Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 503–519 | Cite as

Seeing what is not seen

  • Gabrielle Benette Jackson


This paper connects ideas from twentieth century Gestalt psychology, experiments in vision science, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception. I propose that when we engage in simple sensorimotor tasks whose successful completion is open, our behavior may be motivated by practical perceptual awareness alone, responding to invariant features of the perceptual field that are invisible to other forms of perceptual awareness. On this view, we see more than we think we see, as evidenced by our skillful bodily behavior.


Shape constancy Isomorphism Medial axis Merleau-Ponty Presence of absence Perceptual awareness Skill 


  1. Aurenhammer, F. (1991). Voronoi diagrams: a survey of fundamental geometric data structure. Computing Surveys (Association of Computing Machinery), 23(3), 345–405.Google Scholar
  2. Blum, H. (1967). A transformation for extracting new descriptors of shape. In W. Whaten-Dunn (Ed.), Models for the Perception of Speech and Visual Form (pp. 362–380). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Blum, H. (1973). Biological shape and visual science. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 38, 205–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Crick, F., & Koch, C. (1990). Towards a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 2, 263–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Crick, F., & Koch, C. (2003). A framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 119–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dennett, D. (1969). Content and Consciousness. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Back Bay Books.Google Scholar
  8. Dennett, D. (1998). No bridge over the stream of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21(6), 753–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Epstein, W., & Hatfield, G. (1994). Gestalt psychology and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical Psychology, 7(2), 163–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Firestone, C., & Scholl, B. (2014). “Please Tap the Shape, Anywhere You Like”: shape skeletons in human vision revealed by an exceedingly simple measure. Psychological Science, 25(2), 377–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gelb, A., & Goldstein, K. (1917). Psychologische Analysen hirnpathologischer Fälle auf Grund von Untersuchungen Hirnverletzer. Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, 41(1), 1–142.Google Scholar
  12. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  13. Henle, M. (1984). Isomorphism: setting the record straight. Psychological Research, 46, 317–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hochberg, J. (1964). Perception. Englewood: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  15. Hung, C.-C., Carlson, E., & Connor, C. (2012). Medial axis shape coding in macaque inferotemporal cortex. Neuron, 74, 1099–1113.Google Scholar
  16. Husserl, E. (1901/2001). Logical Investigations, Volume 2 (trans: Findlay, J. N.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Husserl, E. (1907/1973). Thing and Space, Lectures of 1907 (trans: Rojcewicz, R.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.Google Scholar
  18. Husserl, E. (1929/1999). Cartesian Meditations (trans: Cairns, D.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.Google Scholar
  19. Jackson, G. (2014). Skillful action in peripersonal space. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 13(2), 313–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kelly, S. (2005). Seeing Things in Merleau-Ponty. In T. Carman & M. Hansen (Eds.), Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (pp. 74–110). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Koffka, K. (1963/1935). The Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harbinger.Google Scholar
  22. Köhler, W. (1966/1938). The Place of Value in a World of Facts. New York: Liveright.Google Scholar
  23. Köhler, W. (1975/1947). Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright.Google Scholar
  24. Kovács, I., & Julesz, B. (1994). Perceptual sensitivity maps within globally defined visual shapes. Nature, 370, 644–646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kubovy, M., & Psotka, J. (1976). The predominance of seven and the apparent spontaneity of numerical choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2(2), 291–294.Google Scholar
  26. Lee, T. S., Mumford, D., Romero, R., & Lamme, V. (1998). The role of the primary visual cortex in higher level vision. Vision Research, 38, 2429–2454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lehar, S. (2003). Gestalt isomorphism and the primacy of subjective conscious experience: a gestalt bubble model. Brain and Behavioral Sciences, 26(4), 375–408.Google Scholar
  28. Lescroart, M., & Biederman, I. (2013). Cortical representation of medial axis structure. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 629–637.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1942/1963) Structure of Behavior (trans: Fisher, A. L.). Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  30. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012.) Phenomenology of Perception (trans: Landes, D.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Müller, G. (1896). Zur Psychophysik der Gesichtsempfindungen. Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, 10, 1–82.Google Scholar
  32. Neisser, U. (1976). Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  33. Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  34. O’Regan, K. (1992). Solving the “real” mysteries of visual perception: the world as an outside memory. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 46, 461–488.Google Scholar
  35. Pessoa, L., Thompson, E., & Noe, A. (1998). Finding out about filling in. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21(6), 723–802.Google Scholar
  36. Pitts, W., & McCulloch, W. (1947). How we know universals: the perception of auditory and visual forms. The Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 9(3), 127–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Psotka, J. (1978). Perceptual processes that may create stick figures and balance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 4(1), 101–111.Google Scholar
  38. Rock, I. (1956). The orientation of forms on the retina and in the environment. American Journal of Psychology, 69, 513–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sartre, J.-P. (1943/1984). Being and Nothingness (trans: Barnes, H.). New York: Washington Square Press.Google Scholar
  40. Scheerer, E. (1994). Psychoneural isomorphism: historical background and current relevance. Philosophical Psychology, 7, 183–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Siddiqi, K., Tresness, K., & Kimia, B. (1996). Parts of visual form: psychophysical aspects. Perception, 25, 399–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sperry, R. (1952). Neurology and the mind-brain problem. American Scientist, 40(2), 291–312.Google Scholar
  43. Spillmann, L., & Ehrenstein, W. (1996). From neuron to gestalt: mechanisms of visual perception. In R. Greger & U. Windhorst (Eds.), Comprehensive Human Physiology, Volume 1 (pp. 861–893). Heidelberg: Springer.Google Scholar
  44. Stadler, M., & Kruse, P. (1994). Gestalt theory and synergetics: from psychophysical isomorphism to holistic emergentism. Philosophical Psychology, 7(2), 211–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  46. Wang, X., & Burbeck, C. (1998). Scaled medial axis representation: evidence from position discrimination task. Vision Research, 38, 1947–1959.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wertheimer, M. (2012/1912). Experimental studies on seeing motion. In L. Spillman (Ed.), On Perceived Motion and Figural Organization (pp. 1-92). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  48. Zahavi, D. (1999). Self-Awareness and Alterity. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Zahavi, D. (2002). Merleau-Ponty on Husserl: a reappraisal. In T. Toadvine & L. Embree (Eds.), Merleau-Ponty’s Reading of Husserl (pp. 3–29). Boston: Kluwer.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

Personalised recommendations