Kurt Koffka: ‘Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-theorie’

Fig. 1. Unknown photographer, portrait of Kurt Koffka, http://www.psicoterapiaintegrativa.com

Believed this is a journal Kurt Koffka (Fig. 1) responded to American psychologist in 1922. Being one of the key founding gestaltist besides Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler, Koffka offered some critical review of works in the field of Gestalt psychology. Like Wertheimer mentioned in his ‘Gestalt Theory’, Koffka stresses that Gestalt theory is “more than a theory of perception” and even “more than mere psychological theory.” At that point of time, Gestalt theory suggests a new way of thinking and methodology for our fundamental problems.

There are few important points mentioned in this journal: 1. Brief introduction of theory concept; 2. To resolve the misunderstanding that the theory has encountered; 3. The latest development of the theory; 5. Review of some experiments. However, I only summarize here the main points that are related to my theme. In order to contrast the traditional view of psychology, Koffka elaborates the concept of Gestalt theory in conjunction with the concepts of sensation, association, and attention in the psychology system. He stressed, “wherever there is an effect that cannot be explained by sensation or association, there attention appears upon the stage.” If the traditional theory is not sufficient enough to supplement the three concepts, it should be replaced by other principles.

Furthermore, he discussed four types of perceptual judgments in accordance with an experiment of putting two squares of grey cardboard on a black cloth: judgment of equality, left darker, left brighter and uncertain. While “these four types correspond to the same pair of stimuli”, the question is how to identify the particular pair of stimuli that provokes the judgment? According to principle of Gestalt theory the comparison of sensation does not exist since what they find is “an undivided, articulated whole”. The integrated whole is called ‘structure’. He goes on assert that

“Structures, then, are very elementary reactions, which phenomenally are not composed of constituent elements, their members being what they are by virtue of their “member-character,” their place in the whole; their essential nature being derived from the whole whose members they are.”

Koffka also provides some evidential examples for this structural theory in using Weber-Fechner law in which it does not deal with single sensation, but to the whole structure. He further asserts that “the physiological process must also be structural, for the system of the two reacting areas with their potential difference is a true structure in the strictest sense.” The two criteria found in Christian von Ehrenfels’ “On ‘Gestalt Qualities'” could also apply to this structure idea. These two criteria are “the structures cannot be composed out of elements, but they can be transposed like melodies.” He moves on to bring up some experiments performed in various fields to support the concept of structure. The idea of figure-ground is not only applicable in the auditory and visual fields, but also in any other sensory field.

vase_final copy

Fig. 2. Edgar Rubin, figural-after-effect, 1915, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Koffka/Perception/glossary.htm

In term of ambiguous patterns, Koffka argues that our different structure will correlate with different form. The famous cases brought out are Edward Bradford Titchener’s puzzle picture, W. B. Pillsbury’s book and Edgar Rubin’s well-known goblet-vase picture (Fig. 2). Many more examples could be easily found in our daily life, e.g., chessboard patterns and wallpaper designs might give rise to multiple phenomena.

Overall, the text is particularly useful to explain visual perception in the context of visual art, such as the law of leveling, the law of emphasis, Rubin’s “figural after-effect”, etc. Besides, the author suggests a superiority of the figure-phenomenon is over to ground-phenomenon. However, the functional connection of figure- and center-consciousness are not absolute, we could attend to the ground for a time, and let the figure recede. Many points reiterated in the journal are very useful for my field of study.

Reference:
Koffka, Kurt  (1922) ‘Perception: An introduction to the Gestalt-theorie’, Psychological Bulletin 19, 531-585, http://psychcentral.com/classics/Koffka/Perception/perception.htm (visited 14/10/2013)

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