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Michotte's Experimental Phenomenology of Perception.

THINES, G., COSTALL, A., & BUTTERWORTH, G. (Eds.). Michotte's Experimental Phenomenology of Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991. Pp. xi + 250.

With the recent upsurge of interest in ecological approaches, and an allied growth of interest in the role of context in psychological explanation, phenomenologically oriented writings in experimental psychology are likely to find an increasingly receptive audience among psychologists. The common link among these concerns is a focus on the environment experienced by the individual. To some, phenomenological analysis may seem antithetical to ecological and contextual concerns because of the apparently mentalistic character of this approach. However, such a characterization does not accurately describe the orientation of many phenomenologists. In fact, describing this approach in such a manner suggests a dualism between world and mind that most phenomenologists reject. Most phenomenological programs were developed as an alternative to the array of theoretical positions (e.g., varieties of materialism and mentalism) that rely on an ontological distinction between world and mind. Instead, from a phenomenological perspective, psychological processes are viewed as being situated in an environmental context and are not readily understood apart from the mutual relationship between individual and environment.

This seemingly esoteric, theoretical position actually has significant implications for research. In particular, it structures the kinds of research questions one poses, and it influences the theoretical interpretation one gives to research findings. The value of a phenomenological approach for experimental psychology is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the work of the late Belgian psychologist, Albert Michotte (1881-1965). However, much of Michotte's writings have been relatively inaccessible for English-speaking psychologists. The welcome appearance of this edited volume makes many of his most significant papers available to this audience for the first time, as well as reprinting Michotte's autobiography and providing several excellent introductory essays by the editors.

Albert Michotte was one of the preeminent experimental psychologists in Europe during the middle decades of the 20th century. Although his early training was in Leipzig with Wundt, he soon became influenced by Kulpe's experimental work on so-called higher mental processes and later found that his own developing research program, with its emphasis on perceptual organization and structure, converged with that of the Gestalt psychologists. Although Michotte's ideas had much in common with the Berlin school (Wertheimer, Kohler, and Koffka), his work was most similar to the Gestaltists Edgar Rubin and David Katz, who had a somewhat stronger phenomenological orientation than the Berliners. Further, there is much commonality between Michotte's research and the work of the American perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson.

Michotte's primary concern was the empirical investigation of meaning in perceptual experience. In opposition to reductionistic analyses of perception, he claimed that meaning is intrinsic to perception. Moreover, Michotte argued that in order to understand the structural basis for meaning in perceptual experience one needs to manipulate systematically stimulus variables to determine how particular meaningful events can be produced and, once created, how they can be destroyed. In other words, one needs to identify the stimulus boundaries of a particular meaningful event. The application of this psychophysical methodology (what he called "concomitant variation") to the problem of perceptual meaning can be illustrated by Michotte's landmark investigations of the perception of causality. One of the legacies of British empiricist philosophy is the claim that many apparent properties of the world are in fact qualities of perceivers' minds (e.g., "secondary qualities"). Hume in particular came to the radical conclusion that so basic and central a physical phenomenon as causality could not be found in perceptual experience, and thus, could not be property of "the world." Consequently, causality must be some sort of a mental "habit" or belief rather than a perceptual datum. Michotte attempted to demonstrate experimentally that Hume was wrong--that causality is perceived, and that it it one of many essential ways in which perceptual experience is meaningful. By means of an innovative methodology, he showed that when a moving object comes into contact with a stationary object, and following this contact the latter object moves off on a trajectory, perceivers consistently report that the first object "caused" the second object to move (the "launching effect"). Importantly, however, this report of a causal effect occurred only under certain stimulus conditions. If, for example, there is a sufficient time delay (viz., 150-200 ms) before the second object starts to move, perceivers do not see its movement as being caused by the first object; instead, they report two successive, independent events. Or if the relative speed of the second object after contact is greater than that of the first object, perceivers report that the movement of the latter was "triggered" by the contact, the second object having a degree of autonomy of its own, rather than being passively launched into movement. In other words, by varying parameters of the stimulus display, such as speed of the two objects, duration of contact, and length and direction of trajectories, Michotte demonstrated that the perceived causal meaning of these depicted events could be systematically controlled. Thus, Michotte found that various types of causal relationships can be conveyed by different patterns of stimulation, and the meaning of these events is intrinsic to structure of the pattern. Perceived causality, he concluded, is "a phenomenon that is primitive and nonderivative" (p. 99). Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this work is its application of experimental method to a problem (i.e., meaning) that has long been seen as intractable to such systematic and controlled investigation.

Michotte approached the puzzle of phenomenal permanence in much the same manner. This phenomenon refers to the experience of the continued existence of an object after it temporarily passes behind a surface that screens it from view. The experience of phenomenal permanence when an object goes out of sight can be contrasted with cases in which an object is no longer visible because it has gone out of existence (e.g., it has evaporated). Experientially, an object that has gone out of sight still exists even though it is not currently visible. Through a series of experiments, Michotte attempted to determine the stimulus conditions that differentiate these two types of perceptual experiences. Michotte also investigated another instance of phenomenal permanence in which a portion of one object that is hidden by another object (e.g., the hidden surface of a table beneath a book lying flat on the table) is still experienced as present," even though it cannot be seen. Michotte referred to this very common phenomenon, which occurs in virtually every view of the environment, as "amodal completion."

A third facet of Michotte's research concerned phenomenal reality, which he largely investigated in terms of the perception of pictures. Consistent with his broader program, he claimed that the experience of reality in a picture, such as experienced three dimensionality on a two dimensional surface, can best be understood in terms of the pattern of stimulation present to be perceived, rather than with respect to an interpretative, cognitive act.

Michotte's distinctive achievement is the successful synthesis of a phenomenological orientation and an experimental approach. Many of the fascinating and important phenomena that he studied would not have been identified without adopting a phenomenological stance, and the perceptual basis for these experiences could not begin to be understood without adopting an experimental attitude. Moreover, Michotte's approach to the investigation of causality and phenomenal reality provided avenues for the examination of other related problems, such as the perception of emotions, the perceptual character of tools," and the experience of reality in film.

More generally, Michotte's framework gives rise to a distinctive and important conceptualization of the nature of perception and cognition. Specifically, in contrast to the more common position of viewing perception as being subordinate to cognition, Michotte argued that these psychological functions are distinct, autonomous modes of knowing. Indeed, perception of causality, phenomenal permanence, and phenomenal reality prefigure homologous categories of knowing as they are later reflected at a conceptual level. As the editors indicate in one of their several excellent essays included in this volume:

Michotte's important claim is that in human development the fundamental,

intellectual concepts by which we understand the physical world are already

prefigured' in perception. Although the capacity for intellectual thought does not

derive from perception, the basic meaning categories of perception provide the

framework of reflective thought and rationality. (p. 223) Thus, in Michotte's hands perception comes to play a more central role in psychological theory than it has historically been accorded. As a result, his work invites a reexamination of perceptual and cognitive processes.

In the years since Michotte's death, many of the phenomena he identified and studied have been further investigated, frequently by researchers working from a Gibsonian perspective. Particularly noteworthy are the investigations of infant perception demonstrating that indeed perceptual processes, even in a cognitively immature individual, are surprisingly complex and sophisticated. One of the valuable contributions of this volume is to connect Michotte's ideas and this recent experimental work. In the latter we find vindication for Michotte's claim that often a significant psychological puzzle "in the last analysis, reduces to a perceptual problem" (p. 123).

This volume of collected papers, along with the accompanying essays by the editors, is the definitive source book for the work of this important experimental psychologist. Because few of his writings were heretofore available in English (a notable exception being the translation of his book The Perception of Causality) and because his theoretical orientation has been out of step first with mainstream behaviorism and later with mainstream cognitivism, Michotte's innovation and important work has not received the broad recognition it deserves. Accordingly, Michotte's Experimental Phenomenology of Perception is both an invaluable and timely addition to the psychological literature. (Harry Heft, Denison University)
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Author:Heft, Harry
Publication:The Psychological Record
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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