V: Koffka on the Behavioural Field

Our fifth reading is Chapter 2 “Behaviour and Its Field” of Kurt Koffka’s magnum opus Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).  Chapter 1 provides historical background for gestalt psychology, presenting it as an attempt to reconcile the prima facie tension in the trichotomy of inert nature, life, and mind.  After rejecting attempts to prioritize one over the others (e.g. materialism and vitalism), Koffka argues that the three should be understood as offering instead different perspectives, each of which provides a key concept, respectively quantity, order, and meaning, all of which are needed for a coherent psychology.  Gestalt psychology is offered as a means for unifying these concepts within a single research program.

Our reading, Chapter 2, then lays out the basic concepts of gestalt psychology and their role in a scientific psychology, including especially the notions of behavioural environment, psychological field, and isomorphism.

My own view is that Koffka’s distinction between the behavioural and geographical environments, and the methodological importance of this distinction in scientific psychology, poses one of the greatest challenges for the Merleau-Ponty perspective, at least insofar as I understand it from our first conference and subsequent readings.  Consequently, it will be great to hear group member reactions to this reading and their views on how to position these concepts with respect to related phenomenological notions.

We’ll email the reading to the group and, as usual, if you have any trouble accessing it, please contact one of the organizers.

4 thoughts on “V: Koffka on the Behavioural Field

  1. Hi Alistair,
    Would love to hear you say a bit more to clarify the tension you see between MP and Koffka’s conception of the behavioural and geographical environments. That’s something I’d be grateful to have in mind during the readings.

  2. Koffka insists on a distinction between the behavioural environment and the geographical environment, where the former is something like the phenomenally experienced world, and the latter something like the independent physical world, which constrains phenomenal experience. Insofar as I follow him, it seems Merleau-Ponty wants to erase this distinction . . . . (as did Gibson, see The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, p.139, and contemporary enactivists).

    I take it that the status of this distinction is key for both methodological questions about how to study perception empirically and for the philosophical issue of whether perception is direct or indirect (and the ontological and epistemological questions that follow in its wake).

  3. [I’m writing this prior to revisiting Koffka, so perhaps my views will change as I reconsider the distinction.]

    For my part, I’m not sure I see MP rejecting the distinction quite so clearly as Gibson may want to do. (And I’m not 100% certain what Gibson’s rejection amounts to, but that’s a topic for another time).

    Sorry to keep bringing up /The Structure of Behavior/, but there MP definitely wants to maintain the geographical/behavioral distinction. He credits Koffka with recognizing this ambiguity in the notion of “behavior” (Fischer’s p.130, 139-40 in the French), and I think it is centrally relevant to his own view at that time.

    In the /Phenomenology of Perception/, MP seems to invoke the distinction approvingly, sometimes fairly explicitly (Landes’ p. 81), and sometimes more obliquely (p.115 — his account of “projection” seems to require the distinction; p.300; likewise his footnote to Ewrin Strauss’ work makes a similar point, p.357/fn94, and there is likely a roundabout influence of Koffka here). MP also cites one of Koffka’s own discussions that invoke the distinction, and MP seems to do so with approval (see e.g., PoP p.325/fn8, citing Koffka’s /Principle’s/ p.255;

    More generally, I’m inclined to think that MP has a place for the distinction in his basic conception of intersubjectivity and its relation to objectivity. There’s a relatively solipsistic sketch of how perception presents us with the real (“The Thing and the Natural World” — Landes’ pp. 312-360). But this requires supplementation by an account of intersubjectivity (“Others and the Human World” — pp.361-383). On MP’s account we can only draw a distinction between our subjective experience and the objective world by relying on judgement (see esp. 371-2), but we can indeed draw this distinction, and can draw the behavioral/geographical distinction along with it.

    Now, it’s true that MP wants to reconceive Gestalten across the board, and thus will disagree with Koffka. Likewise, MP wants a kind of transcendental phenomenology, and thus he will disagree with any transcendentally naive conception of reality. But I’m inclined to think MP will still permit the drawing of the distinction: it’s just that the sense of the distinction will be different, once it’s received a phenomenological elucidation. It’s true that MP does not put the geographical/behavioral distinction to use in the manner the Gestaltists envisioned — but this would be in keeping with MP’s agenda of pursuing a kind of transcendental phenomenology in contrast to a realistic and scientific psychology.

    So in short (for now): while I’m inclined not to think that MP rejects the distinction, I’m inclined to agree that it does not have quite the same methodological significance for him, since his task and methodology are not those of a scientific psychologist.

  4. Hi all,

    Having now revisited Koffka, I offer a few thoughts on two main topics.

    (1) First, a few of MP’s main disagreements,
    as I understand them, would be these:

    (a) Koffka reifies physical gestalten rather than treating them as perceptual phenomena. This ultimately comes down to a dispute over what it means to say that “every /datum/ is a behavioural /datum/; physical reality is not a datum but a constructum… one’s own environment is a behavioural (conscious) and not a geographical (physical) one” (p.35). I think MP thinks Koffka cannot really maintain this claim while simultaneously claiming that the universe of discourse of physics is the most fundamentally real one (p.48). MP thinks there is a another universe of discourse (i.e., that of a phenomenology, beginning with a phenomenology of perception) which is more apt for providing a unified treatment of the various domains of science. In a way, this can be views as how MP follows up Lewin’s suggestion that there may be a universe of discourse which unifies talk of “forces” in psychology (pp.47-48).

    (b) Koffka accordingly treats the relationship between the geographical (“G”) and behavioural (“B”) environments as a causal relation. Koffka is a bit shaky on this at first, saying B “Depends on” G (p.31), or that G “produces” B (p.40), but eventually the claim is clearly that G is “a cause of” B (p.49). In contrast, MP thinks that no such causal analysis can be successful. (In part, perhaps, because it cannot readily account for hallucination, as Koffka admits but sets aside — p.31).

    (c) Alongside all this, Koffka has a conception of “consciousness” which is quite thin and restrictive, and which MP would likely not endorse. It is thin in the sense that any claims about consciousness or “direct experience” are to be translated into claims about objects in the behavioural environment (p.35). It is restrictive in the sense that Koffka seems to require that nothing can be included in the behavioural environment unless a subject has explicit beliefs or knowledge about it, so that, for example, well-practiced skills are treated as arising from “memory effects,” and past training does not seem to influence the behavioural field per se (pp.50-51). MP, in contrast, will appear here to inexplicit intentional consciousness, in the form of the lived body. (After re-reading Koffka, I’m inclined to think that one of MP’s discussions of motricity is fairly explicitly designed as a response to Koffka’s discussion here of a well-trained typist — contrast the /Phenomenology of Perception/, Landes’ p.145)

    (d) I think another major disagreement between MP and Koffka is the primacy that MP accords to perception, which Koffka does not seem to always maintain. I address this last disagreement in a one-sided way, by discussing Koffka below.

    (2) In trying to work out Koffka’s own view, it seems to me that the Gestaltist program that he sketches out is of several minds regarding the importance of the appeal to the behavioural field.

    (a) On the one hand, Koffka clearly maintains that the relevance of psychology to most of human conduct and to the “moral sciences”, requires us to maintain a central role for the behavioural field (pp.18, 26, 52). The appeal to the behavioural environment seems to be Koffka’s main gambit for bringing the meaning and significance of human action an social life under the Gestaltist umbrella. This suggests that the behavioural field is itself a core explanandum for a fully successful psychology. It suggests that the meaning and significance of human behavior has a kind of reality of its own that must be preserved

    (b) On the other hand, it seems that by the end of ch 2 the target and task of psychology has shifted. The task is now to pursue “the study of behavior in its causal connection with the psychophysical field” (p.67). The psychophysical field is introduced (p.67) as Koffka’s novel term for the field psychology aims to study (p.46), which is *not* simply the behavioural environment (p.46-51). The behavioural environment seems now to be called upon simply for methodological expediency, as an aid for describing the psychological field. It is handy, “at the present state of science,” to deploy a theoretical vocabulary that describes the field behaviorally, when in fact Koffka is committed to the claim that all one really means to say could be expressed in a more complete physiological vocabulary (p. 66). So then the behavioural field, so important to the moral sciences (p.21), seems not to be maintain any reality of its own afterall. We might eventually just as well do without mentioning the behavioral field at all, if we develop a more elaborate physiological vocabulary to describe the physiological field that in fact carries all the explanatory weight in Koffka’s view.

    (c) On a third hand, Koffka seems to say that Koehler showed us that all scientific theorizing amounts to the selective analysis of “behavioural facts of direct experience,” through which we pursue a “construction” of, e.g., the world of physics or of physiology (pp.61-62). This seems to assign a kind of epistemological primacy to the behavioural field. Such primacy, if it is maintained, might contribute to the importance of the behavioural field suggested in [2a] above. But it is difficult to see how it could be maintained in light of [2b] above.

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