From Psychophysics to Phenomenalism: Mach and Hering on Color Vision

  • Richard L. Kremer
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 139)

Abstract

At the end of his famous 1672 paper in which he presented his new theory of light and colors, Isaac Newton admitted: “But to determine more absolutely, what light is, ... and by what modes or actions it produceth in our minds the phantasms of colours, is not so easie. And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.”1 Although Newton later in the Optics would occasionally “mingle conjectures” about how the human eye “sees” color, his theory was primarily a theory of light, a physical theory with light rays, prisms, angles of refraction, lenses and barycentric diagrams as its chief working objects. Not until the nineteenth century did color become a fully subjective phenomenon, an aspect of nature impossible to consider apart from human verbal reports about visual experience. This shift in the conceptual and disciplinary location of color, from the physical to the physiological and psychological, began perhaps with Johann von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810) but it became canonical only with the appearance of the second section of Hermann von Helmholtz’s Handbuch der physiologischen Optik (1860). Yet even after 1860, sorting out the relative roles for physical, physiological and psychological language in describing color experiences and in explaining such experiences remained exceedingly controversial.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    Isaac Newton: (1672), ‘New Theory about Light and Colours,’ reprinted in I. Bernard Cohen, ed., Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 57.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ewald Hering, Zur Lehre vom Lichtsinne (Vienna: Gerold’s Sohn, 1878), first published in six installments between 1872 and 1874, essays which were reprinted in the second volume of Ewald Hering, Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Georg Thieme, 1931). Since these volumes number Hering’s essays sequentially and paginate each separately, I shall hereafter cite the essay number in Roman, the page number in Arabic numerals.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Johann von Kries: (1905), ‘Die Gesichtsempfindungen,’ in Wilibald Nagel, ed., Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen, 5 vols. (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1904–10), 3/2: 109–282.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Richard L. Kremer, ‘Innovation through Synthesis: Helmholtz and Color Research,’ in David Cahan, ed., Herman von Helmholtz: Scientist and Philosopher, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ernst Mach: (1886), Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations, transl. C. M. Williams (Chicago: Open Court, 1897), p. 34.Google Scholar
  6. 5a.
    Richard Jung, ‘Ernst Mach als Sinnesphysiologe,’ in Wolfgang Merzkirch and Frank Kerkhof, eds., Symposium aus Anlass des 50. Todestages von Ernst Mach (Freiburg: Ernst-Mach-Institut, n.d. [1967]), p. 134Google Scholar
  7. 5b.
    John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Work, Life and Influence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 58–60Google Scholar
  8. 5c.
    Mitchell G. Ash, ‘The Emergence of Gestalt Theory: Experimental Psychology in Germany, 1890–1920,’ unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1982, pp. 96–97.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Paul Molisch, Politische Geschichte der deutschen Hochschulen in Österreich von 1848 bis 1918, 2d enl. ed. (Vienna: Braumüller, 1939), pp. 49–53 Blackmore, Mach (ref. 5), pp. 73–83.Google Scholar
  10. 6a.
    Paul Molisch, Die deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität in Prag (Prague: Calve, 1899), p. 16Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Erna Lesky: (1964), The Vienna Medical School of the 19th Century, transl. L. Williams and I. S. Levij (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 484–85.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XLI, 216–17.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Mach: (1926), Knowledge and Error, Introduction by Erwin N. Hiebert, transl. from the 5th German ed. by Thomas J. McCormack (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1976), pp. 12–14.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Leo M. Hurvich and Dorothea Jameson, ‘An Opponent-Process Theory of Color Vision,’ Psychological Review 64 (1957), 384–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 10a.
    Leo M. Hurvich and Dorothea Jameson, ‘Introduction’ in Ewald Hering: (1920), Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense, transl. Hurvich and Jameson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), pp. vii–xxviiGoogle Scholar
  16. 10b.
    Leo Hurvich, ‘Hering and the Scientific Establishment,’ American Psychologist 24 (1969), 497–514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 10c.
    R. Steven Turner, ‘Consensus and Controversy: Helmholtz on the Visual Perception of Space,’ in Cahan, ed., Helmholtz (ref. 4). By Lichtsinne, Hering referred to those phenomena of vision deriving solely from sensations of light, darkness and color. In his Handbuch der physiologischen Optik (Leipzig: Voss, 1856–67), Helmholtz had distinguished such phenomena, which he called “visual sensations,” from “visual perceptions” by which presentations of the existence, form and position of external bodies are created; Hering implicitly accepted these distinctions.Google Scholar
  18. 11.
    Hering was criticizing Helmholtz’s explanation of the phenomena of simultaneous contrast in psychological terms of “unconscious judgments” and “habits.” See Kremer, ‘Innovation’ (ref. 4), pp. 50–55. This would not be the last time Helmholtz would be linked to spiritism. See Wayne H. Stromberg, ‘Helmholtz and Zoellner: Nineteenth- century Empiricism, Spiritism, and the Theory of Space Perception,’ Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 25 (1989), 371–83.Google Scholar
  19. 12.
    Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XXXVII, 5–9.Google Scholar
  20. 13.
    Ibid., XXXVII, 9–16; XXXVIII, 193–4.Google Scholar
  21. 14.
    Ibid., XXXVIII, 200.Google Scholar
  22. 15.
    Ibid., XXXIX, 244.Google Scholar
  23. 16.
    Ibid., XL, 85–97.Google Scholar
  24. 17.
    Kremer, ‘Innovation’ (ref. 4), pp. 32–34.Google Scholar
  25. 18.
    Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XLI, 179–81.Google Scholar
  26. 19.
    Ibid., XLI, 184–89.Google Scholar
  27. 20.
    Ibid., XLI, 190–213.Google Scholar
  28. 21.
    Helmholtz, Handbuch (ref. 10), p. 272; Gustav Theodor Fechner: (1860), Elemente der Psychophysik, 2 vols. 3d unchanged ed. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1907), 2: 274.Google Scholar
  29. 22.
    Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XLII, 169–97.Google Scholar
  30. 23.
    K. D. Heller, Ernst Mach (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 1964), pp. 12–14; Blackmore, Mach (ref. 5), pp. 14–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 23a.
    John T. Blackmore, ‘Three Autobiographical Manuscripts by Ernst Mach,’ Annals of Science 35 (1978), 401–18, at 410, 415. Before assuming in 1864 his first academic chair in Graz, Mach lectured in Vienna on physics for medical students, methods of physical research, higher physiological physics, principles of mechanics and mechanistic physics in its historical development, Fechner’s psychophysics and Helmholtz’s sensations of tones.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 24.
    Erwin N. Hiebert, The Genesis of Mach’s Early Views on Atomism,’ in Robert S. Cohen and Raymond J. Seeger, eds., Ernst Mach: Physicist and Philosopher (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1970), pp. 79–106Google Scholar
  33. 24a.
    Wolfram W. Swoboda, ‘Physics, Physiology and Psychophysics: The Origins of Ernst Mach’s Empiriocriticism,’ Rivista difilosofia 73 (1982), 234–74.Google Scholar
  34. 25.
    See Fechner to Mach, 18 April 1864 and 11 December 1865, in Joachim Thiele, Wissenschaftliche Kommunikation: Die Korrespondenz Ernst Machs (Kastelbaum: Herm, 1978), pp. 41–42, 44, 250. Swoboda, ‘Physics, Physiology and Psychophysics’ (ref. 24), p. 261, suggested that Mach became acquainted with Herbart in 1858 through a course taught by Franz Lott, Vienna’s leading Herbartianer of the 1850–60s.Google Scholar
  35. 26.
    See Johann Friedrich Herbart, Lehrbuch der Psychologie [1816, 2d ed. 1834], reprinted in idem, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Karl Kehrbach and Otto Flugel, 19 vols. (Langensalza: Beyer, 1887–1912), 4: 295–436, and idem, Psychologie als Wissenschaft neu gegründet auf Erfahrung, Metaphysik und Mathematik, 2 vols. [1824–25], reprinted in Werke 5: 177–434, 6: 1–338. For the intellectual and pedagogical heritage of Herbart’s psychology, which I here ignore, see Harold B. Dunkel, Herbart and Herbartianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); David E. Leary, ‘The Philosophical Development of the Conceptions of Psychology in Germany, 1750–1850,’ Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 14 (1978), 113–21; idem, ‘The Historical Foundation of Herbart’s Mathematization of Psychology,’ Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 16 (1980), 150–63; Gary Hatfield, The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1990), pp. 117–28.Google Scholar
  36. 27.
    Herbart, Werke (ref. 26), 5: 180.Google Scholar
  37. 28.
    Herbart, Werke (ref. 26), 4: 364, 371–2.Google Scholar
  38. 29.
    For example, for the static case of two fully opposed presentations a and b, the total amount of mutual inhibition equals the weaker presentation b, and (a + b)/b =b/(b 2(a + b)), and the remaining non-inhibited amount of a = ab 2/(a + b). For a case of movement, Herbart’s simplest law is s = S(1 - e -t), where S is the total amount of mutual inhibition, t the elapsed time since the interaction began, and s the supressed portion of the total sum over t. If a completely inhibited presentation n is being raised above the threshold of consciousness with the help a new presentation P, and if p is the remainder of II not inhibited, and r the remainder of P not inhibited, then (rp/II) [(p -ѡ/p] dt = dѡ, where ѡ is that portion of p already brought into consciousness. Herbart, Werke (ref. 26), 5: 288, 339, 368–69.Google Scholar
  39. 30.
    Herbart, Werke (ref. 20), 5: 299–300,415–16; 6: 192. Such a three-dimensional graphic representation of all possible color hues and saturations had been long discussed by artists and natural philosophers. See Paul D. Sherman, Colour Vision in the Nineteenth Century (Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd, 1981), pp. 60–80.Google Scholar
  40. 31.
    Ernst Mach, ‘Vortäge über Psychophysik,’ Oesterreichische Zeitschrift für praktische Heilkunde 9 (1863), cols. 146–8, 167–70, 202–4, 225–8, 242–5, 260–1, 277–9, 294–8, 316–8, 335–8, 352–4, 362–6, at cols. 169–70, 363, 365–6; cf. Hiebert, ‘Atomism’ (ref. 24), p. 99.Google Scholar
  41. 32.
    Mach, ‘Vorträge’ (ref. 31), col. 204.Google Scholar
  42. 33.
    Hermann L. F. Helmholtz: (1887), On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, transl. from the 4th German ed. by Alexander J. Ellis (New York: Dover, 1954), pp. 49–65.Google Scholar
  43. 34.
    Ernst Mach, ‘Zur Theorie des Gehörorgans,’ Sitzungsberichte der mathematisch-natur-wissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 48/2 (1863), 283–300, at 297 (hereafter SW). See Swoboda, ‘Physics, Physiology and Psychophysics’ (ref. 24), pp. 245–47.Google Scholar
  44. 35.
    Ernst Mach, ‘Untersuchungen über den Zeitsinn des Ohres,’ SW 51/2 (1865), 133–50.Google Scholar
  45. 36.
    Ernst Mach, ‘Bemerkungen über intermittirende Lichtreize,’ Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftlichte Medicin (1865), 629–35. For an overview of previous research on the persistence of afterimages, see Helmholtz, Handbuch (ref. 10), pp. 336–56.Google Scholar
  46. 37.
    Joseph Plateau, ‘Betrachtungen über ein von Herrn Talbot vorgeschlagenes photometrisches Princip,’ Annalen der Physik und Chemie 35 (1835), 457–68; Helmholtz, Handbuch (ref. 10), pp. 339–40.Google Scholar
  47. 38.
    Adolf Fick, ‘Ueber den zeitlichen Verlauf der Erregung in der Netzhaut,’ Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin (1863), 739–64.Google Scholar
  48. 39.
    Mach, ‘Lichtreize’ (ref. 36), p. 633.Google Scholar
  49. 40.
    Ernst Mach: (1865), ‘On the Effect of the Spatial Distribution of the Light Stimulus on the Retina,’ transl. in Floyd Ratliff, Mach Bands: Quantitative Studies on Neural Networks in the Retina (San Francisco: Holden-Day, Inc., 1965), pp. 253–71. Similar phenomena had been noticed at least once before, without attracting any further discussion. See James Jurin, ‘An Essay upon Distinct and Indistinct Vision,’ in Robert Smith, A Compleat System of Opticks, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Printed for the Author, 1738), 2: 115–71, at 168 and Plate 20, Figure 68.Google Scholar
  50. 41.
    By adding the second derivative of the intensity of the stimulus as a function of lateral position across the retina, Mach rendered Fechner’s law as e = a log [i/b ± k (d2 i/dx2)2/i], thereby making the intensity of sensation (e) a function not only of the intensity of stimulus (i) but also of the rate of curvature of that intensity. See Mach, ‘Spatial Distribution’ (ref. 40), pp. 262–64.Google Scholar
  51. 42.
    Mach, ‘Spatial Distribution’ (ref. 40), p. 269.Google Scholar
  52. 43.
    Ernst Mach: (1868), ‘On the Physiological Effect of Spatially Distributed Light Stimuli’, transl. in Ratliff, Mach Bands (ref. 40), pp. 299–306, at 306.Google Scholar
  53. 44.
    Mach, ‘Spatial Distribution’ (ref. 40), pp. 267–69.Google Scholar
  54. 45.
    Ernst Mach: (1868), ‘On the Dependence of Retinal Points on One Another,’ transl. in Ratliff, Mach Bands (ref. 40), pp. 307–20, at 316–17.Google Scholar
  55. 46.
    Ernst Mach: (1860), ‘Über die Änderung des Tones und der Farbe durch Bewegung,’ reprinted in Annalen der Physik und Chemie 112 (1861), 58–76; 116 (1862), 333–38. In the second article, however, Mach agreed with a critic that stellar speeds are too slow for any Doppler shifts in color to be detected. See Swoboda, ‘Physics, Physiology and Psychophysics’ (ref. 24), pp. 236–39.Google Scholar
  56. 47.
    Fechner, Psychophysik (ref. 21), 2: 265–308.Google Scholar
  57. 48.
    See Kremer, ‘Innovation’ (ref. 4), pp. 20–2.Google Scholar
  58. 49.
    Fechner, Psychophysik (ref. 21), 2: 285–8, supported this hypothesis by referring to recent anatomical studies of the cholea and the Corti fibers, and noting that Helmholtz in 1859 had extolled its virtues.Google Scholar
  59. 50.
    Fechner, Psychophysik (ref. 21), 2: 284, 289–90, 299.Google Scholar
  60. 51.
    Ibid., 2: 555–60.Google Scholar
  61. 52.
    Ernst Mach, Compendium der Physik für Mediciner (Vienna: Braumüller, 1863), pp. 233–4; see Hiebert, ‘Atomism’ (ref. 24), pp. 86–94.Google Scholar
  62. 53.
    Fechner, Psychophysik (ref. 21), 2: 252, 276, discussed Helmholtz’s refutation of Brewster, which makes it all the more interesting that the young Mach mistook Brewster for Young.Google Scholar
  63. 54.
    Mach, ‘Vorträge’ (ref. 31), cols. 295–8, 316–8, 335–6.Google Scholar
  64. 55.
    Fechner nowhere had restricted the basic color sensations to three, and indeed as noted above had explicitly rejected this feature of Young’s theory.Google Scholar
  65. 56.
    Mach, ‘Lichtreize’ (ref. 36), p. 631. Helmholtz, Handbuch (ref. 10), p. 281, also had described black as a “real sensation” and not as the “lack of all sensation.”Google Scholar
  66. 57.
    Mach, ‘Lichtreize’ (ref. 36), pp. 633–5. “Auch zur Young’schen Farbentheorie stehen einige der angeführten Bemerkungen in Beziehung,” began Mach (p. 633). The “remarks” in question might refer to the outermost nerve elements, cited above at n. 39. Yet Mach’s comment about interacting, mutually inhibiting nerve elements would not provide the basis for his rejection of Young’s theory.Google Scholar
  67. 58.
    Adolf Fick, Lehrbuch der Anatomie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane (Lahr: Schauenburg, 1864), pp. 291–4. Fick named red, green and blue as the fundamental sen- sations, and unlike Helmholtz gave the red curve a double peak in his graph of the response curves for the three receptors. Despite this modification, Fick’s textbook strongly supported the remaining elements of Young’s theory as elaborated by Helmholtz.Google Scholar
  68. 59.
    Mach, ‘Spatial Distribution’ (ref. 40), pp. 269–70.Google Scholar
  69. 60.
    Mach, ‘Lichtreize’ (ref. 36), p. 634, did note that contrast effects can make visible complementary components of a sensation of white; but that fact did not allow the white to be folded into the four simple color sensations.Google Scholar
  70. 61.
    Mach, ‘Lichtreize’ (ref. 36), p. 635.Google Scholar
  71. 62.
    Hebbel E. Hoff, ‘The History of Vagal Inhibition,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine 8 (1940), 461–96.Google Scholar
  72. 63.
    Mach, Analysis of Sensations (ref. 5), pp. 34–5.Google Scholar
  73. 64.
    For several scattered counter-examples, see Kremer, ‘Innovation’ (ref. 4), pp. 20–2, 43–4.Google Scholar
  74. 65.
    Arthur Schopenhauer, Ueber das Sehn und die Farben [1816, 2d ed., 1854], reprinted in Paul Deussen, ed., Arthur Schopenhauers sämtliche Werke, 13 vols. (Munich: Piper, 1911–42), 6: 28; for the 1854 nearly identical version, see idem, 6: 156–57. Schopenhauer, 6: 145–60, also related these six apriori colors to a vaguely Goethe-like hypothesis of retinal action. Color sensations, he suggested, arise from the “qualitatively divided activity” or the “polarity” of the retina, and the fundamental six colors correspond to the simplest numerical ratios specifying the degree of retinal activity. Black (0) results from total retinal inactivity; white (1) from complete retinal activity. The complements red and green are equally “distant” from black and white, and thus represent an equal division of retinal activity and inactivity (or 1/2). Yellow represents 3/4 of the full activity of the retina; its complement violet only 1/4 of that activity. Orange represents 2/3 of the full activity, with its complement of blue representing 1/3. For a similar treatment relating fractions of retinal action to the sensations of five “primitive” colors, a number agreed on by “all the world,” see Victor Szokalski, Essai sur les sensations des couleurs dans l’état physiologique et pathologique (Paris: Cousin, 1841), pp. 29–33, who acknowledged a debt to Schopenhauer.Google Scholar
  75. 66.
    Hermann Aubert, Physiologie der Netzhaut (Breslau: Morgenstern, 1861), p. 186.Google Scholar
  76. 67.
    See Robert S. Cohen, ‘Ernst Mach: Physics, Perception and the Philosophy of Science,’ in Cohen and Seeger, eds., Mach (ref. 24), pp. 126–64.Google Scholar
  77. 68.
    Ernst Mach: (1933), The Science of Mechanics, transl. from the 9th German ed. by Thomas J. McCormack (LaSalle, I11.: Open Court, 1960), pp. 1–9.Google Scholar
  78. 69.
    See Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XXXVIII, 196, 200; XLI, 186, 201, 203; XLII, 198. Hering rarely cited other sources in his monograph; among authors he did cite, Mach appeared about as frequently as anyone, along with Helmholtz, Fechner and Aubert.Google Scholar
  79. 70.
    Hering, Lichtsinne (ref. 2), XLI, 186, 201; XLII, 198.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard L. Kremer
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryDartmouth CollegeUSA

Personalised recommendations