Perception Of Relations

WHY should this be the case? Briefly, because colours (and sounds)

as such are forced upon us by external stimulation of our organs of

sight and hearing, neither more nor less than various temperatures,

textures, tastes and smells are forced upon us from without through

the nervous and cerebral mechanism connected with our skin,

muscle, palate and nose. Whereas shapes instead of being thus nilly

willy seen or heard, ar
, at least until we know them, looked

at or listened to, that is to say taken in or grasped, by mental

and bodily activities which meet, but may also refuse to meet, those

sense stimulations. Moreover, because these mental and bodily

activities, being our own, can be rehearsed in what we call our

memory without the repetition of the sensory stimulations which

originally started them, and even in the presence of different ones.

In terms of mental science, colour and sound, like temperature,

texture, taste and smell, are sensations; while shape is, in the

most complete sense, a perception. This distinction between

sensation and perception is a technicality of psychology; but

upon it rests the whole question why shapes can be contemplated

and afford the satisfaction connected with the word beautiful,

while colours and sounds, except as grouped or groupable into

shapes, cannot. Moreover this distinction will prepare us for

understanding the main fact of all psychological aesthetics: namely

that the satisfaction or the dissatisfaction which we get from shapes

is satisfaction or dissatisfaction in what are, directly or indirectly,

activities of our own.

Etymologically and literally, perception means the act of

grasping or taking in, and also the result of that action. But

when we thus perceive a shape, what is it precisely that we grasp

or take in? At first it might seem to be the sensations in which that

form is embodied. But a moment's reflection will show that this

cannot be the case, since the sensations are furnished us simply

without our performing any act of perception, thrust on us from

outside, and, unless our sensory apparatus and its correlated brain

centre were out of order, received by us passively, nilly willy, the

Man on the Hill being invaded by the sense of that blue, that lilac

and that russet exactly as he might have been invaded by the smell

of the hay in the fields below. No: what we grasp or take in thus

actively are not the sensations themselves, but the relations

between these sensations, and it is of these relations, more truly than

of the sensations themselves, that a shape is, in the most literal sense,

made up. And it is this making up of shapes, this grasping or

taking in of their constituent relations, which is an active process on

our part, and one which we can either perform or not perform. When,

instead of merely seeing a colour, we look at a shape, our eye

ceases to be merely passive to the action of the various light-waves,

and becomes active, and active in a more or less complicated way;

turning its differently sensitive portions to meet or avoid the

stimulus, adjusting its focus like that of an opera glass, and like an

opera glass, turning it to the right or left, higher or lower.

Moreover, except in dealing with very small surfaces, our eye

moves about in our head and moves our head, and sometimes our

whole body, along with it. An analogous active process undoubtedly

distinguishes listening from mere hearing; and although

psycho-physiology seems still at a loss for the precise adjustments

of the inner ear corresponding to the minute adjustments of the eye,

it is generally recognised that auditive attention is accompanied by

adjustments of the vocal parts, or preparations for such adjustments,

which account for the impression of following a sequence of

notes as we follow the appearance of colours and light, but as we do

not follow, in the sense of connecting by our activity,

consecutive sensations of taste or smell. Besides such obvious or

presumable bodily activities requisite for looking and listening as

distinguished from mere seeing and hearing, there is moreover in all

perception of shape, as in all grasping of meaning, a mental

activity involving what are called attention and memory. A

primer of aesthetics is no place for expounding any of the various

psychological definitions of either of these, let us call them, faculties.

Besides I should prefer that these pages deal only with such mental

facts as can be found in the Reader's everyday (however unnoticed)

experience, instead of requiring for their detection the artificial

conditions of specialised introspection or laboratory experiment. So

I shall give to those much fought over words attention and

memory merely the rough and ready meaning with which we are

familiar in everyday language, and only beg the Reader to notice

that, whatever psychologists may eventually prove or disprove

attention and memory to be, these two, let us unscientifically

call them faculties, are what chiefly distinguishes perception

from sensation. For instance, in grasping or taking stock of a

visible or an audible shape we are doing something with our

attention, or our attention is doing something in us: a travelling

about, a returning to starting points, a summing up. And a travelling

about not merely between what is given simultaneously in the

present, but, even more, between what has been given in an

immediately proximate past, and what we expect to be given in an

immediately proximate future; both of which, the past which is put

behind us as past, and the past which is projected forwards as future,

necessitate the activity of memory. There is an adjustment of our

feelings as well as our muscles not merely to the present sensation,

but to the future one, and a buzz of continuing adjustment to the past.

There is a holding over and a holding on, a reacting backwards and

forwards of our attention, and quite a little drama of expectation,

fulfilment and disappointment, or as psychologists call them, of

tensions and relaxations. And this little drama involved in all

looking or listening, particularly in all taking stock of visible or

audible (and I may add intellectual or verbal) shape, has its

appropriate accompaniment of emotional changes: the ease or

difficulty of understanding producing feelings of victory or defeat

which we shall deal with later. And although the various perceptive

activities remain unnoticed in themselves (so long as easy and

uninterrupted), we become aware of a lapse, a gap, whenever our

mind's eye (if not our bodily one!) neglects to sweep from side to

side of a geometrical figure, or from centre to circumference, or

again whenever our mind's ear omits following from some particular

note to another, just as when we fall asleep for a second during a

lecture or sermon: we have, in common parlance, missed the hang

of some detail or passage. What we have missed, in that lapse of

attention, is a relation, the length and direction of a line, or the

span of a musical interval, or, in the case of words, the references of

noun and verb, the co-ordination of tenses of a verb. And it is such

relations, more or less intricate and hierarchic, which transform what

would otherwise be meaningless juxtapositions or sequences of

sensations into the significant entities which can be remembered and

recognised even when their constituent sensations are completely

altered, namely shapes. To our previous formula that beautiful

denotes satisfaction in contemplating an aspect, we can now add that

an aspect consists of sensations grouped together into relations

by our active, our remembering and foreseeing, perception.