By Russell, Charles G. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Russell, Charles G., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Part I

When We Perceive, Do We "Discover" or "Conclude"?

WHEN SOMEONE perceives something, what happens? Your answer to this question can help you understand how you conceptualize perception. If you view perception as "paying attention to things," you probably equate perception with attending or searching for stimuli in the environment. If, however, you view perception as "making sense of the environment," you probably equate perception with an outcome or conclusion.

At least two basic and different views about perception exist. One focuses on attending and concentrates on surveying the environment. Another focuses on interpretation and concentrates on language and mental activity after initial contact with stimuli. Viewing perception as an attending process and as an outcome of attending can both serve us well.

We can consider both views helpful in understanding what happens when we perceive something. I consider attending the initiation of a process that ends with an outcome. Without attending, conclusions would in effect represent an outcome "without a start." Without outcomes, attending represents action without termination. Outcomes "without a start" and action without termination seem to me not very useful for understanding perception.

We Can View Perceptions as a Process

At this point you might simply expect an answer to the question "What is perception?" I cannot offer "the answer" to this question. I can only offer an answer to the question. Perception can represent a process that contributes to an outcome. When perception takes place, people attend to stimuli and formulate conclusions about them. We should probably neither think of perception as the start nor the finish of the process, but rather as the entire act.

This view of perception can suggest viewing it from different and not necessarily contradictory perspectives has merit. We can identify various aspects of the process and consider how they interact. Insofar as considering the perception process helps us understand what happens, perception becomes less mysterious and much more subject to control than random or unconscious activity.

Section one of this article includes a brief review of the attending aspects of perception, section two includes possible influences on attending, and section three includes possible relationships among attending, influences on perception and outcomes of perceiving.

Using a camera analogy can contribute to understanding the attending aspects of perception. For example, cameras loaded with film record stimuli within their range. In a very simplistic sense the camera represents a mechanical device that "attends to stimuli within its range." Of course we could dispute this simplistic view of cameras, but if we accept it for purposes of illustration, we can use the camera analogy to understand one view of human attending to stimuli within an environment.

The view that offers cameras and human perception as "capturing everything within their range" should perhaps receive additional consideration. Alleging that cameras and humans "capture everything within their range" can encourage overlooking what they do not "capture." Unfortunately, analogies in general, and this one in particular, can contribute to overlooking important aspects of things alleged "to be alike." For example, cameras lacking necessary features such as lens power and fast shutter speeds and loaded with black and white 100 speed film cannot record everything within their range. Black and white film will prevent cameras from recording color, slow film will prevent recording some poorly lighted stimuli, lens quality will determine detail recorded, etc. Cameras can only record stimuli they have the capacity to detect.

Cameras do not record everything in front of them. As mechanical devices, their physical nature and the film used determine what they detect and record.

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