I am currently reading An Introduction To Philosophy by George Stuart Fullerton. In the opening chapters of the book, he makes some very interesting statements, giving you plenty to mull over. However, there is one claim in particular that I couldn't quite make head-toe of.

George says:

A bit of experience is not a sensation, but is a quality or aspect of a thing. Sensations, then, to be sensations, must be bits of experience considered in their relation to some organ of sense.

He then goes on to say that

they should never be confused with qualities of things, which are experiences in a different setting. We may not, therefore, say that 'things' are groups of sensations. We may, if we please, describe them as complexes of qualities.

Here's my problem with this approach. An experience refers to an order of sensory receptions. However, we cannot experience something without knowledge of what Fullerton would have me call the objective world. And our senses inculcate the state of things, as we make them to be. And one such order in which these sensations would've arrived would be stored in our brain as an experience.

But isn't it really the sensory receptions of that one particular time stored in our brain? How can we experience the quality of something without having it reach our brain through our organs of sense?

To the second claim, the brain always makes a picture of a something in relation to other things. So aren't the last two statement self-contradictory? I hold that things are indeed a group of sensations, for they are the only way our brain receives information. And for something to be a 'complex of qualities', the brain must first decide on what its physical qualities are, which can only be analysed through our sense organs.

2 Answers 2


According to Fullerton, objective things cannot be merely sensations, as it is not by accumulating sensations that the brain is able to give identity/reality to a thing, but with the help of signs of reality, signs of existence, amongst which are the ones that come from "touch things", and the like:

If, then, we ask the question: What is the real external world? it is clear that we cannot answer it satisfactorily without taking into consideration the somewhat shifting senses of the word "real." What is the real external world to the plain man? It is the world of touch things, of objects upon which he can lay his hands. What is the real external world to the man of science? It is the world of atoms and molecules, of minuter touch things that he cannot actually touch, but which he conceives as though he could touch them. [Chapter V - 21. Ultimate real things] (emphasis added)

In this account, qualities of things do not stand on their own, and are also not memories of sensations, but are those elements of reality that can be traced back to sensations, but only as they are abstracted from them, and then rearranged in units of existence that we synthetically call objects of the world, thanks to the presence of signs of reality, which are paradoxically those that cannot be seen, or remembered, by themselves.

Interestingly, it is exactly because they are not directly based on sensations that experiences can endure. It is because we have an involuntary (and largely unconscious) theory of reality that we can add coherence to our sensations.


From my understanding of your quoted content ("qualities of things, which are experiences in a different setting") from your book, the author is talking about a higher epistemic level of distinctive consciousness nature. Everyday all our sense organs are perceiving huge huge amount of sensations, but most of them are very routine and weak, some philosophers insist plants have these perceptions (ie, sensations in your book's terminology) of the whole surrounding world too.

But human mind have more than simple perceptions, some of them can become very strong distinctive impression, which we normally call consciousness (some philosophers call apperception, apprehension, comprehension, etc). Obviously these have more "quality" for our mind and is not simply "a group of sensations" put together. It's a qualitative jump.

Can We Know of The Existence of Something Without Sensations? Sounds like need a counter-argument against empiricism. A good example for me is the infinitesimal "dx" concept. In math realm we all agree it exists, same as the imaginary number i. More hard to make sense of "dx" compared to i since i can still be visualized as simple rotation in complex plane, but infinitesimal is not an ideal point, but doesn't seem have space extension in our world, is it an open set in our world? It seems its existence is not at our common experienced physical level, but a deeper pure conceptual level reflected from the same underlying ontological reality...

So in conclusion nothing more deep here once you understand his concepts/definitions in relation to other popular concepts...

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