ASPECT PERCEPTION – is a phenomenon
that largely involves the perception of pictures that are ambiguous, and seen
under the influence of different facets, viewpoints or orientations. Which are
vulnerable to more than one interpretations?. Eg; – ‘I’, can be seen as an
English alphabetic letter, a tiny piece of vertical geometrical figure, as the
numerical number one or a full stop as used in Hindi language.
In this paper; I attempt to lay out Wittgenstein
critique of Kohler’s account of aspect perception.
Three keywords which explain
Kohler’s main idea of perception involve – Organisation, Figure Ground, Isomorphism
ORGANISATION – Kohler’s theory of
perception centres on a feature of the stimuli which carries that feature as
long as the object is present. This feature is called organisation. Aspect
perception, for Kohler, is a matter of Organisation which is a sensory property
lying in the object itself. How we see an aspect when directed to an aspect is
a matter of how we organise the elements within it. The object that we perceive
is consequential. Kohler’s view is called Gestalt-theory, obviously for the
fact that ‘Gestalt’ means whole. So, the object becomes consequential in the
sense that it comes as a unit which is entailed within its parts. Eg; – when
you see my face you don’t take my facial features as coming one after the other
summing them all up to see my face in its wholeness. This is not how the object
imprints in your mind. The object that we perceive is a sensory whole. You see
my face as one whole unit, not in pieces (eg; – you don’t first see my eyes,
then nose, then lips etc. features) and that is how the perception becomes consequential.
It’s consequential because of what is its ultimate character in which the
object becomes available to us; because of how the object is presented to us.
Kohler takes perception to be a unified lump of a thing which protrudes itself
from the background of the object. The background is the space against which
the object stands. This background segregates the object from its periphery. Perception is backed by Gestalt laws, where
there is order in objects via closeness, similarity, insularity, contiguity.
The perceived objects form a clustered whole based on our tendency to segregate
objects from each other. In a way, we can say that Kohler’s theory of
perception takes top down approach where our interpretation of parts of an
object comes from our conception of its whole.
FIGURE GROUND – is another
characteristic in perceptual organisation. As the name itself suggests. figure
i.e the object and ground i.e the background against which the object stands is
another of the gestalt laws which is responsible to bring out the
organisational character of the stimuli. An object is distinguished from its
background due to which we perceive it distinctly. This marks the object as
protruding itself out, from whereon it is further composed in different
organisational aspects thus giving rise to aspect perception. There are two
main features that affect the way we perceive figure and ground in an object.
One is Contrast and the other is Comparison.
One example of contrast is the printed pages in black ink on a white
background. The contrast that happens is due to colour standing against each
other. This allows us to see one object projecting itself out and leaving the
other in the background. Contrast provides a barrier between the two.
Comparison can be illustrated in the case where header text is
published in a larger font than body text. Here the header is the figure and
the body, the ground. The header stands out more to the eye than the main body
of the text.
ISOMORPHISM PRINCIPLE – it suggests
that there is a similarity in the activity pattern of brain to the
corresponding stimuli when we perceive the object. The experience matches with the
neural activity that gets activated while the organisation in the figure is
perceived. Hence there is a neural correlation with the objects. According to Kohler,
our visual experience is determined by the neural activation. So, what aspect I
see in the ambiguous picture of duck-rabbit is dependent on my neural activity.
So, it seems that for Kohler
the objects exist independent of our perception, they generate the stimuli in
the shape of a particular organisation and it is this organisation that we
perceive, and this organisation determines our aspect-perception. It’s the
organisation that’s producing sensory experience in me. Organisation is
casually responsible for our viewing of an object in a certain aspect. Kohler
considers only 3D appearance in aspect change/perception. As if we are looking
at a 3D object on a flat surface. This organisation is not imposed on discrete
stimuli but stimuli themselves that come as already organised, and this in its
turn determines aspect-perception. Gestalt theorists agree on the common point
that there is a full –fledged object outside – that we do not perceive – what
we perceive is the intermediary stimuli. For Gestalt theorists, the stimuli is
already received as organised – in different ways – as different neural
structures – and that determines
object-perception. There is an intermediary bridge involved in perception. It
is this point that Wittgenstein rejects.
WHAT IS ASPECT PERCEPTION FOR
Wittgenstein notion of aspect
perception is conceptual. His attention is directed not merely to physiological
viewpoint of aspect but in how we describe the respective aspect. I put forth
the characteristics of aspect seeing as conceived by Wittgenstein.
Aspect perception for Wittgenstein
A case of imagination i.e forming new images of the object to see
it under different aspects (PI – SECTION 11 – PAGE 207,213) – Wittgenstein says
that a triangle can be thought of as a picture of an object that has fallen
over. To see this aspect demands imagination on the part of the observer. When
you notice the aspects of a triangle it’s like an image remained intact with us
along with the visual impression. Seeing an aspect is like forming an image of
it. Imagination is employed to take a thing as another.
Subject to the will of the perceiver (page 213) – you can be made
to look an object under different aspects, the autonomy to see a thing as this
or that lies within you. To see a new aspect can be instructed. Thus, aspect
seeing is voluntary.
Comparison of object with other acquainted objects – this point is
highlighted by Gloria Ayob. She points out that it is in interpretation that we
need comparison of the respective object with other objects.
Not limited to 3D objects
(as in Kohler’s case),
Change in perception and yet unchanged – the object is anew and yet
the same (page 199,196) – noticing a new object in the same one is a new visual
experience. When you describe how you perceive the change of an aspect, it’s a
new expression that you give rise to yet your perception is the same. The
content of your visual experience hasn’t changed what has changed is the
outline in which the object is given. For instance, in the inverted image of a
same object its content remains same but what falls apart is the spatial
orientation of the observer. Features that remain intact even while noticing an
aspect is its 3D shape, distance, size (Malcom)
A matter of giving meaning to things i.e aspect perception is a way
of making sense of things around us. Wittgenstein interest in aspect seeing
comes from its kinship with associating the idea of experiencing the meaning of
a word. It’s from the perception of an aspect that a meaning is derived.
A case of visual experience + thought (page 197) – when an aspect
dawns on you what you have is half a visual and half experience thought. The description
of your visual experience, express your thought. Your thinking is present along
with your visual experience.
Wittgenstein’s critique of Kohler’s
theory follows from his (Kohler’s) Isomorphism principle. Aspect change cannot
be described in terms of isomorphism the way Kohler propounds. Kohler took
organisation to be a sensory quality which determines our perceptions. Objects
are responsible for the way we perceive aspects in the sense that they cause
the neural organisation that in their turn cause perception of different
aspects. Whereas for Wittgenstein there must be an internal relation involved between
objects (PI, page 212) which is fundamentally different from the external
causal relation between the object and its resultant aspect – organisation that
are basically some neural structures. Wittgenstein aspect is not a quality of
the object like the way colour is. The load of the aspect lies wholly within
the perceiver and their skill of play with the configuration of an object.
Kohler didn’t acknowledge freedom on the part of subject to relate with an
aspect, for, according to Kohler, the aspect was lying out there which has just
to correspond with the neural act. The isomorphism principle leaves out the
content that undergoes change when an aspect is changed altogether. With every
particular interpretation, you have different isomorphic foundation.
Neurological account cannot explain what the content is that has undergone
change. They are simply concerned with different neurological states. When
there is a duck, then, what is its neural correlation that Kohler does not
explain. Merely saying that there is an isomorphic neural correlate will
actually lead to essentialise the notion of seeing. Wittgenstein resists
against the neurological data because it’s coming as terminal blocks of space
which halt us from turning the problem into a conceptual game. Wittgenstein’s
matter with aspect perception is conceptual and normative game which should be
available for recursion, where you can see the same thing in another spatial
location. That’s what a concept is. As already stated, Wittgenstein takes
aspect perception to be a voluntary action, it has to be normative where all
the elements have to be known and they have to be conceptually related. There
cannot be any element which falls outside your knowing/conception. Your will is
related to your action in a knowing way. When you describe your perception you
can’t let any unrecognised external causal trigger play/push your perception.
Neurological theories cannot explain how merging of conceptual and non-conceptual
occurs. They are trying to turn internally related conceptual whole into a
In explanation of aspect change mere
description is not enough, there must be comparison with other objects – the
switching of stages that occur in transiting from one aspect to another cannot
be explained by isomorphism principle. In the duck rabbit case, the subject has
to be able to relate the ambiguous picture she currently perceives to various
other objects, when you see it as duck, then alternate it as rabbit, and then
it’s a confined kind of registration, but, you have to go beyond to the duck
aspect and conceptually connect that perception with respect to other ducks
that you have seen. The dynamism in the figure of duck has to be accommodated
here. You have to relate it with many duck/ rabbit pictures seen in different positions.
This kind of dynamic expanse is internal relation. Perceptual organisation does
not lie out in the objects like colour or shape. Organisation is not a sensory
What Kohler missed is that he took one aspect i.e,’ organisation’ as an
umbrella term to justify all cases of aspect perception. Wittgenstein does
grant Kohler’s notion of organisation some space but only to a limited extent.
Wittgenstein takes organisation to be one of the aspects of aspect perception.
Kohler didn’t make enough demarcations in his view of rise and fall of an
aspect, whereas the questions in the investigations remain as to how far can we
draw the line in detailing of our noticing of an aspect. Wittgenstein
underlines the state of ‘noticing an aspect’, ‘seeing the aspect’, meaning of
‘see as’ and ‘see’, ‘aspect’ and ‘change of aspect’. Wittgenstein’s perception
of aspects involve various stages of distinctions relative to the time when the
aspect dawns. His consideration is with, how far a limit can be put to the
concept of an object in the question of aspect perception, how long do we need
to attend to the object in case of aspect changes in perception, how far can an
aspect perception be a genuine visual experience.
When you switch from one perceptual
organisation to another there is a neurological correlate which corresponds to
that. Kohler is presenting a neural correlate itself as perception. According to
Kohler, neurological oscillations cause perceptual switches not that they are
identical with perceptual switches. Kohler is putting only the stimulus driven
character as neutrally active in the retina. Neurology cannot be meaningfully
connected as a way of explanation of the aspect. You cannot conceptualise how
your brain dynamics explain your perception. We need a conceptual tool to
relate brain dynamics as a cause of perception. And this task of
conceptualising cannot be justified by Kohler.
Similarly, Hemholtz’s theory of
perception cannot do justice to conceptualisation of visual content. Aspect
perception for Hemholtz is a play of unconscious inference, It is involuntary
activity of memory. But how does the memory play a role? Hemholtz may say it’s
a sensation which is not conceptualised but revoking memory through similarity.
But who judges the similarity, similarity between unconceptualized sensation
and what you have remembered in the past which is being revoked now. Similarity
must be between two conceptualised things. If a thing itself is
unconceptualized mass then that unconceptualized mass cannot revoke memory.
Wittgenstein is not in favour of any
external trigger which facilitates aspect seeing or which cause aspect seeing
because in search for causal data the conceptualised identity of aspect seeing
will be lost. If we want to bring in physiological/psychological brain dynamic
details, then it has to be done in a way that they are incorporated into aspect
seeing. Build your investigation in a way that it falls into the content of
In conclusion, I take Malcolm’s view
that realisation of an aspect lies amidst seeing and interpreting. The
perceptual process which is grounded in noticing an aspect, touch both the
edges of seeing and interpreting, as Wittgenstein himself acknowledges – seeing
is interpreting. Interpretation is as much present in seeing as seeing is in
interpreting. Just as there is no unitary concept of seeing similarly there is
no dichotomy between seeing and interpreting. Interpretation is not a loaded
cognition like inference. Wittgenstein does not want to make aspects as coming
out as different intermediary membranes.
Malcolm (1987). Wittgenstein on seeing aspects. Mind 96
Gloria (2009). The aspect-perception passages: A critical investigation of
Köhler’s isomorphism principle. Philosophical Investigations 32
Wayne H. (1980). Wittgenstein and the nativism-empiricism controversy. Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research 41 (1/2):127-141.
Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, ed.
G.E.M. Anscombe, R. Rhees, and G.H. Von Wright (trans.: G.E.M. Anscombe),
Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1984, Part II, section xi.