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Gestalt psychology, frontloading phenomenology, and psychophysics


In his 1935 book Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Kurt Koffka stated that empirical research in perceptual psychology should begin with “a phenomenological analysis,” which in turn would put constraints on the “true theory.” In this paper, I take this statement as a point of departure to investigate in what sense Gestalt psychologists practiced a phenomenological analysis and how they saw it related to theory construction. I will contextualize the perceptual research in Gestalt psychology vis-a-vis Husserlian phenomenology on the one hand and mainstream psychophysics on the other, and I will argue that Gestalt psychologists practiced a form of “frontloading” phenomenology: Instead of requiring experimental subjects to engage in experiential reflections, such reflections were—in a sense—already engrained in the experimental designs used by researchers. This type of phenomenology was decidedly anti-“introspectionist” and as such was compatible with some of Husserl’s basic commitments, while at the same time bearing a surprising resemblance with the methods employed by psychophysicists like E. Boring and S.S. Stevens. This latter point will prompt me to explore what the difference between Gestalt-psychology and psychophysics amounted to. My analysis will reveal some disagreements and misunderstandings, especially with regard to the notions of isomorphism and introspection.

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  1. Notice that the assumption in question is not that for every stimulus there is one and only one sensation, but rather the other way around: for every sensation there is a stimulus in the world that invariably gives rise to that particular sensation, regardless of context.

  2. The distinction between “reflective” and “frontloading” is not entirely satisfactory as it (wrongly) suggests that no reflection occurs in frontloading phenomenology. The point is that in the case of frontloading phenomenology, the experimental subjects are not required to reflect on their experience.

  3. Notice that this notion of introspection differs from the one so emphatically rejected by Husserl in that it does not rely on an internal/external observation dichotomy.

  4. Gallagher (2003) uses the term “front-loaded” whereas Gallagher and Sorensen (2006) speak of “front-loading” phenomenology. Here I use the to expressions interchangeably.

  5. Roughly: “On the theory of the perception of experiences”.

  6. Within the history of psychology, this worry had been prominently voiced by Brentano (1973/1874), who pointed out that any experimental instruction to pay attention to an experience necessarily changes that experience.

  7. “Ich kann es im psychologischen Versuch so einrichten, daß ich je nach der Aufmerksamkeitsrichtung ein über ein bestimmtes Feld bewegtes Objekt oder zwei Objekte sehe, von denen sich jedes nur über einen Teil des Feldes bewegt”.

  8. While this article was published in a collected volume in 1966, it is based on a lecture Gurwitsch gave in 1934.

  9. The idea expressed here is similar to the notion of the transparency of experience discussed in the more recent philosophical literature about introspection (e.g., Tye 2002).

  10. Without being able to explore this further here, I would like to suggest that we can also see a parallel between the Gestalt psychological and “Husserlian” phenomenological approach here: Husserl’s distinction between a noetic and a noematic stance indicates that a distinction between “inner” and “outer” can take place within the phenomenological mode. (Husserl 1917).

  11. “Allgemein: gute Phänomene sind gestaltete Phänomene, von ihnen unterscheiden sich die bloßen ‚ Und- Verbindungen‘und das Chaotische” (Koffka 1923, p. 393).

  12. By this I mean here that it cannot be subsumed under the well-known laws of Gestalt perception.

  13. The letter is undated, but since it contains reference to a letter from Boring, containing an article from 1935, it is a fair guess that it was written in, or shortly after, 1935.

  14. Letter from Wertheimer to Köhler, op cit. Source: New York Public Library.

  15. “Nun, das ist wunderlich. Er misversteht [sic] wohl, was wir mit Isomorphismen meinen … Nun, die einfachste Antwort waere … dass sich die Isomorphie nicht bezieht auf eine one to one relation hinsichtlich von Stucken, sondern auf Entsprechung von Ganzeigenschaften” (Letter from Wertheimer to Köhler 1935. Source: New York Public Library Archive).

  16. Luchins and Luchins also point out that Boring’s is in fact the standard mathematical notion: “[I]n mathematics an isomorphism between two systems requires a one-to-one correspondence between their elements (that is, each element of one system corresponds to one and only one element of the other system, and conversely), which also preserves structures” (Luchins and Luchins 2015/1999, p. 70).

  17. See Heidelberger (2003) for a discussion of this tradition. The term “parallelism” indeed might give rise to this view, since it seems to suggest two sets of independent properties—one mental one physical—that happen to be in perfect harmony. However, I would argue that what 19th-century writers like Fechner had in mind is better described as a dual-aspect theory that tries to stay neutral with respect to metaphysical issues.

  18. I would like to thank Alistair Isaac for suggesting this to me. Isaac (2017) makes a related point when he argues that Boring and Stevens import substantive—if unacknowledged—assumptions about their subject matter into their experiments.


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I would like to thank audiences in Edinburgh and Lübeck as well as two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. In particular, I thank Dave Ward and Alistair Isaac for inviting me to the conference this paper was written for, Gary Hatfield for helpful bibliographical references and Alistair Isaac for additional insightful feedback. The article draws on archival research that was made possible by the MPI for the History of Science in Berlin.

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Feest, U. Gestalt psychology, frontloading phenomenology, and psychophysics. Synthese 198 (Suppl 9), 2153–2173 (2021).

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