Study Guide

H. H. Price

H. H. Price Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Price expressed perhaps the most complex version of sense-data theory, articulated a sophisticated theory of concepts and a detailed account of belief, and discussed various key topics in the philosophy of religion, including the notion of an afterlife.

Early Life

Born at the end of the nineteenth century in Wales, Henry Habberley Price was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford. He was a shy and somewhat reclusive person; in later life he neither belonged to a school of philosophy nor sought to found one. He served as fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1922 to 1924. Price was appointed fellow and lecturer of Trinity College in 1924 and remained there until 1935. He became Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College in 1935, a position from which he retired in 1959. Like Henry Sidgwick, William James, and C. D. Broad, Price was interested in psychical research, publishing articles in journals devoted to this topic and serving as president of the Society for Psychical Research, London, and a charter member of the Parapsychological Association as well as a member of the professional philosophical associations the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association. Price was visiting professor at Princeton University in 1948 and the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1962, and Gifford Lecturer at Aberdeen University in 1959-1960; his book Belief contains the substance of these distinguished lectures.

Life’s Work

Price stated that his book Perception “is concerned in the main with only two points, the nature of perceptual consciousness and the relation of sense-data to the ordinary ‘macroscopic objects’ of daily life, such as tables and rocks.” Price rejected the view that sense-data (sensory images private to the person who has them) are caused by material objects in such a way that perceiving is a matter of inferring back to their physical causes.

Philosopher John Locke held that physical objects cause private perceptions that later philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, came to call “sense-data.” In Locke’s view, in perception, we are directly aware of sense-data (Locke’s term is “impressions of sensation”), which, in cases of veridical or reliable perception, partially resemble the physical objects that cause them. Specifically, color qualities and taste qualities, accessible to only one sense, are not present in physical objects, nor do they resemble any features of such objects. In contrast, shape and size qualities do resemble features of such objects. Perception, in this view, involves knowing there are mind-independently existing objects by inferring their existence from the private impressions with which we are noninferentially aware. George Berkeley and other philosophers were dubious about the reliability of any such inference and proposed instead that our sensory awareness is simply constituted by sense-data. John Stuart Mill proposed that physical objects are simply made up of (actual and possible) sense-data. Talk of physical objects, insofar as it refers to anything at all, refers to actual and possible sensory experiences.

Price rejected Locke’s causal theory of the origin of sense-data and Mill’s phenomenalism (so called because in this view physical objects are reducible to, or composed of, private sensory phenomena). Nonetheless, he held that it is sense-data that provide the immediate objects of perceptual awareness, the things that we are noninferentially aware of when we have sensory experiences. Price developed and defended this view in Perception, a view that is nothing if not detailed and complex.

The simplest way of denying Locke’s and Mill’s very different views would be to deny that there are sense-data. The idea of sense-data as items that come between the subject and the ultimate object of perception was rejected by Price. However, he held that there are sense-data that belong to material objects, and much of Perception is devoted to explaining what “belongs to” means. To perceive is to have sense-data that one takes to belong to mind-independent physical objects. Price’s concept, unlike Locke’s, does not require an inference to objects and, unlike Mill’s, does not see objects as mere collections of sense-data.

The “belonging to” relation is analyzed so as to involve the notion of a family of sense-data; sense-data can fit together in the sense that together they form a single solid thing—a complete, three-dimensional figure. Price writes concerning such things as a table or a rock that it is:

neither the family [of sense-data] alone or the...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)