Wittgenstein and Köhler on Seeing and Seeing Aspects

Dissertation, University of Toronto (2008)

Janette Dinishak
University of California, Santa Cruz
This thesis examines the relation between philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1940s writings on seeing and seeing aspects and Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler’s theory of perception as set out in his Gestalt Psychology (1929). I argue that much of the existing literature on the Wittgenstein-Köhler relation distorts Köhler’s ideas and thus also Wittgenstein’s engagement with Köhler’s ideas. This double distortion underrates Köhler’s insights, misconstrues Wittgenstein’s complaints against Köhler, and masks points of contact between the two concerning the nature and description of human perceptual experience. In my view, Wittgenstein sympathizes with Köhler’s call to reflect on basic psychological categories such as “experience”, his respect for the “naïve” experience of the layperson, his method of “rediscovering” pervasive features of experience that escape our notice, and his efforts to identify intellectual prejudices that stymie inquiry. But a warning emerges from Wittgenstein’s discussions of seeing and seeing aspects: It is especially difficult to command a clear view of 'seeing' and its interrelations with other everyday, psychological concepts. I argue that Wittgenstein’s far-reaching criticism of Köhler is that the latter's account of visual “organization” overextends an analogy between seeing and seeing aspects and pushes aside other justifiable comparisons, for example between seeing and thinking and seeing and imagining. A consequence of Wittgenstein's criticism is that Kohler falls short of his aim to depict faithfully naïve visual experience. Moreover, despite Kohler's commitment to battling prejudices, the latter's emphasis on similarities between seeing and seeing aspects to the exclusion of their differences is a form of intellectual prejudice. For Wittgenstein various comparisons are justifiable by appeal to the interrelations between ‘seeing’ and other psychological concepts. A perspicuous view of the concept 'seeing' involves steady appreciation of the multitude of justifiable, criss-crossing comparisons. So although Wittgenstein does not deny Köhler’s claim that organization is a feature of visual experience rather than thinking, he does not unqualifiedly endorse it either. We have conceptual grounds for various ways of speaking about our experiences of aspects.
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