Elements Of Shape

LET us now examine some of these relations, not in the

genealogical or hierarchic order assigned to them by experimental

psychology, but in so far as they constitute the elements of shape,

and more especially as they illustrate the general principle which I

want to impress on the Reader, namely: That the perception of

Shape depends primarily upon movements which we make, and

the measurements and comparisons which we in

And first we must examine mere extension as such, which

distinguishes our active dealings with visual and audible sensations

from our passive reception of the sensations of taste and smell. For

while in the case of the latter a succession of similar stimulations

affects us as "more taste of strawberry" or "more smell of rose"

when intermittent, or as a vague "there is a strong or faint taste of

strawberry" and a "there is a smell of lemon flower"--when

continuous; our organ of sight being mobile, reports not "more black

on white" but "so many inches of black line on a white ground," that

is to say reports a certain extension answering to its

own movement. This quality of extension exists also in our

sound-perceptions, although the explanation is less evident. Notes do not

indeed exist (but only sounding bodies and air-vibrations) in the

space which we call "real" because our eye and our locomotion

coincide in their accounts of it; but notes are experienced, that is

thought and felt, as existing in a sort of imitation space of their own.

This "musical space," as M. Dauriac has rightly called it, has limits

corresponding with those of our power of hearing or reproducing

notes, and a central region corresponding with our habitual

experience of the human voice; and in this "musical space" notes are

experienced as moving up and down and with a centrifugal and

centripetal direction, and also as existing at definite spans or

intervals from one another; all of which probably on account of

presumable muscular adjustments of the inner and auditive

apparatus, as well as obvious sensations in the vocal parts when we

ourselves produce, and often when we merely think of, them. In

visual perception the sweep of the glance, that is the adjustment of

the muscles of the inner eye, the outer eye and of the head, is

susceptible of being either interrupted or continuous like any other

muscular process; and its continuity is what unites the mere

successive sensations of colour and light into a unity of extension,

so that the same successive colour-and-light-sensations can be

experienced either as one extension, or as two or more, according

as the glance is continuous or interrupted; the eye's sweep, when not

excessive, tending to continuity unless a new direction requires a

new muscular adjustment. And, except in the case of an

extension exceeding any single movement of eye and head, a new

adjustment answers to what we call a change of direction.

Extension therefore, as we have forestalled with regard to sound,

has various modes, corresponding to something belonging to

ourselves: a middle, answering to the middle not of our field of

vision, since that itself can be raised or lowered by a movement of

the head, but to the middle of our body; and an above and

below, a right and a left referable to our body also, or rather

to the adjustments made by eye and head in the attempt to see our

own extremities; for, as every primer of psychology will teach you,

mere sight and its muscular adjustments account only for the

dimensions of height (up and down) and of breadth (right and left)

while the third or cubic dimension of depth is a highly complex

result of locomotion in which I include prehension. And inasmuch

as we are dealing with aspects and not with things, we have as

yet nothing to do with this cubic or third dimension, but are

confining ourselves to the two dimensions of extension in height and

breadth, which are sufficient for the existence, the identity, or more

correctly the quiddity, of visible shapes.

Such a shape is therefore, primarily, a series of longer or shorter

extensions, given by a separate glance towards, or away from, our

own centre or extremities, and at some definite angle to our own

axis and to the ground on which we stand. But these acts of

extension and orientation cease to be thought of as measured and

orientated, and indeed as accomplished, by ourselves, and are

translated into objective terms whenever our attention is turned

outwards: thus we say that each line is of a given length and

direction, so or so much off the horizontal or vertical.

So far we have established relations only to ourselves. We now

compare the acts of extension one against the other, and we also

measure the adjustment requisite to pass from one to another,

continuing to refer them all to our own axis and centre; in everyday

speech, we perceive that the various lines are similar and

dissimilar in length, direction and orientation. We compare;

and comparing we combine them in the unity of our intention:

thought of together they are thought of as belonging together.

Meanwhile the process of such comparison of the relation of each

line with us to the analogous relation to us of its fellows, produces

yet further acts of measurement and comparison. For in going from

one of our lines to another we become aware of the presence

of--how shall I express it?--well of a nothing between them, what we

call blank space, because we experience a blank of the

particular sensations, say red and black, with which we are engaged

in those lines. Between the red and black sensations of the lines we

are looking at, there will be a possibility of other colour sensations,

say the white of the paper, and these white sensations we shall duly

receive, for, except by shutting our eyes, we could not avoid

receiving them. But though received these white sensations will not

be attended to, because they are not what we are busied with. We

shall be passive towards the white sensations while we are

active towards the black and red ones; we shall not measure the

white; not sweep our glance along it as we do along the red and the

black. And as ceteris paribus our tense awareness of active states

always throws into insignificance a passive state sandwiched

between them; so, bent as we are upon our red and black extensions,

and their comparative lengths and directions, we shall treat the

uninteresting white extensions as a blank, a gap, as that which

separates the objects of our active interest, and takes what existence

it has for our mind only from its relation of separating those

interesting actively measured and compared lines. Thus the

difference between our active perception and our merely passive

sensation accounts for the fact that every visible shape is composed

of lines (or bands) measured and compared with reference to our

own ocular adjustments and our axis and centre; lines existing, as

we express it, in blank space, that is to say space not similarly

measured; lines, moreover, enclosing between each other more of

this blank space, which is not measured in itself but subjected to the

measurement of its enclosing lines. And similarly, every audible

Shape consists not merely of sounds enclosing silence, but of

heard tones between which we are aware of the intervening blank

interval which might have been occupied by the intermediary

tones and semitones. In other words, visible and audible Shape is

composed of alternations between active, that is moving,

measuring, referring, comparing, attention; and passive, that is

comparatively sluggish reception of mere sensation.

This fact implies another and very important one, which I have

indeed already hinted at. If perceiving shape means comparing lines

(they may be bands, but we will call them lines), and the lines

are measured only by consecutive eye movements, then the act of

comparison evidently includes the co-operation, however

infinitesimally brief, of memory. The two halves of this

Chippendale chair-back exist simultaneously in front of my eyes,

but I cannot take stock simultaneously of the lengths and orientation

of the curves to the right and the curves of the left. I must hold over

the image of one half, and unite it, somewhere in what we call "the

mind"--with the other; nay, I must do this even with the separate

curves constituting the patterns each of which is measured by a

sweep of the glance, even as I should measure them successively by

applying a tape and then remembering and comparing their various

lengths, although the ocular process may stand to the tape-process as

a minute of our time to several hundreds of years. This comes to

saying that the perception of visible shapes, even like that of audible

ones, takes place in time, and requires therefore the

co-operation of memory. Now memory, paradoxical as it may sound,

practically implies expectation: the use of the past, to so speak, is

to become that visionary thing we call the future. Hence, while we

are measuring the extension and direction of one line, we are not

only remembering the extent and direction of another previously

measured line, but we are also expecting a similar, or somewhat

similar, act of measurement of the next line; even as in "following

a melody" we not only remember the preceding tone, but expect

the succeeding ones. Such interplay of present, past and future is

requisite for every kind of meaning, for every unit of thought;

and among others, of the meaning, the thought, which we

contemplate under the name of shape. It is on account of this

interplay of present, past and future, that Wundt counts feelings of

tension and relaxation among the elements of form-perception.

And the mention of such feelings, i.e. rudiments of emotion,

brings us to recognise that the remembering and foreseeing of our

acts of measurement and orientation constitutes a microscopic

psychological drama--shall we call it the drama of the SOUL

MOLECULES?--whose first familiar examples are those two

peculiarities of visible and audible shape called Symmetry and


Both of these mean that a measurement has been made, and that the

degree of its span is kept in memory to the extent of our expecting

that the next act of measurement will be similar. Symmetry

exists quite as much in Time (hence in shapes made up of

sound-relations) as in Space; and Rythm, which is commonly thought

of as an especially musical relation, exists as much in Space as in

Time; because the perception of shape requires Time and

movement equally whether the relations are between objectively

co-existent and durable marks on stone or paper, or between objectively

successive and fleeting sound-waves. Also because, while the single

relations of lines and of sounds require to be ascertained

successively, the combination of those various single relations, their

relations with one another as whole and parts, require to be

grasped by an intellectual synthesis; as much in the case of notes as

in the case of lines. If, in either case, we did not remember the first

measurement when we obtained the second, there would be no

perception of shape however elementary; which is the same as

saying that for an utterly oblivious mind there could be no

relationships, and therefore no meaning. In the case of Symmetry

the relations are not merely the lengths and directions of the single

lines, that is to say their relations to ourselves, and the relation

established by comparison between these single lines; there is now

also the relation of both to a third, itself of course related to

ourselves, indeed, as regards visible shape, usually answering to our

own axis. The expectation which is liable to fulfilling or balking is

therefore that of a repetition of this double relationship remembered

between the lengths and directions on one side, by the lengths and

directions on the other; and the repetition of a common relation to a

central item.

The case of RYTHM is more complex. For, although we usually

think of Rythm as a relation of two items, it is in reality a relation

of four (or more ); because what we remember and expect is a

mixture of similarity with dissimilarity between lengths, directions

or impacts. OR IMPACTS. For with Rythm we come to another

point illustrative of the fact that all shape-elements depend upon our

own activity and its modes. A rythmical arrangement is not

necessarily one between objectively alternated elements like

objectively longer or shorter lines of a pattern, or objectively

higher or lower or longer and shorter notes. Rythm exists equally

where the objective data, the sense stimulations, are uniform, as is

the case with the ticks of a clock. These ticks would be registered as

exactly similar by appropriate instruments. But our mind is not such

an impassive instrument: our mind (whatever our mind may really

be) is subject to an alternation of more and less, of vivid and

less vivid, important and less important, of strong and

weak; and the objectively similar stimulations from outside, of

sound or colour or light, are perceived as vivid or less vivid,

important or less important, according to the beat of this mutual

alternation with which they coincide: thus the uniform, ticking of the

clock will be perceived by us as a succession in which the stress,

that is the importance, is thrown upon the first or the second member

of a group; and the recollection and expectation are therefore of a

unity of dissimilar importance. We hear STRONG-WEAK; and

remembering strong-weak, we make a new strong-weak out of

that objective uniformity. Here there is no objective reason for one

rythm more than another; and we express this by saying that the

tickings of a clock have no intrinsic form. For Form, or as I prefer

to call it, Shape, although it exists only in the mind capable of

establishing and correlating its constituent relationships, takes an

objective existence when the material stimulations from the outer

world are such as to force all normally constituted minds to the same

series and combinations of perceptive acts; a fact which explains

why the artist can transmit the shapes existing in his own mind to

the mind of a beholder or hearer by combining certain objective

stimulations, say those of pigments on paper or of sound vibrations

in time, so as to provoke perceptive activities similar to those which

would, ceteris paribus, have been provoked in himself if that

shape had not existed first of all only in his mind.

A further illustration of the principle that shape-perception is a

combination of active measurements and comparisons, and of

remembrance and expectations, is found in a fact which has very

great importance in all artistic dealings with shapes. I have spoken,

for simplicity's, sake, as if the patches of colour on a blank (i.e.

uninteresting) ground along which the glance sweeps, were

invariably contiguous and continuous. But these colour patches, and

the sensations they afford us, are just as often, discontinuous in the

highest degree; and the lines constituting a shape may, as for

instance in constellations, be entirely imaginary. The fact is that

what we feel as a line is not an objective continuity of

colour-or-light-patches, but the continuity of our glance's sweep which

may either accompany this objective continuity or replace it. Indeed

such imaginary lines thus established between isolated colour patches,

are sometimes felt as more vividly existing than real ones, because the

glance is not obliged to take stock of their parts, but can rush freely

from extreme point to extreme point. Moreover not only half the

effectiveness of design, but more than half the efficiency of practical

life, is due to our establishing such imaginary lines. We are

inevitably and perpetually dividing visual space (and something of

the sort happens also with "musical space") by objectively

non-existent lines answering to our own bodily orientation. Every course,

every trajectory, is of this sort. And every drawing executed by an

artist, every landscape, offered us by "Nature," is felt, because it is

measured, with reference to a set of imaginary horizontals or

perpendiculars. While, as I remember the late Mr G. F. Watts

showing me, every curve which we look at is felt as being part of

an imaginary circle into which it could be prolonged. Our sum of

measuring and comparing activities, and also our dramas of

remembrance and expectation, are therefore multiplied by these

imaginary lines, whether they connect, constellation-wise, a few

isolated colour indications, or whether they are established as

standards of reference (horizontals, verticals, etc.) for other really

existing lines; or whether again they be thought of, like those circles,

as wholes of which objectively perceived series of colour patches

might possibly be parts. In all these cases imaginary lines are

felt, as existing, inasmuch as we feel the movement by which we

bring them into existence, and even feel that such a movement might

be made by us when it is not.

So far, however, I have dealt with these imaginary lines only as an

additional proof that shape-perception is an establishment of two

dimensional relationships, through our own activities, and an active

remembering, foreseeing and combining thereof.