AN OLD PSEUDOPROBLEM

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


(3rd part)

In addition to the above generalization of our considerations, from the visual facts only to perception in general, the solution of the paradox still requires the correction of a simplifying assumption which is not seriously tenable, but which has been made up to now. It is impossible that the spatial relationships in phenomenal space simply corrrespond to the geometrical relationships of their respective processes in the brain field. G. E. MÜLLER pointed out a long time ago that this is not conceivable because, for example, visual space acts like a fairly uniform continuum, while the corresponding processes of the brain field are anatomically-geometrically distributed over the two hemispheres; and therefore, from purely geometrical considerations, something, like a gap or at least a gross disturbance of continuity would have to be brought about by this inhomogeneity of the geometrical distribution of the processes. The same thing follows from the irregular arrangement of blood vessels in the nervous tissue (also emphasized by MÜLLER). Quite aside from such considerations, phenomenal space has a large number of characteristics which would be alttogether incomprehensible on the assumption that its structure and its articulation in each concrete case were determined by nothing but purely geometrical relations of individual local processes. The new psychology of perception has demonstrated beyond any doubt that only the functional distribution of processes, as well as gradations and articulations in such a context, can be regarded as the physiological basis of the phenomenal spatial order. Accordingly, the physiological theory of phenomenal space must be dynamic, not geometrical. The symmetry of a perceived circle, for example, would not depend on the mere geometrical relationships between the loci of independent individual processes, but on the fact that, in an extended whole process which underlies the visual circle, a corresponding symmetry of the functional context exists. A more detailed discussion would lead us too far from our topic. (5) It will suffice if we show, by means of an analogy from elementary physics, how this changed assumption permits us also to solve those difficulties arising from the anatomical peculiarities.

Let a three-dimensional network or lattice be formed from filiform conductors, such that the conductors may be considered the edges of many equal small cubes. Consequently, at the corners of each such cube six filaments are in electrical contact, while they are otherwise encased in insulating sheaths. If such a network is connected to the poles of a battery in a certain manner, then the distribution of the stationary current may, of course, be represented purely geometrically. But this is a rather superfidal procedure, since purely spatial data mean very little for what takes place here, and since the distribution of the current must essentially be related to portions of the conductor. As far as geometry is concerned, the stationary distribution of current would be very different - it would be distorted - if the network were "bent," if some filaments were curved, etc. At the same time, however, in terms of length of conductor or amount of resistance, the distribution would be the same as before. Indeed, in these terms the distribution could still be considered the same even if some of the filaments (between two junctions) differed in length from the others but had the same resistance. Under these conditions there would certainly be considerable discrepancies between a description of the current in purely geometrical coordinates and one (the only adequate one) in functional coordinates. For instance, in the latter terms a certain distribution of current would have to be characterized as "homogeneous" while its density per square centimeter would vary considerably from place to place.

Since the distinction between functional and geometrical coordinates may be applied to other events, and thus must not be restricted to the case of stationary electrical currents, it may well be applied to the central nervous system and especially to that part of it whose processes underlie the spatial order of our perception. It is clear, then, that only functional coordinates may be used and that, therefore, the geometrical-anatomical position of the individual conducting structures and cells relative to each other becomes meaningless (a position partly determined by all kinds of secondary factors). With this step, the difficulties discussed by MÜLLER disappear. As a very rough approximation we can, of course, still assume a correspondence of geometrical-anatomical and functional coordinates of the system. For functionally neighboring parts of the tissue are usually also geometrical-anatomical neighbors, and functionally very distant parts are also separated anatomically from each other by a certain distance in space. But this correspondance will not hold in detail and will not apply strictly. lt will be irrelevant for the understanding of the ordering of events in such a field since the functional distances are the only ones that really matter.

Without this principle it is impossible to understand even the relation between visual ordering of space and the corresponding brain events. It is all the more necessary if we want to make comprehensible in physiological terms the fitting coordination of the phenomena of the various sensory modalities in one common space. (This needs to be considered in relation to the simplifying formulation above [2nd part].) But perhaps this point of view is most important for the understanding of the construction of the phenomenal self from such different sensory material. Again, it cannot seriously be maintained that in the brain region in question the corresponding process complex represents a kind of geometrical copy of the phenomenal body. For what matters are precisely the functional coordinates, and these may be "distorted" in a great many ways. This correction of the relevant coordinate system will not in the least change the relative localization of phenomenal self and phenomenal environment. "Being outside" and the changing distance of phenomenal objects relative to the phenomenal body are again to be thought of as functionally determined only, as a gradation in the extended context of processes which the purely geometrical distributions reflect only very roughly.

After this, nothing at all remains of the paradox of the localization of our phenomenal environment around us. Whatever relative phenomenal localization may take place is determined by functional proximities and distances in the underlying nervous process distributions. The fact that in their totality these are contained within the meninges and the skull in no way enters into these functional connections. Therefore they could not possibly appear in our perception, whose spatial character, indeed, depends only on those functional connections. Only if, during the analysisis, we shift from one kind of coordinate sytem to an entirely different kind, can we possibly still find difficulties here. If the phenomenal self depends on one process complex, the phenomenal environment on other such complexes, and if the relative phenomenal localization of the two corresponds to functional externality (just as two different phenomenal objects in the environment are outside of each other), then there is no problem left.

I do not wish to give the impression that this discussion leads to nothing more than to the disappearance of the old paradox. So far the emphasis has been on the fact that, in general, separate localization of phenomenal environment and self is natural and necessary for consistent thinking. From a slightly different point of view, however, these same considerations lead, rather, to a functional equivalence and kinship of the phenomenal self and phenomenal objects, which again cannot be understood as long as this self is not recognized as a separate part of the phenomenal world. Physiologically, the self and the objects of the environment represent complexes of processes in one and the same brain field. It is by no means necessary, and not even likely that these proccess complexes are functionally entirely indifferent to each other. The psychology of perception is full of instances of mutual influences between the objects nd occurrences of the phenomenal environment. For example, forms, sizes, and directions of seen objects may be strongly influenced by a suitably chosen surrounding visual environment. Because objectively and physically these are nothing but independent and mutually practically indifferent objects, forms, or contours, because there is thus no corresponding influence outside the organism, these distortions are usually called "illusions." But psychology is coming more and more to realize that, physiologically in any case, this is a matter of true influences on visual process complexes by their neighbors in the field. After what has been said, it is not astonishing that among the processes which underlie the phenomenal organization of space, more intimate functional connections exist than between the individual objects in physical space, whose forms, sizes, etc., are independent of each other under ordinary circumstances. Particularly striking influences are often observed in phenomenal space when there are movements in the field. Everybody has noticed, for example, that the moon clearly moves in the opposite direction when clouds pass in front of it. This is called "induced" movement of a phenomenal object, and recently DUNCKER has been able to offer a satisfactory explanation of its remarkable properties. (6) If, now, the phenomenal self belongs to the same interconnected field in which objects of the phenomenal environment can exert such an influence on one another, we may then expect that the same influence which is exerted, for instance, on the moon by the passing clouds may, under suitable conditions, also be exerted on the phenomenal self by vigorous movements of the phenomenal surroundings. Now, it is well known, and has even become a favorite amusement at country fairs, that obvious rotation of the visual environment leads regularly to rotation of the phenomenal self in the opposite direction, while the physical organism remains at rest. This phenomenon becomes, in principle, fully comprehensible if we consider the organization of the process complex which underlies the phenomenal self as part of the whole field of connected processes corresponding to everything phenomenal.

This simple example shows particularly impressively that phenomenal space and the underlying physiological field structure have qualities which do not exist in the same way in physical space. In particular, there are dynamic relations between the process complex of the self and the environment processes in the brain field which have no correlate in any analogous causal connections between the physical organism and its physical environment. But if we have gone this far, to be consistent, we must go very much farther. For, considerations of continuity demand that every kind of behavior in which we are directed toward a part of the environment will have to be understood as the expression of a vectorial state or event between the momentary process of the self and the environmental process in question. Depending on the actual characteristics of the two which, of course, always determine such a vectorial state, very different directions may occur. Such psychological facts as "attending to," "feeling attracted or repelled by," "hesitating before something," etc., occur in experienced space as directed from a phenomenal object to the self or vice versa. If one wants to be consistent, these will have to be incorporated in the schema outlined here of a correspondence between phenomenal order and functional connections in the brain field. But a more concrete development of this idea is hardly possible without also treating the phenomena of memory; it would therefore lead us too far from our problem.



1st Part:
2nd Part:


(5) But cf. M. WERTHEIMER, Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung, Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 1912, 61, 161-265; and W. KÖHLER, Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationären Zustand, Braunschweig: F. Vieweg & Sohn, 1920. (-> back to text)
(6) K. DUNCKER, Über induzierte Bewegung, Psychologische Forschung, 1929, 12, 180-259. (-> 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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