Percept and concept 1

In Science and the Modern World (SMW below) Whitehead cites Francis Bacon from his posthumous Silva Silvarum (ca 1625):

It is certain that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no sense, yet they have perception: for when one body is applied to another, there is a kind of election to embrace that which is agreeable, and to exclude or expel that which is ingrate; and whether the body be alterant or altered, evermore a perception precedeth operation; for else all bodies would be alike one to another. (52)

Whitehead comments repeatedly on this passage in SMW:1

[in the Silva Silvarum passage] note the careful way in which Bacon discriminates between perception, or taking account of, on the one hand, and sense, or cognitive experience, on the other hand. (52)

The word ‘perceive’ [along with ‘percept’ and ‘perception’] is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective ‘cognitive’ omitted. [Therefore, instead of ‘perceive’/’percept’/’perception’,] I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension (86)

Bacon’s words, “all objects would be alike one to another” (…) really means that (…) what each (…) object is in itself becomes relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event.2 (130)

The great point made by Bacon, and by Whitehead in turn, is that all things have inherent form “for else all bodies would be alike one to another” such that the ‘world’ would be an undistinguished and undistinguishable uniformity. Instead, the world fits together through universal differentiation that is inherent (but not, of course, necessarily known). And it is this inherent differentiation in form from the smallest particles to whole galaxies which is at work, or which expresses itself, in their interaction — and everything is in differentiated interaction.

What characterizes the particularity (“limited value” in the mathematical sense) of any and all events whatsoever is the interaction of inherent forms. They exist, as Whitehead has it, by “taking account” of one another and only in this way. 

Leibniz put the same point a century after Bacon in his stipulation that each and every thing — as a distinguished/distinguishing monad — is a mirror of the universe since its inherent form takes part in the complete complex of all the events that are. Each monad therefore informs both about itself and about the surrounding universe into which it must fit in its own particular way in order to exist at all.

Bacon and Whitehead — and McLuhan in his turn — call this inherent form in all things “perception” (though not without notable inconsistently, ie, not without sometimes themselves using it to imply or even outright mean ‘conscious apprehension’).3

This facility is not “cognitive” by nature, but humans are never without at least a vague self-consciousness that there is something variable ‘behind’ experience, like moods. And because humans have an inherent ability to grasp the general being of things, possibly including the being of perception (dual genitive) as this variable ‘behind’ experience, it might become “cognitive” in the same way as geometric forms and chemical elements and biological genes have become cognitive.

Of course such cognition is always “limited” in a great number of ways (only hence, the truly wondrous progress of science), but the initiation of cognitive awareness in any area is always noteworthy and some initiative events are so consequential that history is never the same again. This is true of the infant’s history after it learns to speak and it is just as true of history at large after such seminal events as the species beginning to speak — or its learning to represent speech in letters — or its learning to print letters mechanically — or its learning to print (and do everything else) with electricity — or its learning the general application of electric digitality in cybernetics (and, according to McLuhan in all literature via the epyllion structure) — or its learning (perhaps! — this is the great question posed by McLuhan) how such digitality4 might in turn illuminate even perception itself and so initiate a whole series of new sciences of the human “interior landscape”.5

In 1958, the same year as McLuhan began admonishing that “the medium is the message”, he also began insisting that media give “light through [towards us] not light on [from us]”. That is, media first of all in-form our cognition and experience generally — like light coming through a stained glass window — and have done so in some fashion ‘always already’. In this metaphor, the colors and shapes of the stained glass window may be taken to represent the existing form of perception — subjective genitive! — that human beings can never be without and that is therefore necessarily already in place when the light of some medium comes through it toward us.6

Media illuminate us,7 not we them. Hence, they are not in the first instance conceptual stances taken up by us to understand external or even internal matters. They are prior to this. They are perceptual forms (Bacon) or prehensive forms (Whitehead), not cognitive forms!

For McLuhan, similarly, media are perceptual forms, plural, and his admonition that “the medium is the message” would have us perceive media in their plurality as such perceptual forms. The circularity here, like the plurality, is essential: media are perceptual forms that must be perceived in order to be known. The question is only whether this kaleidoscope can be turned in such a way that these forms become subject to cognitive investigation.


  1. McLuhan uploaded SMW into his brain when he was around 20. It remained there as a largely undigested but fertile source of illumination for the rest of his life. In background mode he never stopped processing it and attempting to unriddle its suggestions, such that his entire intellectual history might be told in terms of his gradual understanding — and sometimes misunderstanding — and sometimes critique — of it.
  2. Whitehead’s “relevant to the one limited value emergent in the guise of the event” may be read simply as ‘relevant to any fact’ or ‘relevant to any state of affairs’. He had his reasons for the more complicated expression, of course, but the heart of his intention may be seen in the chemical analysis of any physical material. Without exception, any material at all is the “limited” interaction of elements in a certain “limited” situation. Even 99.99% gold is along with other elements (constituting gold’s inevitable impurities and its very slow but always ongoing interaction with its environment) of which it necessarily “takes account”. In every case, such a configuration “emerges” from the elementary nature of the materials and the possibilities of their interactions as defined in chemical theory. Furthermore, such a state of affairs always ‘takes place’ in the physical context of variables like temperature and pressure which may or may not be controlled.  Whitehead: “The actual world is a manifold of prehensions” (89).
  3. This lack of consistency may almost be required for the treatment of ‘perception’. Its use as ‘fundamental taking account of’ is constantly threatening to fall into one of its extremes: the ‘perception” of quarks to other quarks, on the one hand, and the ‘perception’ of humans on the other. It teeters between the two — as a medium. Treating ‘perception’ is a slippery business whose slipperiness cannot be gainsaid either in its own specification or in what it implies about the nature of the universe in which it exists.
  4. For thoughts on the analog/digital difference, see The digital Wittgenstein.
  5. McLuhan does not use the word complex around ‘digitality’ for the figure/ground approach he hoped would characterize “perception” enough to initiate its collective investigation. In fact, perhaps prompted by the earliest editions of Dantzig’s Number (1930), he sometimes used ‘digital’ to mean counting by using ‘digits’ or fingers — which is an analog procedure! But his insight into ‘the digital’ was nevertheless quite acute. He saw clearly the “principle of a continuous dual structure for achieving order” (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976) and, in fact, had been analyzing literature since the early 1930s in terms of the presence or absence of an inherent complexity. Hence his lifelong emphasis on “multilevel” awareness and his fascination beginning in the late 1940s with the epyllion structure of plot and subplot. In regard to having enough insight to initiate science, McLuhan’s most important thought may have been the idea that it literally doesn’t matter how science starts! Perfection of insight is not needed! Aside from being not possible in any case! In fact, as may be seen in any of the existing sciences, cybernetic self-correction is constantly at work in them as long as the investigation is open. What is most questionable in any science is exactly how it has begun. For the last 20 years of his life, after 1958, a repeated question from McLuhan was: why can’t we get started? Since any start will do? Especially when there is so much at stake! Even survival!
  6. Many problems are knotted at this point. They will be treated in future posts.
  7. ‘Illuminate us’ = give us some particular way to illuminate in turn.