But presently the light of the star reaches our atmosphere. It begins to be refracted, and dimmed by mist, and its velocity is slightly diminished. At last it reaches a human eye, where a complicated process takes place, ending in a sensation which gives us our grounds for believing in all that has gone before. Now, the irregular appearances of the star are not, strictly speaking, members of the system which is the star, according to our definition of matter. The irregular appearances, however, are not merely irregular: they proceed according to laws which can be stated in terms of the matter through which the light has passed on its way. The sources of an irregular appearance are therefore twofold:
(1) The object which is appearing irregularly;
2) The intervening medium.
It should be observed that, while the conception of a regular appearance is perfectly precise, the conception of an irregular appearance is one capable of any degree of vagueness. When the distorting influence of the medium is sufficiently great, the resulting particular can no longer be regarded as an appearance of an object, but must be treated on its own account. This happens especially when the particular in question cannot be traced back to one object, but is a blend of two or more. This case is normal in perception: we see as one what the microscope or telescope reveals to be many different objects. The notion of perception is therefore not a precise one: we perceive things more or less, but always with a very considerable amount of vagueness and confusion.
In considering irregular appearances, there are certain very natural mistakes which must be avoided. In order that a particular may count as an irregular appearance of a certain object, it is not necessary that it should bear any resemblance to the regular appearances as regard its intrinsic qualities. All that is necessary is that it should be derivable from the regular appearances by the laws which express the distorting influence of the medium. When it is so derivable, the particular in question may be regarded as caused by the regular appearances, and therefore by the object itself, together with the modifications resulting from the medium. In other cases, the particular in question may, in the same sense, be regarded as caused by several objects together with the medium; in this case, it may be called a confused appearance of several objects. If it happens to be in a brain, it may be called a confused perception of these objects. All actual perception is confused to a greater or less extent.
We can now interpret in terms of our theory the distinction between those mental occurrences which are said to have an external stimulus, and those which are said to be “centrally excited,” i.e. to have no stimulus external to the brain. When a mental occurrence can be regarded as an appearance of an object external to the brain, however irregular, or even as a confused appearance of several such objects, then we may regard it as having for its stimulus the object or objects in question, or their appearances at the sense-organ concerned. When, on the other hand, a mental occurrence has not sufficient connection with objects external to the brain to be regarded as an appearance of such objects, then its physical causation (if any) will have to be sought in the brain. In the former case it can be called a perception; in the latter it cannot be so called. But the distinction is one of degree, not of kind. Until this is realized, no satisfactory theory of perception, sensation, or imagination is possible.
LECTURE VIII. SENSATIONS AND IMAGES
The dualism of mind and matter, if we have been right so far, cannot be allowed as metaphysically valid. Nevertheless, we seem to find a certain dualism, perhaps not ultimate, within the world as we observe it. The dualism is not primarily as to the stuff of the world, but as to causal laws. On this subject we may again quote William James. He points out that when, as we say, we merely “imagine” things, there are no such effects as would ensue if the things were what we call “real.” He takes the case of imagining a fire
“I make for myself an experience of blazing fire; I place it near my body; but it does not warm me in the least. I lay a stick upon it and the stick either burns or remains green, as I please. I call up water, and pour it on the fire, and absolutely no difference ensues. I account for all such facts by calling this whole train of experiences unreal, a mental train. Mental fire is what won’t burn real sticks; mental water is what won’t necessarily (though of course it may) put out even a mental fire…. With ‘real’ objects, on the contrary, consequences always accrue; and thus the real experiences get sifted from the mental ones, the things from our thoughts of them, fanciful or true, and precipitated together as the stable part of the whole experience–chaos, under the name of the physical world.”*
* “Essays in Radical Empiricism,” pp. 32-3.
In this passage James speaks, by mere inadvertence, as though the phenomena which he is describing as “mental” had NO effects. This is, of course, not the case: they have their effects, just as much as physical phenomena do, but their effects follow different laws. For example, dreams, as Freud has shown, are just as much subject to laws as are the motions of the planets. But the laws are different: in a dream you may be transported from one place to another in a moment, or one person may turn into another under your eyes. Such differences compel you to distinguish the world of dreams from the physical world.
If the two sorts of causal laws could be sharply distinguished, we could call an occurrence “physical” when it obeys causal laws appropriate to the physical world, and “mental” when it obeys causal laws appropriate to the mental world. Since the mental world and the physical world interact, there would be a boundary between the two: there would be events which would have physical causes and mental effects, while there would be others which would have mental causes and physical effects. Those that have physical causes and mental effects we should define as “sensations.” Those that have mental causes and physical effects might perhaps be identified with what we call voluntary movements; but they do not concern us at present.
These definitions would have all the precision that could be desired if the distinction between physical and psychological causation were clear and sharp. As a matter of fact, however, this distinction is, as yet, by no means sharp. It is possible that, with fuller knowledge, it will be found to be no more ultimate than the distinction between the laws of gases and the laws of rigid bodies. It also suffers from the fact that an event may be an effect of several causes according to several causal laws we cannot, in general, point to anything unique as THE cause of such-and-such an event. And finally it is by no means certain that the peculiar causal laws which govern mental events are not really physiological. The law of habit, which is one of the most distinctive, may be fully explicable in terms of the peculiarities of nervous tissue, and these peculiarities, in turn, may be explicable by the laws of physics. It seems, therefore, that we are driven to a different kind of definition. It is for this reason that it was necessary to develop the definition of perception. With this definition, we can define a sensation as the non-mnemic elements in a perception.
When, following our definition, we try to decide what elements in our experience are of the nature of sensations, we find more difficulty than might have been expected. Prima facie, everything is sensation that comes to us through the senses: the sights we see, the sounds we hear, the smells we smell, and so on; also such things as headache or the feeling of muscular strain. But in actual fact so much interpretation, so much of habitual correlation, is mixed with all such experiences, that the core of pure sensation is only to be extracted by careful investigation. To take a simple illustration: if you go to the theatre in your own country, you seem to hear equally well in the stalls or the dress circle; in either case you think you miss nothing. But if you go in a foreign country where you have a fair knowledge of the language, you will seem to have grown partially deaf, and you will find it necessary to be much nearer the stage than you would need to be in your own country. The reason is that, in hearing our own language spoken, we quickly and unconsciously fill out what we really hear with inferences to what the man must be saying, and we never realize that we have not heard the words we have merely inferred. In a foreign language, these inferences are more difficult, and we are more dependent upon actual sensation. If we found ourselves in a foreign world, where tables looked like cushions and cushions like tables, we should similarly discover how much of what we think we see is really inference. Every fairly familiar sensation is to us a sign of the things that usually go with it, and many of these things will seem to form part of the sensation. I remember in the early days of motor-cars being with a friend when a tyre burst with a loud report. He thought it was a pistol, and supported his opinion by maintaining that he had seen the flash. But of course there had been no flash. Nowadays no one sees a flash when a tyre bursts.
In order, therefore, to arrive at what really is sensation in an occurrence which, at first sight, seems to contain nothing else, we have to pare away all that is due to habit or expectation or interpretation. This is a matter for the psychologist, and by no means an easy matter. For our purposes, it is not important to determine what exactly is the sensational core in any case; it is only important to notice that there certainly is a sensational core, since habit, expectation and interpretation are diversely aroused on diverse occasions, and the diversity is clearly due to differences in what is presented to the senses. When you open your newspaper in the morning, the actual sensations of seeing the print form a very minute part of what goes on in you, but they are the starting-point of all the rest, and it is through them that the newspaper is a means of information or mis-information. Thus, although it may be difficult to determine what exactly is sensation in any given experience, it is clear that there is sensation, unless, like Leibniz, we deny all action of the outer world upon us.
Sensations are obviously the source of our knowledge of the world, including our own body. It might seem natural to regard a sensation as itself a cognition, and until lately I did so regard it. When, say, I see a person I know coming towards me in the street, it SEEMS as though the mere seeing were knowledge. It is of course undeniable that knowledge comes THROUGH the seeing, but I think it is a mistake to regard the mere seeing itself as knowledge. If we are so to regard it, we must distinguish the seeing from what is seen: we must say that, when we see a patch of colour of a certain shape, the patch of colour is one thing and our seeing of it is another. This view, however, demands the admission of the subject, or act, in the sense discussed in our first lecture. If there is a subject, it can have a relation to the patch of colour, namely, the sort of relation which we might call awareness. In that case the sensation, as a mental event, will consist of awareness of the colour, while the colour itself will remain wholly physical, and may be called the sense-datum, to distinguish it from the sensation. The subject, however, appears to be a logical fiction, like mathematical points and instants. It is introduced, not because observation reveals it, but because it is linguistically convenient and apparently demanded by grammar. Nominal entities of this sort may or may not exist, but there is no good ground for assuming that they do. The functions that they appear to perform can always be performed by classes or series or other logical constructions, consisting of less dubious entities. If we are to avoid a perfectly gratuitous assumption, we must dispense with the subject as one of the actual ingredients of the world. But when we do this, the possibility of distinguishing the sensation from the sense-datum vanishes; at least I see no way of preserving the distinction. Accordingly the sensation that we have when we see a patch of colour simply is that patch of colour, an actual constituent of the physical world, and part of what physics is concerned with. A patch of colour is certainly not knowledge, and therefore we cannot say that pure sensation is cognitive. Through its psychological effects, it is the cause of cognitions, partly by being itself a sign of things that are correlated with it, as e.g. sensations of sight and touch are correlated, and partly by giving rise to images and memories after the sensation is faded. But in itself the pure sensation is not cognitive.
In the first lecture we considered the view of Brentano, that “we may define psychical phenomena by saying that they are phenomena which intentionally contain an object.” We saw reasons to reject this view in general; we are now concerned to show that it must be rejected in the particular case of sensations. The kind of argument which formerly made me accept Brentano’s view in this case was exceedingly simple. When I see a patch of colour, it seemed to me that the colour is not psychical, but physical, while my seeing is not physical, but psychical. Hence I concluded that the colour is something other than my seeing of the colour. This argument, to me historically, was directed against idealism: the emphatic part of it was the assertion that the colour is physical, not psychical. I shall not trouble you now with the grounds for holding as against Berkeley that the patch of colour is physical; I have set them forth before, and I see no reason to modify them. But it does not follow that the patch of colour is not also psychical, unless we assume that the physical and the psychical cannot overlap, which I no longer consider a valid assumption. If we admit–as I think we should–that the patch of colour may be both physical and psychical, the reason for distinguishing the sense-datum from the sensation disappears, and we may say that the patch of colour and our sensation in seeing it are identical.
This is the view of William James, Professor Dewey, and the American realists. Perceptions, says Professor Dewey, are not per se cases of knowledge, but simply natural events with no more knowledge status than (say) a shower. “Let them [the realists] try the experiment of conceiving perceptions as pure natural events, not cases of awareness or apprehension, and they will be surprised to see how little they miss.”* I think he is right in this, except in supposing that the realists will be surprised. Many of them already hold the view he is advocating, and others are very sympathetic to it. At any rate, it is the view which I shall adopt in these lectures.
* Dewey, “Essays in Experimental Logic,” pp. 253, 262.
The stuff of the world, so far as we have experience of it, consists, on the view that I am advocating, of innumerable transient particulars such as occur in seeing, hearing, etc., together with images more or less resembling these, of which I shall speak shortly. If physics is true, there are, besides the particulars that we experience, others, probably equally (or almost equally) transient, which make up that part of the material world that does not come into the sort of contact with a living body that is required to turn it into a sensation. But this topic belongs to the philosophy of physics, and need not concern us in our present inquiry.
Sensations are what is common to the mental and physical worlds; they may be defined as the intersection of mind and matter. This is by no means a new view; it is advocated, not only by the American authors I have mentioned, but by Mach in his Analysis of Sensations, which was published in 1886. The essence of sensation, according to the view I am advocating, is its independence of past experience. It is a core in our actual experiences, never existing in isolation except possibly in very young infants. It is not itself knowledge, but it supplies the data for our knowledge of the physical world, including our own bodies.
There are some who believe that our mental life is built up out of sensations alone. This may be true; but in any case I think the only ingredients required in addition to sensations are images. What images are, and how they are to be defined, we have now to inquire.
The distinction between images and sensations might seem at first sight by no means difficult. When we shut our eyes and call up pictures of familiar scenes, we usually have no difficulty, so long as we remain awake, in discriminating between what we are imagining and what is really seen. If we imagine some piece of music that we know, we can go through it in our mind from beginning to end without any discoverable tendency to suppose that we are really hearing it. But although such cases are so clear that no confusion seems possible, there are many others that are far more difficult, and the definition of images is by no means an easy problem.
To begin with: we do not always know whether what we are experiencing is a sensation or an image. The things we see in dreams when our eyes are shut must count as images, yet while we are dreaming they seem like sensations. Hallucinations often begin as persistent images, and only gradually acquire that influence over belief that makes the patient regard them as sensations. When we are listening for a faint sound–the striking of a distant clock, or a horse’s hoofs on the road–we think we hear it many times before we really do, because expectation brings us the image, and we mistake it for sensation. The distinction between images and sensations is, therefore, by no means always obvious to inspection.*
* On the distinction between images and sensation, cf. Semon, “Die mnemischen Empfindungen,” pp. 19-20.
We may consider three different ways in which it has been sought to distinguish images from sensations, namely:
(1) By the less degree of vividness in images;
(2) By our absence of belief in their “physical reality”;
(3) By the fact that their causes and effects are different from those of sensations.
I believe the third of these to be the only universally applicable criterion. The other two are applicable in very many cases, but cannot be used for purposes of definition because they are liable to exceptions. Nevertheless, they both deserve to be carefully considered.
(1) Hume, who gives the names “impressions” and “ideas” to what may, for present purposes, be identified with our “sensations” and “images,” speaks of impressions as “those perceptions which enter with most force and violence” while he defines ideas as “the faint images of these (i.e. of impressions) in thinking and reasoning.” His immediately following observations, however, show the inadequacy of his criteria of “force” and “faintness.” He says:
“I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking. The common degrees of these are easily distinguished, though it is not impossible but in particular instances they may very nearly approach to each other. Thus in sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any very violent emotions of soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions; as, on the other hand, it sometimes happens, that our impressions are so faint and low that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas. But notwithstanding this near resemblance in a few instances, they are in general so very different, that no one can make a scruple to rank them under distinct heads, and assign to each a peculiar name to mark the difference” (“Treatise of Human Nature,” Part I, Section I).
I think Hume is right in holding that they should be ranked under distinct heads, with a peculiar name for each. But by his own confession in the above passage, his criterion for distinguishing them is not always adequate. A definition is not sound if it only applies in cases where the difference is glaring: the essential purpose of a definition is to provide a mark which is applicable even in marginal cases–except, of course, when we are dealing with a conception, like, e.g. baldness, which is one of degree and has no sharp boundaries. But so far we have seen no reason to think that the difference between sensations and images is only one of degree.
Professor Stout, in his “Manual of Psychology,” after discussing various ways of distinguishing sensations and images, arrives at a view which is a modification of Hume’s. He says (I quote from the second edition):
“Our conclusion is that at bottom the distinction between image and percept, as respectively faint and vivid states, is based on a difference of quality. The percept has an aggressiveness which does not belong to the image. It strikes the mind with varying degrees of force or liveliness according to the varying intensity of the stimulus. This degree of force or liveliness is part of what we ordinarily mean by the intensity of a sensation. But this constituent of the intensity of sensations is absent in mental imagery”(p. 419).
This view allows for the fact that sensations may reach any degree of faintness–e.g. in the case of a just visible star or a just audible sound–without becoming images, and that therefore mere faintness cannot be the characteristic mark of images. After explaining the sudden shock of a flash of lightning or a steam-whistle, Stout says that “no mere image ever does strike the mind in this manner”(p. 417). But I believe that this criterion fails in very much the same instances as those in which Hume’s criterion fails in its original form. Macbeth speaks of–
that suggestion Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs Against the use of nature.
The whistle of a steam-engine could hardly have a stronger effect than this. A very intense emotion will often bring with it–especially where some future action or some undecided issue is involved–powerful compelling images which may determine the whole course of life, sweeping aside all contrary solicitations to the will by their capacity for exclusively possessing the mind. And in all cases where images, originally recognized as such, gradually pass into hallucinations, there must be just that “force or liveliness” which is supposed to be always absent from images. The cases of dreams and fever-delirium are as hard to adjust to Professor Stout’s modified criterion as to Hume’s. I conclude therefore that the test of liveliness, however applicable in ordinary instances, cannot be used to define the differences between sensations and images.
(2) We might attempt to distinguish images from sensations by our absence of belief in the “physical reality” of images. When we are aware that what we are experiencing is an image, we do not give it the kind of belief that we should give to a sensation: we do not think that it has the same power of producing knowledge of the “external world.” Images are “imaginary”; in SOME sense they are “unreal.” But this difference is hard to analyse or state correctly. What we call the “unreality” of images requires interpretation it cannot mean what would be expressed by saying “there’s no such thing.” Images are just as truly part of the actual world as sensations are. All that we really mean by calling an image “unreal” is that it does not have the concomitants which it would have if it were a sensation. When we call up a visual image of a chair, we do not attempt to sit in it, because we know that, like Macbeth’s dagger, it is not “sensible to feeling as to sight”– i.e. it does not have the correlations with tactile sensations which it would have if it were a visual sensation and not merely a visual image. But this means that the so-called “unreality” of images consists merely in their not obeying the laws of physics, and thus brings us back to the causal distinction between images and sensations.
This view is confirmed by the fact that we only feel images to be “unreal” when we already know them to be images. Images cannot be defined by the FEELING of unreality, because when we falsely believe an image to be a sensation, as in the case of dreams, it FEELS just as real as if it were a sensation. Our feeling of unreality results from our having already realized that we are dealing with an image, and cannot therefore be the definition of what we mean by an image. As soon as an image begins to deceive us as to its status, it also deceives us as to its correlations, which are what we mean by its “reality.”
(3) This brings us to the third mode of distinguishing images from sensations, namely, by their causes and effects. I believe this to be the only valid ground of distinction. James, in the passage about the mental fire which won’t burn real sticks, distinguishes images by their effects, but I think the more reliable distinction is by their causes. Professor Stout (loc. cit., p. 127) says: “One characteristic mark of what we agree in calling sensation is its mode of production. It is caused by what we call a STIMULUS. A stimulus is always some condition external to the nervous system itself and operating upon it.” I think that this is the correct view, and that the distinction between images and sensations can only be made by taking account of their causation. Sensations come through sense-organs, while images do not. We cannot have visual sensations in the dark, or with our eyes shut, but we can very well have visual images under these circumstances. Accordingly images have been defined as “centrally excited sensations,” i.e. sensations which have their physiological cause in the brain only, not also in the sense-organs and the nerves that run from the sense-organs to the brain. I think the phrase “centrally excited sensations” assumes more than is necessary, since it takes it for granted that an image must have a proximate physiological cause. This is probably true, but it is an hypothesis, and for our purposes an unnecessary one. It would seem to fit better with what we can immediately observe if we were to say that an image is occasioned, through association, by a sensation or another image, in other words that it has a mnemic cause–which does not prevent it from also having a physical cause. And I think it will be found that the causation of an image always proceeds according to mnemic laws, i.e. that it is governed by habit and past experience. If you listen to a man playing the pianola without looking at him, you will have images of his hands on the keys as if he were playing the piano; if you suddenly look at him while you are absorbed in the music, you will experience a shock of surprise when you notice that his hands are not touching the notes. Your image of his hands is due to the many times that you have heard similar sounds and at the same time seen the player’s hands on the piano. When habit and past experience play this part, we are in the region of mnemic as opposed to ordinary physical causation. And I think that, if we could regard as ultimately valid the difference between physical and mnemic causation, we could distinguish images from sensations as having mnemic causes, though they may also have physical causes. Sensations, on the other hand, will only have physical causes.
However this may be, the practically effective distinction between sensations and images is that in the causation of sensations, but not of images, the stimulation of nerves carrying an effect into the brain, usually from the surface of the body, plays an essential part. And this accounts for the fact that images and sensations cannot always be distinguished by their intrinsic nature.
Images also differ from sensations as regards their effects. Sensations, as a rule, have both physical and mental effects. As you watch the train you meant to catch leaving the station, there are both the successive positions of the train (physical effects) and the successive waves of fury and disappointment (mental effects). Images, on the contrary, though they MAY produce bodily movements, do so according to mnemic laws, not according to the laws of physics. All their effects, of whatever nature, follow mnemic laws. But this difference is less suitable for definition than the difference as to causes.
Professor Watson, as a logical carrying-out of his behaviourist theory, denies altogether that there are any observable phenomena such as images are supposed to be. He replaces them all by faint sensations, and especially by pronunciation of words sotto voce. When we “think” of a table (say), as opposed to seeing it, what happens, according to him, is usually that we are making small movements of the throat and tongue such as would lead to our uttering the word “table” if they were more pronounced. I shall consider his view again in connection with words; for the present I am only concerned to combat his denial of images. This denial is set forth both in his book on “Behavior” and in an article called “Image and Affection in Behavior” in the “Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods,” vol. x (July, 1913). It seems to me that in this matter he has been betrayed into denying plain facts in the interests of a theory, namely, the supposed impossibility of introspection. I dealt with the theory in Lecture VI; for the present I wish to reinforce the view that the facts are undeniable.
Images are of various sorts, according to the nature of the sensations which they copy. Images of bodily movements, such as we have when we imagine moving an arm or, on a smaller scale, pronouncing a word, might possibly be explained away on Professor Watson’s lines, as really consisting in small incipient movements such as, if magnified and prolonged, would be the movements we are said to be imagining. Whether this is the case or not might even be decided experimentally. If there were a delicate instrument for recording small movements in the mouth and throat, we might place such an instrument in a person’s mouth and then tell him to recite a poem to himself, as far as possible only in imagination. I should not be at all surprised if it were found that actual small movements take place while he is “mentally” saying over the verses. The point is important, because what is called “thought” consists mainly (though I think not wholly) of inner speech. If Professor Watson is right as regards inner speech, this whole region is transferred from imagination to sensation. But since the question is capable of experimental decision, it would be gratuitous rashness to offer an opinion while that decision is lacking.
But visual and auditory images are much more difficult to deal with in this way, because they lack the connection with physical events in the outer world which belongs to visual and auditory sensations. Suppose, for example, that I am sitting in my room, in which there is an empty arm-chair. I shut my eyes, and call up a visual image of a friend sitting in the arm-chair. If I thrust my image into the world of physics, it contradicts all the usual physical laws. My friend reached the chair without coming in at the door in the usual way; subsequent inquiry will show that he was somewhere else at the moment. If regarded as a sensation, my image has all the marks of the supernatural. My image, therefore, is regarded as an event in me, not as having that position in the orderly happenings of the public world that belongs to sensations. By saying that it is an event in me, we leave it possible that it may be PHYSIOLOGICALLY caused: its privacy may be only due to its connection with my body. But in any case it is not a public event, like an actual person walking in at the door and sitting down in my chair. And it cannot, like inner speech, be regarded as a SMALL sensation, since it occupies just as large an area in my visual field as the actual sensation would do.
Professor Watson says: “I should throw out imagery altogether and attempt to show that all natural thought goes on in terms of sensori-motor processes in the larynx.” This view seems to me flatly to contradict experience. If you try to persuade any uneducated person that she cannot call up a visual picture of a friend sitting in a chair, but can only use words describing what such an occurrence would be like, she will conclude that you are mad. (This statement is based upon experiment.) Galton, as every one knows, investigated visual imagery, and found that education tends to kill it: the Fellows of the Royal Society turned out to have much less of it than their wives. I see no reason to doubt his conclusion that the habit of abstract pursuits makes learned men much inferior to the average in power of visualizing, and much more exclusively occupied with words in their “thinking.” And Professor Watson is a very learned man.
I shall henceforth assume that the existence of images is admitted, and that they are to be distinguished from sensations by their causes, as well as, in a lesser degree, by their effects. In their intrinsic nature, though they often differ from sensations by being more dim or vague or faint, yet they do not always or universally differ from sensations in any way that can be used for defining them. Their privacy need form no bar to the scientific study of them, any more than the privacy of bodily sensations does. Bodily sensations are admitted by even the most severe critics of introspection, although, like images, they can only be observed by one observer. It must be admitted, however, that the laws of the appearance and disappearance of images are little known and difficult to discover, because we are not assisted, as in the case of sensations, by our knowledge of the physical world.
There remains one very important point concerning images, which will occupy us much hereafter, and that is, their resemblance to previous sensations. They are said to be “copies” of sensations, always as regards the simple qualities that enter into them, though not always as regards the manner in which these are put together. It is generally believed that we cannot imagine a shade of colour that we have never seen, or a sound that we have never heard. On this subject Hume is the classic. He says, in the definitions already quoted:
“Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name IMPRESSIONS; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By IDEAS I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning.”
He next explains the difference between simple and complex ideas, and explains that a complex idea may occur without any similar complex impression. But as regards simple ideas, he states that “every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it, and every simple impression a correspondent idea.” He goes on to enunciate the general principle “that all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent” (“Treatise of Human Nature,” Part I, Section I).
It is this fact, that images resemble antecedent sensations, which enables us to call them images “of” this or that. For the understanding of memory, and of knowledge generally, the recognizable resemblance of images and sensations is of fundamental importance.
There are difficulties in establishing Hume’s principles, and doubts as to whether it is exactly true. Indeed, he himself signalized an exception immediately after stating his maxim. Nevertheless, it is impossible to doubt that in the main simple images are copies of similar simple sensations which have occurred earlier, and that the same is true of complex images in all cases of memory as opposed to mere imagination. Our power of acting with reference to what is sensibly absent is largely due to this characteristic of images, although, as education advances, images tend to be more and more replaced by words. We shall have much to say in the next two lectures on the subject of images as copies of sensations. What has been said now is merely by way of reminder that this is their most notable characteristic.
I am by no means confident that the distinction between images and sensations is ultimately valid, and I should be glad to be convinced that images can be reduced to sensations of a peculiar kind. I think it is clear, however, that, at any rate in the case of auditory and visual images, they do differ from ordinary auditory and visual sensations, and therefore form a recognizable class of occurrences, even if it should prove that they can be regarded as a sub-class of sensations. This is all that is necessary to validate the use of images to be made in the sequel.
LECTURE IX. MEMORY
Memory, which we are to consider to-day, introduces us to knowledge in one of its forms. The analysis of knowledge will occupy us until the end of the thirteenth lecture, and is the most difficult part of our whole enterprise.
I do not myself believe that the analysis of knowledge can be effected entirely by means of purely external observation, such as behaviourists employ. I shall discuss this question in later lectures. In the present lecture I shall attempt the analysis of memory-knowledge, both as an introduction to the problem of knowledge in general, and because memory, in some form, is presupposed in almost all other knowledge. Sensation, we decided, is not a form of knowledge. It might, however, have been expected that we should begin our discussion of knowledge with PERCEPTION, i.e. with that integral experience of things in the environment, out of which sensation is extracted by psychological analysis. What is called perception differs from sensation by the fact that the sensational ingredients bring up habitual associates–images and expectations of their usual correlates–all of which are subjectively indistinguishable from the sensation. The FACT of past experience is essential in producing this filling-out of sensation, but not the RECOLLECTION of past experience. The non-sensational elements in perception can be wholly explained as the result of habit, produced by frequent correlations. Perception, according to our definition in Lecture VII, is no more a form of knowledge than sensation is, except in so far as it involves expectations. The purely psychological problems which it raises are not very difficult, though they have sometimes been rendered artificially obscure by unwillingness to admit the fallibility of the non-sensational elements of perception. On the other hand, memory raises many difficult and very important problems, which it is necessary to consider at the first possible moment.
One reason for treating memory at this early stage is that it seems to be involved in the fact that images are recognized as “copies” of past sensible experience. In the preceding lecture I alluded to Hume’s principle “that all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.” Whether or not this principle is liable to exceptions, everyone would agree that is has a broad measure of truth, though the word “exactly” might seem an overstatement, and it might seem more correct to say that ideas APPROXIMATELY represent impressions. Such modifications of Hume’s principle, however, do not affect the problem which I wish to present for your consideration, namely: Why do we believe that images are, sometimes or always, approximately or exactly, copies of sensations? What sort of evidence is there? And what sort of evidence is logically possible? The difficulty of this question arises through the fact that the sensation which an image is supposed to copy is in the past when the image exists, and can therefore only be known by memory, while, on the other hand, memory of past sensations seems only possible by means of present images. How, then, are we to find any way of comparing the present image and the past sensation? The problem is just as acute if we say that images differ from their prototypes as if we say that they resemble them; it is the very possibility of comparison that is hard to understand.* We think we can know that they are alike or different, but we cannot bring them together in one experience and compare them. To deal with this problem, we must have a theory of memory. In this way the whole status of images as “copies” is bound up with the analysis of memory.
* How, for example, can we obtain such knowledge as the following: “If we look at, say, a red nose and perceive it, and after a little while ekphore, its memory-image, we note immediately how unlike, in its likeness, this memory-image is to the original perception” (A. Wohlgemuth, “On the Feelings and their Neural Correlate with an Examination of the Nature of Pain,” “Journal of Psychology,” vol. viii, part iv, June, 1917).
In investigating memory-beliefs, there are certain points which must be borne in mind. In the first place, everything constituting a memory-belief is happening now, not in that past time to which the belief is said to refer. It is not logically necessary to the existence of a memory-belief that the event remembered should have occurred, or even that the past should have existed at all. There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that “remembered” a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago. Hence the occurrences which are CALLED knowledge of the past are logically independent of the past; they are wholly analysable into present contents, which might, theoretically, be just what they are even if no past had existed.
I am not suggesting that the non-existence of the past should be entertained as a serious hypothesis. Like all sceptical hypotheses, it is logically tenable, but uninteresting. All that I am doing is to use its logical tenability as a help in the analysis of what occurs when we remember.
In the second place, images without beliefs are insufficient to constitute memory; and habits are still more insufficient. The behaviourist, who attempts to make psychology a record of behaviour, has to trust his memory in making the record. “Habit” is a concept involving the occurrence of similar events at different times; if the behaviourist feels confident that there is such a phenomenon as habit, that can only be because he trusts his memory, when it assures him that there have been other times. And the same applies to images. If we are to know as it is supposed we do–that images are “copies,” accurate or inaccurate, of past events, something more than the mere occurrence of images must go to constitute this knowledge. For their mere occurrence, by itself, would not suggest any connection with anything that had happened before.
Can we constitute memory out of images together with suitable beliefs? We may take it that memory-images, when they occur in true memory, are (a) known to be copies, (b) sometimes known to be imperfect copies (cf. footnote on previous page). How is it possible to know that a memory-image is an imperfect copy, without having a more accurate copy by which to replace it? This would SEEM to suggest that we have a way of knowing the past which is independent of images, by means of which we can criticize image-memories. But I do not think such an inference is warranted.
What results, formally, from our knowledge of the past through images of which we recognize the inaccuracy, is that such images must have two characteristics by which we can arrange them in two series, of which one corresponds to the more or less remote period in the past to which they refer, and the other to our greater or less confidence in their accuracy. We will take the second of these points first.
Our confidence or lack of confidence in the accuracy of a memory-image must, in fundamental cases, be based upon a characteristic of the image itself, since we cannot evoke the past bodily and compare it with the present image. It might be suggested that vagueness is the required characteristic, but I do not think this is the case. We sometimes have images that are by no means peculiarly vague, which yet we do not trust–for example, under the influence of fatigue we may see a friend’s face vividly and clearly, but horribly distorted. In such a case we distrust our image in spite of its being unusually clear. I think the characteristic by which we distinguish the images we trust is the feeling of FAMILIARITY that accompanies them. Some images, like some sensations, feel very familiar, while others feel strange. Familiarity is a feeling capable of degrees. In an image of a well-known face, for example, some parts may feel more familiar than others; when this happens, we have more belief in the accuracy of the familiar parts than in that of the unfamiliar parts. I think it is by this means that we become critical of images, not by some imageless memory with which we compare them. I shall return to the consideration of familiarity shortly.
I come now to the other characteristic which memory-images must have in order to account for our knowledge of the past. They must have some characteristic which makes us regard them as referring to more or less remote portions of the past. That is to say if we suppose that A is the event remembered, B the remembering, and t the interval of time between A and B, there must be some characteristic of B which is capable of degrees, and which, in accurately dated memories, varies as t varies. It may increase as t increases, or diminish as t increases. The question which of these occurs is not of any importance for the theoretic serviceability of the characteristic in question.
In actual fact, there are doubtless various factors that concur in giving us the feeling of greater or less remoteness in some remembered event. There may be a specific feeling which could be called the feeling of “pastness,” especially where immediate memory is concerned. But apart from this, there are other marks. One of these is context. A recent memory has, usually, more context than a more distant one. When a remembered event has a remembered context, this may occur in two ways, either (a) by successive images in the same order as their prototypes, or (b) by remembering a whole process simultaneously, in the same way in which a present process may be apprehended, through akoluthic sensations which, by fading, acquire the mark of just-pastness in an increasing degree as they fade, and are thus placed in a series while all sensibly present. It will be context in this second sense, more specially, that will give us a sense of the nearness or remoteness of a remembered event.
There is, of course, a difference between knowing the temporal relation of a remembered event to the present, and knowing the time-order of two remembered events. Very often our knowledge of the temporal relation of a remembered event to the present is inferred from its temporal relations to other remembered events. It would seem that only rather recent events can be placed at all accurately by means of feelings giving their temporal relation to the present, but it is clear that such feelings must play an essential part in the process of dating remembered events.
We may say, then, that images are regarded by us as more or less accurate copies of past occurrences because they come to us with two sorts of feelings: (1) Those that may be called feelings of familiarity; (2) those that may be collected together as feelings giving a sense of pastness. The first lead us to trust our memories, the second to assign places to them in the time-order.
We have now to analyse the memory-belief, as opposed to the characteristics of images which lead us to base memory-beliefs upon them.
If we had retained the “subject” or “act” in knowledge, the whole problem of memory would have been comparatively simple. We could then have said that remembering is a direct relation between the present act or subject and the past occurrence remembered: the act of remembering is present, though its object is past. But the rejection of the subject renders some more complicated theory necessary. Remembering has to be a present occurrence in some way resembling, or related to, what is remembered. And it is difficult to find any ground, except a pragmatic one, for supposing that memory is not sheer delusion, if, as seems to be the case, there is not, apart from memory, any way of ascertaining that there really was a past occurrence having the required relation to our present remembering. What, if we followed Meinong’s terminology, we should call the “object” in memory, i.e. the past event which we are said to be remembering, is unpleasantly remote from the “content,” i.e. the present mental occurrence in remembering. There is an awkward gulf between the two, which raises difficulties for the theory of knowledge. But we must not falsify observation to avoid theoretical difficulties. For the present, therefore, let us forget these problems, and try to discover what actually occurs in memory.
Some points may be taken as fixed, and such as any theory of memory must arrive at. In this case, as in most others, what may be taken as certain in advance is rather vague. The study of any topic is like the continued observation of an object which is approaching us along a road: what is certain to begin with is the quite vague knowledge that there is SOME object on the road. If you attempt to be less vague, and to assert that the object is an elephant, or a man, or a mad dog, you run a risk of error; but the purpose of continued observation is to enable you to arrive at such more precise knowledge. In like manner, in the study of memory, the certainties with which you begin are very vague, and the more precise propositions at which you try to arrive are less certain than the hazy data from which you set out. Nevertheless, in spite of the risk of error, precision is the goal at which we must aim.
The first of our vague but indubitable data is that there is knowledge of the past. We do not yet know with any precision what we mean by “knowledge,” and we must admit that in any given instance our memory may be at fault. Nevertheless, whatever a sceptic might urge in theory, we cannot practically doubt that we got up this morning, that we did various things yesterday, that a great war has been taking place, and so on. How far our knowledge of the past is due to memory, and how far to other sources, is of course a matter to be investigated, but there can be no doubt that memory forms an indispensable part of our knowledge of the past.
The second datum is that we certainly have more capacity for knowing the past than for knowing the future. We know some things about the future, for example what eclipses there will be; but this knowledge is a matter of elaborate calculation and inference, whereas some of our knowledge of the past comes to us without effort, in the same sort of immediate way in which we acquire knowledge of occurrences in our present environment. We might provisionally, though perhaps not quite correctly, define “memory” as that way of knowing about the past which has no analogue in our knowledge of the future; such a definition would at least serve to mark the problem with which we are concerned, though some expectations may deserve to rank with memory as regards immediacy.
A third point, perhaps not quite so certain as our previous two, is that the truth of memory cannot be wholly practical, as pragmatists wish all truth to be. It seems clear that some of the things I remember are trivial and without any visible importance for the future, but that my memory is true (or false) in virtue of a past event, not in virtue of any future consequences of my belief. The definition of truth as the correspondence between beliefs and facts seems peculiarly evident in the case of memory, as against not only the pragmatist definition but also the idealist definition by means of coherence. These considerations, however, are taking us away from psychology, to which we must now return.
It is important not to confuse the two forms of memory which Bergson distinguishes in the second chapter of his “Matter and Memory,” namely the sort that consists of habit, and the sort that consists of independent recollection. He gives the instance of learning a lesson by heart: when I know it by heart I am said to “remember” it, but this merely means that I have acquired certain habits; on the other hand, my recollection of (say) the second time I read the lesson while I was learning it is the recollection of a unique event, which occurred only once. The recollection of a unique event cannot, so Bergson contends, be wholly constituted by habit, and is in fact something radically different from the memory which is habit. The recollection alone is true memory. This distinction is vital to the understanding of memory. But it is not so easy to carry out in practice as it is to draw in theory. Habit is a very intrusive feature of our mental life, and is often present where at first sight it seems not to be. There is, for example, a habit of remembering a unique event. When we have once described the event, the words we have used easily become habitual. We may even have used words to describe it to ourselves while it was happening; in that case, the habit of these words may fulfil the function of Bergson’s true memory, while in reality it is nothing but habit-memory. A gramophone, by the help of suitable records, might relate to us the incidents of its past; and people are not so different from gramophones as they like to believe.
In spite, however, of a difficulty in distinguishing the two forms of memory in practice, there can be no doubt that both forms exist. I can set to work now to remember things I never remembered before, such as what I had to eat for breakfast this morning, and it can hardly be wholly habit that enables me to do this. It is this sort of occurrence that constitutes the essence of memory Until we have analysed what happens in such a case as this, we have not succeeded in understanding memory.
The sort of memory with which we are here concerned is the sort which is a form of knowledge. Whether knowledge itself is reducible to habit is a question to which I shall return in a later lecture; for the present I am only anxious to point out that, whatever the true analysis of knowledge may be, knowledge of past occurrences is not proved by behaviour which is due to past experience. The fact that a man can recite a poem does not show that he remembers any previous occasion on which he has recited or read it. Similarly, the performances of animals in getting out of cages or mazes to which they are accustomed do not prove that they remember having been in the same situation before. Arguments in favour of (for example) memory in plants are only arguments in favour of habit-memory, not of knowledge- memory. Samuel Butler’s arguments in favour of the view that an animal remembers something of the lives of its ancestors* are, when examined, only arguments in favour of habit-memory. Semon’s two books, mentioned in an earlier lecture, do not touch knowledge-memory at all closely. They give laws according to which images of past occurrences come into our minds, but do not discuss our belief that these images refer to past occurrences, which is what constitutes knowledge-memory. It is this that is of interest to theory of knowledge. I shall speak of it as “true” memory, to distinguish it from mere habit acquired through past experience. Before considering true memory, it will be well to consider two things which are on the way towards memory, namely the feeling of familiarity and recognition.
* See his “Life and Habit and Unconscious Memory.”
We often feel that something in our sensible environment is familiar, without having any definite recollection of previous occasions on which we have seen it. We have this feeling normally in places where we have often been before–at home, or in well-known streets. Most people and animals find it essential to their happiness to spend a good deal of their time in familiar surroundings, which are especially comforting when any danger threatens. The feeling of familiarity has all sorts of degrees, down to the stage where we dimly feel that we have seen a person before. It is by no means always reliable; almost everybody has at some time experienced the well-known illusion that all that is happening now happened before at some time. There are occasions when familiarity does not attach itself to any definite object, when there is merely a vague feeling that SOMETHING is familiar. This is illustrated by Turgenev’s “Smoke,” where the hero is long puzzled by a haunting sense that something in his present is recalling something in his past, and at last traces it to the smell of heliotrope. Whenever the sense of familiarity occurs without a definite object, it leads us to search the environment until we are satisfied that we have found the appropriate object, which leads us to the judgment: “THIS is familiar.” I think we may regard familiarity as a definite feeling, capable of existing without an object, but normally standing in a specific relation to some feature of the environment, the relation being that which we express in words by saying that the feature in question is familiar. The judgment that what is familiar has been experienced before is a product of reflection, and is no part of the feeling of familiarity, such as a horse may be supposed to have when he returns to his stable. Thus no knowledge as to the past is to be derived from the feeling of familiarity alone.
A further stage is RECOGNITION. This may be taken in two senses, the first when a thing not merely feels familiar, but we know it is such-and-such. We recognize our friend Jones, we know cats and dogs when we see them, and so on. Here we have a definite influence of past experience, but not necessarily any actual knowledge of the past. When we see a cat, we know it is a cat because of previous cats we have seen, but we do not, as a rule, recollect at the moment any particular occasion when we have seen a cat. Recognition in this sense does not necessarily involve more than a habit of association: the kind of object we are seeing at the moment is associated with the word “cat,” or with an auditory image of purring, or whatever other characteristic we may happen to recognize in. the cat of the moment. We are, of course, in fact able to judge, when we recognize an object, that we have seen it before, but this judgment is something over and above recognition in this first sense, and may very probably be impossible to animals that nevertheless have the experience of recognition in this first sense of the word.
There is, however, another sense of the word, in which we mean by recognition, not knowing the name of a thing or some other property of it, but knowing that we have seen it before In this sense recognition does involve knowledge about the Fast. This knowledge is memory in one sense, though in another it is not. It does not involve a definite memory of a definite past event, but only the knowledge that something happening now is similar to something that happened before. It differs from the sense of familiarity by being cognitive; it is a belief or judgment, which the sense of familiarity is not. I do not wish to undertake the analysis of belief at present, since it will be the subject of the twelfth lecture; for the present I merely wish to emphasize the fact that recognition, in our second sense, consists in a belief, which we may express approximately in the words: “This has existed before.”
There are, however, several points in which such an account of recognition is inadequate. To begin with, it might seem at first sight more correct to define recognition as “I have seen this before” than as “this has existed before.” We recognize a thing (it may be urged) as having been in our experience before, whatever that may mean; we do not recognize it as merely having been in the world before. I am not sure that there is anything substantial in this point. The definition of “my experience” is difficult; broadly speaking, it is everything that is connected with what I am experiencing now by certain links, of which the various forms of memory are among the most important. Thus, if I recognize a thing, the occasion of its previous existence in virtue of which I recognize it forms part of “my experience” by DEFINITION: recognition will be one of the marks by which my experience is singled out from the rest of the world. Of course, the words “this has existed before” are a very inadequate translation of what actually happens when we form a judgment of recognition, but that is unavoidable: words are framed to express a level of thought which is by no means primitive, and are quite incapable of expressing such an elementary occurrence as recognition. I shall return to what is virtually the same question in connection with true memory, which raises exactly similar problems.
A second point is that, when we recognize something, it was not in fact the very same thing, but only something similar, that we experienced on a former occasion. Suppose the object in question is a friend’s face. A person’s face is always changing, and is not exactly the same on any two occasions. Common sense treats it as one face with varying expressions; but the varying expressions actually exist, each at its proper time, while the one face is merely a logical construction. We regard two objects as the same, for common-sense purposes, when the reaction they call for is practically the same. Two visual appearances, to both of which it is appropriate to say: “Hullo, Jones!” are treated as appearances of one identical object, namely Jones. The name “Jones” is applicable to both, and it is only reflection that shows us that many diverse particulars are collected together to form the meaning of the name “Jones.” What we see on any one occasion is not the whole series of particulars that make up Jones, but only one of them (or a few in quick succession). On another occasion we see another member of the series, but it is sufficiently similar to count as the same from the standpoint of common sense. Accordingly, when we judge “I have seen THIS before,” we judge falsely if “this” is taken as applying to the actual constituent of the world that we are seeing at the moment. The word “this” must be interpreted vaguely so as to include anything sufficiently like what we are seeing at the moment. Here, again, we shall find a similar point as regards true memory; and in connection with true memory we will consider the point again. It is sometimes suggested, by those who favour behaviourist views, that recognition consists in behaving in the same way when a stimulus is repeated as we behaved on the first occasion when it occurred. This seems to be the exact opposite of the truth. The essence of recognition is in the DIFFERENCE between a repeated stimulus and a new one. On the first occasion there is no recognition; on the second occasion there is. In fact, recognition is another instance of the peculiarity of causal laws in psychology, namely, that the causal unit is not a single event, but two or more events Habit is the great instance of this, but recognition is another. A stimulus occurring once has a certain effect; occurring twice, it has the further effect of recognition. Thus the phenomenon of recognition has as its cause the two occasions when the stimulus has occurred; either alone is insufficient. This complexity of causes in psychology might be connected with Bergson’s arguments against repetition in the mental world. It does not prove that there are no causal laws in psychology, as Bergson suggests; but it does prove that the causal laws of psychology are Prima facie very different from those of physics. On the possibility of explaining away the difference as due to the peculiarities of nervous tissue I have spoken before, but this possibility must not be forgotten if we are tempted to draw unwarranted metaphysical deductions.
True memory, which we must now endeavour to understand, consists of knowledge of past events, but not of all such knowledge. Some knowledge of past events, for example what we learn through reading history, is on a par with the knowledge we can acquire concerning the future: it is obtained by inference, not (so to speak) spontaneously. There is a similar distinction in our knowledge of the present: some of it is obtained through the senses, some in more indirect ways. I know that there are at this moment a number of people in the streets of New York, but I do not know this in the immediate way in which I know of the people whom I see by looking out of my window. It is not easy to state precisely wherein the difference between these two sorts of knowledge consists, but it is easy to feel the difference. For the moment, I shall not stop to analyse it, but shall content myself with saying that, in this respect, memory resembles the knowledge derived from the senses. It is immediate, not inferred, not abstract; it differs from perception mainly by being referred to the past.
In regard to memory, as throughout the analysis of knowledge, there are two very distinct problems, namely (1) as to the nature of the present occurrence in knowing; (2) as to the relation of this occurrence to what is known. When we remember, the knowing is now, while what is known is in the past. Our two questions are, in the case of memory
(1) What is the present occurrence when we remember?
(2) What is the relation of this present occurrence to the past event which is remembered?
Of these two questions, only the first concerns the psychologist; the second belongs to theory of knowledge. At the same time, if we accept the vague datum with which we began, to the effect that, in some sense, there is knowledge of the past, we shall have to find, if we can, such an account of the present occurrence in remembering as will make it not impossible for remembering to give us knowledge of the past. For the present, however, we shall do well to forget the problems concerning theory of knowledge, and concentrate upon the purely psychological problem of memory.
Between memory-image and sensation there is an intermediate experience concerning the immediate past. For example, a sound that we have just heard is present to us in a way which differs both from the sensation while we are hearing the sound and from the memory-image of something heard days or weeks ago. James states that it is this way of apprehending the immediate past that is “the ORIGINAL of our experience of pastness, from whence we get the meaning of the term”(“Psychology,” i, p. 604). Everyone knows the experience of noticing (say) that the clock HAS BEEN striking, when we did not notice it while it was striking. And when we hear a remark spoken, we are conscious of the earlier words while the later ones are being uttered, and this retention feels different from recollection of something definitely past. A sensation fades gradually, passing by continuous gradations to the status of an image. This retention of the immediate past in a condition intermediate between sensation and image may be called “immediate memory.” Everything belonging to it is included with sensation in what is called the “specious present.” The specious present includes elements at all stages on the journey from sensation to image. It is this fact that enables us to apprehend such things as movements, or the order of the words in a spoken sentence. Succession can occur within the specious present, of which we can distinguish some parts as earlier and others as later. It is to be supposed that the earliest parts are those that have faded most from their original force, while the latest parts are those that retain their full sensational character. At the beginning of a stimulus we have a sensation; then a gradual transition; and at the end an image. Sensations while they are fading are called “akoluthic” sensations.* When the process of fading is completed (which happens very quickly), we arrive at the image, which is capable of being revived on subsequent occasions with very little change. True memory, as opposed to “immediate memory,” applies only to events sufficiently distant to have come to an end of the period of fading. Such events, if they are represented by anything present, can only be represented by images, not by those intermediate stages, between sensations and images, which occur during the period of fading.
* See Semon, “Die mnemischen Empfindungen,” chap. vi.
Immediate memory is important both because it provides experience of succession, and because it bridges the gulf between sensations and the images which are their copies. But it is now time to resume the consideration of true memory.
Suppose you ask me what I ate for breakfast this morning. Suppose, further, that I have not thought about my breakfast in the meantime, and that I did not, while I was eating it, put into words what it consisted of. In this case my recollection will be true memory, not habit-memory. The process of remembering will consist of calling up images of my breakfast, which will come to me with a feeling of belief such as distinguishes memory-images from mere imagination-images. Or sometimes words may come without the intermediary of images; but in this case equally the feeling of belief is essential.
Let us omit from our consideration, for the present, the memories in which words replace images. These are always, I think, really habit-memories, the memories that use images being the typical true memories.
Memory-images and imagination-images do not differ in their intrinsic qualities, so far as we can discover. They differ by the fact that the images that constitute memories, unlike those that constitute imagination, are accompanied by a feeling of belief which may be expressed in the words “this happened.” The mere occurrence of images, without this feeling of belief, constitutes imagination; it is the element of belief that is the distinctive thing in memory.*
* For belief of a specific kind, cf. Dorothy Wrinch “On the Nature of Memory,” “Mind,” January, 1920.
There are, if I am not mistaken, at least three different kinds of belief-feeling, which we may call respectively memory, expectation and bare assent. In what I call bare assent, there is no time-element in the feeling of belief, though there may be in the content of what is believed. If I believe that Caesar landed in Britain in B.C. 55, the time-determination lies, not in the feeling of belief, but in what is believed. I do not remember the occurrence, but have the same feeling towards it as towards the announcement of an eclipse next year. But when I have seen a flash of lightning and am waiting for the thunder, I have a belief-feeling analogous to memory, except that it refers to the future: I have an image of thunder, combined with a feeling which may be expressed in the words: “this will happen.” So, in memory, the pastness lies, not in the content of what is believed, but in the nature of the belief-feeling. I might have just the same images and expect their realization; I might entertain them without any belief, as in reading a novel; or I might entertain them together with a time-determination, and give bare assent, as in reading history. I shall return to this subject in a later lecture, when we come to the analysis of belief. For the present, I wish to make it clear that a certain special kind of belief is the distinctive characteristic of memory.
The problem as to whether memory can be explained as habit or association requires to be considered afresh in connection with the causes of our remembering something. Let us take again the case of my being asked what I had for breakfast this morning. In this case the question leads to my setting to work to recollect. It is a little strange that the question should instruct me as to what it is that I am to recall. This has to do with understanding words, which will be the topic of the next lecture; but something must be said about it now. Our understanding of the words “breakfast this morning” is a habit, in spite of the fact that on each fresh day they point to a different occasion. “This morning” does not, whenever it is used, mean the same thing, as “John” or “St. Paul’s” does; it means a different period of time on each different day. It follows that the habit which constitutes our understanding of the words “this morning” is not the habit of associating the words with a fixed object, but the habit of associating them with something having a fixed time-relation to our present. This morning has, to-day, the same time-relation to my present that yesterday morning had yesterday. In order to understand the phrase “this morning” it is necessary that we should have a way of feeling time-intervals, and that this feeling should give what is constant in the meaning of the words “this morning.” This appreciation of time-intervals is, however, obviously a product of memory, not a presupposition of it. It will be better, therefore, if we wish to analyse the causation of memory by something not presupposing memory, to take some other instance than that of a question about “this morning.”
Let us take the case of coming into a familiar room where something has been changed–say a new picture hung on the wall. We may at first have only a sense that SOMETHING is unfamiliar, but presently we shall remember, and say “that picture was not on the wall before.” In order to make the case definite, we will suppose that we were only in the room on one former occasion. In this case it seems fairly clear what happens. The other objects in the room are associated, through the former occasion, with a blank space of wall where now there is a picture. They call up an image of a blank wall, which clashes with perception of the picture. The image is associated with the belief-feeling which we found to be distinctive of memory, since it can neither be abolished nor harmonized with perception. If the room had remained unchanged, we might have had only the feeling of familiarity without the definite remembering; it is the change that drives us from the present to memory of the past.
We may generalize this instance so as to cover the causes of many memories. Some present feature of the environment is associated, through past experiences, with something now absent; this absent something comes before us as an image, and is contrasted with present sensation. In cases of this sort, habit (or association) explains why the present feature of the environment brings up the memory-image, but it does not explain the memory-belief. Perhaps a more complete analysis could explain the memory-belief also on lines of association and habit, but the causes of beliefs are obscure, and we cannot investigate them yet. For the present we must content ourselves with the fact that the memory-image can be explained by habit. As regards the memory-belief, we must, at least provisionally, accept Bergson’s view that it cannot be brought under the head of habit, at any rate when it first occurs, i.e. when we remember something we never remembered before.
We must now consider somewhat more closely the content of a memory-belief. The memory-belief confers upon the memory-image something which we may call “meaning;” it makes us feel that the image points to an object which existed in the past. In order to deal with this topic we must consider the verbal expression of the memory-belief. We might be tempted to put the memory-belief into the words: “Something like this image occurred.” But such words would be very far from an accurate translation of the simplest kind of memory-belief. “Something like this image” is a very complicated conception. In the simplest kind of memory we are not aware of the difference between an image and the sensation which it copies, which may be called its “prototype.” When the image is before us, we judge rather “this occurred.” The image is not distinguished from the object which existed in the past: the word “this” covers both, and enables us to have a memory-belief which does not introduce the complicated notion “something like this.”
It might be objected that, if we judge “this occurred” when in fact “this” is a present image, we judge falsely, and the memory-belief, so interpreted, becomes deceptive. This, however, would be a mistake, produced by attempting to give to words a precision which they do not possess when used by unsophisticated people. It is true that the image is not absolutely identical with its prototype, and if the word “this” meant the image to the exclusion of everything else, the judgment “this occurred” would be false. But identity is a precise conception, and no word, in ordinary speech, stands for anything precise. Ordinary speech does not distinguish between identity and close similarity. A word always applies, not only to one particular, but to a group of associated particulars, which are not recognized as multiple in common thought or speech. Thus primitive memory, when it judges that “this occurred,” is vague, but not false.
Vague identity, which is really close similarity, has been a source of many of the confusions by which philosophy has lived. Of a vague subject, such as a “this,” which is both an image and its prototype, contradictory predicates are true simultaneously: this existed and does not exist, since it is a thing remembered, but also this exists and did not exist, since it is a present image. Hence Bergson’s interpenetration of the present by the past, Hegelian continuity and identity-in-diversity, and a host of other notions which are thought to be profound because they are obscure and confused. The contradictions resulting from confounding image and prototype in memory force us to precision. But when we become precise, our remembering becomes different from that of ordinary life, and if we forget this we shall go wrong in the analysis of ordinary memory.
Vagueness and accuracy are important notions, which it is very necessary to understand. Both are a matter of degree. All thinking is vague to some extent, and complete accuracy is a theoretical ideal not practically attainable. To understand what is meant by accuracy, it will be well to consider first instruments of measurement, such as a balance or a thermometer. These are said to be accurate when they give different results for very slightly different stimuli.* A clinical thermometer is accurate when it enables us to detect very slight differences in the temperature of the blood. We may say generally that an instrument is accurate in proportion as it reacts differently to very slightly different stimuli. When a small difference of stimulus produces a great difference of reaction, the instrument is accurate; in the contrary case it is not.
* This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The subject of accuracy and vagueness will be considered again in Lecture XIII.
Exactly the same thing applies in defining accuracy of thought or perception. A musician will respond differently to very minute differences in playing which would be quite imperceptible to the ordinary mortal. A negro can see the difference between one negro and another one is his friend, another his enemy. But to us such different responses are impossible: we can merely apply the word “negro” indiscriminately. Accuracy of response in regard to any particular kind of stimulus is improved by practice. Understanding a language is a case in point. Few Frenchmen can hear any difference between the sounds “hall” and “hole,” which produce quite different impressions upon us. The two statements “the hall is full of water” and “the hole is full of water” call for different responses, and a hearing which cannot distinguish between them is inaccurate or vague in this respect.
Precision and vagueness in thought, as in perception, depend upon the degree of difference between responses to more or less similar stimuli. In the case of thought, the response does not follow immediately upon the sensational stimulus, but that makes no difference as regards our present question. Thus to revert to memory: A memory is “vague” when it is appropriate to many different occurrences: for instance, “I met a man” is vague, since any man would verify it. A memory is “precise” when the occurrences that would verify it are narrowly circumscribed: for instance, “I met Jones” is precise as compared to “I met a man.” A memory is “accurate” when it is both precise and true, i.e. in the above instance, if it was Jones I met. It is precise even if it is false, provided some very definite occurrence would have been required to make it true.
It follows from what has been said that a vague thought has more likelihood of being true than a precise one. To try and hit an object with a vague thought is like trying to hit the bull’s eye with a lump of putty: when the putty reaches the target, it flattens out all over it, and probably covers the bull’s eye along with the rest. To try and hit an object with a precise thought is like trying to hit the bull’s eye with a bullet. The advantage of the precise thought is that it distinguishes between the bull’s eye and the rest of the target. For example, if the whole target is represented by the fungus family and the bull’s eye by mushrooms, a vague thought which can only hit the target as a whole is not much use from a culinary point of view. And when I merely remember that I met a man, my memory may be very inadequate to my practical requirements, since it may make a great difference whether I met Brown or Jones. The memory “I met Jones” is relatively precise. It is accurate if I met Jones, inaccurate if I met Brown, but precise in either case as against the mere recollection that I met a man.
The distinction between accuracy and precision is however, not fundamental. We may omit precision from out thoughts and confine ourselves to the distinction between accuracy and vagueness. We may then set up the following definitions:
An instrument is “reliable” with respect to a given set of stimuli when to stimuli which are not relevantly different it gives always responses which are not relevantly different.
An instrument is a “measure” of a set of stimuli which are serially ordered when its responses, in all cases where they are relevantly different, are arranged in a series in the same order.
The “degree of accuracy” of an instrument which is a reliable measurer is the ratio of the difference of response to the difference of stimulus in cases where the difference of stimulus is small.* That is to say, if a small difference of stimulus produces a great difference of response, the instrument is very accurate; in the contrary case, very inaccurate.
* Strictly speaking, the limit of this, i.e. the derivative of the response with respect to the stimulus.
A mental response is called “vague” in proportion to its lack of accuracy, or rather precision.
These definitions will be found useful, not only in the case of memory, but in almost all questions concerned with knowledge.
It should be observed that vague beliefs, so far from being necessarily false, have a better chance of truth than precise ones, though their truth is less valuable than that of precise beliefs, since they do not distinguish between occurrences which may differ in important ways.
The whole of the above discussion of vagueness and accuracy was occasioned by the attempt to interpret the word “this” when we judge in verbal memory that “this occurred.” The word “this,” in such a judgment, is a vague word, equally applicable to the present memory-image and to the past occurrence which is its prototype. A vague word is not to be identified with a general word, though in practice the distinction may often be blurred. A word is general when it is understood to be applicable to a number of different objects in virtue of some common property. A word is vague when it is in fact applicable to a number of different objects because, in virtue of some common property, they have not appeared, to the person using the word, to be distinct. I emphatically do not mean that he has judged them to be identical, but merely that he has made the same response to them all and has not judged them to be different. We may compare a vague word to a jelly and a general word to a heap of shot. Vague words precede judgments of identity and difference; both general and particular words are subsequent to such judgments. The word “this” in the primitive memory-belief is a vague word, not a general word; it covers both the image and its prototype because the two are not distinguished.*
* On the vague and the general cf. Ribot: “Evolution of General Ideas,” Open Court Co., 1899, p. 32: “The sole permissible formula is this: Intelligence progresses from the indefinite to the definite. If ‘indefinite’ is taken as synonymous with general, it may be said that the particular does not appear at the outset, but neither does the general in any exact sense: the vague would be more appropriate. In other words, no sooner has the intellect progressed beyond the moment of perception and of its immediate reproduction in memory, than the generic image makes its appearance, i.e. a state intermediate between the particular and the general, participating in the nature of the one and of the other–a confused simplification.”
But we have not yet finished our analysis of the memory-belief. The tense in the belief that “this occurred” is provided by the nature of the belief-feeling involved in memory; the word “this,” as we have seen, has a vagueness which we have tried to describe. But we must still ask what we mean by “occurred.” The image is, in one sense, occurring now; and therefore we must find some other sense in which the past event occurred but the image does not occur.
There are two distinct questions to be asked: (1) What causes us to say that a thing occurs? (2) What are we feeling when we say this? As to the first question, in the crude use of the word, which is what concerns us, memory-images would not be said to occur; they would not be noticed in themselves, but merely used as signs of the past event. Images are “merely imaginary”; they have not, in crude thought, the sort of reality that belongs to outside bodies. Roughly speaking, “real” things would be those that can cause sensations, those that have correlations of the sort that constitute physical objects. A thing is said to be “real” or to “occur” when it fits into a context of such correlations. The prototype of our memory-image did fit into a physical context, while our memory-image does not. This causes us to feel that the prototype was “real,” while the image is “imaginary.”
But the answer to our second question, namely as to what we are feeling when we say a thing “occurs” or is “real,” must be somewhat different. We do not, unless we are unusually reflective, think about the presence or absence of correlations: we merely have different feelings which, intellectualized, may be represented as expectations of the presence or absence of correlations. A thing which “feels real” inspires us with hopes or fears, expectations or curiosities, which are wholly absent when a thing “feels imaginary.” The feeling of reality is a feeling akin to respect: it belongs PRIMARILY to whatever can do things to us without our voluntary co-operation. This feeling of reality, related to the memory-image, and referred to the past by the specific kind of belief-feeling that is characteristic of memory, seems to be what constitutes the act of remembering in its pure form.
We may now summarize our analysis of pure memory.
Memory demands (a) an image, (b) a belief in past existence. The belief may be expressed in the words “this existed.”
The belief, like every other, may be analysed into (1) the believing, (2) what is believed. The believing is a specific feeling or sensation or complex of sensations, different from expectation or bare assent in a way that makes the belief refer to the past; the reference to the past lies in the belief-feeling, not in the content believed. There is a relation between the belief-feeling and the content, making the belief-feeling refer to the content, and expressed by saying that the content is what is believed.
The content believed may or may not be expressed in words. Let us take first the case when it is not. In that case, if we are merely remembering that something of which we now have an image occurred, the content consists of (a) the image, (b) the feeling, analogous to respect, which we translate by saying that something is “real” as opposed to “imaginary,” (c) a relation between the image and the feeling of reality, of the sort expressed when we say that the feeling refers to the image. This content does not contain in itself any time-determination
the time-determination lies in the nature of the belief feeling, which is that called “remembering” or (better) “recollecting.” It is only subsequent reflection upon this reference to the past that makes us realize the distinction between the image and the event recollected. When we have made this distinction, we can say that the image “means” the past event.
The content expressed in words is best represented by the words “the existence of this,” since these words do not involve tense, which belongs to the belief-feeling, not to the content. Here “this” is a vague term, covering the memory-image and anything very like it, including its prototype. “Existence” expresses the feeling of a “reality” aroused primarily by whatever can have effects upon us without our voluntary co-operation. The word “of” in the phrase “the existence of this” represents the relation which subsists between the feeling of reality and the “this.”
This analysis of memory is probably extremely faulty, but I do not know how to improve it.
NOTE.-When I speak of a FEELING of belief, I use the word “feeling” in a popular sense, to cover a sensation or an image or a complex of sensations or images or both; I use this word because I do not wish to commit myself to any special analysis of the belief-feeling.
LECTURE X. WORDS AND MEANING
The problem with which we shall be concerned in this lecture is the problem of determining what is the relation called “meaning.” The word “Napoleon,” we say, “means” a certain person. In saying this, we are asserting a relation between the word “Napoleon” and the person so designated. It is this relation that we must now investigate.
Let us first consider what sort of object a word is when considered simply as a physical thing, apart from its meaning. To begin with, there are many instances of a word, namely all the different occasions when it is employed. Thus a word is not something unique and particular, but a set of occurrences. If we confine ourselves to spoken words, a word has two aspects, according as we regard it from the point of view of the speaker or from that of the hearer. From the point of view of the speaker, a single instance of the use of a word consists of a certain set of movements in the throat and mouth, combined with breath. From the point of view of the hearer, a single instance of the use of a word consists of a certain series of sounds, each being approximately represented by a single letter in writing, though in practice a letter may represent several sounds, or several letters may represent one sound. The connection between the spoken word and the word as it reaches the hearer is causal. Let us confine ourselves to the spoken word, which is the more important for the analysis of what is called “thought.” Then we may say that a single instance of the spoken word consists of a series of movements, and the word consists of a whole set of such series, each member of the set being very similar to each other member. That is to say, any two instances of the word “Napoleon” are very similar, and each instance consists of a series of movements in the mouth.
A single word, accordingly, is by no means simple it is a class of similar series of movements (confining ourselves still to the spoken word). The degree of similarity required cannot be precisely defined: a man may pronounce the word “Napoleon” so badly that it can hardly be determined whether he has really pronounced it or not. The instances of a word shade off into other movements by imperceptible degrees. And exactly analogous observations apply to words heard or written or read. But in what has been said so far we have not even broached the question of the DEFINITION of a word, since “meaning” is clearly what distinguishes a word from other sets of similar movements, and “meaning” remains to be defined.
It is natural to think of the meaning of a word as something conventional. This, however, is only true with great limitations. A new word can be added to an existing language by a mere convention, as is done, for instance, with new scientific terms. But the basis of a language is not conventional, either from the point of view of the individual or from that of the community. A child learning to speak is learning habits and associations which are just as much determined by the environment as the habit of expecting dogs to bark and cocks to crow. The community that speaks a language has learnt it, and modified it by processes almost all of which are not deliberate, but the results of causes operating according to more or less ascertainable laws. If we trace any Indo-European language back far enough, we arrive hypothetically (at any rate according to some authorities) at the stage when language consisted only of the roots out of which subsequent words have grown. How these roots acquired their meanings is not known, but a conventional origin is clearly just as mythical as the social contract by which Hobbes and Rousseau supposed civil government to have been established. We can hardly suppose a parliament of hitherto speechless elders meeting together and agreeing to call a cow a cow and a wolf a wolf. The association of words with their meanings must have grown up by some natural process, though at present the nature of the process is unknown.
Spoken and written words are, of course, not the only way of conveying meaning. A large part of one of Wundt’s two vast volumes on language in his “Volkerpsychologie” is concerned with gesture-language. Ants appear to be able to communicate a certain amount of information by means of their antennae. Probably writing itself, which we now regard as merely a way of representing speech, was originally an independent language, as it has remained to this day in China. Writing seems to have consisted originally of pictures, which gradually became conventionalized, coming in time to represent syllables, and finally letters on the telephone principle of “T for Tommy.” But it would seem that writing nowhere began as an attempt to represent speech it began as a direct pictorial representation of what was to be expressed. The essence of language lies, not in the use of this or that special means of communication, but in the employment of fixed associations (however these may have originated) in order that something now sensible–a spoken word, a picture, a gesture, or what not–may call up the “idea” of something else. Whenever this is done, what is now sensible may be called a “sign” or “symbol,” and that of which it is intended to call up the “idea” may be called its “meaning.” This is a rough outline of what constitutes “meaning.” But we must fill in the outline in various ways. And, since we are concerned with what is called “thought,” we must pay more attention than we otherwise should do to the private as opposed to the social use of language. Language profoundly affects our thoughts, and it is this aspect of language that is of most importance to us in our present inquiry. We are almost more concerned with the internal speech that is never uttered than we are with the things said out loud to other people.
When we ask what constitutes meaning, we are not asking what is the meaning of this or that particular word. The word “Napoleon” means a certain individual; but we are asking, not who is the individual meant, but what is the relation of the word to the individual which makes the one mean the other. But just as it is useful to realize the nature of a word as part of the physical world, so it is useful to realize the sort of thing that a word may mean. When we are clear both as to what a word is in its physical aspect, and as to what sort of thing it can mean, we are in a better position to discover the relation of the two which is meaning.
The things that words mean differ more than words do. There are different sorts of words, distinguished by the grammarians; and there are logical distinctions, which are connected to some extent, though not so closely as was formerly supposed, with the grammatical distinctions of parts of speech. It is easy, however, to be misled by grammar, particularly if all the languages we know belong to one family. In some languages, according to some authorities, the distinction of parts of speech does not exist; in many languages it is widely different from that to which we are accustomed in the Indo-European languages. These facts have to be borne in mind if we are to avoid giving metaphysical importance to mere accidents of our own speech.
In considering what words mean, it is natural to start with proper names, and we will again take “Napoleon” as our instance. We commonly imagine, when we use a proper name, that we mean one definite entity, the particular individual who was called “Napoleon.” But what we know as a person is not simple. There MAY be a single simple ego which was Napoleon, and remained strictly identical from his birth to his death. There is no way of proving that this cannot be the case, but there is also not the slightest reason to suppose that it is the case. Napoleon as he was empirically known consisted of a series of gradually changing appearances: first a squalling baby, then a boy, then a slim and beautiful youth, then a fat and slothful person very magnificently dressed This series of appearances, and various occurrences having certain kinds of causal connections with them, constitute Napoleon as empirically known, and therefore are Napoleon in so far as he forms part of the experienced world. Napoleon is a complicated series of occurrences, bound together by causal laws, not, like instances of a word, by similarities. For although a person changes gradually, and presents similar appearances on two nearly contemporaneous occasions, it is not these similarities that constitute the person, as appears from the “Comedy of Errors” for example.
Thus in the case of a proper name, while the word is a set of similar series of movements, what it means is a series of occurrences bound together by causal laws of that special kind that makes the occurrences taken together constitute what we call one person, or one animal or thing, in case the name applies to an animal or thing instead of to a person. Neither the word nor what it names is one of the ultimate indivisible constituents of the world. In language there is no direct way of designating one of the ultimate brief existents that go to make up the collections we call things or persons. If we want to speak of such existentswhich hardly happens except in philosophy-we have to do it by means of some elaborate phrase, such as “the visual sensation which occupied the centre of my field of vision at noon on January 1, 1919.” Such ultimate simples I call “particulars.” Particulars MIGHT have proper names, and no doubt would have if language had been invented by scientifically trained observers for purposes of philosophy and logic. But as language was invented for practical ends, particulars have remained one and all without a name.
We are not, in practice, much concerned with the actual particulars that come into our experience in sensation; we are concerned rather with whole systems to which the particulars belong and of which they are signs. What we see makes us say “Hullo, there’s Jones,” and the fact that what we see is a sign of Jones (which is the case because it is one of the particulars that make up Jones) is more interesting to us than the actual particular itself. Hence we give the name “Jones” to the whole set of particulars, but do not trouble to give separate names to the separate particulars that make up the set.
Passing on from proper names, we come next to general names, such as “man,” “cat,” “triangle.” A word such as “man” means a whole class of such collections of particulars as have proper names. The several members of the class are assembled together in virtue of some similarity or common property. All men resemble each other in certain important respects; hence we want a word which shall be equally applicable to all of them. We only give proper names to the individuals of a species when they differ inter se in practically important respects. In other cases we do not do this. A poker, for instance, is just a poker; we do not call one “John” and another “Peter.”
There is a large class of words, such as “eating,” “walking,” “speaking,” which mean a set of similar occurrences. Two instances of walking have the same name because they resemble each other, whereas two instances of Jones have the same name because they are causally connected. In practice, however, it is difficult to make any precise distinction between a word such as “walking” and a general name such as “man.” One instance of walking cannot be concentrated into an instant: it is a process in time, in which there is a causal connection between the earlier and later parts, as between the earlier and later parts of Jones. Thus an instance of walking differs from an instance of man solely by the fact that it has a shorter life. There is a notion that an instance of walking, as compared with Jones, is unsubstantial, but this seems to be a mistake. We think that Jones walks, and that there could not be any walking unless there were somebody like Jones to perform the walking. But it is equally true that there could be no Jones unless there were something like walking for him to do. The notion that actions are performed by an agent is liable to the same kind of criticism as the notion that thinking needs a subject or ego, which we rejected in Lecture I. To say that it is Jones who is walking is merely to say that the walking in question is part of the whole series of occurrences which is Jones. There is no LOGICAL impossibility in walking occurring as an isolated phenomenon, not forming part of any such series as we call a “person.”
We may therefore class with “eating,” “walking,” “speaking” words such as “rain,” “sunrise,” “lightning,” which do not denote what would commonly be called actions. These words illustrate, incidentally, how little we can trust to the grammatical distinction of parts of speech, since the substantive “rain” and the verb “to rain” denote precisely the same class of meteorological occurrences. The distinction between the class of objects denoted by such a word and the class of objects denoted by a general name such as “man,” “vegetable,” or “planet,” is that the sort of object which is an instance of (say) “lightning” is much simpler than (say) an individual man. (I am speaking of lightning as a sensible phenomenon, not as it is described in physics.) The distinction is one of degree, not of kind. But there is, from the point of view of ordinary thought, a great difference between a process which, like a flash of lightning, can be wholly comprised within one specious present and a process which, like the life of a man, has to be pieced together by observation and memory and the apprehension of causal connections. We may say broadly, therefore, that a word of the kind we have been discussing denotes a set of similar occurrences, each (as a rule) much more brief and less complex than a person or thing. Words themselves, as we have seen, are sets of similar occurrences of this kind. Thus there is more logical affinity between a word and what it means in the case of words of our present sort than in any other case.
There is no very great difference between such words as we have just been considering and words denoting qualities, such as “white” or “round.” The chief difference is that words of this latter sort do not denote processes, however brief, but static features of the world. Snow falls, and is white; the falling is a process, the whiteness is not. Whether there is a universal, called “whiteness,” or whether white things are to be defined as those having a certain kind of similarity to a standard thing, say freshly fallen snow, is a question which need not concern us, and which I believe to be strictly insoluble. For our purposes, we may take the word “white” as denoting a certain set of similar particulars or collections of particulars, the similarity being in respect of a static quality, not of a process.
From the logical point of view, a very important class of words are those that express relations, such as “in,” “above,” “before,” “greater,” and so on. The meaning of one of these words differs very fundamentally from the meaning of one of any of our previous classes, being more abstract and logically simpler than any of them. If our business were logic, we should have to spend much time on these words. But as it is psychology that concerns us, we will merely note their special character and pass on, since the logical classification of words is not our main business.
We will consider next the question what is implied by saying that a person “understands” a word, in the sense in which one understands a word in one’s own language, but not in a language of which one is ignorant. We may say that a person understands a word when (a) suitable circumstances make him use it, (b) the hearing of it causes suitable behaviour in him. We may call these two active and passive understanding respectively. Dogs often have passive understanding of some words, but not active understanding, since they cannot use words.
It is not necessary, in order that a man should “understand” a word, that he should “know what it means,” in the sense of being able to say “this word means so-and-so.” Understanding words does not consist in knowing their dictionary definitions, or in being able to specify the objects to which they are appropriate. Such understanding as this may belong to lexicographers and students, but not to ordinary mortals in ordinary life. Understanding language is more like understanding cricket*: it is a matter of habits, acquired in oneself and rightly presumed in others. To say that a word has a meaning is not to say that those who use the word correctly have ever thought out what the meaning is: the use of the word comes first, and the meaning is to be distilled out of it by observation and analysis. Moreover, the meaning of a word is not absolutely definite: there is always a greater or less degree of vagueness. The meaning is an area, like a target: it may have a bull’s eye, but the outlying parts of the target are still more or less within the meaning, in a gradually diminishing degree as we travel further from the bull’s eye. As language grows more precise, there is less and less of the target outside the bull’s eye, and the bull’s eye itself grows smaller and smaller; but the bull’s eye never shrinks to a point, and there is always a doubtful region, however small, surrounding it.**
* This point of view, extended to the analysis of “thought” is urged with great force by J. B. Watson, both in his “Behavior,” and in “Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist” (Lippincott. 1919), chap. ix.
** On the understanding of words, a very admirable little book is Ribot’s “Evolution of General Ideas,” Open Court Co., 1899. Ribot says (p. 131): “We learn to understand a concept as we learn to walk, dance, fence or play a musical instrument: it is a habit, i.e. an organized memory. General terms cover an organized, latent knowledge which is the hidden capital without which we should be in a state of bankruptcy, manipulating false money or paper of no value. General ideas are habits in the intellectual order.”
A word is used “correctly” when the average hearer will be affected by it in the way intended. This is a psychological, not a literary, definition of “correctness.” The literary definition would substitute, for the average hearer, a person of high education living a long time ago; the purpose of this definition is to make it difficult to speak or write correctly.
The relation of a word to its meaning is of the nature of a causal law governing our use of the word and our actions when we hear it used. There is no more reason why a person who uses a word correctly should be able to tell what it means than there is why a planet which is moving correctly should know Kepler’s laws.
To illustrate what is meant by “understanding” words and sentences, let us take instances of various situations.
Suppose you are walking in London with an absent-minded friend, and while crossing a street you say, “Look out, there’s a motor coming.” He will glance round and jump aside without the need of any “mental” intermediary. There need be no “ideas,” but only a stiffening of the muscles, followed quickly by action. He “understands” the words, because he does the right thing. Such “understanding” may be taken to belong to the nerves and brain, being habits which they have acquired while the language was being learnt. Thus understanding in this sense may be reduced to mere physiological causal laws.