Image or Sensation

Dr. Gore[1] has suggested that the distinction between the image and the sensation is one between different stages of abstraction. At the extreme end of this process lies the so-called pure sensation, at the other end lies the object within which the elements represented by the sensation and the image are both present; and on the line between these we have varying degrees.

"The more he (the psychologist) seeks to isolate a phase of consciousness, to dissect it out of its context, to expose its true and pure essence, the more clearly does the sensational quality appear [2]."

But Dr. Gore not only presents the sensation as the limit toward which psychological analysis moves, but suggests its functional value.

"If it be true that the sensational quality characterizes the more isolated phases of any experience, then it locates the more discrepant and problematic features of a given situation. The discrepant and problematic features so located by sensation are isolated, not in the sense of being irrelevant, but in the sense of standing over against some desired or customary activity. They are obstacles in one form or another. Hence, they have all of the felt reality, all of the immediate presence, which goes with the sensational quality. It is an organic break or strain that comes to consciousness in the imperative form of a sensation. [3]."

Now this suggests at once Professor Dewey's definition of the sensation in functional terms:

"Sensation as a stimulus does not mean any particular psychical existence. It means simply a function, and will have its value shift according to the special work requiring to be done. At one moment the various activities of reaching and withdrawing will be the sensation, because they are that phase of activity which sets the problem, or creates the demand for the next act. At the next moment the previous act of seeing will furnish the sensation, being, in turn, that phase of the activity which sets the pace upon which depends further action. Generalized, sensation as stimulus is always that phase of activity requiring to be defined in order that a coordination may be completed. [4]."

Professor Dewey is here discussing the conception of stimulus immediately, rather than that of sensation, but the discussion leads up to this functional definition of sensation, which is evidently identical with that which Dr. Gore has in mind.


Dr. Gore's definition of the image is as follows:

"The image is the content abstracted from past experiences in the form in which they are usually brought to consciousness to serve as means of dealing with problematic features located by sensations. At the same time, this abstracted content has a perceptual or ideational setting which helps to constitute it as an image . . . . Could you rule out the ideational or perceptual setting, your image would leave off being an image. It would become sensational in quality and value [5]."

The image, functionally defined, is then a content which in terms of past experience has served as a solution of the problem set in the form of the sensation. Except that this statement implies that the image is but one of the solutions involved in past experience in the presence of such problems as those implied in the sensations, it would correspond to the functional definition which Professor Dewey gives for the 'response.'

"Just as the discovery of the sensation marks the establishing of the problem, so the constitution of the response marks the solution of this problem. At one time, fixing attention, holding the eye fixed, upon seeing and thus bringing out a certain quale of light it is the response, because that is the particular act called for just then; at another time, the movement of the arm away from the light is the response. There is nothing in itself which may be labelled response. That one certain set of sensory quales should be marked off by themselves as 'motion' and put in antithesis to such sensory quales as those of color, sound and contact, as legitimate claimants to the title of sensation, is wholely inexplicable unless we keep the difference of function in view. It is the eye and the ear sensations which fix for us the problem; which report to us the conditions which have to be met if the coordination is to be successfully completed and just the moment we need to know about our movements to get an adequate report, just that moment, motion miraculously (from the ordinary standpoint) ceases to be motion and becomes 'muscular sensation.' On the other hand, take the change in the values of experience, the transformations of sensory quales. Whether this change will or will not be interpreted as movement, whether or not any consciousness of movement will arise, will depend upon whether the change is satisfactory, whether or not it is regarded as a harmonious development of a coordination, or whether the change is regarded as simply a means in solving a problem, an instrument in reaching a more satisfactory coordination. So long as our experience runs smoothly we are no more conscious of motion as motion than we are of this or that color or sound by itself. To sum up: the distinction of sensation and movement as stimulus and response respectively is not a distinction which can

(606) be regarded as descriptive of physical events or existences as such. The only event to which the terms stimulus and response can be descriptively applied are to minor acts serving by their respective positions to the maintenance of some organized coordination. The conscious stimulus or sensation, and the conscious response or motion have a special genesis or motivation, and a special end or function [6]."

In this statement of Professor Dewey's there is no especial effort to define or, indeed, locate, the image. The interest gathers entirely around the conceptions of stimulus and response as the elements that make up the so-called reflex arc. However it is evident that a statement that does define sensation in functional terms and response as well, must have a place in it for so vital a concept as the image. To return now to Dr. Gore's definition, we recall that it is expressed in terms of the response of a past experience to such a problem as this sensation represents. In any case Dr. Gore assumes that the image is to be found on the response side of the coordination. The possibility that suggests itself within such a situation as that which Professor Dewey describes, besides the stimulus-sensation and the response-movement, is the series of inhibited responses which are involved in the fact that the situation is a problematic one. There are present tendencies to conflicting activities which, instead of being executed, mutually check each other. Besides these checked tendencies there are the tentative efforts to solve the problem which may arise as hypotheses, so to speak. An instance of these may be found in the familiar efforts to recall a name. Besides the inhibited efforts to seek the name, which register themselves in the form that Professor James calls the fringe surrounding the aching void, there are the successive names that arise, one after another, perhaps only to be rejected. Now these names, arising in this fashion, are typical instances of images as that term is customarily used in psychology. They distinguish themselves from the sensation or sensuous content in that this sensuous content is something that is more or less definitely defined as a feel of some sort -- auditory, visual or kinaesthetic -- which is the core, so to speak, of the image. In Professor Dewey's terminology it is the condition of the solution of the problem, or in Professor James's it is the feel of the void, or rather its boundaries through which shoot the trial efforts.

Another typical situation within which the image arises is that given in the concept. Some sort of image with sensuous content it is admitted must accompany any concept however abstract this may be, but in this situation, as distinguished from that just defined above, the image phase is of relatively little importance. The

(607) difference in the image of these two situations is, functionally, readily explained. In the first case, the completion of the process of recognition is dependent upon a sensuous presentation of certain content. The act cannot take place until the sensuously constituted stimulus is integrated. The actual face of the person whom one is trying to remember, or the actual articulation of the sough-for word, is requisite to its recognition. In the case of the concept, on the contrary, the cognitive process is carried out by an already organized response for which the sensuous integration of the image is unnecessary -- or is necessary only if the concept is held by itself apart from the experience which it interprets, in which case the image is but the surrogate of the object. Between these two extremes view the so-called process of perception, with the image in varying degrees, as the cognitive act is of the nature of sensuous recognition or of conceptual interpretation. I will discuss later the nature of the structure of the image, especially from the point of view of the Wundt-Stout concept of its disposition.

Geo. H. Mead.
The University of Chicago.


  1. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, No.16, p 434.
  2. l. c., 436.
  3. l. c., 437.
  4. 'The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,' Psychological Review, Vol. III.
  5. l. c., 437-8.
  6. l. c.

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