On Sensation and the Unity of Structure of Sensiferous Organs (1879)

Collected Essays VI

[288] The maxim that metaphysical inquiries are barren of result, and that the serious occupation of the mind with them is a mere waste of time and labour, finds much favour in the eyes of the many persons who pride themselves on the possession of sound common sense; and we sometimes hear it enunciated by weighty authorities, as if its natural consequence, the suppression of such studies, had the force of a moral obligation.

In this case, however, as in some others, those who lay down the law seem to forget that a wise legislator will consider, not merely whether his proposed enactment is desirable, but whether obedience to it is possible. For, if the latter question is answered negatively, the former is surely hardly worth debate.

[289] Here, in fact, lies the pith of the reply to those who would make metaphysics contraband of intellect. Whether it is desirable to place a prohibitory duty upon philosophical speculations or not, it is utterly impossible to prevent the importation of them into the mind. And it is not a little curious to observe that those who most loudly profess to abstain from such commodities are, all the while, unconscious consumers, on a great scale, of one or other of their multitudinous disguises or adulterations. With mouths full of the particular kind of heavily buttered toast which they affect, they inveigh against the eating of plain bread. In truth, the attempt to nourish the human intellect upon a diet which contains no metaphysics is about as hopeful as that of certain Eastern sages to nourish their bodies without destroying life. Everybody has heard the story of the pitiless microscopist, who ruined the peace of mind of one of these mild enthusiasts by showing him the animals moving in a drop of the water with which, in the innocency of his heart, he slaked his thirst; and the unsuspecting devotee of plain common sense may look for as unexpected a shock when the magnifier of severe logic reveals the germs, if not the full-grown shapes, of lively metaphysical postulates rampant amidst his most positive and matter-of-fact notions.

By way of escape from the metaphysical Will-o'-[290]the-wisps generated in the marshes of literature and theology, the serious student is sometimes bidden to betake himself to the solid ground of physical science. But the fish of immortal memory, who threw himself out of the frying-pan into the fire, was not more ill advised than the man who seeks sanctuary from philosophical persecution within the walls of the observatory or of the laboratory. It is said that "metaphysics" owe their name to the fact that, in Aristotle's works, questions of pure philosophy are dealt with immediately after those of physics. If so, the accident is happily symbolical of the essential relations of things; for metaphysical speculation follows as closely upon physical theory as black care upon the horseman.

One need but mention such fundamental, and indeed indispensable, conceptions of the natural philosopher as those of atoms and forces: or that of attraction considered as action at a distance; or that of potential energy; or the antinomies of a vacuum and a plenum; to call to mind the metaphysical background of physics and chemistry; while, in the biological sciences, the case is still worse. What is an individual among the lower plants and animals? Are genera and species realities or abstractions? Is there such a thing as vital force, or does the name denote a mere relic of metaphysical fetichism? Is the doctrine of final causes legitimate or illegitimate? These [291] are a few of the metaphysical topics which are suggested by the most elementary study of biological facts. But, more than this, it may be truly said that the roots of every system of philosophy lie deep among the facts of physiology. No one can doubt that the organs and the functions of sensation are as much a part of the province of the physiologist, as are the organs and functions of motion, or those of digestion; and yet it is impossible to gain an acquaintance with even the rudiments of the physiology of sensation without being led straight to one of the most fundamental of all metaphysical problems. In fact, the sensory operations have been, from time immemorial, the battle-ground of philosophers.

I have more than once taken occasion to point out that we are indebted to Descartes, who happened to be a physiologist as well as a philosopher, for the first distinct enunciation of the essential elements of the true theory of sensation. In later times, it is not to the works of the philosophers, if Hartley and James Mill are excepted, but to those of the physiologists, that we must turn for an adequate account of the sensory process. Haller's luminous, though summary, account of sensation in his admirable "Primæ Lineæ," the first edition of which was printed in 1747, offers a striking contrast to the prolixity and confusion of thought which pervade Reid's [292] "Inquiry," of seventeen years' later date.1 Even Sir William Hamilton, learned historian and acute critic as he was, not only failed to apprehend the philosophical bearing of long-established physiological truths; but, when he affirmed that there is no reason to deny that the mind feels at the finger points, and none to assert that the brain is the sole organ of thought, 2 he showed that he had not apprehended the significance of the revolution commenced, two hundred years before his time, by Descartes, and effectively followed up by Haller, Hartley, and Bonnet, in the middle of the last century.

In truth, the theory of sensation, except in one [293] point, is, at the present moment, very much where Hartley, led by a hint of Sir Isaac Newton's, left it, when, a hundred and twenty years since, the "Observations on Man: his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations," was laid before the world. The whole matter is put in a nutshell in the following passages of this notable book.

"External objects impressed upon the senses occasion, first on the nerves on which they are impressed, and then on the brain, vibrations of the small and, as we may say, infinitesimal medullary particles.

"These vibrations are motions backwards and forwards of the small particles; of the same kind with the oscillations of pendulums and the tremblings of the particles of sounding bodies. They must be conceived to be exceedingly short and small, so as not to have the least efficacy to disturb or move the whole bodies of the nerves or brain."3

"The white medullary substance of the brain is also the immediate instrument by which ideas are presented to the mind; or, in other words, whatever changes are made in this substance, corresponding changes are made in our ideas; and vice versa."4

Hartley, like Haller, had no conception of the nature and functions of the grey matter of the brain. But, if for "white medullary substance," in the latter paragraph, we substitute "grey cellular substance," Hartley's propositions embody [294] the most probable conclusions which are to be drawn from the latest investigations of physiologists. In order to judge how completely this is the case, it will be well to study some simple case of sensation, and, following the example of Reid and of James Mill, we may begin with the sense of smell. Suppose that I become aware of a musky scent, to which the name of "muskiness" may be given. I call this an odour, and I class it along with the feelings of light, colours, sounds, tastes, and the like, among those phenomena which are known as sensations. To say that I am aware of this phenomenon, or that I have it, or that it exists, are simply different modes of affirming the same facts. If I am asked how I know that it exists, I can only reply that its existence and my knowledge of it are one and the same thing; in short, that my knowledge is immediate or intuitive, and, as such, is possessed of the highest conceivable degree of certainty.

The pure sensation of muskiness is almost sure to be followed by a mental state which is not a sensation, but a belief, that there is somewhere, close at hand, a something on which the existence of the sensation depends. It may be a musk-deer, or a musk-rat, or a musk-plant, or a grain of dry musk, or simply a scented handkerchief; but former experience leads us to believe that the sensation is due to the presence of one or other of these objects, and that it will vanish if the object [295] is removed. In other words, there arises a belief in an external cause of the muskiness, which, in common language, is termed an odorous body.

But the manner in which this belief is usually put into words is strangely misleading. If we are dealing with a musk-plant, for example, we do not confine ourselves to a simple statement of that which we believe, and say that the musk-plant is the cause of the sensation called muskiness; but we say that the plant has a musky smell, and we speak of the odour as a quality, or property, inherent in the plant. And the inevitable reaction of words upon thought has in this case become so complete, and has penetrated so deeply, that when an accurate statement of the case–namely, that muskiness, inasmuch as the term denotes nothing but a sensation, is a mental state, and has no existence except as a mental phenomenon–is first brought under the notice of common-sense folks, it is usually regarded by them as what they are pleased to call a mere metaphysical paradox and a patent example of useless subtlety. Yet the slightest reflection must suffice to convince any one possessed of sound reasoning faculties, that it is as absurd to suppose that muskiness is a quality inherent in one plant, as it would be to imagine that pain is a quality inherent in another, because we feel pain when a thorn pricks the finger.

Even the common-sense philosopher, par excell [296]ence, says of smell: "It appears to be a simple and original affection or feeling of the mind altogether inexplicable and unaccountable. It is indeed impossible that it can be in any body: it is a sensation, and a sensation can only be in a sentient thing."5

That which is true of muskiness is true of every other odour. Lavender-smell, clove-smell garlic-smell, are, like "muskiness," names of states of consciousness, and have no existence except as such. But, in ordinary language, we speak of all these odours as if they were independent entities residing in lavender, cloves, and garlic; and it is not without a certain struggle that the false metaphysic of so-called common sense, thus ingrained in us, is expelled.

For the present purpose, it is unnecessary to inquire into the origin of our belief in external bodies, or into that of the notion of causation. Assuming the existence of an external world, there is no difficulty in obtaining experimental proof that, as a general rule, olfactory sensations, [297] are caused by odorous bodies; and we may pass on to the next step of the inquiry–namely, how the odorous body produces the effect attributed to it.

The first point to be noted here is another fact revealed by experience; that the appearance of the sensation is governed, not only by the presence of the odorous substance, but by the condition of a certain part of our corporeal structure, the nose. If the nostrils are closed, the presence of the odorous substance does not give rise to the sensation; while, when they are open, the sensation is intensified by the approximation of the odorous substance to them, and by snuffing up the adjacent air in such a manner as to draw it into the nose. On the other hand, looking at an odorous substance, or rubbing it on the skin, or holding it to the ear, does not awaken the sensation. Thus, it can be readily established by experiment that the perviousness of the nasal passages is, in some way, essential to the sensory function; in fact, that the organ of that function is lodged somewhere in the nasal passages. And, since odorous bodies give rise to their effects at considerable distances, the suggestion is obvious that something must pass from them into the sense organ. What is this "something," which plays the part of an intermediary between the odorous body and the sensory organ?

The oldest speculation about the matter dates [298] back to the Epicurean School and Democritus, and it is to be found fully stated in the fourth book of Lucretius. It comes to this: that the surfaces of bodies are constantly throwing off excessively attenuated films of their own substance: and that these films, reaching the mind, excite the appropriate sensations in it.

Aristotle did not admit the existence of any such material films, but conceived that it was the form of the substance, and not its matter, which affected sense, as a seal impresses wax, without losing anything in the process. While many, if not the majority, of the Schoolmen took up an intermediate position and supposed that a something, which was not exactly either material or immaterial, and which they called an "intentional species," effected the needful communication between the bodily cause of sensation and the mind.

But all these notions, whatever may be said for or against them in general, are fundamentally defective, by reason of an oversight which was inevitable, in the state of knowledge at the time in which they were promulgated. What the older philosophers did not know, and could not know, before the anatomist and the physiologist had done their work, is that, between the external object and that mind in which they supposed the sensation to inhere, there lies a physical obstacle. The sense organ is not a mere passage by which [299] the "tenuia simulacra rerum," or the "intentional species" cast off by objects, or the "forms of sensible things, pass straight to the mind; on the contrary, it stands as a firm and impervious barrier, through which no material particle of the world without can make its way to the world within.

Let us consider the olfactory sense organ more nearly. Each of the nostrils leads into a passage completely separated from the other by a partition, and these two passages place the nostrils in free communication with the back of the throat, so that they freely transmit the air passing to the lungs when the mouth is shut, as in ordinary breathing. The floor of each passage is flat, but its roof is a high arch, the crown of which is seated between the orbital cavities of the skull, which serve for the lodgment and protection of the eyes; and it therefore lies behind the apparent limits of that feature which, in ordinary language, is called the nose. From the side walls of the upper and back part of these arched chambers, certain delicate plates of bone project, and these, as well as a considerable part of the partition between the two chambers, are covered by a fine, soft, moist membrane. It is to this "Schneiderian," or olfactory, membrane that odorous bodies must obtain direct access, if they are to give rise to their appropriate sensations; and it is upon the relatively large surface, which [300] the olfactory membrane offers, that we must seek for the seat of the organ of the olfactory sense. The only essential part of that organ consists of a multitude of minute rod-like bodies, set perpendicularly to the surface of the membrane, and forming a part of the cellular coat, or epithelium, which covers the olfactory membrane, as the epidermis covers the skin. In the case of the olfactory sense, there can be no doubt that the Democritic hypothesis, at any rate for such odorous substances as musk, has a good foundation. Infinitesimal particles of musk fly off from the surface of the odorous body; these, becoming diffused through the air, are carried into the nasal passages, and thence into the olfactory chambers, where they come into contact with the filamentous extremities of the delicate olfactory epithelium.

But this is not all. The "mind" is not, so to speak, upon the other side of the epithelium. On the contrary, the inner ends of the olfactory cells are connected with nerve fibres, and these nerve fibres, passing into the cavity of the skull, at length end in a part of the brain, the olfactory sensorium. It is certain that the integrity of each, and the physical interconnection of all these three structures, the epithelium of the sensory organ, the nerve fibres, and the sensorium, are essential conditions of ordinary sensation. That is to say, the air in the olfactory chambers may be [301] charged with particles of musk; but, if either the epithelium, or the nerve fibres, or the sensorium is injured, or if they are physically disconnected from one another, sensation will not arise. Moreover, the epithelium may be said to be receptive, the nerve fibres transmissive, and the sensorium sensifacient. For, in the act of smelling, the particles of the odorous substance produce a molecular change (which Hartley was in all probability right in terming a vibration) in the epithelium, and this change being transmitted to the nerve fibres, passes along them with a measurable velocity, and, finally reaching the sensorium, is immediately followed by the sensation.

Thus, modern investigation supplies a representative of the Epicurean "simulacra" in the volatile particles of the musk; but it also gives us the stamp of the particles on the olfactory epithelium, without any transmission of matter, as the equivalent of the Aristotelian "form"; while, finally, the modes of motion of the molecules of the olfactory cells, of the nerve, and of the cerebral sensorium, which are Hartley's vibrations, may stand very well for a double of the "intentional species" of the Schoolmen. And this last remark is not intended merely to suggest a fanciful parallel; for, if the cause of the sensation is, as analogy suggests, to be sought in the mode of motion of the [302] object of sense, then it is quite possible that the particular mode of motion of the object is reproduced in the sensorium; exactly as the diaphragm of a telephone reproduces the mode of motion taken up at its receiving end. In other words, the secondary "intentional species" may be, as the Schoolmen thought the primary one was, the last link between matter and mind.

None the less, however, does it remain true that no similarity exists, nor indeed is conceivable, between the cause of the sensation and the sensation. Attend as closely to the sensations of muskiness, or any other odour, as we will, no trace of extension, resistance, or motion is discernible in them. They have no attribute in common with those which we ascribe to matter; they are, in the strictest sense of the words, immaterial entities.

Thus, the most elementary study of sensation justifies Descartes' position, that we know more of mind than we do of body; that the immaterial world is a firmer reality than the material. For the sensation "muskiness" is known immediately. So long as it persists, it is a part of what we call our thinking selves, and its existence lies beyond the possibility of doubt. The knowledge of an objective or material cause of the sensation, on the other hand, is mediate; it is a belief as contradistinguished from an intuition; and it is a belief which, in any given instance of sensation, may, by possibility, be devoid of foundation. For odours, like other sensations, may arise from the occurrence of the appropriate molecular changes [303] in the nerve or in the sensorium, by the operation of a cause distinct from the affection of the sense organ by an odorous body. Such "subjective" sensations are as real existences as any others, and as distinctly suggest an external odorous object as their cause; but the belief thus generated is a delusion. And, if beliefs are properly termed "testimonies of consciousness," then undoubtedly the testimony of consciousness may be, and often is, untrustworthy.

Another very important consideration arises out of the facts as they are now known. That which, in the absence of a knowledge of the physiology of sensation, we call the cause of the smell, and term the odorous object, is only such, mediately, by reason of its emitting particles which give rise to a mode of motion in the sense organ, The sense organ, again, is only a mediate cause by reason of its producing a molecular change in the nerve fibre; while this last change is also only a mediate cause of sensation, depending, as it does, upon the change which it excites in the sensorium.

The sense organ, the nerve, and the sensorium, taken together, constitute the sensiferous apparatus. They make up the thickness of the wall between the mind, as represented by the sensation "muskiness," and the object, as represented by the particle of musk in contact with the olfactory epithelium.

[304] It will be observed that the sensiferous wall and the external world are of the same nature; whatever it is that constitutes them both is expressible in terms of matter and motion. Whatever changes take place in the sensiferous apparatus are continuous with, and similar to, those which take place in the external world.6 But, with the sensorium, matter and motion come to an end; while phenomena of another order, or immaterial states of consciousness, make their appearance. How is the relation between the material and the immaterial phenomena to be conceived? This is [305] the metaphysical problem of problems, and the solutions which have been suggested have been made the corner-stones of systems of philosophy. Three mutually irreconcilable readings of the riddle have been offered.

The first is, that an immaterial substance of mind exists; and that it is affected by the mode of motion of the sensorium, in such a way as to give rise to the sensation,

The second is, that the sensation is a direct effect of the mode of motion of the sensorium, brought about without the intervention of any substance of mind.

The third is, that the sensation is, neither directly nor indirectly, an effect of the mode of motion of the sensorium, but that it has an independent cause. Properly speaking, therefore, it is not an effect of the motion of the sensorium, but a concomitant of it.

As none of these hypotheses is capable of even an approximation to demonstration, it is almost needless to remark that they have been severally held with tenacity and advocated with passion. I do not think it can be said of any of the three that it is inconceivable, or that it can be assumed on a priori grounds to be impossible.

Consider the first, for example; an immaterial substance is perfectly conceivable. In fact, it is obvious that, if we possessed no sensations but those of smell and hearing, we should be unable [306] to conceive a material substance. We might have a conception of time, but could have none of extension, or of resistance, or of motion. And without the three latter conceptions no idea of matter could be formed. Our whole knowledge would be limited to that of a shifting succession of immaterial phenomena. But if an immaterial substance may exist, it may have any conceivable properties; and sensation may be one of them. All these propositions may be affirmed with complete dialectic safety, inasmuch as they cannot possibly be disproved; but neither can a particle of demonstrative evidence be offered in favour of the existence of an immaterial substance.

As regards the second hypothesis, it certainly is not inconceivable, and therefore it may be true that sensation is the direct effect of certain kinds of bodily motion. It is just as easy to suppose this as to suppose, on the former hypothesis, that bodily motion affects an immaterial substance. But neither is it susceptible of proof.

And, as to the third hypothesis, since the logic of induction is in no case competent to prove that events apparently standing in the relation of cause and effect may not both be effects of a common cause–that also is as safe from refutation, if as incapable of demonstration, as the other two.

In my own opinion, neither of these speculations can be regarded seriously as anything but a more [307] or less convenient working hypothesis. But, if I must choose among them, I take the "law of parcimony" [sic] for my guide, and select the simplest–namely, that the sensation is the direct effect of the mode of motion of the sensorium. It may justly be said that this is not the slightest explanation of sensation; but then am I really any the wiser, if I say that a sensation is an activity (of which I know nothing) of a substance of mind (of which also I know nothing)? Or, if I say that the Deity causes the sensation to arise in my mind immediately after he has caused the particles of the sensorium to move in a certain way, is anything gained? In truth, a sensation, as we have already seen, is an intuition–a part of immediate knowledge. As such, it is an ultimate fact and inexplicable; and all that we can hope to find out about it, and that indeed is worth finding out, is its relation to other natural facts. That relation appears to me to be sufficiently expressed, for all practical purposes, by saying that sensation is the invariable consequent of certain changes in the sensorium–or, in other words, that, so far as we know the change in the sensorium is the cause of the sensation.

I permit myself to imagine that the untutored, if noble, savage of "common sense" who has been misled into reading thus far, by the hope of getting positive solid information about sensation, giving way to not unnatural irritation, may here inter[308]pellate: "The upshot of all this long disquisition is that we are profoundly ignorant. We knew that to begin with, and you have merely furnished another example of the emptiness and uselessness of metaphysics." But I venture to reply, Pardon me, you were ignorant, but you did not know it. On the contrary, you thought you knew a great deal, and were quite satisfied with the particularly absurd metaphysical notions which you were pleased to call the teachings of common sense. You thought that your sensations were properties of external things, and had an existence outside of yourself. You thought that you knew more about material than you do about immaterial existences. And if, as a wise man has assured us, the knowledge of what we don't know is the next best thing to the knowledge of what we do know, this brief excursion into the province of philosophy has been highly profitable.

Of all the dangerous mental habits, that which schoolboys call "cocksureness" is probably the most perilous; and the inestimable value of metaphysical discipline is that it furnishes an effectual counterpoise to this evil proclivity. Whoso has mastered the elements of philosophy knows that the attribute of unquestionable certainty appertains only to the existence of a state of consciousness so long as it exists; all other beliefs are mere probabilities of a higher or lower order. Sound metaphysic is an amulet which [309] renders its possessor proof alike against the poison of superstition and the counter-poison of shallow negation; by showing that the affirmations of the former and the denials of the latter alike deal with matters about which, for lack of evidence, nothing can be either affirmed or denied.

I have dwelt at length upon the nature and origin of our sensations of smell, on account of the comparative freedom of the olfactory sense from the complications which are met with in most of the other senses.

Sensations of taste, however, are generated in almost as simple a fashion as those of smell. In this case, the sense organ is the epithelium which covers the tongue and the palate: and which sometimes, becoming modified, gives rise to peculiar organs termed "gustatory bulbs," in which the epithelial cells elongate and assume a somewhat rodlike form. Nerve fibres connect the sensory organ with the sensorium, and tastes or flavours are states of consciousness caused by the change of molecular state of the latter. In the case of the sense of touch there is often no sense organ distinct from the general epidermis. But many fishes and amphibia exhibit local modifications of the epidermic cells which are, sometimes, extraordinarily like the gustatory bulbs; more commonly, both in lower and higher animals, the effect of the contact of external bodies is intensified [310] by the development of hair-like filaments, or of true hairs, the bases of which are in immediate relation with the ends of the sensory nerves. Every one must have noticed the extreme delicacy of the sensations produced by the contact of bodies with the ends of the hairs of the head, and the "whiskers" of cats owe their functional importance to the abundant supply of nerves to the follicles in which their bases are lodged. What part, if any, the so-called "tactile corpuscles," "end bulbs," and "Pacinian bodies," play in the mechanism of touch is unknown. If they are sense organs, they are exceptional in character, in so far as they do not appear to be modifications of the epidermis. Nothing is known respecting the organs of those sensations of resistance which are grouped under the head of the muscular sense; nor of the sensations of warmth and cold; nor of that very singular sensation which we call tickling.

In the case of heat and cold, the organism not only becomes affected by external bodies, far more remote than those which affect the sense of smell; but the Democritic hypothesis is obviously no longer permissible. When the direct rays of the sun fall upon the skin, the sensation of heat is certainly not caused by "attenuated films" thrown off from that luminary, but is due to a mode of motion which is transmitted to us. In Aristotelian phrase, it is the form without the matter of the [311] sun which stamps the sense organ; and this, translated into modern language, means nearly the same thing as Hartley's vibrations. Thus we are prepared for what happens in the case of the auditory and the visual senses. For neither the ear, nor the eye, receives anything but the impulses or vibrations originated by sonorous or luminous bodies. Nevertheless, the receptive apparatus still consists of specially modified epithelial cells. In the labyrinth, or essential part of the ear of the higher animals, the free ends of these cells terminate in excessively delicate hairlike filaments; while, in the lower forms of auditory organ, its free surface is beset with delicate hairs like those of the surface of the body, and the transmissive nerves are connected with the bases of these hairs. Thus there is an insensible gradation in the forms of the receptive apparatus, from the organ of touch, on the one hand, to those of taste and smell; and, on the other hand, to that of hearing.

Even in the case of the most refined of all the sense organs, that of vision, the receptive apparatus departs but little from the general type. The only essential constituent of the visual sense organ is the retina, which forms so small a part of the eyes of the higher animals; and the simplest eyes are nothing but portions of the integument, in which the cells of the epidermis have become converted into glassy rod-like retinal [312] corpuscles. The outer ends of these are turned towards the light; their sides are more or less extensively coated with a dark pigment, and their inner ends are connected with the transmissive nerve fibres. The light, impinging on these visual rods, produces a change in them which is communicated to the nerve fibres, and, being transmitted to the sensorium, gives rise to the sensation–if indeed all animals which possess eyes are endowed with what we understand as sensation.

In the higher animals, a complicated apparatus of lenses, arranged on the principle of a camera obscura, serves at once to concentrate and to individualise the pencils of light proceeding from external bodies. But the essential part of the organ of vision is still a layer of cells, which have the form of rods with truncated or conical ends. By what seems a strange anomaly, however, the glassy ends of these are turned not towards, but away from, the light: and the latter has to traverse the layer of nervous tissues with which their outer ends are connected, before it can affect them. Moreover, the rods and cones of the vertebrate retina are so deeply seated, and in many respects so peculiar in character, that it appears impossible, at first sight, that they can have anything to do with that epidermis of which gustatory and tactile and, at any rate, the lower forms of auditory and visual, organs are obvious modifications.

[313] Whatever be the apparent diversities among the sensiferous apparatuses, however, they share certain common characters. Each consists of a receptive, a transmissive, and a sensificatory portion. The essential part of the first is an epithelium, of the second, nerve fibres, of the third, a part of the brain; the sensation is always the consequence of the mode of motion excited in the receptive, and sent along the transmissive, to the sensificatory part of the sensiferous apparatus. And, in all the senses, there is no likeness whatever between the object of sense, which is matter in motion, and the sensation, which is an immaterial phenomenon.

On the hypothesis which appears to me to be the most convenient, sensation is a product of the sensiferous apparatus caused by certain modes of motion which are set up in it by impulses from without. The sensiferous apparatuses are, as it were, factories, all of which at the one end receive raw materials of a similar kind–namely, modes of motion–while, at the other, each turns out a special product, the feeling which constitutes the kind of sensation characteristic of it.

Or, to make use of a closer comparison, each sensiferous apparatus is comparable to a musical-box wound up; with as many tunes as there are separate sensations. The object of a simple sensation is the agent which presses down the stop [314] of one of these tunes, and the more feeble the agent, the more delicate must be the mobility of the stop.7

But, if this be true, if the recipient part of the sensiferous apparatus is in all cases, merely a mechanism affected by coarser or finer kinds of material motion, we might expect to find that all sense organs are fundamentally alike, and result from the modification of the same morphological elements. And this is exactly what does result from all recent histological and embryological investigations.

It has been seen that the receptive part of the olfactory apparatus is a slightly modified epithelium, which lines an olfactory chamber deeply seated between the orbits in adult human beings But, if we trace back the nasal chambers to their origin in the embryo, we find, that, to begin with, they are mere depressions of the skin of the forepart of the head, lined by a continuation of the general epidermis. These depressions become pits, and the pits, by the growth of the adjacent parts, gradually acquire the position which they finally occupy. The olfactory organ, therefore, is a specially modified part of the general integument.

[315] The human ear would seem to present greater difficulties. For the essential part of the sense organ, in this case, is the membranous labyrinth, a bag of complicated form, which lies buried in the depths of the floor of the skull, and is surrounded by dense and solid bone. Here, however, recourse to the study of development readily unravels the mystery. Shortly after the time when the olfactory organ appears, as a depression of the skin on the side of the fore part of the head, the auditory organ appears as a similar depression on the side of its back part. The depression, rapidly deepening, becomes a small pouch; and then, the communication with the exterior becoming shut off, the pouch is converted into a closed bag, the epithelial lining of which is a part of the general epidermis segregated from the rest. The adjacent tissues, changing first into cartilage and then into bone, enclose the auditory sac in a strong case, in which it undergoes its further metamorphoses; while the drum, the ear bones, and the external ear, are superadded by no less extraordinary modifications of the adjacent parts. Still more marvellous is the history of the development of the organ of vision. In the place of the eye, as in that of the nose and that of the ear, the young embryo presents a depression of the general integument; but, in man and the higher animals, this does not give rise to the [316] proper sensory organ, but only to part of the accessory structures concerned in vision. In fact, the depression, deepening and becoming converted into a shut sac, produces only the cornea, the aqueous humour, and the crystalline lens of the perfect eye.

The retina is added to this by the outgrowth of the wall of a portion of the brain into a sort of bag, or sac, with a narrow neck, the convex bottom of which is turned outwards, or towards the crystalline lens. As the development of the eye proceeds, the convex bottom of the bag becomes pushed in, so that it gradually obliterates the cavity of the sac, the previously convex wall of which becomes deeply concave. The sac of the brain is now like a double nightcap ready for the head, but the place which the head would occupy is taken by the vitreous humour, while the layer of nightcap next it becomes the retina. The cells of this layer which lie farthest from the vitreous humour, or, in other words, bound the original cavity of the sac, are metamorphosed into the rods and cones. Suppose now that the sac of the brain could be brought back to its original form; then the rods and cones would form part of the lining of a side pouch of the brain. But one of the most wonderful revelations of embryology is the proof of the fact that the brain itself is, at its first beginning, merely an infolding of the [317] epidermic layer of the general integument. Hence it follows that the rods and cones of the vertebrate eye are modified epidermic cells, as much as the crystalline cones of the insect or crustacean eye are; and that the inversion of the position of the former in relation to light arises simply from the roundabout way in which the vertebrate retina is developed.

Thus all the higher sense organs start from one foundation, and the receptive epithelium of the eye, or of the ear, is as much modified epidermis as is that of the nose. The structural unity of the sense organs is the morphological parallel to their identity of physiological function, which, as we have seen, is to be impressed by certain modes of motion; and they are fine or coarse, in proportion to the delicacy or the strength of the impulses by which they are to be affected.

In ultimate analysis, then, it appears that a sensation is the equivalent in terms of consciousness for a mode of motion of the matter of the sensorium. But, if inquiry is pushed a stage farther, and the question is asked, What then do we know about matter and motion? there is but one reply possible. All that we know about motion is that it is a name for certain changes in the relations of our visual, tactile, and muscular sensations; and [318] all that we know about matter is that it is the hypothetical substance of physical phenomena–the assumption of the existence of which is as pure a piece of metaphysical speculation as is that of the existence of the substance of mind.

Our sensations, our pleasures, our pains, and the relations of these, make up the sum total of the elements of positive, unquestionable knowledge. We call a large section of these sensations and their relations matter and motion; the rest we term mind and thinking; and experience shows that there is a certain constant order of succession between some of the former and some of the latter.

This is all that just metaphysical criticism leaves of the idols set up by the spurious metaphysics of vulgar common sense. It is consistent either with pure Materialism, or with pure Idealism, but it is neither. For the Idealist, not content with declaring the truth that our knowledge is limited to facts of consciousness, affirms the wholly unprovable proposition that nothing exists beyond these and the substance of mind. And, on the other hand, the Materialist, holding by the truth that, for anything that appears to the contrary material phenomena are the causes of mental phenomena, asserts his unprovable dogma, that material phenomena and the substance of matter are the sole primary existences.

[319] Strike out the propositions about which neither controversialist does or can know anything, and there is nothing left for them to quarrel about. Make a desert of the Unknowable, and the divine Astræa of philosophic peace will commence her blessed reign.

1 In justice to Reid, however, it should be stated that the chapters on sensation in the Essays on the Intellectual Powers (1785) exhibit a great improvement. He is, in fact, in advance of his commentator, as the note to Essay 11. chap. ii. p. 248 of Hamilton's edition shows.

2 Haller, amplifying Descartes, writes in the Primæ Lineæ, CCCLXVI.–"Non est adeo obscurum sensum omnem oriri ab objecti sensibilis impressione in nervum quemcumque corporis humani, et eamdem per cum nervum ad cerebrum pervenientem tunc demum representari animæ, quando cerebrum adtigit. Ut etiam hoc falsum sit animam inproximo per sensoria nerverumque ramos sentire." . . . DLVII.–"Dum ergo sentimus quinque diversissima entia conjunguntur: corpus quod sentimus: organi sensorii adfectio ab eo corpore: cerebri adfectio a sensorii percussione nata: in anima nata mutatio: animæ denique conscientia et sensationis adperceptio." Nevertheless, Sir Wiiliam Hamilton gravely informs his hearers:–"We have no more right to deny that the mind feels at the finger points, as consclousness assures us, than to assert that it thinks exclusively in the brain."–Lecture on Metaphysics and Logic, ii. p. 128. "We have no reason whatever to doubt the report of consciousness, that we actually perceive at the external point of sensation, and that we perceive the material reality."–Ibid. p. 129.

3 Observations on Man, vol. i. p.11.

4 Ibid. p. 8. The speculations of Bonnet are remarkably similar to those of Hartley; and they appear to have originated independently, though the Essai de Psychologie (1754) is of five years' later date than the Observations on Man (1749).

5 "An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, chap. ii. § 2. Reid affirms that "it is genius, and not the want of it, that adulterates philosophy, and fills it with error and false theory;" and no doubt his own lucubrations are free from the smallest taint of the impurity to which he objects. But, for want of something more than that sort of "common sense," which is very common and a little dull, the contemner of genius did not notice that the admission here made knocks so big a hole in the bottom of "common sense philosophy," that nothing can save it from foundering in the dreaded abyss of Idealism.

6 The following diagrammatic scheme may help to elucidate the theory of sensation:–

Mediate Knowledge

Immediate Knowledge

Sensiferous Apparatus

Objects of Sense
(Sense organ)(Nerve)(Sensorium)
Sensations and other States of Consciousness
Hypothetical Substance of Matter Hypothetical Substance of Mind

Physical World

Mental World

Not self


Non-Ego or Object

Ego or Subject

Immediate knowledge is confined to states of consciousness, or, in other words, to the phenomena of mind. Knowledge of the physical world, or of one's own body and of objects external to it, is a system of beliefs or judgments based on the sensations. The term "self" is applied not only to the series of mental phenomena which constitute the ego, but to the fragment of the physical world which is their constant concomitant. The corporeal self, therefore, is part of the non-ego; and it is objective in relation to the ego or subject.

7 "Chaque fibre est une espèce de touche ou de marteau destine à rendre un certain ton."–Bonnet, Essai de Psychologie, chap. iv.

Faces Doodle

Huxley Archives

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume VI, Hume, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Previous article: Bishop Berkeley on the Metaphysics of Sensation [1871], pages 243-287.

Preface and Table of Contents to the next volume, Volume VII, of Huxley's Collected Essays.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden