Helmholtz on Perceptual Properties


  • R. Brian Tracz University of California, San Diego




Hermann von Helmholtz’s work on perceptual science had a fundamental impact on Neo-Kantian movements in the late nineteenth century, and his influence continues to be felt in psychology and analytic philosophy of perception. As is widely acknowledged, Helmholtz denied that we can perceive mind-independent properties of external objects, a view I label Ignorance. Given his commitment to Ignorance, Helmholtz might seem to be committed to a subjectivism according to which we only perceive properties of our own representations. Against this, I argue that for Helmholtz, the properties we perceive are not monadic properties of either the subject or the object. Rather, Helmholtz endorsed a relationalism about the properties we perceive: the properties of objects we perceive are all relational properties. I then suggest that once we take into account oft-neglected terminological distinctions in Helmholtz’s corpus, we are better able to make sense of his commitment to relationalism.

Author Biography

R. Brian Tracz, University of California, San Diego



Allais, Lucy, 2015. Manifest Reality: Kant’s Idealism and his Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Byrne, Alex, and David R. Hilbert, 2017. “Color Relationalism and Relativism.” Topics in Cognitive Science 9: 172–92.

Cassedy, Steven, 2008. “A History of the Concept of the Stimulus and the Role it Played in the Neurosciences.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 17: 405–32.

Chirimuuta, Mazviita, 2015. Outside Color: Perceptual Science and the Puzzle of Color in Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———, 2016. “Perceptual Pragmatism and the Naturalized Ontology of Color.” Topics in Cognitive Science 9: 151–71.

Cohen, Jonathan, 2009. The Red and the Real: An Essay on Color Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Kock, Liesbet, 2014a. “Hermann von Helmholtz’s Empirico-Transcendentalism Reconsidered: Construction and Constitution in Helmholtz’s Psychology of the Object.” Science in Context 27: 709–44.

———, 2014b. “Voluntarism in Early Psychology: the Case of Hermann von Helmholtz.” History of Psychology 17: 105–28.

DiSalle, Robert, 1993. “Helmholtz’s Empiricist Philosophy of Mathematics: Between Laws of Perception and Laws of Nature.” In Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by D. Cahan, pp. 498–521. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Edgar, Scott, 2015. “The Physiology of the Sense Organs and Early Neo-Kantian Conceptions of Objectivity: Helmholtz, Lange, Liebmann.” In Objectivity in Science: New Perspectives from Science and Technology Studies, edited by F. Padovani, A. Richardson and J. Y. Tsou, pp. 101–22. Cham: Springer.

Friedman, Michael, 1997. “Helmholtz’s Zeichentheorie and Schlick’s Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre: Early Logical Empiricism and its Nineteenth-Century Background.” Philosophical Topics 25: 19–50.

———, 2000. “Geometry, Construction, and Intuition in Kant and his Successors.” In Between Logic and Intuition: Essays in Honor of Charles Parsons, edited by G. Sher and R. Tieszen, pp. 186–218. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gomes, Anil, 2017. “Naïve Realism In Kantian Phrase.” Mind 126: 529–78.

Hacker, P. M. S., 1987. Appearance and Reality: A Philosophical Investigation into Perception and Perceptual Qualities. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Hatfield, Gary, 1990. The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———, 2011. “Kant and Helmholtz on Primary and Secondary Qualities.” In Primary and Secondary Qualities the Historical and Ongoing Debate, edited by Lawrence Nolan, pp. 304–38. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heidelberger, Michael, 1993. “Force, Law, and Experiment: The Evolution of Helmholtz’s Philosophy of Science.” In Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by David Cahan, 461–97. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Helmholtz, Hermann von, 1852. “Über die Natur der menschlichen Sinnesempfindungen.” Königsberger Naturwissenschaftliche Unterhaltungen 3: 1–20.

———, 1863. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik, 1st ed. Braunschweig: Vieweg.

———, 1867. Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 1st ed. Leipzig: Voss.

———, 1896a. Vorträge und Reden, 2 vols. Braunschweig: Vieweg.

———, 1896b. Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 2nd ed. Leipzig: Voss.

———, 1903. Einleitung zu den Vorlesungen über theoretische Physik, edited by A. König and C. Runge. Leipzig: Barth.

Kant, Immanuel, 1998. Critique of Pure Reason, edited and translated by P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kölbel, Max, 2004. “Faultless Disagreement.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104: 53–73.

Langton, Rae, 1998. Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lenoir, Tim, 2006. “Operationalizing Kant: Manifolds, Models, and Mathematics in Helmholtz’s Theories of Perception.” In The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by M. Friedman and A. Nordmann, pp. 141–210. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McDaniel, Kris, 2016. Review of Lucy Allais, Manifest Reality: Kant’s Idealism and His Realism. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/manifest-reality-kants-idealism-and-his-realism/, accessed 1 December 2017.

McDonald, Patrick J., 2002. “Helmholtz’s Methodology of Sensory Science, the Zeichentheorie, and Physical Models of Hearing Mechanisms.” In History of Philosophy of Science, edited by M. Heidelberger and F. Stadler, pp. 159–83. Dordrecht: Springer.

McLear, Colin, 2016. “Kant on Perceptual Content.” Mind 125: 95–144.

Meulders, Michel, 2010. Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Müller, Johannes, 1826. Zur Vergleichenden Physiologie Des Gesichtssinnes Des Menschen Und Der Thiere. Leipzig: Cnobloch.

Rood, O. N., 1861. “On the Relation Between our Perception of Distance and Color.” American Journal of Science, series 2, 32: 184–85.

Schiemann, Gregor, 1998. “The Loss of World in the Image: Origin and Development of the Concept of Image in the Thought of Hermann von Helmholtz and Heinrich Hertz.” In Heinrich Hertz: Classical Physicist, Modern Philosopher, edited by D. Baird, pp. 25–38. Dordrecht: Springer.

———, 2009. Hermann von Helmholtz’s Mechanism: The Loss of Certainty. A Study on the Transition from Classical to Modern Philosophy of Nature. Berlin: Springer.

Stang, Nicholas F., 2014. “The Non-Identity of Appearances and Things in Themselves.” Noûs 48: 106–36.

Tolley, Clinton, 2013. “The Non-Conceptuality of the Content of Intuitions: A New Approach.” Kantian Review 18: 107–36.