Gerald E. Myers, William James, his life and thought

Chapter 4: Space

  1. p115, §2: Jame’s basic thesis was that all sensation have a spatial dimension. For example, sensations of sight, touch, sound and pain display volumunousness or extensivity.
    ” We call the reverberations of a thunderstorm more voluminous than the squeaking of a slate-pencil; the entrance into a warm bath gives our skin a more massive feeling than the prick of a pin; a little neuralgic pain, fine as a cobweb, in the face, seems less extensive than the heavy soreness of a boil or the vast discomfort of a colic or a lumbago; and a solitary star looks smaller than the noonday sky” (principles, 2:134)
  2. P155, §3: James’s nativism was opposed to theories of space-perception which try to derive space from nonspatial elements. Such empirists as Herbert Spencer, Thomas Brown, Alexander Bain and John Stuart Mill had defended an ontology which included only unextended feeling and time as original elements. they argued that retinal sensations, for example, which are originally in our experience, do not possess extension; this feature occurs ony later, through processes of association. Extensivity is born from certain muscular feelings; the sweep and movement of our eyes creates our sense of extensitivity or vastness. After birth it is associated with nonspatial retinal sensations; colors are seen next to, outside of, or beyond each other. But the empiricist argue, the eye required the assistance of the muscular feelings involved in moving the head to see colors in such relations. According to this argument, then, space is not found in elementary sensations. As Bain put it, space as a quality of experience “has no other origin and no other meaning than the association of these different [nonspatial] motor and sensitive effects.”
  3. P115, §4: James se pose la question suivante: How, he asked, can association generate space from totally non spatial elements?
  4. We can sometimes judge distance from the visual image of one eye by using indirect cues, but this determination is not as accurate or as immediate as the “powerful sensation of stereopsis”, the visual sensation we know when looking at stereoscopic slides or three-dimensional movies(1). Things that are invisible monocularly will stand out vividly when seen stereoscopically. James argued that this phenomenon appears to be neurophysiological, due only to the eyes and brain, not requiring psychological explanations that involve mind-set, unconscious inferences, or association. Stereoscopic vision depends entirely upon the horizontal disparity between the two retinal images, and binocular apprehension of depth does not require prior regognition of form, “suggesting that the disparity infomation is processed by the brain fairly early in visual perception” (2). If learning or experience is needed for depth perception, the only learner is the brain itself (3). Nativism, taken as the theory that spatial dimensions are experiential data acquired without the help of psychological processes, thus, the contemporary position that James anticipated.
  5. p117, §2: James, two claims:
    1. Spatial relations such as up and down are sensations
    2. The knowledge of space develops from acquaintance with the primordial extensivity which allegedly characterizes all sensations: “Rightness and leftness, upness and downness, are again pure sensations differing specifically from each other, and generically from everything else” (Principles, 2:150)
  6. P188: But spatial relations have no sensory nature to focus on or study introspectively. We can see directly that a rock is to the left of a tree, but we cannot see a separate, isolable to-the-left-of. This relation and to-the-right-of  do not differ as do loud and faint noises or mild stabbing headaches. Above does not gleam above, nor does below perceptually bristle below. Spatial relations lack the sensuous marks of sensations. The concept of the given, of spatial relations, and the sensations must be allowed their proper distinctness.
    It would be extraordinary to have sensations and yet overlook or ignore their prominent features. If we notice a stabbing pain, it would be peculiar not to be aware of the loudness of the stabs. But the case is not the same with spatial relations. (…) The spatial relation is there before us in full view, yet our attention bypasses it, which would be unusual if it were a sensation.
  7. P118-119, §5 et §1; (…) oour everyday apprehension of space is a development of a prior acquaintance with space-as-sensation. He moved from the thesis that all sensations possess a vague quale of spatiality to the claim that the “primordial largenesses which the sensations yield must be measured and subdidvided by consciousness, and added together, before they can for by their synthesis what we know as the real Space of the objective world” (Principles, 2:145). The “primordial largenesses” here are the spatial properties of sensations which prompt us to talk of big noises, heavy odors, or minute tastes. Our descriptions of sensations, in borrowing from the vocabulary of the physical environment, always include a spatial dimension. This dimension originally occurs in a vague and unordered form; it is a primitive extensivity not yet measured or otherwise defined; an example is the ocular vastness of an empty blue sky. Thses unordered extensities, which according to James are sensations and our original experiences of space, are subsequently arranged into one surrounding spatial world by a “complicated set of intellectual acts” (Principles, 2:145-46).
  8. P119, §3: The device, James theorized, is superposition, which yields “exact equivalences and common measures… Could we superpose one part of our skin upon another, or one object on both parts, we should hardly succeed in coming to that knowledge of our own form which we possess. (…)
    A blind person is said to use this technique for obtaining a spatial conception of himself; by superposing bodily parts and tracing lines on different parts by the same movements, he eventually reduce all the felt differences of his bodily dimensions to a common scale.
  9. P120, §1: Selon James: the sense of touch enjoys a special status in our choice of what is real among our space-perceptions. Just as we reduce sight-sensations to a common scale, we must reduce sensations of different modalities to a homogenous method of comparison. How do we compare the spaces experienced by sight, sound, taste, smell and touch? Joseph Jastrow had speculated that “the striking disparities between our visual and other space-perceptions can only be explained by the tendency to interpret all dimensions into their visual equivalents.” James agreed that some interpretation into a sensory equivalent is required, but he conceived the equivalent as one of touch rather than sight. Sight-spaces tend to reduce to touch-spaces, he argued, because of the “far greater constancy of felt over seen magnitude” and the “greater practical interest which the sens of touch possesses for our lives. Sight is only a sort of anticipatory touch” (Principles, 2:180). When touch and sight conflict, touch reveals what is real among our space-percepts.
  10. P120, §2: We must take another step to get from our first sensations of space to the one surrounding, common space, the real space in which we live and move. James said that we discriminate original spatial sensations into subdivisions, compare those subdivisions, and reduce their dimensions to a common scale. But how do we movie from these subdivided spaces to the one space of everyday life? “How are the various sense-spaces added together into a consolidated and unitary continuum?” (Principles, 2:181)
  11. P121: James vigorously objected to the Kantian view that our perception of the external world is essentially an intellectual process and claimed to find no such “Kantian machine-stop” in his own mental processes. But in explaining how we get from originally unordered spaces to one system or continuum of space, he himself resorted to two basic, albeit unconscious, intellectual acts.
    A coookie is a thing constructed from its taste-at-a-place, its fragance-at-a-place, and its feel-at-a-place. We make these different but simultaneous cases of at-a-place coalesce into one place. In one act, we create both the cookie as a physical thing and its place. James thought that constructing a physical thing at one place from diferrent sense-date at different places was the first step from spaces to space itself.
  12. p122, § 1: We thus acquire the notion of “a space larger than that which any one sensation brings,” a single spatial system or continuum incorporating the different spaces of particular sensations. The continuum is conceived, not perceived. Since James called this larger space an object of conception, he must have supposed a single system or continuum of space. (Principles, 2.185)
  13. p122, §2: Autour de: Such coalescence of sensation is initially responsible for the transitions from spaces to space, from sensations to physical things.
    Cette page tourne ensuite sur la question du continuum temporel.
    Despite his dislike of Kantian mental-machine shop which compensate for the allegedly weak powers of sensations, and his own insistence that introspection reveals no experience fo mentally creating space, James believed in an act that creates the illusion of a single continuum of space.

    Tout le §1 porte sur la question du continuum.

  14. P123, §2: Theory of sensation-fusion (…) is designed to get us from separate, spatially unrelated spaces of different sensations to a single space.(…) The theory of coalescence, far from showing how a spatial environment containing discrete locations is constructed from originally unrelated places of particular sensations, actually presupposes that spatial environment. (…) At the best, the theory of sensation-fusion leaves the “how” of this move a speculative mystery. James had just the opposite intent.
    Paragraphe autour de la fusion des sensations et comment s’opère cette fusion?
  15. P124, §2: James’s metaphysical picture is neatly conveyed in the philosophical example of a dental cavity and the discrepancies between how large it feels and how large it looks and measures. “The space of the tooth sensibility is thus really a little world by itself, which can only become congruent with the outer space world by father experiences which shall alter its bulk, identify its directions, fuse its margins, and finally imbed it as a definite part within a definite world. (…) Instead he wrote as if the “little world” of the cavity and its spatial extent as defined by the tongue is some kind of primitive material which, through the influence of subsequent experiences, we “alter”, “fuse”, and “imbed” within the common spatial continuum we call the one real space. (…) how do we escape from those little worlds to the one big one?
  16. P125, §1: Poursuite de la page précédente: Without the public it we would have no reason to be aware of any discrepancy between how the cavity feels the tongue, how it fells to the finger, and how its looks in the mirror.  Observed discrepancies presuppose things like cavities as common reference points, which already constitute what we call in one world.
  17. p125, §2: (…) The places and extens of sensations altered, fuses, and imbedded into one complex which we know as the spatial continuum.
  18. p126, §1: Lien au monde des rêves et hallucinations, et leurs relations à l’espace réelle. Lien au concept général de sensation.
  19. p126, §3: Respecting the subjective nature of the experience and avoiding the psycologist’s fallacy are two motivations that led James to picture our lives as commencing in sensations that separate into different spatial worlds.
  20. p127, §1: James critique Kant, Wundt, and Helmholtz pour dégrader l’importance des sensations.
    There are certainly important differences between James and antinativists, but it prominentl advertised resolve to champion sensations in his theory of space faltered noticeably.
  21. P127, §2: James attempted to model a system of space on what we seem to find within our experience of space, which may explain why sensations rather than behavior and motor-learning play the dominant role in this theory of space-perception. He thought that we come closer to understanding space by heeding what it is like to hear or feel or see something than by registering how spatial relations are established through pacing off a distance or placing one thing between others. (…) §3, For James, the space is real, that antedates any human perceptual construct and resembles our experience of space, is an unmeasured vastness that our original sensation of extensity or unordered vastness models in miniature. The space that does not antedate our construction or it is the ordered, measured space of common experience, of geometry and physics. (…)


1. See John D. Pettigrew, The Neurophysiology of Binocular Vision, Scientific American 227 (august 1972): 84
2. ibid 84-87. James like Pettigrew, refers to Wheatstone’s contributions to the topic in psychology, 351.
3. Pettigrew’s and Jame’s accounts are opposed to Berkerley’s theory thant depth is not given in sensation but is learned through associating data of sight whith those of touch.


À propos de Nativisme, et la perception de l’espace:
La théorie de la perception, que Kant a exposée dans l’esthétique transcendantale, est considérée comme l’expression la plus complète et la plus parfaite de la théorie nativiste. Dans les philosophies antérieures à la philosophie kantienne, la question de la perception de l’espace ne se pose pas d’une manière très précise ; il s’agit, en effet, de définir bien plus la nature de l’espace que la façon dont nous le percevons. Pour Descartes, l’innéité de la notion d’espace s’impose en vertu de la clarté et de la distinction de cette idée. Leibniz, par la distinction qu’il fait entre l’étendue et l’espace, modifie déjà profondément la doctrine de l’innéité et fait une place plus grande à le question de la perception. En effet, d’après lui, l’espace n’est pas une, réalité, mais une abstraction. Ce que nous percevons directement, c’est l’étendue concrète et limitée; nous en dérivons ensuite par abstraction l’idée d’espace vide et illimité, l’étendue étant l’ordre des coexistences réelles et l’espace l’ordre des coexistences possibles. Pour Kant enfin, la question de la réalité de l’espace ne se pose plus ; elle se résout dans celle de la perception. L’espace n’est, en effet, qu’une forme pure et à priori de la sensibilité ; en d’autres termes, notre sensibilité on faculté de percevoir est ainsi faite qu’elle ne peut recevoir les matériaux de la connaissance sans les mouler dans cette forme qui est en elle et en elle seulement, l’espace.
Serge Jodra, site Internet Commovision


Gerald E. Myers, William James, his life and thought, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986

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