Unreal Nature

October 26, 2011

Shillings and Pence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

“Every recognisable (postural) change enters into consciousness already charged with its relation to something that has gone before, just as on a taximeter the distance is presented to us already transformed into shillings and pence.” — Sir Henry Head

This is from Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology by F.C. Bartlett (1995; first published in 1932). The quote, above is taken from within Bartlett’s text:

… thinking, in the proper psychological sense, is never the mere reinstatement of some suitable past situation produced by a crossing of interests, but is the utilisation of the past in the solution of difficulties set by the present. Consequently it involves that amount of formulation which shows, at least in some degree, what is the nature of the relation between the instances used in the solution and the circumstances that set the problem. Obviously nobody ever thinks who has not been effectively challenged in some way, who has not got up against a difficulty. He merely acts automatically and habitually. Equally nobody ever thinks who, being challenged, merely sets up an image from some specific and more or less relevant situation, and then finds for himself a solution, without in any way formulating the relationship principle involved. For carrying out this formulation, for utilising the general qualitative and relational features of the situation to which reference is more or less openly made, words appear to be the only adequate instruments so far discovered or invented by man. Used in this way, they succeed just where we have seen that images tend most conspicuously to break down: [words] can name the general as well as describe the particular, and since they deal in formulated connexions they more openly bear their logic with them.

Thinking, if I am right, is biologically subsequent to the image-forming process. It is possible only when a way has been found of breaking up the ‘massed’ influence of past stimuli and situations, only when a device has already been discovered for conquering the sequential tyranny of past reactions. But though it is a later and a higher development, it does not supersede the method of images. It has its own drawbacks. Contrasted with imaging it loses something of vivacity, of vividness, of variety. Its prevailing instruments are words, and, not only because these are social, but also because in use they are necessarily strung out in sequence, they drop into habit reactions even more readily than images do. Their conventions are social, the same for all, and far less a matter of idiosyncrasy. In proportion as we lose touch with the image method we run greater and greater risk of being caught up in generalities that may have little to do with actual concrete experience. [On the other hand … ] If we fail to maintain the methods of thinking, we run the risk of becoming tied to individual instances and of being made sport of by the accidental circumstances belonging to these. Only in abnormal cases are such risks pushed to their extreme, for, just because images and the language processes of thinking are commonly combined, each method has taken over some of the peculiarities of the other, and images, as in what are often called the ‘generic’ kind, seem to be striving after some general significance and framework, while language often builds its links from case to case upon elaborate and detailed individual description. Broadly, each method, however closely the two are related, retains its own outstanding character. The image method remains the method of brilliant discovery, whereby realms organised by interests usually kept apart are brought together; the thought-word method remains the way of rationalisation and inference, whereby this connecting of the  hitherto unconnected is made clear and possible for all, and the results which follow are not merely exhibited, but demonstrated.

Lying in wait for both these processes is the common fate that may overtake all human effort: they may become mere habit. That very sequence and mass determination which they were developed to surmount may overwhelm them in the end. Then a man will take facility of images and variety of words to be satisfying things in themselves, and it may appear as if images and words are merely luxuries, to be enjoyed.



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