The Phenomenal-Perceptual Field as a Central Steering Mechanism

by Wolfgang Metzger


Lecture at the 2nd Banff Conference on Theoretical Psychology 1969. First published in this English Version: J.R. ROYCE and W.W. ROZEBOOM (eds.): The Psychology of Knowing. New York/Paris/London: Gordon and Breach 1972, pp. 241-265. This is an adapted English version of Die Wahrnehmungswelt als zentrales Steuerungsorgan, first published in Ceskoslovenka Psychologie, 8, 1969, 417-431, re-published 1986 in W. METZGER, Gestalt-Psychologie, Ausgewählte Werke aus den Jahren 1950 bis 1982 herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Michael STADLER und Heinrich CRABUS, Frankfurt: Waldemar Kramer, 269-279.

It requires some courage to speak on consciousness to an American audience, for the phenomena any study of consciousness must rely on are too questionable for them. Strictly speaking they only consist of a sum of verbal reactions whose relation to the underlying observations as reported by the informant is highly complicated and whose reliability in any case remains uncertain.

Theoretically, all contents of consciousness have a certain chance of manifesting themselves somehow in overt nonverbal behavior. But American psychologists in general do not trust very much in the value of behavior as representing what goes on in the mind of a subject. So many try to get along without any knowledge about consciousness except for sensory discrimination which can be represented without uttering a single word, simply by running to the left or to the right in a choice ex-periment. As for the rest. they consider a human being to be a "black box" that after suffering certain impacts from the outside at a certain spot of its surface reacts on its surroundings at another spot. They seem to feel safe only in studying the familiar S-R relation.

But Europeans who cannot abandon their old love also have their difficulties with it. The phenomena of consciousness are, we might say, quite reluctant about being brought into a consistent system. To give an instance: from physical as well as physiological knowledge it follows undeniably that processes underlying those phenomena must go on in the cerebrum, that means, within the skull of the sub-ject. But on the other hand, no subject can be found who is ready to admit having found the effects of stimulation of any sense organ within his skull. In extreme cases - as in auditory or visual sensation - they are not even localized at his own body, as e.g., in the region of the mediating sense organs, but far from it - as a color (yet as an afterimage) at the opposite wall, or as a noise even beyond the room, somewhere outside.

From a previous era, when some of you were still occupied with conscious phe-nomena, you will remember the way in which H. v. HELMHOLTZ and J. v. KRIES attempted to solve this dilemma. They introduced a hypothetical process by which they believed sensations were transferred from their original place within the skull to that place in the surroundings of the body where they were actually fo-und by the observer. I refer to the assumption designated as the projection-hypothesis in the sense of an exteriorization of elementary sensations - which, by the way does not, in principle, differ very much from the projection hypothesis used in the psychoanalytic sense, that refers to feelings, emotions. and intentions, as projected from the subject into other persons.

The dilemma intrinsic to this assumption, which at first seemed to be insoluble, consists in the following:

1) The process of exteriorization must, for its greater part, take place outside the organism and therefore cannot be a physiological process.
2) On the other hand, physical processes of such a kind are not known and it is most unlikely that they will ever be found.

But S-R psychologists also had their difficulties. S-R relations have not always proved to be as simple and unambiguous as was first supposed when WATSON and his friends began preaching the gospel of objective psychology nearly sixty years ago. There are many different responses that can be called forth by one and the same stimulus. And on the other hand, there are many stimuli that can be followed by one and the same response. Auxiliary concepts such as 'covert behavior' - i.e. a behavior that is not objectively observable and therefore must not be an object of behavioristic psychology - could not be dispensed with, and these were soon follo-wed by TOLMAN's 'intervening variables' and by the 'hypothetical constructs' of MacCORQUODALE and others.

From the very first it seemed to me most probable that at least a great many of those intervening events or factors which had to be postulated in order to develop a consistent theory of overt behavior could be immediately ascertained as observable contents of consciousness. In this way it appeared likely that the wide gap between stimulus and response could at least partially be filled by observation and we could hope that by these means some light would fall into the darkness of the behavioristic black box after all.

There were two more facts that encouraged some of us to take up again the inquiry into consciousness. First a methodological fact: The role of speech or verbal behavior as a means of communicating subjective phenomena can be reduced to the extent that must be tolerated in every science. The method is simple. Instead of taking some other person as the subject of examination, the psychologist himself has to assume the role of the subject, while assigning the role of experimenter to his assistant. When doing so, the information of the psychologist is first hand information, just as that of the physicist when observing the hand of a voltmeter. True, no second observer can look at his phenomena as such. But this methodological deficiency can be overcome by repeating the observation by another person under exactly the same conditions. While obviously the observation of single sensations (such as the reddish hue of a color) cannot be "repeated'' in this fashion, this repetition and verification by another observer is quite possible with regard to organization, structures, and structural characteristics, as Oskar GRAEFE has shown. And even reliable measurement has been shown to be within the realm of consciousness by STEVENS, EKMAN, and others.

Besides this methodological justification there is another achievement by fun-damental reflection on consciousness, which has produced a new situation. Forty years ago, in 1929, Wolfgang KÖHLER succeeded in demonstrating that the projection hypothesis need not be necessary, if we assume that not only (1) the image of the objects but also (2) the image of the subjective bodily ego and (3) the image of the relations between the object and the subject, are correlated with cerebral processes of a corresponding dynamic structure and distribution. This is, indeed, the only assumption about conscious phenomena that is consistent with itself, and with the scientific world concept, as it is generally accepted.

The non-identity of 'distant stimuli' or, expressed more logically, of the source of stimulation with the conscious phenomenon must also be assumed for the observer's own body exactly as for other perceived objects. As soon as this is recognized, the whole dilemma of sensory processes and the localization of objects and their qualities turns out to be a mere fallacy. For 'inside' in this connection refers to the organism which as such is no conscious phenomenon but rather a complicated source of 'proximal' stimuli - while 'outside' refers to the bodily self, which is in no way identical with the organism but is itself an 'image' or percept, i.e., a complex of sensations emergent upon the total excitation originating from the diverse proprioceptors of the organism together with the images of parts of his own body as seen by the subject himself. (See Fig. 1, from METZGER, Psychologie, 4th ed. 1968, p. 283.) Seen in this way, the apparent relations between perceived objects and the subject exactly correspond to the objective relations between the "distant stimuli'' and the organism. Instead of being localized within the ego, seen objects appear to be opposite or vis-a-vis the ego, just as complexes of distant stimuli are opposite or vis-a-vis the organism. (This means, by the way, that secondary processes of 'objectivation of an original purely subjective experience, as they are developed in neo-Kantian literature, e.g. by Ernst CASSIRER, need not be assumed.) I know these statements are highly redundant. But I have learned from experience that without a relatively high degree of redundancy these matters will never be understood. So I shall go on describing some consequences of what I said above.

FIGURE 1

Relationship between physical world including physiological organism (= Macrocosm) and phenomenal-perceptual world including experienced bodily Ego (= Microcosm)

fig. 1

1 = biophysical environment of organism
1' = physical object, reflecting light rays
2 = physiological organism, as part of the physical world
3 = apparent (perceived) environment of bodily Ego
3' = apparent (distal) object or percept, representing the physical object
4 = bodily Ego. as part of the phenomenal-perceptual world, representing the organism

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