be for ever unknowable to us did it not contain objects. Even Kantists do not contend that it is knowable by itself; but say that our experiences of things are the occasions of its presentation to us. And as all our experiences of things are ultimately resolvable into experiences of resistance—are all either resistances or the signs of resistances; it follows that on any hypothesis, Space is cognizable only through experience of resistances.
Similarly with Motion. As was shown in the last chapter, subjective motion is primarily known to us as a varying series of states of muscular tension; that is—sensations of resistance. The series of tactual sensations through which it is otherwise known, are sensations produced by something that resists. And when, ultimately, objective motion comes to be recognized by sight, it is recognized as a phenomenon equivalent to those previously known through the muscular and visual sensations conjoined; as when we move our own limbs within view of the eyes. So that, abstracting all the elements we afterwards add to it, motion is originally the generalization of a certain order of resistances.
Our notion of Force, also, has a parallel genesis. It is not simply that in science and the arts, resistance, as ascribed by us to objects, is used to measure motive force, and is therefore conceived by us as an equivalent force; but it is that resistance, as known subjectively in our sensations of muscular tension, forms the substance of our conception of force. That we have such a conception, is a fact that no metaphysical quibbling can set aside. That we must necessarily think of force in terms of our experience—must construct our conception of it out of the sensations we have received, is also beyond question. That we have never had, and never can have, any experience of the force by which objects produce changes in other objects, but that we can never immediately know these changes as anything more than antecedent and consequent phenomena, is equally indisputable. And that therefore, our notion of force is a generalization of those muscular sensations which we have when we are ourselves the producers of change in outward things, is an unavoidable corollary. How we are necessarily led to ascribe force, as thus conceived, to all external workers of change, is readily shown. We find that the same sensible effects are produced when body strikes against us, as when we strike against body. Hence we are obliged to represent to ourselves the action of body upon us as like our action upon it. And the sensible antecedent of our action upon body being the feeling of muscular tension, we cannot conceive its action upon us as of like nature, without vaguely thinking of this muscular tension, that is, of force, as the antecedent of its action.
Thus, Matter, Space, Motion, Force—all our fundamental ideas, arise by generalization and abstraction from our experiences of resistance. Nor shall we see in this anything strange, if we do but contemplate, under its simplest aspect, the relation between the organism and its environment. Here is a subject placed in the midst of objects. It can learn nothing of them without being affected by them. Being affected by them implies some action produced by them upon its surface. Their action must be either action by direct contact, or by the contact of something emanating from them. In virtue of the law of gravitation, their primary and most continuous action is by direct contact. In the nature of things, also, their all-important actions, both destructive and preservative—through enemies and through food—are by direct contact. Hence, action by direct contact, being the primary action, the ever-present action, the all-important action, and at the same time the simplest and most definite action, becomes the action of which all other kinds of action are representative. And the sensation of resistance, through which this fundamental action is known, becomes, as it were, the mother-tongue of thought, in which all the first cognitions are registered, and into which all symbols afterwards learnt are interpretable.
§ 75. The matter will be further elucidated, and this last position especially confirmed, on observing that all the sensations through which the external world becomes known to us, are explicable by us only as resulting from certain forms of force. As already shown (§ 50) the so-called secondary attributes of body are dynamical. Science determines them to be the manifestations of certain energies possessed by matter; and even when not scientifically analyzed, they are spoken of as implying the actions of things upon us. But we cannot think of the actions of things upon us, except by ascribing to them powers or forces. These powers or forces must be presented to our minds in terms of our experience. And, as above shown, our only experience of force is the muscular tension which we feel when overcoming force: this constitutes our consciousness of force, and our measure of force. Hence, not only is it that our experiences of resistance form the elementary material of thought, alike as being earliest, as being ever present, and as underlying our fundamental ideas; not only is it that our other experiences are employed by us as the representatives of these elementary experiences; but it is that we cannot understand these other experiences except by translating them into terms derived from the elementary experiences.
An extremely important fact to be here noticed, as further illustrating the same truth, is, that resistance, as disclosed to us by opposition to our own energies, is the only species of external activity which we are obliged to think of as subjectively and objectively the same. We are disabled from conceiving mechanical force in itself, as differing from mechanical force as presented to our consciousness. The axiom—“Action and reaction are equal, and in opposite directions,” applied as it is not only to the action of objects upon each other, but to our action upon them and their action upon us, implies a conception of the two forces as equivalent, both in quantity and nature; seeing that we cannot conceive a relation of equality between magnitudes that are not connatural. How happens it, then, that in this case alone we are compelled to think of the objective force as like the force which we feel? Sound, we can very well conceive as consisting in itself of vibrations, having no likeness whatever to the sensation they produce in us. The impressions we have of colour, can, without much difficulty, be understood as purely subjective effects resulting from an objective activity to which they have not even a distant analogy. And similarly with the phenomena of heat, smell, and taste. Why, then, can we not represent to ourselves the force with which a body resists our efforts to move it, as a something quite unlike the feeling of muscular tension which its resistance gives us? There is an all-sufficient reason. It is not simply that whether we strike or are struck, the sound, the indentation, the sensations of touch, pressure, and pain, are of the same kind; nor is it that we can make the force which is known to our consciousness as muscular tension, produce an effect like that produced by an external body—as when, taking one of the weights out of a pair of scales in equilibrium, we raise the antagonist weight by pressing down the empty scale with the hand; nor is it that we can store up our own force in objects, and make them afterwards expend it in producing results such as it would have directly produced—as when we strain a bow and let its recoil propel the arrow; but it is that there exists no alternative mode of representing this force to consciousness—no other experience, or combination of experiences, by which we can figure it to our minds. Saying nothing of the various facts which, like those just instanced, strengthen the idea of sameness between muscular effort in the subject and mechanical power in the object; our inability to conceive this mechanical power as being in itself different from what we feel it to be in our muscular efforts, is primarily due to the circumstance that there is no feeling, no impression, no mode of consciousness, which we can substitute for this primordial mode. The liberty which we have to think of light, heat, sound, &c., as in themselves different from our sensations of them, arises solely from this; that we possess other sensations by which to symbolize them—namely, those of mechanical force: and it needs but to glance at any theory of objective light, heat, sound, &c., to see that we do think of them in terms of mechanical force; that is, in terms of our muscular sensations. But if we attempt to think of mechanical force as in itself different from our impression of it, there arises the insurmountable difficulty that there is no remaining species of impression to represent it. All other experiences being expressed to the mind in terms of this experience, this experience cannot be expressed to the mind in any terms but its own. To be conceived at all, mechanical force must be represented in some state of consciousness. This state of consciousness must be one directly or indirectly resulting from the action of things upon us. The states of consciousness produced by all other actions than mechanical action, we already represent to our minds in states such as those produced by mechanical action. There remains, therefore, no available state of consciousness save that produced by mechanical action. And hence it is impossible for us to represent mechanical action to ourselves, in any other state of consciousness than that which it produces in us—it is impossible for us to think of objective force as different from our subjective experience of it. Though the proposition that they do differ is verbally intelligible, it is absolutely inconceivable, and must ever remain so.
§ 76. Having thus seen that the perception of resistance is fundamental, alike in respect of genesis, in respect of universality, and in respect of continuity; and that as a consequence it is also fundamental in the sense of being the perception into which all other perceptions are interpretable, while itself interpretable into none; we may proceed to consider it analytically.
As shown when treating of the statico-dynamical attributes of body, the sensations concerned in our various perceptions of resistance, are those of touch proper, pressure, and muscular tension, either uniform or changing. The sensation of touch proper cannot be considered as in itself giving an immediate knowledge of resistance; but is simply the sign of something capable of resisting. When the contact is so gentle as to produce no feeling of pressure, it cannot be said whether the object is soft or hard, large or small. It is simply inferred that there is something: just as it would have been had a sensation of sound or colour been received. Hence the sensation of touch proper may be left out of the inquiry.
Our knowledge of resistance, then, is gained through the sensations of pressure and muscular tension. These may occur separately. When our bodies are inactive, save in the sense of being gravitative and resistant masses of matter, we have the sensation of pressure only—either from the reaction of the surface on which we rest; or from the action of a weight placed upon us; or from both. When, as a consequence of some volition, we bring our forces to bear upon outward objects—when our bodies are active and objects are reactive—we have coexistent sensations of pressure and muscular tension. And when, as on raising the arm into a horizontal position, the bodily action is such as to call forth no direct reaction from objects, we experience the sensation of muscular tension alone. Now the fact to be here more particularly noticed, is, that whenever the sensations of pressure and muscular tension coexist, they always, other things equal, vary together. Now that I am holding my pen gently between the fore-finger and thumb, I have a very slight sensation of pressure and a very slight sensation of muscular tension. If I grasp the pen hard, both sensations increase in intensity; and I find that I cannot change one without changing the other. The like relation is observable on raising light and heavy weights; or on thrusting against small and large objects. Hence it results that these sensations become known to consciousness as equivalents. A given sensation of pressure, is thinkable as tantamount to a certain sensation of muscular tension; and vice versâ. And now there arises the inquiry—which of these two is habitually used in thought as the sign, and which as the thing signified?
In point of time the two are co-ordinate. Not only from the very first, does the infant experience the reaction upon consciousness accompanying the action of its own muscles; but from the very first, it has sensations of pressure from the surfaces on which it rests, and from the hands that lay hold of it. But though equally early, and as it would seem, equally fundamental, it may be readily proved that in the order of constructive thought, the sensation of muscular tension is primary, and that of pressure secondary. This will be made tolerably manifest by the simple consideration, that these sensations of pressure caused by the weight of the body and the actions of the nurse, can at first give no notions of what we understand as resistance or force; seeing that before they can give such notions, there must exist ideas of weight and of objective action. Originally these sensations of pressure which the infant passively receives, being unconnected in experience with definite antecedents and consequents, are as isolated and meaningless as sensations of sound or odour. Not to dwell upon this fact however, further than to point out that the involuntarily-produced sensations of pressure may be left out of the question, let us, in the first place, go on to observe that the voluntarily-produced sensations of pressure are second in order of time to the sensations of muscular tension. Before the infant can experience the feelings which neighbouring objects give to its moving limbs and fingers, it must first experience the feelings that accompany the motion of its limbs and fingers. In the second place let it be observed, that the muscular sensations are more general than the voluntarily-produced sensations of pressure; seeing that while these last occur only when the energies are employed upon external bodies, the first occur both when the energies are thus employed, and when they are employed in moving and holding up the limbs themselves. Let it be observed in the third place, that while only some of the sensations of pressure are voluntarily produced, all the sensations of muscular tension are voluntarily produced. And let it once more be observed, that when both are voluntarily-produced—as when some object is grasped, or lifted, or thrust against—the muscular sensation is always present to consciousness as the antecedent, and the sensation of pressure as the consequent; and that any variation in the last, is known as resulting from a variation in the first. Among the intelligible experiences of the infant, therefore, the sensation of muscular tension, being alike the earliest, the most general, and that which stands in the position of immediate antecedent to the sensation of pressure, whenever the origin of that sensation is known, is necessarily the sensation in which all experiences of resistance are registered and thought of. Hence the reason why, when anything pushes against us, we do not represent its force to our minds in terms of the pressure experienced; but in terms of the effort which that pressure signifies. Hence the fact that when the weight of an object is spoken of, we do not think of the intensity of the tactile impression which results on lifting it; but of the intensity of the accompanying muscular strain.
That the cognition of resistance is finally resolvable into that of muscular tension, and that this forms the raw material of thought in its earliest forms, will be most clearly seen on considering that at first it forms the only available measure of external phenomena. The acquisition of knowledge is from the beginning experimental. Were the infant to remain passive in the midst of surrounding objects, it could never arrive at a comprehension of them. It can arrive at a comprehension of them, only by active exploration. But what is the condition under which alone such an exploration will answer its end? How can the properties of things be compared, and estimated, and classified? By means of some common measure already possessed. The infant's only mode of determining the amounts of external activities, is, by ascertaining how much of its own activity they are severally equivalent to. As inanimate objects cannot act upon it in such way as to disclose their properties, it must call out their reactions by acting upon them: and to become cognizant of these reactions, implies some scale of action in itself. This scale of action must underlie the whole structure of its experiences—must be the substratum of its thoughts—must be that mode of consciousness to which all other modes are ultimately reducible. Thus then, the sense of muscular tension, of which this scale is constituted, forms, in the nature of things, the primitive element in our intelligence.
§ 77. Respecting the perception of resistance, that is of muscular tension, it has still to be pointed out that it consists in the establishment of a relation of coexistence between the muscular sensation itself and that particular state of consciousness which we call will. That the muscular sensation alone, does not constitute a perception of resistance, will be seen on remembering that we receive from a tired muscle, a feeling nearly allied to, if not identical with, that which we receive from a muscle in action; and that yet this feeling, being unconnected with any act of volition, does not give any notion of resistance.
To which there is only to add, that in the act of perception, this relation is classed with the like foreknown relations; and that in so classing it, consists the knowledge of the special muscular combination, adjustment, and degree of force exercised.