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Volume 1

Expanded Contents


1: Introduction [and Summary]
2: Physical Field Theories
3: Psychological Field Theories
4: Social Field Theories
5: The Field of Power
6: Field Theories in Summary
8: Actuality versus Potentiality
9: Manifests versus Latents
10: Latent Functions
11: Perception, Space, and Field
12: Cognitive Dissonance
13:Behavior, Personality, Situation, and Expectations
14: The Behavioral Equation: Behavior, Situation, and Expectations
15: Situation, Expectations, and Triggers
16: Person-Perception and Distance
17: The Behavioral Occasion
18: Social Behavior
19: Motivational Explanation
20: Energy and Attitudes in the Psychological Field
21: Motivation and the Superordinate Goal
22: What About Other Motivations ?
23: The Dynamic Field and Social Behavior
24: The Sociocultural Spaces
25: The Biophysical Spaces
26: Intentions and The Intentional Field
27: A Point of View
28: The Self As a Power
29: The Will As a Power
30: Determinism and Free Will
31: Alternative Perspectives on Freedom of the Will
32: A Humanism Between Materialism and Idealism
33: Atomism-Mechanism versus Organicism
34: Between Absolutism and Relationism
35: Humanity and Nature

Other Volumes

Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 7

Perception And Reality*

By R.J. Rummel

When we perceive any object of a familiar kind, much of what appears subjectively to be immediately given is really derived from past experience. When we see an object, say a penny, we seem to be aware of its 'real' shape: we have the impression of something circular, not of something elliptical. In learning to draw, it is necessary to acquire the art of representing things according to the sensation, not according to the perception. And the visual appearance is filled out with feeling of what the object would be like to touch, and so on.
----Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind

What is it that we perceive? What is the relationship among things-in-themselves, our sensation of them, and our understanding? Is understanding nothing more than the ideas generated by our sensations, as Locke believed? Or are there distinct Cartesian realms of thought and sense? And is there an external reality apart from our sensations?

Philosophers have troubled over such questions, for engaging them is to wrestle with the fundamentals of our ontologies and epistemologies. Until recent times, however, philosophers have had to deal with such questions without the help of any systematic psychological or relevant physiological knowledge. The philosopher was left largely to his own good sense, thought, and intuition. Now physiological and especially neurological knowledge, psychological laboratory research, and empirical analyses by Gestalt, field, and personality theorists, and psychoanalytic experience have given us a solid base for our understanding of perception. Rather than review the fascinating philosophical views of perception and their relationship to thought and reality, I will move directly to a rough sketch of the perceptual field and only allude to some of the more pertinent philosophical ideas in the process.

Two preliminary asides should be made, however. First, the reader who is looking for some psychological orientation toward violence and war from this book, The Dynamic Psychological Field, may be impatient with and curious about this extensive psychophilosophical digression into perception. I can only assert here what I will show in a later volume: the discussion of the field context of conflict, violence, and war will depend in part on perceptual level concepts, such as expectations, dispositions, percept, trigger event, and sensory vehicles. For example, an understanding of such central political concepts as "status quo" and "status quo testing" requires comprehending perception and how sociopolitical meanings (such as military threat or political intent) are carried by events (such as preparing bomb shelters or promoting a specific general to the politbureau). Students of violence and war only recently have tackled the problem of perception,1 but in doing so have adopted the narrowest and most sterile stimulus-response conception of Thomas Hobbes and the successor psychological behaviorism of Watson.2 Perception is a core concept and, as I will show, has a central function in our intentional field. Attention to its nature will help me eventually explain why, for example, blacks should suddenly riot in American cities or some defenders of the American role in the Vietnam War should refer to it as the war to prevent World War III.

Second, while in their details this and the following chapters are based on scientific and clinical knowledge of perception and in ontology adopt the objective relativism of Ushenko's philosophy of power,3 in structure (the dynamic psychological field and the interrelationships among perception, personality, and behavior), the conception is largely mine. The field perspective to be presented integrates salient aspects of what psychologists and sociologists have so far kept apart: the work on abilities and motivations of personality psychologists; Gestalt theory; research on meaning; field theory (Tolman and Lewin); theories of cognitive dissonance; and concepts of expectations, social behavior, roles, and will.


 Perception is a dynamic conflict between the attempts of an outer world to impose an actuality on us and our efforts to transform this actuality into a self-centered perspective. Perception is a confrontation between an inward directed vector of external reality compelling awareness and an outward-directed vector of physiological, cultural, and psychological transformation. Where these vectors clash, where they balance each other, is what we perceive. This in sum is my view of perception.

As a way of unpacking the complexities and explaining the nature of this view, I will begin with a simple rough sketch of perception. This sketch will treat perception as the end of a sequence of psychophysical processes, invested with meaning and orientation by a cultural matrix. The whole process can be presented in commonsense terms, and its description will serve as a useful springboard to understanding perception as a balance of power between inner and outer-directed vectors or powers.

To begin with, initially assume a reality outside our minds and bodies containing potentials and dispositions. Any aspect of this realm with the power to stimulate our senses (for example, sounds, heat, color, motion) may be called a determinable.4 Figure 7.1 shows a determinable within the external reality represented on the figure's right margin.

Figure 7.1

The determinable tries to become determinate or manifest as stimuli that strike our sensory receptors through a medium, as sound waves are carried by an atmosphere, or heat by a solid. What is a stimulus and what is a carrier or medium varies from sensation to sensation. Stimuli and carriers may be interchanged from one instant to another, the relative role depending on the perceptual focus and the determinable. The atmosphere may carry one stimulus and then generate stimuli itself (such as wind); the movement of a solid body may be stimulus to the eye, then the body itself may carry heat to our touch.

Once a stimulus is carried from the determinable to our sensory receptors, it then is altered and interpreted electrically by the body's neurological system. Complex neural paths transmit the result from the receptors to somewhere in the brain. Let me call the resulting deposit in the brain the perceptible, and the neurological transmission system between receptors and perceptible the physiological medium, as shown in Figure 7.1.

Clearly what is directed toward us as a stimulus may differ from what is received as a perceptible. The external medium may alter the stimulus (as water does sound), or there may be no medium present to convey it (voices cannot be heard through a vacuum). Moreover, what is transmitted to our sensory receptors cannot be carried with fidelity to the brain. We can receive only a limited range of sounds, smells, and radiant energy; and what is within receivable range is altered physically in transmission to the brain. Thus, for example, the impulse frequency conveyed from the basilar membrane of the cochlea in the inner ear is not the same frequency as that of the impinging sound.

Animals clearly differ in their limitations for physiologically transmitting stimuli carried to their receptors. Each selectively interprets external reality physiologically within its own sensory sphere. There is a sensory sphere for us, a different one for dogs, another for cats, and so on. The fact that we have developed tools for extending our receptors (x-rays for example), and thus our sensory-sphere, does not alter the biological fact that the everyday external world we know through our perceptibles is but a transformation of stimuli of external reality.

The two different media which carry stimuli from the determinable to the brain are shown in Figure 7.1. The movement from stimulus (the determinable) to medium to receptors to neural transmission to perceptible is a chain with each, event" in the chain being necessary but not sufficient for the one following it. The nature of this transformal chain and the existence of different sensory spheres for each animal argue against many varieties of realism and for some kind of dualism or perspectivism. Various forms of direct realism, such as naive realism--the view that there is what we sense--are untenable. What reaches our brain is not directly what is out there in its totality, although the perceptibles may be more or less patterned after external reality or comprise aspects or facets of realities as a landscape painting more or less copies the real terrain.


 Perceptibles are what reach the brain, but they are not what may be perceived. Rather, perceptibles reach intuitive awareness through the cultural schema and the cultural system of meanings-values. The schema consists of the fundamental culture-given categories for making the perceptibles intelligible and the cultural framework for their interpretation. Cause and effect, relation, space, and time are such categories,5 as are, more specifically, up-down, right-left, and north-south. The schema provides orientation toward the perceptibles. The cultural system of meanings-values gives the perceptibles their significance, invests them with meaningfulness for us, informs them with design, assigns them purpose, and bestows them with value. The perceptibles are given their interpretative importance through the meanings-values system and oriented through the schema for our practical judgment and behavior. Figure 7.1 shows a perceptible passing through this entirely mental orientational and significance adding investiture, this cultural matrix, to become a percept. It is a percept which we apprehend, of which we are aware, of which we are conscious.

Some examples of perceptibles and percepts may clarify their difference. Now, what reaches the brain as perceptibles are nerve impulses that communicate a complex amorphous aggregation of color patches, motions, odors, sounds, and so on. A perceptible may be a particular sound or color patch or form. It has no identity as girl, knife, cloth, or John, for example, until it is mentally invested with these interpretations. For purposes of clarification, however, let me impose these elementary names on the perceptibles and put them in quotation marks to show that I have already imposed a primitive interpretation. Figure 7.2 shows examples of "perceptibles" turned percepts.

Figure 7.2

While our perceptual consciousness or awareness begins with percepts, we add to percepts a structure, a sculptured body that enables us to cognitively deal with them and make them intelligible. This conceptual stage of perception involves our fitting percepts and language together. This is the naming level, where percepts are turned into concepts connoting specific invariant properties (dispositions). The perceived blue patch becomes sky, the red somewhat spherical percept becomes an apple, the percept of a person becomes the President. Clearly, percept turns into concept through the cultural matrix. Our cultural learning largely determines that which we are consciously aware of and how we conceptually structure that awareness.


This account of perception is uncongenial with the views of various philosophers who equated sensations with perceptibles and then argued that we were directly aware of external reality through these sensations. Hobbes, Descartes (even in his dualism), Berkeley, Hume, and Locke believed that our percepts or concepts are directly based on or directly reflect our sensations. They differed on the relation of judgment and thought to sensations; but insofar as sensations (perceptibles) were concerned, they allowed little room for cultural influences to intervene between them and ideas (percepts): they did not appreciate the extent to which cultural learning and content transforms our perception, and the degree to which conscious sensations are culturally mediated perceptions of external reality. Previously, I had noted that the route from determinables as stimulus to our receptors and from receptors to perceptibles is at best an imperfect transmission. Now we also see that the mental alteration of perceptibles into percepts is a metamorphosis--a transformation--and not a simple transmission. It is a transformal process. Thus we find that the belief in direct realism, whether that we directly perceive (consciously) what is "out there" or that we perceive a representation (like a map) of what is there, is untenable, even though widely believed today among social scientists and very much an assumption underlying various views on social conflict and war.

However, I must hasten to add that psychologists would consider the above view of perception grossly inadequate--a biocultural perceptual determinism built on only a partial view of perception. And they would be correct. For what is missing so far is our psychological, our neuroses, anxieties, abilities, motivations, intentions, memories, and temperament. Moreover, the social psychologist would correctly add that I have ignored roles and expectations and the interactive link between behavior and perception. And not to be slighted, the psychoanalyst would yell above the clamor, "id, ego, superego!"

To see why we must ultimately incorporate psychological forces, consider the glaring omission of perceptual illusions or hallucinations from my account. We sometimes perceive what does not exist in external reality, or what we do perceive is grossly distorted beyond any cultural influences. Seeing pink elephants when drunk, having double vision, hearing ghosts, or touching holy apparitions, and the like are examples. Ideologically investing perceptibles with perceptually integrated themes, like capitalist exploitation, communist conspiracy, or Catholic plots are other perhaps more common distortions or illusions.

Consequently, while stimuli are necessary and not sufficient6 for excitation of our receptors, perceptibles are neither sufficient nor necessary for perception. First, the cultural schema and meanings-values system provide a perspective within which some perceptibles are given interpretation and some are ignored. Thus, the multitude of amorphous and varied perceptibles the brain receives as a result of a glance will be reduced to the perception of, say, a lion, a tree, or a pencil. Foreground and background may be omitted and unessential perceptibles other than the focal determinable will be ignored. That the brain receives perceptibles is therefore no guarantee that they are transformed into percepts. Second, we may perceive without any associated perceptible. We may project into external reality, for example, the visions of a holy person when no corresponding perceptible is being received by the brain. Therefore, perceptibles are also not necessary for percepts.

Then, how do we form percepts? What role in perception do perceptibles play, if neither necessary nor sufficient? For answers, we must reinterpret the psychological reality mapped in Figure 7.1. We must now consider perceptibles as entering a field of psychological forces capable of executing them, or buffeting them about until, distorted and tattered, they reach awareness--a field also capable of creating within itself, and wholly out of local field forces, perspectives and percepts. We thus would find that as we increasingly view perception as being within a psychological field, the causal chain theory of perception, even as modified, becomes more untenable. External objects, what I call determinables, may generate stimuli, which become altered and selected through our physiological medium and transformed by our cultural matrix into perceptibles, but what we are aware of, that which we perceive, may only remotely correspond to the resulting perceptibles or may be wholly psychological inventions. That is, there is an active, psychological engagement in perception, a confrontation of external reality with a psychological reality, a clash of two worlds whose battle lines comprise our perception. Therefore, while useful as an initial provisional sketch, the simple view of perception as a unidirectional process running from external object to stimuli to receptors to perceptibles to percept to concept will have to be modified in favor of a dialectical field theory of perception. This theory will be developed gradually in the following chapters. 


* Scanned from Chapter 7 in R.J. Rummel, The Dynamic Psychological Field, 1975. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. The profound relationship between perception and conflict has been appreciated by the best writers on the subject, such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz. Thucydides, for example, clearly was aware of the dependence of peace on the perception of interests, capability, and will (credibility).

2. J. B. Watson, Behaviorism (New York: Norton, '1924).

3. See Chapter 5.

4. Do not trouble over the precise meaning of this and other terms introduced at this point. Subsequent chapters will gradually clarify them.

5. These are not the Kantian a priori forms for understanding experience, nor am I using the term "category" in quite the Aristotelian or Kantian sense. By category I mean the culturally given scheme for relating stimuli one to another or to the self.

6. Just to make sure that I am clear in using these terms: A is sufficient for B if when A, then B (if a rose, then thorns); A is necessary for B if when B, then A--that is, A must be present for B to be present (when no A, then no B), but having A does not necessarily mean having B (gravity is necessary for a ladder to fall). I am not using necessary and sufficient with any causal meaning, as the rose example indicates. Nor, do I define cause here as a necessary and sufficient condition.

since 11/26/02

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