Catalog # SKU1309
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 2.00 lbs
Author Name James Sully



A Psychological Study

James Sully

Common sense, knowing nothing of fine distinctions, is wont to draw a sharp line between the region of illusion and that of sane intelligence. To be the victim of an illusion is, in the popular judgment, to be excluded from the category of rational men. The term at once calls up images of stunted figures with ill-developed brains, half-witted creatures, hardly distinguishable from the admittedly insane. And this way of thinking of illusion and its subjects is strengthened by one of the characteristic sentiments of our age.


The nineteenth century intelligence plumes itself on having got at the bottom of mediæval visions and church miracles, and it is wont to commiserate the feeble minds that are still subject to these self-deceptions.

According to this view, illusion is something essentially abnormal and allied to insanity. And it would seem to follow that its nature and origin can be best studied by those whose speciality it is to observe the phenomena of abnormal life. Scientific procedure has in the main conformed to this distinction of common sense. The phenomena of illusion have ordinarily been investigated by alienists, that is to say, physicians who are brought face to face with their most striking forms in the mentally deranged.

While there are very good reasons for this treatment of illusion as a branch of mental pathology, it is by no means certain that it can be a complete and exhaustive one. Notwithstanding the flattering supposition of common sense, that illusion is essentially an incident in abnormal life, the careful observer knows well enough that the case is far otherwise.

There is, indeed, a view of our race diametrically opposed to the flattering opinion referred to above, namely, the humiliating judgment that all men habitually err, or that illusion is to be regarded as the natural condition of mortals. This idea has found expression, not only in the cynical exclamation of the misanthropist that most men are fools, but also in the cry of despair that sometimes breaks from the weary searcher after absolute truth, and from the poet when impressed with the unreality of his early ideals. Without adopting this very disparaging opinion of the intellectual condition of mankind, we must recognize the fact that most men are sometimes liable to illusion.

Hardly anybody is always consistently sober and rational in his perceptions and beliefs. A momentary fatigue of the nerves, a little mental excitement, a relaxation of the effort of attention by which we continually take our bearings with respect to the real world about us, will produce just the same kind of confusion of reality and phantasm, which we observe in the insane.

To give but an example: the play of fancy which leads to a detection of animal and other forms in clouds, is known to be an occupation of the insane, and is rightly made use of by Shakespeare as a mark of incipient mental aberration in Hamlet; and yet this very same occupation is quite natural to children, and to imaginative adults when they choose to throw the reins on the neck of their phantasy. Our luminous circle of rational perception is surrounded by a misty penumbra of illusion. Common sense itself may be said to admit this, since the greatest stickler for the enlightenment of our age will be found in practice to accuse most of his acquaintance at some time or another of falling into illusion.

If illusion thus has its roots in ordinary mental life, the study of it would seem to belong to the physiology as much as to the pathology of mind. We may even go further, and say that in the analysis and explanation of illusion the psychologist may be expected to do more than the physician. If, on the one hand, the latter has the great privilege of observing the phenomena in their highest intensity, on the other hand, the former has the advantage of being familiar with the normal intellectual process which all illusion simulates or caricatures. To this it must be added that the physician is naturally disposed to look at illusion mainly, if not exclusively, on its practical side, that is, as a concomitant and symptom of cerebral disease, which it is needful to be able to recognize. The psychologist has a different interest in the subject, being specially concerned to understand the mental antecedents of illusion and its relation to accurate perception and belief. It is pretty evident, indeed, that the phenomena of illusion form a region common to the psychologist and the mental pathologist, and that the complete elucidation of the subject will need the co-operation of the two classes of investigator.

In the present volume an attempt will be made to work out the psychological side of the subject; that is to say, illusions will be viewed in their relation to the process of just and accurate perception. In the carrying out of this plan our principal attention will be given to the manifestations of the illusory impulse in normal life. At the same time, though no special acquaintance with the pathology of the subject will be laid claim to, frequent references will be made to the illusions of the insane. Indeed, it will be found that the two groups of phenomena-the illusions of the normal and of the abnormal condition-are so similar, and pass into one another by such insensible gradations, that it is impossible to discuss the one apart from the other. The view of illusion which will be adopted in this work is that it constitutes a kind of border-land between perfectly sane and vigorous mental life and dementia.

And here at once there forces itself on our attention the question, What exactly is to be understood by the term "illusion"? In scientific works treating of the pathology of the subject, the word is confined to what are specially known as illusions of the senses, that is to say, to false or illusory perceptions. And there is very good reason for this limitation, since such illusions of the senses are the most palpable and striking symptoms of mental disease. In addition to this, it must be allowed that, to the ordinary reader, the term first of all calls up this same idea of a deception of the senses.

At the same time, popular usage has long since extended the term so as to include under it errors which do not counterfeit actual perceptions. We commonly speak of a man being under an illusion respecting himself when he has a ridiculously exaggerated view of his own importance, and in a similar way of a person being in a state of illusion with respect to the past when, through frailty of memory, he pictures it quite otherwise than it is certainly known to have been.

It will be found, I think, that there is a very good reason for this popular extension of the term. The errors just alluded to have this in common with illusions of sense, that they simulate the form of immediate or self-evident cognition. An idea held respecting ourselves or respecting our past history does not depend on any other piece of knowledge; in other words, is not adopted as the result of a process of reasoning. What I believe with reference to my past history, so far as I can myself recall it, I believe instantaneously and immediately, without the intervention of any premise or reason. Similarly, our notions of ourselves are, for the most part, obtained apart from any process of inference. The view which a man takes of his own character or claims on society he is popularly supposed to receive intuitively by a mere act of internal observation. Such beliefs may not, indeed, have all the overpowering force which belongs to illusory perceptions, for the intuition of something by the senses is commonly looked on as the most immediate and irresistible kind of knowledge. Still, they must be said to come very near illusions of sense in the degree of their self-evident certainty.

Taking this view of illusion, we may provisionally define it as any species of error which counterfeits the form of immediate, self-evident, or intuitive knowledge, whether as sense-perception or otherwise. Whenever a thing is believed on its own evidence and not as a conclusion from something else, and the thing then believed is demonstrably wrong, there is an illusion.

430+ pages - 8 x 5 inches SoftCover


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