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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, are, 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.

Next: Elements Of Shape

Previous: Sensations

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