In Perception, H. H. Price undertakes an examination of existing theories of perception, rejecting what is bad, retaining what is good, and adding original reflections to construct a new, more adequate theory avoiding the difficulties of the old. Price phrases the problem of perception in two separate questions:1. What is perceptual consciousness and how is it related to sensing? 2. What is the relation of “belonging to” when we say a sense-datum “belongs to” a thing?

Consciousness contains givens—color expanses, pressures, noises, smells. These givens are sense-data, and the act of apprehending them intuitively is sensing. There are other data of consciousness, such as of introspection or memory. Sense-data differ from these solely in that they lead us to conceive of and believe in the existence of material things (whether or not such things actually do exist). By accepting sense-data as given, we do not commit ourselves to believing (1) that they persist when not being sensed (but only that they exist when sensed), (2) that the same sense-datum may be a datum of more than one mind, (3) that sense-data have some particular status in the universe, or (4) that they originate in any particular way.

Naïve Realism

Price examines and rejects naïve realism and its offshoots, the selective theory and the causal theory. He makes some use of the theory of phenomenalism and gathers the apparatus with which to exclude it only after stating most of his own theory. He never loses sight of his two basic questions, and all his very thorough and detailed arguments and rebuttals keep constant contact with them.

Naïve realism asserts that (1) perceptual consciousness is knowing that there exists an object to which a sense-datum presently sensed belongs and (2) for a visual or tactual sense-datum to belong to an object is for that sense-datum to be part of the surface of a three-dimensional object. Those who oppose the naïve realist usually regard hallucinations and perceptual illusions as ample refutation, but they commonly assume in their premises the theory they profess to upset. Price argues that the argument that actually disposes of naïve realism is simply that the many surfaces as seen, if they were really surfaces, simply would not fit together to construct the sort of three-dimensional solid in which the naïve realist believes. From the controversy, we can rescue the facts that the totum datum (the sum of all the data of all the senses at a particular time) has main parts, the somatic sense-data and the environmental, and that in certain respects these vary concomitantly. They are always copresent and covariant; that is, the totum datum is somato-centric. Similarly, from the remains of the effort to establish an improved form of realism that...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Perceptual Consciousness

The primary form of perceptual consciousness of our sense-data is perceptual acceptance. As a sense-datum arises, a state of taking for granted the material thing to which the sense-datum belongs also arises. The question whether to believe simply does not occur with the first sense-datum, though it may be introduced later. Other than the datum itself, perceptual acceptance has no content. Although I take for granted that the front surface of what I see has a back, I leave it until later to determine the nature of the unseen part. Moreover, the first sense-datum does not completely specify the details of the accessible side, but rather it simply limits the possibilities to some extent. Further observation adds greater detail. I therefore do not take my first datum as identical with the front surface of the object, but simply take it that a thing now exists that has a certain general character.

Unlike the transitory sense-datum, a material thing persists through a period before and after the sense-datum. It is spatially complete in three dimensions, whereas a sense-datum is spatially incomplete. It is public and accessible to many minds, whereas a sense-datum, being somato-centric, is private. “Belonging to” it are sense-data of many, usually all, of the different senses. Finally, it has causal relations, whereas the relation between a sense-datum and the awareness of that sense-datum is not causal.

Price accounts for error, illusion, and...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

How Sense-Data Interrelate

Price carries out a subtle and complex analysis of the relation of sense-data to one another. From the separate sense-data of sense-fields, as both change, we gain our beliefs in the existence of individual things. The theory that sense-data that resemble one another compose a class, and that the thing is simply the class of resembling data, is inadequate because many of the data of an individual thing do not resemble one another in any sensible way. A better theory is that of gradual transition, which accounts not only for the changing of sense-data with motion of the observer but also for distorted data (as in perspective viewing) as well as for changing qualities (while, it is assumed, the thing itself does not change). According to this view, the whole group of changing data gathered as we move about a thing to get further specification of it “belong to” the particular thing. However, shapes, sense-data apprehended as spatial, must be related not only geometrically but also locally. We need an account of the manner in which sense-data “fit together” to form a solid. Price calls data that thus fit together constructible.

Price cites certain empirical facts. Although optical theory has not recognized it, vision has two types of stereoscopy, perfect and imperfect. The familiar sort associated with perspective seeing is the imperfect; it allows us to construct solid objects from its data but incompletely. Immediately before the eyes there is a range of depth in which the usual perspective effects are reversed—the parallel edges of a matchbox when held against the nose seem closer together at the nearer rather than farther end. Between this nearest range and the outer one, there is a range of perfect stereoscopy, in which the visual sense-data of any object small enough to lie within it actually do coincide, approximately, with the surfaces of the particular thing. In this range, things are seen without distortion. The rectangular sides of the matchbox are seen as rectangular, not...

(The entire section is 839 words.)


So far, it might seem that the theory of perception Price has offered is an elaborated phenomenalism, identifying a material thing with the family of sense-data. He shows, however, that this is not his theory. A material thing physically, as well as sensibly, occupies a space. By this we mean that it manifests in that space certain causal characteristics, most notably that of impenetrability. When a chestnut drops on a stone and bounces away, it is a causal characteristic of the stone, not a sense-characteristic, that has acted on the chestnut. An obtainable sense-datum, on the other hand, is not an existent particular, but a fact of the form “If any observer were at such and such a point of view, such and such a sense-datum would exist.” Because an individual observer can occupy only one point of view at a time, he or she can realize only one of the alternatively obtainable sense-data at a time.

The family of sense-data thus has a peculiar mode of existence, as a collection of actual sense-data, plus an infinite number of obtainable sense-data existing as contemporary alternatives, centering on a standard solid. This is not the kind of entity to which causal characteristics may belong. Further, in many instances, a family of sense-data is manifested in only one part of a region when a causal characteristic is being manifested in many parts of that region. Again, causes continue to be manifested during times when no sense-data are obtained. There is no necessary concomitance of caused events with sense-data, though there is concomitance among sense-data themselves. Accordingly, the causative physical occupant and the family of sense-data are not identical, and phenomenalism is false.

Collective Delimitation Theory

Now we see that for a sense-datum s to belong to a certain material thing M, first s must be a member of a family of sense-data prolonging itself through time and centering in a standard solid having a certain place in the system of standard solids; and second, the place must be physically occupied—causal characteristics must be manifested there. This is Price’s theory, the collective delimitation theory. It stresses that the primary relation of “belonging to” is between an entire family and a material thing, the relation of a single sense-datum to the thing being derivative; moreover, that the family is related to the material thing by coinciding with the physically occupative portion of the...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Beyond Phenomenalism

Price’s Perception perhaps represents our farthest point of advance in its area. Whether his position is adopted, his close study of the problems and his careful solutions have much that is useful. For the introspective part of his procedure, Price asks of us only the accordance with our own experience. In addition, he seems to begin with the perhaps intuitive preconceptions that have made us suspicious of some of the stranger theories of perception and to exhibit and justify these conceptions. Finally, Price’s convincing exposition of the differences between the separately certifiable orders, sense-data, and the manifestations of causality seems, by correcting the “emptiness” of phenomenalism, to be a considerable...

(The entire section is 113 words.)


Additional Reading

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.

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.’”


(The entire section is 199 words.)