by Wolfgang Köhler
(Ein altes Scheinproblem, 1929; translated by Erich Goldmeyer, 1971)

(1st part)

Why are the objects of the phenomenal world perceived as before us, outside of ourselves, even though today everybody knows that they depend upon processes inside of us, in the central nervous system? A psychologist will as a rule, immediately be able to give a simple solution to this curious problem. But that it is generally known may not be assumed. It is not only a philosopher like SCHOPENHAUER who uncritically accepts the erroneous premises implicit in that question and must then make the wildest assumptions to answer it. Many of the greatest physiologists, among them even Helmholtz, have failed to achieve full clarity on this question. (1) MACH and AVENARIUS attempted to lead the scientific world away from the errors already implicit in the formulation of the paradox. But either their explanations remained little known, or they did not sufficiently elucidate the problem. (2) For only a few years ago a well-known physician raised the question anew: "How is it that consciousness, which is bound to an organism, relates the changes in its sense organs to something located outside of itself?" All attempts to explain this "compulsion to project" appeared useless to him, for he felt that here is one of the eternal enigmas, related to the mind-body problem. lt seems clear that this contemporary physician is not alone; rather he represents the majority of natural scientists. Students, at any rate even those of the natural sciences, always have to go through a sort of revolution in their picture of the world as they try to transform what appears so strange into a simple, transparent matter. Under these circimstances, it may indeed be worthwhile once more to correct in somewhat more detail the error inherent in this question.

We have here a typical case of a difficulty which we create ourselves, in which we proceed on a correct line of reasoning for a while, but not consistently to the end. If new knowledge is gained in one area, while in a neighboring area an earlier stage of knowledge is inadvertently retained, contradictions must result. The path in the present case is directly determined by the development of physics from GALILEO and NEWTON on. Consequently, the way to discover and to eliminate the core of the difficulty that developed leads over this same road of natural science. Little would be gained if we tried to demonstrate by philosophical speculation that here must be an error, while science would find itself, just as before, led on its way to the same old paradox.

The physics of the late baroque period destroyed naive realism. The objects which exist independently of the observer and are to be the subject of scientific study could not possibly possess all the variegated characteristics which the phenomenal environment certainly shows. Thus the physicist subtracts many socalled sensory qualities if he wants to extract what he considers the objective realities from the phenomenal manifold. I do not venture to judge whether the greatest minds of that time were immediately aware that much more is needed, namely a radical departure from the identity of phenomenal object and physical object. Sometimes it seems that for them the phenomenal object was simply the physical object itself, somewhat changed by all kinds of subjective trimmings, thus both basically still one and the same existence. Whatever the historical truth, after the elimination of the "secondary qualities," physics developed so rapidly that soon its way of thinking had to be applied to the relation between physical events and the organism. For example, whether a sound wave impinges on a violin string or on the human eardrum can, after all, make no difference in principle. From this moment on, there seems to be no escape from the paradox. Anatomy, physiology, and pathology teach us that about one point there can no longer be any possible doubt. The physical processes between object and sense organ are followed by further events which are propagated through nerves and nerve cells as far as certain regions of the brain. Somewhere in these regions processes take place which are tied to the occurrence of perception in general and, therefore, also to the existence of phenomenal objects. Thus a physical object which reflects light differently from its surroundings will be the source of a long series of successive processes of propagation and transformation through rather different media, until finally a complex of processes takes place which can be considered the physiological carrier of the corresponding phenomenal object. Now it would obviously be meaningless to identify with each other the starting point and such a late or distant phase of this sequence of events. Therefore this reasoning might well allow for similarities of some degree between the phenomenal object and its partner in the physical world; but in any case the two represent existences at least as different as the physical object and - in an entirely different spatial position - the brain process on which the existence of the phenomenal object directly depends. If I shoot at a target, nobody will claim that the hole in the target is the same thing as the revolver from which the bullet came. By the same reasoning, we may not identify the phenomenal object with the physical object from which the stimuli in question came. Under no circumstances has the phenomenal object anything to do with the place in physical space where the "corresponding" physical object is located. If it has to be localized at all at some point in physical space, then obviously it belongs most properly to that place in the brain where the directly corresponding physological process takes place. It is immediately apparent that SCHOPENHAUER, HELMHOLTZ, the above-mentioned physician, and everybody for whom this paradox exists would regard just such a localization of phenomenal objects and phenomenal qualities as the natural one. But instead, without any doubt, we have the phenomenal objects before us and outside of ourselves.

We might be tempted to say that parts of the phenomenal world should not be thought of as localized in any place in the physical world as a matter of principle, since phenomenal and physical localizations are incommensurable. Therefore localization of a phenomenal object within the brain is also ruled out. But we should not make the answer to our question too easy. Such a purely negative statement certainly does not solve the problem before us. For the problem lies in the fact that phenomenal objects are localized in a definite position relative to our body, only not in it, but outside of it. Thus the simplest experience seems to contradict the epistemological argument just considered. One finds, therefore, among biologists and even philosophers, the assumption that the phenomenal object is somehow again withdrawn from the body into physical space and, wherever possible, precisely to the place of its physical counterpart ("compulsion to project"). Fantastic as such an idea may be, it is unfortunately not uncommon to find all kinds of hypotheses in psychology so confused that nobody would tolerate them in the natural sciences proper. There are surely also those who see in such an extraordinary achievement an expression of the superiority of mind over mere nature.

As to the epistemological argument of the incommensurability of physic and phenomenal localization there is, however, this to say. Let us assume that it is absolutely correct and that, therefore, the total phenomenal world of a person is simply not definitely localizable anywhere in the physical world, because it is not possible even to conceive of the relative localization of phenomenal and physical facts. Then it follows that we may arbitrarily think of the totality of a person s phenomenal world. wherever in the physical world it would help our thinking. Such a procedure, if followed systematically, can never lead to an inconsistency precisely because, in fact, we are always dealing with the relative localization either of physical data or of phenomenal data among themselves, but never with localization of the one relative to the other. (3) Now, according to our basic assumption, the totality of a person s perceptual world is strictly correlated with certain processes in his central nervous system. lt will then simplify our discussion and our terminology if, in what follows, we do not consider spatial relations of the phenomenal world as entirely separate from. thos in physical space, but think of the totality of the phenomenal world and its subdivisions as being mapped on those brain processes which certainly at least correspond to them. After what has been said. this procedure will prejudice nothing. Whoever believes that he can cautiously avoid this assumption and prefers to conceive of the totality of the phenomenal world as permanently set apart in an imommensurable space, must reach exactly the same result, the same solution to the paradox which we will reach. And besides, I want to show that this solution succeeds entirely even if one maintains, with HELMHOLTZ and so many biologists, that phenomenal data "belong only to our nervous system."

continue (2nd Part)
continue (3rd Part)


(1) From the principles of his theory of space, HELMHOLTZ proposes to derive "an astonishing consequence": "the objects present in space appear to us clothed in the qualities of our sensations. They appear to us red or green, cold or warm, they have smell or taste, etc., while these sensory qualities belong, after all, only to our nervous system and do not at all extend into outer space." (H. v. HELMHOLTZ, Die Thatsachen in der Wahrnehmung. Berlin. August Hirschwald, 1879.) (-> back to text)

(2) A much clearer attempt, correct in its essential points, to give a concrete, positive soIution of the paradox was made by Ewald HERING as early as 1862, at least for visual perception. (E. HERING, Beiträge zur Physiologie. Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1861-1864. Heft 2, 1862, 164-166.) By the way, HERING himself expressed great pessimism about the understanding of his arguments that could be expected among his contemporaries. (-> back to text)

(3) Similarly, I am completely free to think of the "pyramid of concepts" of classical logic or of the color pyramid in any arbitrary regions of space, precisely because their quasi-spatial nature neither excludes nor requires coincidence with a definite region of "real" space. (-> back to text)

This article was first published in German as "Ein altes Scheinproblem" in the journal Die Naturwissenschaften, 1929, 17, pp. 395-401.
It was reprinted by permission of Springer-Verlag and translated by Erich Goldmeier in
Mary Henle (Ed.), The Selected Papers of Wolfgang Köhler, New York: Liveright, 1971, pp. 125-141.

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