H. H. Price

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1938

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.

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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 physical object [a mind-independent occupant of a spatial location] alone, but something that consists of both; we mean a certain family [of sense-data] together with the physical object [the space occupier] coincident with it.

Perception struggles mightily with the task of saying how various sense-data (including visual, tactual, and auditory) form families that occupy a specious (momentary) present and can endure, and how they combine with space occupiers to form objects. In the preface to the second edition of Perception, Price seems to regard the view he developed more as a manifestation of a sort of perspective held by many at the time than something to be unreservedly accepted at a later date, though this is compatible with continuing to accept parts of his earlier view. He grants that talk of physical objects is logically prior to that of sense-data in that one must use concepts of physical objects in order to explain what sense-data are. He also grants that in typical veridical or reliable sensory experience we are not aware of any sense-data at all but only of material objects. These are strong concessions to the criticism of a theory of the sort Price had held.

In 1940, Price’s Hume’s Theory of the External World was published. It remains a classic account of its topic that has never been surpassed. In his next major philosophical work, Thinking and Experience, Price argued that to have a concept is to possess a representational capacity, not (as a popular competing theory had it) simply to be able to use a symbol correctly. He argues against any view in which having a concept was analyzed without remainder in terms of actual and potential behavior. He summarizes his view by saying:

I have been recommending a dispositional version of Conceptualism [the view that universals are not mind-independent abstract objects, but rather are some sort of mental objects or activities], instead of the traditional introspective version inspective or introspective Conceptualism, which holds that concepts or abstract ideas present themselves to the mind as one sort of occurrent mental contents among others. It is true that we may still speak, if we please, of “having an abstract idea occurrently” as distinct from “having it dispositionally.” However, having it occurrently does not consist in directing a kind of mental gaze at it. It is not any sort of intuitive apprehension or direct awareness. The nearest we get to anything of the kind is the inspection of generic images.

Price’s Essays in the Philosophy of Religion contains his 1971 Sarum Lectures delivered at the University of Oxford. They include discussions of the sort of fear of God that is said to be the beginning of religion, petitionary prayer, motives for disbelief in an afterlife that he argues are just as powerful as desires that inspire belief in an afterlife, and an especially interesting discussion of two conceptions of afterlife. One is a conception of the afterlife in which its participants are conceived as embodied, and the other is a conception of the afterlife in which its participants are thought of as disembodied minds having dreamlike perceptual states that are capable of being influenced by the telepathic powers of other minds, thus making communication possible even in the absence of a common physical environment. He argued that upon careful examination, the two conceptions are much closer than one might think possible. An unusual feature of these essays is their frequent reference to psychical research and its proposed findings, concerning some of which Price held a cautiously favorable view.

Belief contains the Gifford Lectures for 1959-1960. Price noted that belief is a mental state or act of which one can be introspectively aware. According to this view, which Price calls the mental occurrence theory of belief, the philosophical task concerning belief is the description and analysis of this occurrence. One endeavors to describe the necessary and sufficient conditions for its being true of someone that they are in the mental state that is belief. Traditionally, this has been the dominant account of belief.

In other views, beliefs are dispositions rather than occurrences. To say that someone believes that mice are smaller than rabbits is to say that the individual would tend to answer affirmatively to the question “Are mice smaller than rabbits?,” to place rabbits in cages when asked to put the larger animals in a room filled with mice and rabbits in cages, and so on. This Price called the dispositional theory of belief. Those who hold the occurrence theory typically allow that belief has a dispositional component. One can believe that snails move slowly even when none of one’s mental contents represents snails moving slowly, and what makes it true that, in the absence of any such representation, one still believes that snails move slowly is the sort of thing that the dispositional theory takes to entirely constitute belief. However, the occurrence theorist insists that it is belief as occurrence that is primary in properly describing the nature of belief. The dispositional analysis, as Price conceived it, simply leaves out belief as occurrence.

Price’s purpose is to describe and defend a version of the occurrence theory. In so doing, he discusses various related topics: René Descartes versus David Hume on whether belief can be voluntary, the issue of whether beliefs can ever be self-verifying, John Locke and John Henry Newman on degrees of assent, whether there is an ethics of belief, belief in versus belief that, belief that a whole worldview is true, and belief and faith. He also argued that the epistemology of belief and the metaphysics of mind and body are interrelated issues.


Price’s theory of perception is probably the most thorough version of a view that Price himself came to see as problematic. His theories of thought and belief went against the reductive views of his day, but they were argued in clear detail and are, at least in part, still defensible. The same is true of his discussions in the philosophy of religion, particularly those concerning the conceptual possibility of life after death.

Additional Reading

Davis, Stephen T. “Survival of Death.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. Discussion of the notion of a person surviving the death of her body, with reference to Price’s classic article, “Survival and the Idea of ‘Another World.’”

Davis, Stephen T., ed. Death and Afterlife. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discussions of the afterlife, from secular and a variety of religious perspectives with some references to H. H. Price; not every religious tradition teaches personal survival.

Flew, Antony, and Alasdair McIntyre, eds. New Essays in Philosophical Theology. London: SCM Press, 1955. Essays by D. M. Mackinnon and Antony Flew regarding survival.

Lewis, H. D. Persons and Life After Death. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1978. Essays on the title topics by Lewis, with contributions from and discussions with Anthony Quinton, Bernard Williams, Antony Flew, and Sydney Shoemaker with numerous references to Price; Lewis favors the claim that persons survive the death of their bodies, and the others are critics of this claim.

Yandell, Keith. The Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1999. Contains discussions of views of persons and the afterlife as held in various religious traditions.

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