In the Eye's Mind

In the Eye's Mind: Vision and the Helmholtz-Hering Controversy

R. Steven Turner
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 356
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    In the Eye's Mind
    Book Description:

    One of the most persistent controversies of modern science has dealt with human visual perception. It erupted in Germany during the 1860s as a dispute between physiologists Hermann von Helmholtz, Ewald Hering, and their schools. Well into the twentieth century these groups warred over the origins of our capacity to perceive space, over the retinal mechanisms that mediate color sensations, and over the role of mind, experience, and inference in vision. Here R. Steven Turner explores the impassioned exchanges of those rival schools, both to illuminate the clash of theory and to explore the larger role of controversy in the development of science. Controversy, he suggests, is constitutive of scientific change, and he uses the Helmholtz-Hering dispute to illustrate how polemics and tacit negotiation shape evolving theoretical stances.

    Turner focuses on the arguments and issues of the dispute, issues that ranged from the interpretation of color blindness and optical illusions to the therapeutic practices of clinical ophthalmology. As well, he focuses on the personalities, institutions, disciplinary structures, and methodological commitments that shaped the dispute, including the schools' rhetorical strategies. He explores the incommensurability of the protagonists' viewpoints and examines the reception of the theories and the changing fortunes of the schools. Finally, Turner traces the controversy into the twentieth century, where the issues continue to inform the study of vision today.

    Originally published in 1994.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6381-5
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    R. Steven Turner
    • CHAPTER ONE Introduction
      (pp. 3-9)

      The strawberries went untended in Ewald Hering’s garden during the summer of 1918. The old man was dead. He had remained active to the end of a long scientific career that had made him one of the most imposing figures in German physiology and also one of the discipline’s most feared polemicists. Henng had cultivated the gardens of his scientific institutes with the same devotion and meticulous intensity he lavished upon the cadres of research students who passed through those institutes. Especially in the study of visual sensation and perception, he and his students had warred implacably against what they...

    • CHAPTER TWO Physiological Optics from Wheatstone to Helmholtz
      (pp. 10-32)

      Between 1885 and 1894 Hermann Helmholtz and his protégé Arthur Komg labored over the successive installments for a second edition ofHelmholtz’s Handbuch der Physiologiscben Optik.The task presented many difficulties. Helmholtz had abandoned physiology for physics around 1870, and his relative unfamiliarity with the burgeoning recent literature made hopeless any prospect of endowing the second edition with the scope or synthetic power of the epic first edition. To compensate in part for the inevitable limitations and omissions, Komg annexed to the second edition a massive bibliography of almost eight thousand items, listing (in principle) all the works published on...

    • CHAPTER THREE Helmholtz on Spatial Perception
      (pp. 35-53)

      Hermann Helmholtz, the chief architect of the new physiological optics of the mid-nineteenth century, grew up in the city of Potsdam, the royal retreat of the Prussian kings, just west of Berlin (Kremer 1990, xivxv). His father had served in Prussia’s war of liberation against Napoleon and then studied classical philology and philosophy at the newly founded University of Berlin before accepting a teaching post at the elite Viktoria-Gymnasium in Potsdam (Königsberger 1902–3,1:1–8). The profession of gymnasiumOberlebrerto which Ferdinand Helmholtz belonged had been created in the early nineteenth century with the reform of Prussia’s secondary school...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Hering on Spatial Perception
      (pp. 54-67)

      As a physiologist Helmholtz awed his contemporaries with his mastery of physical and mathematical techniques, skills nowhere more impressively displayed than in his analytic derivation of Listing’s law and the horopter. Hence contemporaries’ surprise when in 1863 an unknown young physiologist from Leipzig published a horopter derivation fully as rigorous and general as that of Helmholtz’s (Hering 1863a[25], 1864a[25]). Ewald Hering not only independently duplicated Helmholtz’s achievement, but also used a new and different mathematical approach (the projective geometry recently developed by Jakob Steiner at Berlin) and had the audacity to criticize Helmholtz and hold his errors up for ridicule...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Nativist-Empiricist Controversy Begins
      (pp. 68-94)

      During the early 1860s Helmholtz and Hering pursued different programs intended to impose order upon the chaotic field of binocularity and depth perception. Of the two strategies, Hering’s was by far the blunter instrument. Through the 1860s he portrayed the study of spatial perception as polarized between the theories of identity and projection, attacked projectionists wherever he found them, and rallied support for his own extended theory of identity. With at least the first two objectives, he enjoyed considerable success. Volkmann adopted some views about spatial localization so similar to Hering’s as to lead Hering in 1864 to hint that...

    • CHAPTER SIX Helmholtz on Light and Color
      (pp. 95-114)

      The Publication of the final volume of theHandbuchand the difficult months that preceded it marked a turning point in Helmholtz’s life. After 1866 he grew increasingly indifferent to physiology as a research field (Kirsten 1986, 237–38, no. 115). With his interests already turning more and more to hydro-and electrodynamics, he agreed in 1871 to come to Berlin as professor of experimental physics. There he continued to accept physiologists and psychologists into his institute, to revise past work, and to reiterate his basic epistemological position, but until shortly before his death he published little new research on sensory...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Hering on Light and Color
      (pp. 115-136)

      Within a few years Young’s theory had been enshrined in a series of important elementary texts on physiology. Helmholtz’s assistant Wilhelm Wundt incorporated it unhesitatingly into his semipopular survey,Vorlesungen uber die Menschen-und Thterseele(1863), and physiologist Adolf Fick, who had been a fellow student with Helmholtz at Berlin, adopted it without reservation in his brisk and business-likeLebrbuch der Anatomie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane(1864) (Wundt 1863b, 138–201; Fick 1864, esp. 291). A decade later Helmholtz’s friend Ernst Brucke placed his imprimatur upon the theory in hisVorlesungen uber Physiologie(1873), abandoning his former advocacy of retinal induction...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Core Sets and Partisans
      (pp. 139-155)

      By 1875 the direct exchanges between Helmholtz and Hering were over. Helmholtz had abandoned sensory physiology for physics, and his position in the subsequent controversy was publicly defended mainly by others. Hering, in contrast, continued to play the leading role in the controversy well into the twentieth century, even though most of his original research contributions had been made by 1875. Increasingly he was assisted by a small but formidable circle of students and scientific allies, who by 1900 had taken the controversy largely onto their shoulders. Who were the men and women who rallied to these scientific causes, and...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Nativist-Empiricist Debate, 1870–1925
      (pp. 156-175)

      Helmholtz made his most important contribution to the issue of spatial perception in the third volume of theHandbuch,where he delineated the nativist and empiricist positions and mounted a telling criticism of Hering. His own research did not again return to the question of spatiality, but in 1871 he had J. J. Müller investigate the binocular disparity produced by torsional rotation of the eyes and interpret the effect in empiricist terms (Müller 1871;WAH2:947–52, no. 120). More important, Helmholtz continued to develop and regularly reiterate his empiricist position in popular lectures and widely read epistemological discussions down...

    • CHAPTER TEN Color Vision Controversies, 1875–90
      (pp. 176-195)

      In comparison to the school controversies over spatial perception, those over color vision evinced a sharper sequential development, a more clearly defined cast of characters, much more heated antagonism, and a still less decisive outcome. They unfolded in two phases. The first phase began in 1860, with Helmholtz’s paradigmatic reformulation of the study of light perception in the second volume of hisHandbuch.That synthesis fixed terminological usage and instrumental approaches for decades to come and advanced Young’s three-receptor theory as the proper basis for interpreting almost all aspects of light perception. During the 1860s the Young–Helmholtz theory attracted...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Color Vision Controversies, 1890–1915
      (pp. 196-217)

      The first phase of the German debates over color vision ended on an ironic note: both schools had largely established their central claims. Hering’s followers had shown that the dichromats whom their opponents called “red blind” and “green blind” almost certainly perceived a spectrum composed of blues and yellows, as predicted by the opponent process theory. Helmholtz’s supporters had all but proved the existence of three classes of dichromats: the red blind, the green blind, and the very rare violet-blue blind. The dominant theoretical issue of this phase had been, does the empirical trichromacy and the trivariability of vision necessitate...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Roots of Incommensurability
      (pp. 218-234)

      Throughout the course of the Helmholtz–Hering controversy, as previous chapters have shown, the focal problems of the dispute shifted, the relative strength of the schools waxed and waned, and the positions of the antagonists changed in fundamental ways. Nevertheless, after four decades of intense exchange, the dispute remained as far from resolution as it had been at the beginning; neither the ascendance of nativism nor Hering’s defeat in his opposition to the duplicity theory remotely constituted a definitive closure. That fact poses a historical problem. Why was one school unable to achieve a decisive victory; or, failing that, why...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Controversy and Disciplinary Structure
      (pp. 235-258)

      The Helmholtz–Hering controversy unfolded at a period when the formation in Germany of new, autonomous scientific disciplines was proceeding most intensely and most turbulently. The founding histories of at least four scientific disciplines impinged upon the controversy, and the imperatives of disciplinary consciousness and disciplinary interests powerfully influenced its progress and eventual stalemate (Stichweh 1984,

      1–94; Guntau and Laitko 1987b; Turner 1986).

      Those disciplinary interests ought not to be narrowly interpreted as only the drive for careers and status. Scientists make investments in particular resources necessary to their practice: instruments, skills, alliances, bodies of expertise. Individuals or groups...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN In Search of Denouement: The Twentieth Century
      (pp. 261-280)

      Historians offer narrative reconstructions of the past that are essentially stories, and stories nonetheless when they deal, as this one does, with the arcane disputes of scientific specialists. As narrators, historians choose the points at which their stories begin and end, and that choice inevitably influences both the form of emplotment and the dramatic significance that the narrative as a whole will evince. This account of the Helmholtz–Hering controversy has already been deeply shaped by narrative choices of this kind. For example, it opens abruptly with the initial confrontations of the two chief protagonists and largely disclaims historical continuities...

  9. Appendix
    (pp. 281-288)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 289-298)
  11. References and Abbreviations
    (pp. 299-328)
  12. Index
    (pp. 329-338)