From Process Studies,
Vol. 21, Number 4, Winter 1992, 227-230.
“Whitehead’s revolutionary thesis is that causal connection [in
perception] takes place, not in virtue of the activity of the cause, but
through the activity of the effect. It cannot be the cause that is
active, because at the crucial point in time, the activity of the cause
is over and done with. What is active is not the past, but the
present actuality which is in process of becoming.”
July 11, 2008
Whitehead’s Theory of
L. C. Maclachlan
Near the beginning of
Meaning and Effect, Whitehead introduces the
problem of perception in terms which would have seemed very natural in
the era of Bertrand Russell and C. D. Broad and H. H. Price.
We look up and see a colored shape in front of us, and we say, “There is
a chair.” But what we have seen is the mere colored shape. . . . [We]
are very prone . . . to pass straight from the perception of the colored
shape to the enjoyment of the chair, in some way of use, or of emotion,
or of thought (S 2, 3).
The traditional problem is to explain the possibility and justification
of this move, bearing in mind the errors and illusions which sometimes
lead us astray.1
Many contemporary philosophers would refuse to read further, once they
come upon the claim that what we see are mere colored shapes. When they
look at a chair, these philosophers do not see mere colored shapes, but
the chair itself. Whitehead, however, is trying to capture that phase
of visual experience which intervenes between the stimulation of the
senses and perception-based reports about the environment. It is that
experience which is identical when we see a collection of objects
reflected in a mirror and a corresponding collection through an open
I am not suggesting that it makes no difference how you describe visual
experience, so long as other people understand the mental state denoted.
On the contrary, a proper description is vitally important for
theoretical purposes, since an inappropriate conceptualization may
frustrate any explanation of the transition from the perceptual
experience to justified claims about the external world. This is why
those who have recently revived the notion of visual experience, such as
John Searle and Christopher Peacocke, have broken away from the
traditional story about the awareness of visual sense-data, in favor of
the view that perceptual experience has propositional content (Searle)
or representational content (Peacocke).2
Describing visual experience as the seeing of sense-data suggests that
beliefs about the external world must be reached by a process of
inference. Whitehead soon reveals, however, that he is not in the grip
of the inference model which his choice of words might suggest. He
considers it implausible to assume that a high-grade mental operation
like inference is “required to get from the colored shape to the chair”
(S 3). The transition is so natural that it is not beyond the
capacities of puppy dogs. The perception of the colored shape must be
transcended not only to make speeches about the world, but also to
interact intelligently with the world in the light of our purposes. The
puppy has transcended his perception of colored shapes when he jumps
upon the chair before his eyes.
The real question, however, is not whether we make the move from the
awareness of sense-data to our knowledge of the external world by a
process of inference, but how such a move is possible at all, whatever
name we may give to the process. The key to the solution, I think, is
the recognition that the awareness of sense-data, although a genuine and
conspicuous element in experience, does not exhaust the whole of our
experience. The contemplation of colored shapes is not an autonomous
function of the human being, but occurs within the context of a rich
mental life. The focus on sense-data developed through the Cartesian
program of finding a basis in clear and distinct ideas from which to
demonstrate the existence of the physical world, thereby providing a
conclusive answer to radical skepticism. The irony is that the use of
so narrow a basis, proving unsuccessful, feeds the very skepticism it
was supposed to contain. If our objective is not to demonstrate the
external world, but to explain the grounds for our actual belief, it is
legitimate to appeal to factors beyond the sense-data clearly and
This is precisely the strategy which Whitehead adopts. The familiar
immediate presentation of the contemporary world, which philosophers of
the day described as the awareness of sense-data, is called by Whitehead
“Experience in the Mode of Presentational Immediacy.” But there is more
to experience than presentational immediacy.
Presentational immediacy is possible, according to Whitehead, “by means
of our projections of our immediate sensations, determining for us
characteristics of contemporary physical entities” (S 13-14). This is
“a world decorated by sense-data dependent on the immediate states of
relevant parts of our own bodies” (S 14). Although Whitehead has talked
about the “projection of our immediate sensations,” he soon explains
that this is misleading. “There are no bare sensations which are first
experienced and then ‘projected’ . . . onto the opposite wall as its
color. The projection is an integral part of the situation” (S 14).
Nor, in describing the situation, is it entirely appropriate to refer
to the wall, since the term “wall,” in its usual meaning, introduces
information not disclosed in pure presentational immediacy. “This
so-called ‘wall’ . . . contributes itself to our experience only under
the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and
combined with sense-data” (S 15).
The important point to notice is that the mode of presentational
immediacy is not the mere enjoyment of sensations, but has a cognitive
structure. It is not at all like Hume’s bundle of impressions, but has
much more in common with Kant’s faculty of outer sense. Both
presentational immediacy and outer intuition are cognitions, involving a
relation to objects displayed in space. Kant explains the possibility
of this cognitive state by an appeal to a pure intuition which provides
the required objective domain. Corresponding to Kant’s pure intuition
of space, Whitehead presupposes the perception of the contemporary world
as extensive continuum. How such a feat is possible is a very good
question, since Whitehead rejects the Kantian tactic of grounding pure
intuitions in forms of sensibility, together with the idealism which
this entails. But whatever explanation is given, some such immediate
representation of a contemporary domain of space must be assumed, if we
are to justify anything like our customary perceptual beliefs. Even the
standard inferential theory must have a place to put the inferred causes
of our sense-data.
One obvious puzzle about presentational immediacy has to do with the
ambiguous status of the sense-data. On the one hand, the colors we
experience appear to decorate external physical objects: but on the
other hand, these colors are “dependent on the immediate states of
relevant parts of our own bodies” (S 14). Whitehead suggests that these
colors “can with equal truth be described as our sensations or as the
qualities of the actual things which we perceive” (S 21-22). This
permissive stance will satisfy both the learned and the vulgar, to use
Hume’s terms. It satisfies the vulgar, because it agrees with common
sense that the colors we experience are properties of external things.
It satisfies the learned, because it agrees that the sensations
experienced are the outcome of a process involving and conditioned by
the sense organs and other physiological factors. But how can Whitehead
satisfy both parties at the same time without inconsistency?
Whitehead’s central disagreement with Kant, and with Hume, and with the
whole tradition to which they belong, is that whatever account is given
of presentational immediacy, it does not tell the whole story about
experience through the senses. When we reflect on experience, the
consciousness of the vision-dominated display is so prominent that there
is a temptation to suppose that this is it. The crucial move in
Whitehead’s theory of perception is to confront this temptation and
challenge the exclusive claim of presentational immediacy to provide the
sole basis for perceptual knowledge.
This brings us to the second fundamental mode of experience: the Mode of
Causal Efficacy. This is the more primitive form of experience and
dominates primitive living organisms. The introduction of this mode is
an inevitable corollary of Whitehead’s fundamental metaphysical
position. For Whitehead, each actual entity emerges through a process
of conformation to the settled data of its immediate past. This process
is that conditioning of the present by the past which we call causal
efficacy. Whitehead’s revolutionary thesis is that causal connection
takes place, not in virtue of the activity of the cause, but through the
activity of the effect. It cannot be the cause that is active, because
at the crucial point in time, the activity of the cause is over and done
with. What is active is not the past, but the present actuality which is
in process of becoming.
If causal connection depends on the activity of the present, it is a
short step to the position that causal connection is constituted through
an act of experience of the past by the present. This is perception in
the mode of causal efficacy. It is not just that, against Hume, we have
an experience of causal connection: we have a form of experience which
is causal connection.
As a component in our total experience, this primitive perception of the
settled past may indeed enter into consciousness, and Whitehead believes
that it does. But the sense of the conformation of the present to the
immediate past, however insistent, lacks the clarity and definition of
presentational immediacy. It is “heavy with the contact of things gone
by, which lay their grip on our immediate selves” (S 44), but the world
it presents is vague and undifferentiated.
The two pure perceptive modes have opposite strengths and weaknesses.
Causal efficacy is vague and unmanageable, whereas presentational
immediacy provides us with a barren display. Our cognitive development
thus requires that integration of the two basic modes which Whitehead
calls “symbolic reference.” Symbolic reference has its vital
importance, because “what we want to know about . . . chiefly resides in
those aspects of the world disclosed in causal efficacy: . . . what we
can distinctly register is chiefly to be found among the percepta in the
mode of presentational immediacy” (PR 169). Thus, the region of outer
space decorated with grey sense-data in presentational immediacy becomes
through symbolic reference the wall to which we refer in ordinary
discourse, with its solid presence and causal powers.
This symbolic reference requires, for Whitehead, a common ground
connecting the two pure modes of experience. This common ground has two
components, one of which is “a spatio-temporal system common to both” (S
53). This system “is directly and distinctly perceived in
presentational immediacy, and is indistinctly and indirectly perceived
in causal efficacy” (PR 169).
The second component is constituted by the sensa, which have a function
in both modes. It is this dual function which explains the puzzling
ambiguity described earlier. The same visual sensum, for instance, may
illustrate an object in a distant region of space, while being given to
the subject through its ingredience in the bodily organs of sense.
Thus, a gray sensum, although given as characterizing an object in the
visual field of presentational immediacy, is not given by that object.
It could not be given by that object. Since object and subject are
contemporary, they cannot sustain between them a relation of giving and
receiving. The grey sensum is given through the appropriate
physiological processes in the body, in virtue of the stimulation of the
eyes. Through projection, it comes to decorate the contemporary world.
Finally, through symbolic reference, it is referred to more remote
causes responsible for the physiological processes.
It is only through symbolic reference that perceptual error is
introduced. The two pure modes of perception consist in a direct
recognition which cannot be mistaken. Even in a so-called visual
illusion, where, for instance, the space behind the mirror is
illustrated in presentational immediacy, there is no mistake. Error
comes in through the interplay of the modes in symbolic reference.
Notice that such mistakes are not intellectual in character, since this
type of symbolic reference does not involve the operation of thought.
Whitehead explains that the common ground which connects the two pure
modes of perceptive experience is no accident. “Presentational
Immediacy,” he writes, “is an outgrowth from the complex datum implanted
by causal efficacy” (PR 173). This suggests to me an emendation of
Whitehead’s theory. Although there may be primitive actualities whose
experience is completely in the mode of causal efficacy, presentational
immediacy, when it occurs, always occurs, perhaps, embedded in a context
of causal efficacy. This means that no special act of symbolic
reference is required to relate the content of presentational immediacy
to the datum in causal efficacy. The reference to this datum is built
into the very construction of the immediate presentation. The very
function of the phase of presentational immediacy is to provide a
representation or mapping of the datum, which is dimly discerned at the
level of causal efficacy. Thus, the notion of a pure mode of
presentational immediacy is an abstraction, reached by deleting the
symbolic reference to reality necessarily involved in presentational
immediacy as it develops in ordinary experience.
I have a feeling that Whitehead would not be entirely unsympathetic to
what I have been saying. He certainly concedes: “When human experience
is in question ‘perception’ almost always means perception in the mixed
mode of symbolic reference” (PR 168). There are, I think, two reasons
why Whitehead has presented his account of perception with a different
emphasis. One reason is that the picture of sense-datum awareness as an
independent and isolated experience dominated thinking about perception
at the time. The other, deeper reason is the attempt to bring
perception under the general theory of symbolism. This may have
distorted his account of the perceptual situation.
As elsewhere in this paper, I am no more than scratching the surface of
a complex and difficult subject. My hope is that this scratching may
have turned up something of interest.
Whitehead concentrates on the sense
of sight, which provides the most detailed information about distant
objects, but would wish to extend his account, with suitable
modifications, to other senses.
Cf. John Searle, Intentionality
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), Chapter II, and
Christopher Peacocke, Sense and Content (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1983), Chapter I.