Harold Walsby: The Process of Assumptions

We are now in the position where we understand: (a) that all our beliefs, opinions, knowledge, understanding etc. are concerned with what is “real” – or has independent being – and what is not real; (b) that the “attribute” or “quality” of reality – or independent being – is always conferred by the process of assumption; (c) that the act or process of assumption is a reciprocal activity of introjection and projection, and is a specific reaction – objective as well as subjective – of the individual organism; (d) that the process of assumption occurs at the instance of some kind of determining influence or force – that is to say, it is a process which is determined mechanically, physically, chemically, biologically, psychologically and ideologically; (e) that every idea has meaning – or, in other words, is an idea – in so far as it results from the association, relation or interaction of a particular stimulus (internal or external) with a structure of more or less general assumptions. Several questions now arise as to how assumptions are maintained, how they are related to each other and effect each other etc. But first, in order to gain clearer ideas of the nature of assumption, let us attempt to trace some connection or correlation between the assumptive process and the physiology of an individual organism.

The act of assumption, we have seen, is an ideological process. But in saying this, we do not mean that it is not also a psychological process; neither do we imply that it is not also a biological process; nor do we infer that it is a process which does not embody chemical, physical or mechanical activities. On the contrary, we must regard the ideological process as embracing within itself, and as dependent upon, all the other levels of activity – which levels exist also outside the ideological level, as largely independent process-levels, with each level embracing, in a similar fashion, processes of all the levels below it. Thus, the processes of the higher levels are more complex, heterogeneous and differentiated than those of the lower levels; for the processes of each level not only contain activities of all the lower levels, but contain them in such a way that, by their integration and connection with each other, they exhibit qualitatively new and different modes of activity – i.e. those modes of activity which are characteristic of the level. Only by such conceptions, for which there is a great deal of evidence and scientific warrant, is it possible to explain how, on the one hand, ideas can act upon and determine each other, and also, on the other hand, how ideas and matter can interact and mutually condition each other. Hence, according to this standpoint, ideas are real, active, capable of determining each other, and – per medium of the internal level – structure of ideological processes interacting with and through the subjacent external process-levels of determining organic and inorganic matter. Hence, too, material objects and organic bodies are capable of determining and conditioning ideas.

With these conceptions in mind, we can now approach the process of assumption from a point of view which takes into account its physiological nature or basis. We may, for instance, observe indirectly the process at work in the conditioning of the reflex activity of an individual organism. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with reflexological nervous processes, we shall take the liberty of briefly describing such of them as are relevant and essential to our present discussion.

As the reader is doubtless aware, animal behaviour is now customarily divided into two types of response to external stimuli, both of which are reflex mechanisms. The first and more primitive type of reflex activity is inborn or inherited, and is exemplified in such actions as the sudden, automatic withdrawal of a person’s hand when it is burnt or pricked. The mechanism is somewhat as follows: upon stimulation of a suitable local group of peripheral receptors or sense organs – which, because they are specifically sensitive to one particular mode of stimulation, peripherally select or analyse stimuli – trains of ingoing or afferent nervous impulses are set going along the nerve fibres of a number of sensory neurons which connect the peripheral receptors to the central nervous system, where the impulses are either wholly passed on to a number of motor neurons or relayed in part to the higher centres of the brain. By means of the nerve fibres of the motor neurons, the now outgoing or efferent impulses travel from the central nervous system to the effector organs – such as muscles or glands – which are thus excited into activity or inhibited from activity as the case may be. This is the mechanism of the unconditioned or absolute reflex, and is an innate or inherited nervous structure which functions without the active participation or intervention of the higher centres of nervous activity in the cerebral cortex of the brain. The withdrawal reflex, for example, is one of the functions of the spinal cord.

The second type of response is not quite so automatic and is more complicated than the first, though, as its name suggests, it is but a modification of the more primitive, inborn type of reflex. The mechanism of the conditioned or acquired reflex, as investigated by Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, is broadly as follows: upon repetition of the situation in which the stimulation of any particular local group of peripheral receptors occurs within a limited period before the presentation of an unconditioned stimulus (the stimulus which evokes the inborn reflex) a nervous connection is established, via the sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex, between that group of receptors and the motor neurons which effect the inborn or unconditioned response. The newly established nervous connection is such that when the particular group of receptors is stimulated in the same manner as previously, whether or not it is followed by the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus, the response occurs as if it were brought about by the unconditioned stimulus, and is, from external observation, in every way similar to the unconditioned or absolute response itself.

Thus the repetition of the situation wherein the sight of food is soon followed by the eating of it (a situation which obviously is constantly occurring among animals) establishes within the individual a nervous connection between the receptors of the retina and the motor neurons which control the salivary glands; so that, when the individual sees food, impulses from the retina of the eye are conveyed to the visual area of the cerebral cortex, and subsequently to the motor area of the cortex; the cortex passes the impulses on to the motor neurons that excite the salivary glands into activity; and the mouth then waters. The appearance of the food has become a “signal” for eating, or rather, for the presence of food in the mouth. Before the establishment of this or some similar path of nervous activity, the mouth waters only on presentation of the unconditioned stimulus: i.e. the presence of food in the mouth. On presentation of this latter stimulus, the nervous impulses travel along an inborn nerve path from the taste organs or receptors of the tongue, to a lower centre of the brain where are situated the motor neurons which pass on the impulses, by means of their nerve fibres, to the salivary glands. This is the unconditioned type of reflex which, in every case, forms the foundation for the establishment of the more complicated conditioned reflex.

Once a conditioned reflex is established, in order to maintain it, it becomes necessary from time to time to “reinforce” the conditioned stimulus with the unconditioned or absolute stimulus. For if the conditioned stimulus is not reinforced, if it is repeatedly received without being followed by the absolute stimulus, it gradually becomes “extinguished.” That is to say, instead of it continuing to evoke the response with the same intensity as before, each time it is repeated its efficacy diminishes until finally there is no response at all. What happens is not the gradual obliteration of the acquired nervous connections, but the gradual establishment of new paths which increasingly have the effect of actually inhibiting the excitatory action of the conditioned stimulus, until, when the new inhibitory paths are fully established, the inhibition is more or less complete. This state of “extinction” of a conditioned reflex can itself be inhibited or extinguished. It happens when, in the early stages of extinction, as the conditioned response is growing more feeble, the conditioned stimulus is reinforced again by the unconditioned stimulus. The growing inhibition is inhibited, and the response now reappears with its previous intensity, which, however, again gradually diminishes if the conditioned stimulus continues to be presented without reinforcement.

Inhibition can occur in other ways. If, for example, during the presentation of a conditioned stimulus, a strange new stimulus of sufficient strength is simultaneously presented, the conditioned response will not occur; it will be inhibited. Similarly, if during the process of extinction of a conditioned reflex a strange stimulus of sufficient strength is presented, the disturbance will inhibit the inhibitory extinction and the conditioned reflex will return with some, or all, of its former intensity. Again, inhibition occurs in the process of “discrimination,” which we can briefly describe as follows.

Suppose a particular sound – say, of a gong – be established as a conditioned stimulus for the salivary response of a dog. At first the stimulus will be more or, less “generalised” – that is to say, the response will occur for a given range of sounds which are similar to, but not the same as, the original sound. If, however, the different sounds are presented one after another at fairly frequent intervals, but the unconditioned stimulus – food – is given only after presentation of the original sound and not after any of the others, these other sounds cease, after a time, to evoke the response. The response to each of them has become extinguished or inhibited; only the response to the original sound remains. The animal has “learnt” the difference between the sounds; it “discriminates” between them.

In his experiments with dogs, Pavlov demonstrated the formation of chains of conditioned reflexes – that is to say, the establishment of a series of reflexes, built up one by one, each established upon the others already formed. This process produces an increasingly complicated and circuitous nerve path for the impulses to traverse before they can effect the response. Thus, where such chains of reflexes are established, the ingoing impulses are first passed to the sensory area of the cortex appropriate to the nature of the final conditioned stimulus, and thence, one after another, to the other sensory areas appropriate to the stimuli used in the previous stages of conditioning, and ultimately, to the motor areas of the cortex from which run the nerve fibres to the effector organs.

Now, it is obvious that these various physiological processes and, mechanisms concerning the conditioned reflex, involved in the higher mental activities of all human beings: for example, in learning the meaning of spoken words, in the growth of understanding, in the concentration and diffusion of attention, in the formation of aims, ideas, intentions and so forth. If the cerebral hemispheres of an animal brain are removed, its conditioned reflexes, and the modes of behaviour founded, upon them, are absent or destroyed; only its automatic, inborn reflex activity remains. Such an animal – a decerebrate dog, for instance – can breathe, swallow, walk, sleep and, if mildly hurt, snap and snarl; but it will only react to direct stimuli. It will starve, even though its usual food is within sight and within reach, unless meals are actually placed into its mouth. Though starving, it shows no sign of hunger – and all other signs of feeling or emotion are similarly absent. All those optical, olfactory, and auditory stimuli, which previously were capable of producing the most violent reactions, now become meaningless for the animal and quite ineffective. Such a decerebrate animal lacks the ability to learn, to remember, to understand, to anticipate, or to interpret any kind of signal – in short, it is largely non est mentally.

Thus, from the physiological point of view, the mechanism of the conditioned reflex plays a great and essential part in the growth and nature of understanding, and consequently in all “drive” or intentional behaviour. Yet we have seen that, from the ideological view-point, the process of assumption is also a necessary and essential foundation for all understanding and intentional activity. If this is the case, though it would be an obvious error to attempt to identify the conditioned reflex with the process of assumption, it is nevertheless forced upon us to conclude that the assumptive process is necessarily involved in the establishment and operation of the conditioned reflex. When Pavlov’s dogs respond to the conditioned stimulus with “signs of appetite” that is to say, with activity of the salivary and gastric glands, and of the muscles involved in lip-licking, champing of the jaws, barking, tail-wagging and other motor reactions – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the animals “expect” the appearance of food, that they “assume,” in some simple primitive way, that they are about to eat. It should be noted that we gain this unavoidable impression largely because of the connected and related nature of these different reactions. Barking alone, or mere tail-wagging, or champing of the jaws only, or even the activity of salivating unaccompanied by any of the other reactions – none of these events occurring alone and unconnected would so forcibly impress upon us the conclusion that these dogs were “anticipating” or showed signs of “expectation” and “foresight,” and therefore were assuming the reality of something or other.

It should be noted also that we gain the above impression partly because we are unable to avoid reading or projecting our own subjective experience into the behaviour and experience of the dogs. This fact may, indeed, form the basis for strong objections to our procedure from certain people who regard it as an altogether and completely unwarrantable form of conducting inquiry. We shall not be deterred, however, and we need not let it worry us unduly; for, as we shall show explicitly – and we have already shown it to some extent – the procedure of projecting our subjective experience into things is a necessary and essential part of the process of understanding. So far from being completely and entirely illegitimate, no understanding or knowledge would be possible without it. It lies at the root, the beginning and foundation of our knowledge of matter; it is involved, as we have seen, in every act of assumption.

But this defense of our method must not be taken to mean that we are at liberty to read or project into objective things just what we like, or just such of our own subjective experience as we feel inclined. On the contrary, as we have already indicated, and as we shall later more clearly realise, projection always and under all circumstances occurs at the instance of some more or less compelling force, some compulsion or other – whether the projection be that of the savage or infantile mind in attributing emotions, thoughts, perceptions, sensations etc. to inanimate material objects, or whether it be that of the scientist in attributing to those same material objects the character or status of independent being or reality. For even the character of objectivity is that in our experience, is that aspect of our own subjective being – i.e. of being independently real – which we are compelled to project in order that the object becomes and remains intelligible to us. And, as we have pointed out above, the compulsion is not merely and exclusively ideological, but is psychological, biological, chemical, physical and mechanical as well. Thus we see, then, that although we need not be afraid of projection as such, we must be extremely careful to project only such as we are really forced or compelled to do in order that the phenomena become intelligible to us: we must not assume more than what, by the facts, we are forced to assume. This, of course, is simply another way of saying that we must not be compelled to make assumptions which arise from ignorance of available and ascertainable facts, and which, therefore, are avoidable. But assume we must, and project we must; we are compelled to do so if we are to have any kind of knowledge, or even the slightest degree of understanding. The person who utterly dismisses as completely and absolutely illegitimate the “reading of our own minds” or the “projection of subjective characteristics” into objective things, just doesn’t understand the nature of his own knowledge and his own understanding of things. The very denial of the legitimacy of projection involves the projection of subjective characteristics into other people. This negative principle, or assumption, like so many others, cannot be acted upon or carried out with consistency because it is self-negating – for if carried out with complete consistency it leads to pure solipsism, to that very state of affairs from which it presumes, by implication, to rescue us.

In the particular case under discussion, therefore, we shall have no great qualms about attributing the process of assumption to the animal mind. As we have already remarked, if we take the facts in their connection and relation to each other and not as mere isolated and separate events, we shall be forced to the conclusion that the assumptive act is of necessity involved in the operation of the conditioned reflex. We are forced to the conclusion simply because, without it, the facts or actions, when fitted back into their contexts, remain unintelligible. Moreover, we shall find that our conclusion not only brings into close connection and harmonises two groups of facts which are drawn from two distinct but related spheres (the ideological and biological) and increases our present understanding, but also, that it is further confirmed by the later results and gains in our knowledge which accrue from its adoption. We shall, then, regard the animal-learning which is exhibited in the conditioning of reflex activity, as involving the process of making simple assumptions. The experimental dog – whose salivary reflex is conditioned to the stimulus of the flashing of an electric bulb or the sound of a buzzer or some other sensory experience – because it “recognises” the stimulus as a signal for eating pleasurable experience of overcoming the unpleasant feeling or painful internal stimulus of hunger) then “grasps” or “understands” in a simple primitive way, the “meaning” of the stimulus.

We have seen that the existence of an inborn reflex is a necessary condition for the establishment of a conditioned reflex, and that, therefore, the existence of an unconditioned stimulus is a necessary condition for the existence of a conditioned stimulus. Similarly, the presentation or reception of the conditioned stimulus becomes, temporarily at any rate, the necessary condition for the existence of the unconditioned stimulus – i.e. in the case of the salivary reflex, the presence of food in the mouth. Now, since an “implication” can be defined as “a necessary condition for the existence of some particular event, thing or other,” we may alternatively assert that a particular conditioned stimulus implies a particular unconditioned stimulus; and that, within the limitations of the particular context in which it appears, the conditioned stimulus is implied by the unconditioned stimulus.

This mutual implication – this mutual relation of “necessary condition” – now enables us to regard the conditioned reflex as follows: upon reception of the conditioned stimulus, the animal “sees ,” “perceives ,” “grasps,” “recognises” – that is to say, assumes – its implication, viz. the unconditioned stimulus (which, as we saw, besides producing the inborn response, causes impulses to pass up to the cerebral hemispheres). Or, in the case of chain-conditioning, where one stimulus implies several others, there are involved several corresponding acts of assumption. (We are reminded here of the fact that when we, ourselves, think of an event as a necessary condition for the existence of another event – i.e. as an implication of the latter – we think of the former as the “explanation” or “reason” for the latter. We form such chains as “I missed the opportunity because I was late,” “I was late because I mistook the time,” “I mistook the time because… ” and so on and so forth.)

So far, in considering the conditioning process, we have tended to regard it as an establishment of new nerve paths and connections in the cerebral hemispheres, such that, when the conditioned stimulus is presented, impulses from the receptor organs simply travel up to the cortex through the new connections and down to the effector organs. But, of course, this is a very much distorted and over-simplified version of the real state of affairs. The element of memory – the retention of patterns of sensory experience – without which no conditioning or learning can occur, is left entirely out of the picture. In order to show its enormous importance let, us illustrate with an example.

Suppose the salivary reflex of a dog to be conditioned to an optical stimulus of some kind – the exposure, for a few moments, of a slowly moving white screen, say. The receptor-organs directly affected by the stimulus are the many millions of tightly-packed sense-cells of the retina of the eye – or rather, some of them. When the white screen is exposed, nervous impulses from these sense-cells are sent on their way up to the visual area of the cortex – where, it has been demonstrated, there is practically a point-to-point projection of the images falling upon the retina. Now then, it is obvious that during the exposure of the moving screen, the image on the retina will be in continual movement in relation to the retina itself, as will also the image’s projection on the visual area of the cortex in relation to that area. In other words, as the white screen moves, the actual sense cells engaged with initiating the nervous impulses directly relating to the screen, will be changing from moment to moment. And similarly with the neurons of the visual cortex, which are engaged with the reception of the impulses and their transmission to other parts of the brain. As the image shifts, some of the sense-cells and neurons directly affected by it become engaged with impulses concerning images of other, neutral stimuli; and on the other hand, some of the sense-cells and neurons engaged with these latter stimuli become directly affected by the white screen. Wherever the image presents itself on the retina it makes no difference to the efficacy of the stimulus in evoking the response.

Impulses are continually streaming from all the millions of retinal sense-cells before, during and after the presentation of the stimulus. Yet the actual nerve connections in the brain which transmit these impulses – or some of them – into paths leading to the salivary effectors, come into operation only when the image of the moving screen falls upon the retina. From all this it becomes clear that the physiological mechanism of the conditioned reflex is not a mere coupling arrangement whereby a stimulus sets up impulses which automatically stream along fixed nerve paths into the nervous system, through it and out again, with their final manifestation in the response. It becomes even more obvious when we realise that the dog can be taught to discriminate between two white screens of different shape, so that the response occurs for one screen but not the other. Thus it is evident that what really matters is the pattern of sensory impulses, that it is the pattern of nervous activity received in the cortex which releases the impulses into the appropriate channels, and not the mere fact or presence of such activity. What is required to be fixed and un-changing is not so much the nerve paths and connections of the reflex mechanism, but the main pattern of the sensory activity evoked by the stimulus – and this involves retention and the process of assumption.

“Pattern,” broadly speaking, is the arrangement or mutual relations, in space and time, of a number of unit-parts to form a whole, or group, which can be reproduced, repeated or recognised as such. Though it may not be so obvious as in the case of optical stimuli “pattern” is involved in the reception of every stimulus, whether it be the sound of a buzzer, the feel of velvet, the smell of new-mown hay, or the taste of vinegar. It is partly by its own characteristic or inherent pattern that we “recognise” a stimulus – that is to say, by the particular system of co-existences and sequences of nervous impulses, or units of nervous activity, which the stimulus evokes. What the ultimate objective units are, which we assume to form the basis of the innate pattern of the external stimulus, we cannot know through sensory channels – for to be thus known they must have a communicable pattern or structure, which would at once disqualify them from being ultimate unit-parts. But it doesn’t in the least matter, for all we require is that the mutual relationships or arrangements – the co-existences and sequences between the unit-parts of the stimulus answer to, or correspond with, the pattern of the unit-parts of nervous activity.

We have already seen, above, how the conditioned-stimulus implies an unconditioned stimulus (or, in chain-conditioning, a series of stimuli) and how “recognition” depends upon the assumption of this implication – of this relation of “necessary condition.” But we now see that recognition depends also upon the retention of the inherent pattern or mutual relations of the stimulus itself (of the unconditioned as well as the conditioned stimulus). Thus, in “recognition” we have two elements or aspects to consider: (1) the internal pattern of the stimulus and (2) the external pattern of stimuli – i.e. their mutual implication, their mutual relations with each other (forming patterns of sensory patterns). These two elements are closely bound up and dependent upon one another, and both – because they involve the formation and retention of “patterns,” or mutual relations, upon which behaviour is founded – involve the process of assumption.

Unfortunately, very little is known of the actual physiological mechanisms and changes which underlie the retention of sensory patterns. There does seem some ground, however, for believing that retention of traces of sensation is accomplished by the relaying of sensory impulses to special groups of cyclically acting neurons, which continue to excite and re-excite one another after the particular stimulus responsible for the impulses has ceased to act upon the receptors.

Be that as it may, wherever we find the capacity to learn – and its most primitive forms are to be found very low in the animal scale of life – wherever, in other words, we find the capacity to form and retain new patterns of nervous activity, we must of necessity find the capacity, however primitive, to form assumptions. But, although the physiological basis for assumption is the establishment of a structure of nervous patterns, the process of assumption essentially consists in this: the reception of these patterns as the patterns of an outer world, and therefore, as determinants of, or limitations upon, behaviour. Hence, every act of assumption involves the relation between subject and object.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index