Gestalt psychology, frontloading phenomenology, and psychophysics

Synthese 198 (Suppl 9):2153-2173 (2019)
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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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Uljana Feest
Universität Hannover


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