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From Process Studies, Vol. 21, Number 4, Winter 1992, 227-230. 

“Whitehead’s revolutionary thesis is that causal connection [in perception] takes place, not in virtue of the activity of the cause, but through the activity of the effect.  It cannot be the cause that is active, because at the crucial point in time, the activity of the cause is over and done with.  What is active is not the past, but the present actuality which is in process of becoming.”

Posted July 11, 2008


Whitehead’s Theory of Perception

D. L. C. Maclachlan


Near the beginning of Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead introduces the problem of perception in terms which would have seemed very natural in the era of Bertrand Russell and C. D. Broad and H. H. Price.

We look up and see a colored shape in front of us, and we say, “There is a chair.”  But what we have seen is the mere colored shape. . . .  [We] are very prone . . . to pass straight from the perception of the colored shape to the enjoyment of the chair, in some way of use, or of emotion, or of thought (S 2, 3).

The traditional problem is to explain the possibility and justification of this move, bearing in mind the errors and illusions which sometimes lead us astray.1

Many contemporary philosophers would refuse to read further, once they come upon the claim that what we see are mere colored shapes.  When they look at a chair, these philosophers do not see mere colored shapes, but the chair itself.  Whitehead, however, is trying to capture that phase of visual experience which intervenes between the stimulation of the senses and perception-based reports about the environment.  It is that experience which is identical when we see a collection of objects reflected in a mirror and a corresponding collection through an open window frame.

I am not suggesting that it makes no difference how you describe visual experience, so long as other people understand the mental state denoted.  On the contrary, a proper description is vitally important for theoretical purposes, since an inappropriate conceptualization may frustrate any explanation of the transition from the perceptual experience to justified claims about the external world.  This is why those who have recently revived the notion of visual experience, such as John Searle and Christopher Peacocke, have broken away from the traditional story about the awareness of visual sense-data, in favor of the view that perceptual experience has propositional content (Searle) or representational content (Peacocke).2

Describing visual experience as the seeing of sense-data suggests that beliefs about the external world must be reached by a process of inference. Whitehead soon reveals, however, that he is not in the grip of the inference model which his choice of words might suggest.  He considers it implausible to assume that a high-grade mental operation like inference is “required to get from the colored shape to the chair” (S 3).  The transition is so natural that it is not beyond the capacities of puppy dogs.  The perception of the colored shape must be transcended not only to make speeches about the world, but also to interact intelligently with the world in the light of our purposes.  The puppy has transcended his perception of colored shapes when he jumps upon the chair before his eyes.

The real question, however, is not whether we make the move from the awareness of sense-data to our knowledge of the external world by a process of inference, but how such a move is possible at all, whatever name we may give to the process.  The key to the solution, I think, is the recognition that the awareness of sense-data, although a genuine and conspicuous element in experience, does not exhaust the whole of our experience.  The contemplation of colored shapes is not an autonomous function of the human being, but occurs within the context of a rich mental life.  The focus on sense-data developed through the Cartesian program of finding a basis in clear and distinct ideas from which to demonstrate the existence of the physical world, thereby providing a conclusive answer to radical skepticism.  The irony is that the use of so narrow a basis, proving unsuccessful, feeds the very skepticism it was supposed to contain.  If our objective is not to demonstrate the external world, but to explain the grounds for our actual belief, it is legitimate to appeal to factors beyond the sense-data clearly and distinctly perceived.

This is precisely the strategy which Whitehead adopts.  The familiar immediate presentation of the contemporary world, which philosophers of the day described as the awareness of sense-data, is called by Whitehead “Experience in the Mode of Presentational Immediacy.”  But there is more to experience than presentational immediacy.

Presentational immediacy is possible, according to Whitehead, “by means of our projections of our immediate sensations, determining for us characteristics of contemporary physical entities” (S 13-14).  This is “a world decorated by sense-data dependent on the immediate states of relevant parts of our own bodies” (S 14).  Although Whitehead has talked about the “projection of our immediate sensations,” he soon explains that this is misleading. “There are no bare sensations which are first experienced and then ‘projected’ . . . onto the opposite wall as its color.  The projection is an integral part of the situation” (S 14).  Nor, in describing the situation, is it entirely appropriate to refer to the wall, since the term “wall,” in its usual meaning, introduces information not disclosed in pure presentational immediacy.  “This so-called ‘wall’ . . . contributes itself to our experience only under the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and combined with sense-data” (S 15).

The important point to notice is that the mode of presentational immediacy is not the mere enjoyment of sensations, but has a cognitive structure.  It is not at all like Hume’s bundle of impressions, but has much more in common with Kant’s faculty of outer sense.  Both presentational immediacy and outer intuition are cognitions, involving a relation to objects displayed in space.  Kant explains the possibility of this cognitive state by an appeal to a pure intuition which provides the required objective domain.  Corresponding to Kant’s pure intuition of space, Whitehead presupposes the perception of the contemporary world as extensive continuum.  How such a feat is possible is a very good question, since Whitehead rejects the Kantian tactic of grounding pure intuitions in forms of sensibility, together with the idealism which this entails.  But whatever explanation is given, some such immediate representation of a contemporary domain of space must be assumed, if we are to justify anything like our customary perceptual beliefs.  Even the standard inferential theory must have a place to put the inferred causes of our sense-data.

One obvious puzzle about presentational immediacy has to do with the ambiguous status of the sense-data.  On the one hand, the colors we experience appear to decorate external physical objects: but on the other hand, these colors are “dependent on the immediate states of relevant parts of our own bodies” (S 14).  Whitehead suggests that these colors “can with equal truth be described as our sensations or as the qualities of the actual things which we perceive” (S 21-22).  This permissive stance will satisfy both the learned and the vulgar, to use Hume’s terms.  It satisfies the vulgar, because it agrees with common sense that the colors we experience are properties of external things.  It satisfies the learned, because it agrees that the sensations experienced are the outcome of a process involving and conditioned by the sense organs and other physiological factors.  But how can Whitehead satisfy both parties at the same time without inconsistency?

Whitehead’s central disagreement with Kant, and with Hume, and with the whole tradition to which they belong, is that whatever account is given of presentational immediacy, it does not tell the whole story about experience through the senses.  When we reflect on experience, the consciousness of the vision-dominated display is so prominent that there is a temptation to suppose that this is it.  The crucial move in Whitehead’s theory of perception is to confront this temptation and challenge the exclusive claim of presentational immediacy to provide the sole basis for perceptual knowledge.

This brings us to the second fundamental mode of experience: the Mode of Causal Efficacy.  This is the more primitive form of experience and dominates primitive living organisms.  The introduction of this mode is an inevitable corollary of Whitehead’s fundamental metaphysical position.  For Whitehead, each actual entity emerges through a process of conformation to the settled data of its immediate past.  This process is that conditioning of the present by the past which we call causal efficacy. Whitehead’s revolutionary thesis is that causal connection takes place, not in virtue of the activity of the cause, but through the activity of the effect.  It cannot be the cause that is active, because at the crucial point in time, the activity of the cause is over and done with. What is active is not the past, but the present actuality which is in process of becoming.

If causal connection depends on the activity of the present, it is a short step to the position that causal connection is constituted through an act of experience of the past by the present.  This is perception in the mode of causal efficacy.  It is not just that, against Hume, we have an experience of causal connection: we have a form of experience which is causal connection.

As a component in our total experience, this primitive perception of the settled past may indeed enter into consciousness, and Whitehead believes that it does.  But the sense of the conformation of the present to the immediate past, however insistent, lacks the clarity and definition of presentational immediacy.  It is “heavy with the contact of things gone by, which lay their grip on our immediate selves” (S 44), but the world it presents is vague and undifferentiated.

The two pure perceptive modes have opposite strengths and weaknesses.  Causal efficacy is vague and unmanageable, whereas presentational immediacy provides us with a barren display.  Our cognitive development thus requires that integration of the two basic modes which Whitehead calls “symbolic reference.”  Symbolic reference has its vital importance, because “what we want to know about . . . chiefly resides in those aspects of the world disclosed in causal efficacy: . . . what we can distinctly register is chiefly to be found among the percepta in the mode of presentational immediacy” (PR 169).  Thus, the region of outer space decorated with grey sense-data in presentational immediacy becomes through symbolic reference the wall to which we refer in ordinary discourse, with its solid presence and causal powers.

This symbolic reference requires, for Whitehead, a common ground connecting the two pure modes of experience.  This common ground has two components, one of which is “a spatio-temporal system common to both” (S 53).  This system “is directly and distinctly perceived in presentational immediacy, and is indistinctly and indirectly perceived in causal efficacy” (PR 169).

The second component is constituted by the sensa, which have a function in both modes.  It is this dual function which explains the puzzling ambiguity described earlier.  The same visual sensum, for instance, may illustrate an object in a distant region of space, while being given to the subject through its ingredience in the bodily organs of sense.  Thus, a gray sensum, although given as characterizing an object in the visual field of presentational immediacy, is not given by that object.  It could not be given by that object.  Since object and subject are contemporary, they cannot sustain between them a relation of giving and receiving.  The grey sensum is given through the appropriate physiological processes in the body, in virtue of the stimulation of the eyes.  Through projection, it comes to decorate the contemporary world.  Finally, through symbolic reference, it is referred to more remote causes responsible for the physiological processes.

It is only through symbolic reference that perceptual error is introduced.  The two pure modes of perception consist in a direct recognition which cannot be mistaken.  Even in a so-called visual illusion, where, for instance, the space behind the mirror is illustrated in presentational immediacy, there is no mistake.  Error comes in through the interplay of the modes in symbolic reference.  Notice that such mistakes are not intellectual in character, since this type of symbolic reference does not involve the operation of thought.

Whitehead explains that the common ground which connects the two pure modes of perceptive experience is no accident.  “Presentational Immediacy,” he writes, “is an outgrowth from the complex datum implanted by causal efficacy” (PR 173).  This suggests to me an emendation of Whitehead’s theory.  Although there may be primitive actualities whose experience is completely in the mode of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy, when it occurs, always occurs, perhaps, embedded in a context of causal efficacy.  This means that no special act of symbolic reference is required to relate the content of presentational immediacy to the datum in causal efficacy.  The reference to this datum is built into the very construction of the immediate presentation.  The very function of the phase of presentational immediacy is to provide a representation or mapping of the datum, which is dimly discerned at the level of causal efficacy.  Thus, the notion of a pure mode of presentational immediacy is an abstraction, reached by deleting the symbolic reference to reality necessarily involved in presentational immediacy as it develops in ordinary experience.

I have a feeling that Whitehead would not be entirely unsympathetic to what I have been saying. He certainly concedes: “When human experience is in question ‘perception’ almost always means perception in the mixed mode of symbolic reference” (PR 168).  There are, I think, two reasons why Whitehead has presented his account of perception with a different emphasis.  One reason is that the picture of sense-datum awareness as an independent and isolated experience dominated thinking about perception at the time.  The other, deeper reason is the attempt to bring perception under the general theory of symbolism.  This may have distorted his account of the perceptual situation.

As elsewhere in this paper, I am no more than scratching the surface of a complex and difficult subject.  My hope is that this scratching may have turned up something of interest.



1 Whitehead concentrates on the sense of sight, which provides the most detailed information about distant objects, but would wish to extend his account, with suitable modifications, to other senses.

2 Cf. John Searle, Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), Chapter II, and Christopher Peacocke, Sense and Content (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), Chapter I.

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