The Mind and the Brain/Book II/Chapter II

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The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book II: Chapter II
Definition of Sensation
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When making the analysis of matter we impliedly admitted two propositions: first, that sensation is the tertium quid which is interposed between the excitant of our sensory nerves and ourselves; secondly, that the aggregate of our sensations is all we can know of the outer world, so that it is correct to define this last as the collection of our present, past, and possible sensations. It is not claimed that the outer world is nothing else than this, but it is claimed with good reason that the outer world is nothing else to us.

It would be possible to draw from the above considerations a clear definition of sensation, and especially it would be possible to decide henceforth from the foregoing whether sensation is a physical or a mental phenomenon, and whether it belongs to matter or to mind. This is the important point, the one which we now state, and which we will endeavour to resolve. To make the question clearer, we will begin it afresh, as if it were new, and as if the facts hitherto analysed did not already prejudge the solution. Let us begin by giving a definition of sensation from the point of view of experimental psychology.

Sensation, then, is the phenomenon which is produced and which one experiences when an excitant has just acted on one of our organs of sense. This phenomenon is therefore composed of two parts: an action exercised from outside by some body or other on our nervous substance; and, then, the fact of feeling this action.

This fact of feeling, this state of consciousness, is necessary to constitute sensation; when it does not exist, it is preferable to give the phenomenon another name, otherwise the fault is committed of mixing up separate facts. Physiologists have, on this point, some faults of terminology with which to reproach themselves; for they have employed the word sensibility with too little of the critical spirit. Sensibility, being capacity for sensation, presupposes, like sensation itself, consciousness. It has, therefore, been wrong, in physiology, to speak of the sensibility of the tissues and organs, which, like the vegetable tissues or the animal organs of vegetative life, properly speaking, feel nothing, but react by rapid or slow movements to the excitements they are made to receive. Reaction, by a movement or any kind of modification, to an excitement, does not constitute a sensation unless consciousness is joined with it, and, consequently, it would be wiser to give unfelt excitements and reactions the name of excitability.

The clearest examples of sensation are furnished by the study of man, and are taken from cases where we perceive an external object. The object produces upon us an action, and this action is felt; only, in such cases, the fact of sensation comprises but a very small part of the event. It only corresponds, by definition, to the actual action of the object. Analysis after analysis has shown that we constantly perceive far beyond this actual action of objects. Our mind, as we say, outruns our senses. To our sensations, images come to attach themselves which result from sensations anteriorly felt in analogous circumstances. These images produce in us an illusion, and we take them for sensations, so that we think we perceive something which is but a remembrance or an idea; the reason being that our mind cannot remain in action in the presence of a sensation, but unceasingly labours to throw light upon it, to sound it, and to arrive at its meaning, and consequently alters it by adding to it. This addition is so constant, so unavoidable, that the existence of an isolated sensation which should be perceived without the attachment of images, without modification or interpretation, is well-nigh unrealisable in the consciousness of an adult. It is a myth.

Let us, however, imagine this isolation to be possible, and that we have before us a sensation free from any other element. What is this sensation? Does it belong to the domain of physical or of moral things? Is it a state of matter or of mind?

I can neither doubt nor dispute that sensation is, in part, a psychological phenomenon, since I have admitted, by the very definition I have given of it, that sensation implies consciousness. We must, therefore, acknowledge those who define it as a state of consciousness to be right, but it would be more correct to call it the consciousness of a state, and it is with regard to the nature of this state that the question presents itself. It is only this state which we will now take into consideration. It is understood that sensation contains both an impression and a cognition. Let us leave till later the study of the act of cognition, and deal with the impression. Is this impression now of a physical or a mental nature? Both the two opposing opinions have been upheld. In this there is nothing astonishing, for in metaphysics one finds the expression of every possible opinion. But a large, an immense majority of philosophers has declared in favour of the psychological nature of the impression. Without even making the above distinction between the impression and the act of cognition, it has been admitted that the entire sensation, taken en bloc, is a psychological phenomenon, a modification of our consciousness and a peculiar state of our minds. Descartes has even employed this very explicit formula: “The objects we perceive are within our understanding.” It is curious to see how little trouble authors take to demonstrate this opinion; they declare it to be self-evident, which is a convenient way of avoiding all proof. John Stuart Mill has no hesitation in affirming that: “The mind, in perceiving external objects, can only take notice of its own conditions.” And Renouvier expresses the same arbitrary assertion with greater obscurity when he writes: “The monad is constituted by this relation: the connection of the subject with the object within the subject.”[1] In other words, it is laid down as an uncontrovertible principle that “the mental can only enter into direct relations with the mental.” That is what may be called “the principle of Idealism.”

This principle seems to me very disputable, and it is to me an astonishing thing that the most resolute of sceptics—Hume, for example—should have accepted it without hesitation. I shall first enunciate my personal opinion, then make known another which only differs from mine by a difference of words, and finally I will discuss a third opinion, which seems to me radically wrong.

My personal opinion is that sensation is of a mixed nature. It is psychical in so far as it implies an act of consciousness, and physical otherwise. The impression on which the act of cognition operates, that impression which is directly produced by the excitant of the nervous system, seems to me, without any doubt, to be of an entirely physical nature. This opinion, which I make mine own, has only been upheld by very few philosophers—Thomas Reid perhaps, and William Hamilton for certain; but neither has perceived its deep-lying consequences.

What are the arguments on which I rely? They are of different orders, and are arguments of fact and arguments of logic. I shall first appeal to the natural conviction of those who have never ventured into metaphysics. So long as no endeavour has been made to demonstrate the contrary to them, they believe, with a natural and naïve belief, that matter is that which is seen, touched and felt, and that, consequently, matter and our senses are confounded. They would be greatly astonished to be informed that when we appear to perceive the outer world, we simply perceive our ideas; that when we take the train for Lyons we enter into one state of consciousness in order to attain another state of consciousness.

Now, the adherents of this natural and naïve opinion have, as they say in the law, the right of possession (possession d’état); they are not plaintiffs but defendants; it is not for them to prove they are in the right, it has to be proved against them that they are in the wrong. Until this proof is forthcoming they have a presumption in their favour.

Are we here making use of the argument of common opinion of mankind, of which ancient philosophy made so evident an abuse? Yes, and no. Yes, for we here adopt the general opinion. No, for we only adopt it till the contrary be proved. But who can exhibit this proof to the contrary? On a close examination of the question, it will be perceived that sensation, taken as an object of cognition, becomes confused with the properties of physical nature, and is identified with them, both by its mode of apparition and by its content. By its mode of apparition, sensation holds itself out as independent of us, for it is at every instant an unexpected revelation, a source of fresh cognitions, and it offers a development which takes place without and in spite of our will; while its laws of co-existence and of succession declare to us the order and march of the material universe. Besides, by its content, sensation is confounded with matter. When a philosopher seeks to represent to himself the properties of a material object,—of a brain, for example—in order to contrast them with the properties of a psychical activity, it is the properties of sensation that he describes as material; and, in fact, it is by sensation, and sensation alone, that we know these properties. Sensation is so little distinct from them that it is an error to consider it as a means, a process, an instrument for the knowledge of matter. All that we know of matter is not known in or by sensation, but constitutes sensation itself; it is not by the aid of sensation that we know colour; colour is a sensation, and the same may be said of form, resistance, and the whole series of the properties of matter. They are only our sensations clothed with external bodies. It is therefore absolutely legitimate to consider a part of our sensations, the object part, as being of physical nature. This is the opinion to which I adhere.

We come to the second opinion we have formulated. It is, in appearance at least, very different from the first. Its supporters agree that the entire sensation, taken en bloc and unanalysed, is to be termed a psychological phenomenon. In this case, the act of consciousness, included in the sensation, continues to represent a psychical element. They suppose, besides, that the object on which this act operates is psychical; and finally, they suppose that this object or this impression was provoked in us by a physical reality which is kept in concealment, which we do not perceive, and which remains unknowable.

This opinion is nowise absurd in itself: but let us examine its consequences. If we admit this thesis, that sensations are manifestations of mind which, although provoked by material causes, are of a purely mental nature, we are forced to the conclusion that we know none of the properties of material bodies, since we do not enter into relations with these bodies. The object we apprehend by perception is, according to this hypothesis, solely mental. To draw therefrom any notion on material objects, it would have to be supposed that, by some mysterious action, the mental which we know resembles the physical which we do not know, that it retains the reflection of it, or even that it allows its colour and form to pass, like a transparent pellicle applied on the contour of bodies. Here are hypotheses very odd in their realism. Unless we accept them, how is it comprehensible that we can know anything whatever of physical nature? We should be forced to acknowledge, following the example of several philosophers, that the perception of the physical is an illusion.

As a compensation, that which this system takes from matter it attributes to mind, which turns our familiar conceptions upside down. The qualities of sensation detached from matter will, when applied to mind, change its physiognomy. There are sensations of extent, weight, space, and form. If these sensations are turned into psychical events, we shall have to grant to these events, to these manifestations of the mind, the properties of extent, of weight, of form. We shall have to say that mind is a resisting thing, and that it has colour.

It may be said that this fantasy of language is not very serious. So be it. But then what remains of the dualism of mind and matter? It is at least singularly compromised. We may continue to suppose that matter exists, and even that it is matter which provokes in our mind those events which we call our sensations; but we cannot know if by its nature, its essence, this matter differs from that of mind, since we shall be ignorant of all its properties. Our ignorance on this point will be so complete that we shall not even be able to know whether any state which we call mental may not be physical. The distinction between physical and mental will have lost its raison d’être, since the existence of the physical is necessary to give a meaning to the existence of the mental. We are brought, whether we like it or not, to an experimental monism, which is neither psychical nor physical; panpsychism and panmaterialism will have the same meaning.[2]

But this monism can be only transitory, for it is more in the words than in the thing itself. It is brought about by the terminology adopted, by the resolution to call mental all the phenomena that it is possible to know. Luckily, our speculations are not at the mercy of such trifling details as the details of language. Whatever names may be given to this or that, it will remain none the less true that nature will continue to present to us a contrast between phenomena which are flints, pieces of iron, clods of earth, brains—and some other phenomena which we call states of consciousness. Whatever be the value of this dualism, it will have to be discussed even in the hypothesis of panpsychism.[3] As for myself, I shall also continue to make a distinction between what I have called objects of cognition and acts of cognition, because this is the most general distinction that can be traced in the immense field of our cognitions. There is no other which succeeds, to the same degree, in dividing this field into two, moreover, this distinction is derived directly from observation, and does not depend for its validity on the physical or mental nature of the objects. Here is, then, a duality, and this duality, even when it does not bear the names physical and moral, should necessarily play the same part, since it corresponds to the same distinction of fact.

In the end, nothing will be changed, and this second opinion must gradually merge into the one first stated by me, and of which I take the responsibility. We may, therefore, put it out of consideration.

I have mentioned a third opinion, stating that it appeared to me to be radically false. Outwardly it is the same as the last; looked at superficially it seems even confused with it; but, in reality it is of a totally different nature. It supposes that sensation is an entirely psychological phenomenon. Then, having laid down this thesis, it undertakes to demonstrate it by asserting that sensation differs from the physical fact, which amounts to supposing that we cannot know anything but sensations, and that physical facts are known to us directly and by another channel. This is where the contradiction comes in. It is so apparent that one wonders how it has been overlooked by so many excellent minds. In order to remove it, it will be sufficient to recollect that we do not know anything other than sensations; it is therefore impossible to make any distinction between the physical object and the object of cognition contained in every sensation. The line of demarcation between the physical and the moral cannot pass this way, since it would separate facts which are identical.

We can, therefore, only deplore the error of all those who, to express the difference between mind and matter, have sought a contrast between sensation and physical facts. Physiologists, with hardly an exception, have fallen into this error; when contemplating in imagination the material working of the brain, they have thought that between the movement of cerebral matter and sensation there was a gulf fixed. The comparison, to have been correct, required to be presented in quite another way. A parallel, for instance, should have been drawn between a certain cerebral movement and the act of consciousness, and there should have been said: “The cerebral motion is the physical phenomenon, the act of consciousness the psychical.” But this distinction has not been made. It is sensation en bloc which is compared to the cerebral movement, as witness a few passages I will quote as a matter of curiosity, which are borrowed from philosophers and, especially, from physiologists.

While philosophers take as a principle of idealism, that the mental can only know the mental, physiologists take, as a like principle, the heterogeneity existing, or supposed to exist, between the nerve impression and the sensation. “However much we may follow the excitement through the whole length of the nerve,” writes Lotze,[4] “or cause it to change its form a thousand times and to metamorphose itself into more and more delicate and subtle movements, we shall never succeed in showing that a movement thus produced can, by its very nature, cease to exist as movement and be reborn in the shape of sensation. . . .” It will be seen that it is on the opposition between molecular movement and sensation, that Lotze insists. In like manner Ferrier: “But how is it that the molecular modifications in the cerebral cells coincide with the modifications of the consciousness; how, for instance, do luminous vibrations falling upon the retina excite the modification of consciousness called visual sensation? These are problems we cannot solve. We may succeed in determining the exact nature of the molecular changes which take place in the cerebral cells when a sensation is felt; but this will not bring us an inch nearer to the explanation of the fundamental nature of sensation.” Finally, Du Bois Reymond, in his famous discussion in 1880, on the seven enigmas of the world, speaks somewhat as follows: “The astronomical knowledge of the encephalon, that is, the most intimate to which we can aspire, only reveals to us matter in motion. But no arrangement nor motion of material particles can act as a bridge by which we can cross over into the domain of intelligence. . . . What imaginable link is there between certain movements of certain molecules in my brain, on the one hand, and on the other hand primitive, undefinable, undeniable facts such as: I have the sensation of softness, I smell the odour of a rose, I hear the sound of an organ, I see a red colour, &c. . . .”

These three quotations show very conclusively that their authors thought they could establish the heterogeneity of the two phenomena by opposing matter to sensation. It must be recognised that they have fallen into a singular error; for matter, whatever it may be, is for us nothing but sensation; matter in motion, I have often repeated, is only a quite special kind of sensation; the organic matter of the brain, with its whirling movements of atoms, is only sensation. Consequently, to oppose the molecular changes in the brain to the sensation of red, blue, green, or to an undefined sensation of any sort, is not crossing a gulf, and bringing together things which cannot be compared, it is simply comparing one sensation to another sensation.

There is evidently something equivocal in all this; and I pointed this out when outlining and discussing the different theories of matter. It consists in taking from among the whole body of sensations certain of them which are considered to be special, and which are then invested with the privilege of being more important than the rest and the causes of all the others. This is about as illegitimate as to choose among men a few individuals to whom is attributed the privilege of commanding others by divine right. These privileged sensations which belong to the sight, the touch, and the muscular sense, and which are of large extent, are indeed extensive. They have been unduly considered as objective and as representing matter because they are better known and measurable, while the other sensations, the unextensive sensations of the other senses, are considered as subjective for the reasons that they are less known and less measurable: and they are therefore looked on as connected with our sensibility, our Ego, and are used to form the moral world.

We cannot subscribe to this way of establishing the contrast between matter and thought, since it is simply a contrast between two categories of sensations, and I have already asserted that the partitioning-out of sensations into two groups having different objective values, is arbitrary.


  1. Ch. Renouvier et Louis Prat, La Nouvelle Monadologie, p. 148.
  2. An American author, Morton Prince, lately remarked this: Philosophical Review, July 1904, p. 450.
  3. This Flournoy recently has shown very wittily. See in Archives de Psychologie, Nov. 1904, his article on Panpsychism.
  4. This extract, together with the two subsequent, are borrowed from an excellent lecture by Flournoy, on Métaphysique et Physiologie. Georg: Geneva, 1890.