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The Function Of Perception

NEED OF KNOWING THE MATERIAL WORLD.--It is the business of perception to
give us knowledge of our world of material objects and their relations
in space and time. The material world which we enter through the
gateways of the senses is more marvelous by far than any fairy world
created by the fancy of story-tellers; for it contains the elements of
all they have conceived and much more besides. It is more marvelous than
any structure planned and executed by the mind of man; for all the
wonders and beauties of the Coliseum or of St. Peter's existed in nature
before they were discovered by the architect and thrown together in
those magnificent structures. The material advancement of civilization
has been but the discovery of the objects, forces, and laws of nature,
and their use in inventions serviceable to men. And these forces and
laws of nature were discovered only as they were made manifest through
objects in the material world.

The problem lying before each individual who would enter fully into this
rich world of environment, then, is to discover at first hand just as
large a part of the material world about him as possible. In the most
humble environment of the most uneventful life is to be found the
material for discoveries and inventions yet undreamed of. Lying in the
shade of an apple tree under the open sky, Newton read from a falling
apple the fundamental principles of the law of gravitation which has
revolutionized science; sitting at a humble tea table Watt watched the
gurgling of the steam escaping from the kettle, and evolved the steam
engine therefrom; with his simple kite, Franklin drew down the lightning
from the clouds, and started the science of electricity; through
studying a ball, the ancient scholars conceived the earth to be a
sphere, and Columbus discovered America.

THE PROBLEM WHICH CONFRONTS THE CHILD.--Well it is that the child,
starting his life's journey, cannot see the magnitude of the task before
him. Cast amid a world of objects of whose very existence he is
ignorant, and whose meaning and uses have to be learned by slow and
often painful experience, he proceeds step by step through the senses in
his discovery of the objects about him. Yet, considered again, we
ourselves are after all but a step in advance of the child. Though we
are somewhat more familiar with the use of our senses than he, and know
a few more objects about us, yet the knowledge of the wisest of us is at
best pitifully meager compared with the richness of nature. So
impossible is it for us to know all our material environment, that men
have taken to becoming specialists. One man will spend his life in the
study of a certain variety of plants, while there are hundreds of
thousands of varieties all about him; another will study a particular
kind of animal life, perhaps too minute to be seen with the naked eye,
while the world is teeming with animal forms which he has not time in
his short day of life to stop to examine; another will study the land
forms and read the earth's history from the rocks and geological strata,
but here again nature's volume is so large that he has time to read but
a small fraction of the whole. Another studies the human body and learns
to read from its expressions the signs of health and sickness, and to
prescribe remedies for its ills; but in this field also he has found it
necessary to divide the work, and so we have specialists for almost
every organ of the body.

Next: The Nature Of Perception

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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