Udo Maria Fon

Brief History of Perception


Perception is researched in physical sciences as well as human disciplines and describes an information process between inside and outside of an organism (cell, body, social groups). Perception is among all the only tool artists are working with. No matter if art uses the language of hyperrealism, abstract expressionism, the language of political, social or simply beautiful images, art is the sensorial window by which the mechanisms and interactions of nature and society becomes visible knowledge. The British painter John Constable claimed in 1816 that: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.”1 Artistic research is a considerable fusion for the investigation and lighting of reality–perception–reality or reality-perception-virtuality cycles.

In January 2010 the tallest man-made skyscraper to date the Burj Khalifa, or Burj Dubai, standing at 829.8 m (2,722 ft) had been officially opened, the first 24-hour flight by a solar-powered plane had been completed, the longest annular solar eclipse of the 3rd millennium took place, the International Space Station had been continuously inhabited by humans since November 2000, the volcanic ash from the Icelandic mount Eyjafjallajökul disrupted air traffic, and the winter Olympic games took place in Vancouver. Four devastating earthquakes with a death toll of over several hundred thousand people happened in Haiti (7.0 magnitude), Chile (8.8 magnitude), Qinghai, China (6.9 magnitude) and New Zealand (7.1 magnitude). The drilling platform Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashed into the Mediterranean, the Polish president Lech Kaczynski had been killed by an airplane crash in Smolensk, and riots in South Kyrgyzstan required a Russian-endorsed interim government. In December 2010 a series of violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots and civil wars spread throughout Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait Morocco, Oman and Sudan. This protests had been written large in the history of human kind as Arab Spring2 and was initiated amongst other things by social medias and a complete new perception of happenings.

Computer-mediated communication technologies came alive six years earlier when Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, Eduardo Severin and Mark Zuckerberg published the online social networking service Facebook, that featured a new information architecture for web browsers. This online information architecture called Web 2.0, was discussed in the same year (2004) in a conference hosted by Tim O’Reilly and MediaLive. The possibility for end-users to create user-generated content even as non-expert, opened a new chapter in the Information Age. It highlighted the shift from traditional industry to an economy based computerization, and demonstrated the expansion of individual perception to crowd sourced perception (common perception), which enabled a never before seen view of the world.


In general the possibility to identify information (objects) in an environment is mainly linked with the the function of the human eyes. This is not surprising, because the brain almost uses a quarter of its activity and approximately 60 percent of the cerebral cortex for the analysis of the visual world.3 Even though the visual perception is only a small section of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be measured (Fig. 1).

One of the earliest concepts in the history of visual perception is the possibility of seeing due to eidolons, small copies of real objects, consisting of small, indivisible particles called atomos, which fly into the eyes. The Presocratic philosopher Democritus (c. 460-371 BC) was convinced of this idea, because he saw the reflection of such objects on the surface of the cornea.4 He also was convinced, that there are two kinds of knowledge existing, one through the senses and the other through the intellect.5

Platon was convinced that the eyes beam a ray like a scanner on the objects of reality. It was Aristotle who assumed that only shiny objects like fire or the sun produce light, which is reflected by objects and which reflections reach the eyes.

It took centuries till the Arabic scholar Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham investigated the anatomical structure of the eye. Between 1011 and 1021 he wrote the famous Book of Optics which confirmed the assumptions of Aristotle, that seeing is possible because of rays of light.

But „Alhazen“ as the western historians called Ibn al-Haytham, was also engaged in neuropsychological aspects of the visual perception. He noticed that seeing happens more likely in the brain than in the eyes. And everything one sees, he supposed, is influenced from personal experiences.6

Even though no new concept for visual perception has been developed till Copernicus, Kepler or Descartes. Alhazens Book of Optics was long time the only accepted theory and a very important key for the development of the central perspective in the Renaissance.7

It took more than 500 years till Johannes Kepler found some answers in questions of the diffraction of light, which had been unsolved by Alhazen. In 1604 he published Astronomiae Pars Optica, where he analyzed the inverted and reversed projection of images by the human eye lens onto the retina.

Galileo Galilei refers to Keplers achievements on his development of a refracting telescope. The possibility to boost the human eye with the help of optical instruments is an important step in the development of perception and the change of the view on the world. When Galilei published in 1610 his observations of the Jupiter moons inSidereus Nuncius he reinforced the investigations of Nicolaus Copernicus brought to public 67 years before.

In the year 1543 Copernicus book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium had been published right after his death. He realized that the leading political system, which had been powerful connected with the catholically system, could not accept his heliocentric model of the universe. Galilei knew that Copernicus system is inexorable and the religious interpretation of universal processes was no longer arguable.

René Descartes treatise on light Traité du monde et de la lumiére, written between 1629 and 1633, disseminates a nearly complete methodological, philosophical, biological, physical and metaphysical interpretation of the „idea, that is formed in our imagination through the intermediary of our eyes“.8 It is the beginning of the modern era and the interaction of several substantial polymaths fusing the existing knowledge of their time.

Descartes as well as Galilei were friends of Christantijn Huygens, a Diplomat and advisor of the House of Orange-Nassau, and the father of the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens. Christiaan Huygens treatise on light Traité de la Lumière, published 1690, described that all points of a wave front of light may be regarded as new sources of wavelets, that expand in every direction.9

Four years before Descartes died (1650), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz(1646), and another four years earlier Isaac Newton was born in 1642 . Through the vast correspondence of Christiaan Huygens (born 1629) it is known that Huygens met Newton in London 1689, and became a friend of Leibniz in Paris some years later. The connections and rivalries of the polymaths of this times changed the interpretation and the perception of the world rigoros.

One example is the lifelong interest of Leibniz to develop a universal relevant language (Characteristica universals), which boosted the development of the binary system, the basis of any existing computer systems.10 Newtons detection of different spectral hues overturned a century old dogma of „pure“ light, which was assumed to be white. Though Johann Wolfgang von Goethe defended the Aristotelian theory of the fundamental nature of white light in his Farbenlehre (1810), Newton’s particle theory of light in his book Opticks (1704), was the beginning of a complete new understanding of light.

In the middle of the 18th century not only the physical understanding of light and the way human seeing is made possible had been changed. The philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten published 1750/58 Aesthetica, a theory of the beauty, established perception as an independent science in human disciplines. Although he connected the term aesthetics with the concept of human sensations „as the ultimate ground of judgement in questions pertaining to beauty.“11 With this book the philosophical discussion of aesthetics started and not at some remote period, 1781, Immanuel Kant reacted on Baumgarten’s publication with the statement that aesthetic could never contain „objective rules, laws or principles of natural or artistic beauty“.12 Kant stated nine years later in his Critique of Judgement, that an aesthetic judgement has to be subjective. Arthur Schopenhauer countered Kant, that he „does not start from the beautiful itself, from the direct, beautiful object of perception, but from the judgement concerning the beautiful…“.13

Parallel to the philosophical dispute a further development arose, which should changed perception and the view of the world again. In the late 18th century James Watt patented a steam engine with a continuous rotary motion.14 The beginning of the industrial revolution stimulated the investigation of moving images. Michael Faraday published in 1831 an essay on a peculiar Class of Optical Deceptions.15 He observed the optical phenomenon of two wheels moved in opposite directions with equal velocity. The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau featured 1832/33 the same effect with a device called phenakistoscope, which demonstrates the illusion of a moving image by counter rotating disks with repeating drawn images in small increments of motion on one and regularly spaced slits on the other disk. 1833/34 the Viennese professor for geometry Simon Stampfer invented the stroboscopic disk, which showed a series of images on one side separated by slits. When the disk was held and rotated in front of a mirror, the images appeared to move when watched through the slits.16

Years later the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach became famous for his study of shockwaves and in the field of supersonic fluid mechanics. But his initial studies were based in the field of experimental physics and the investigation of the interference, diffraction, polarization and refraction of light in different media under external influences. He defended a phenomenalism recognizing only sensations as real17 and all knowledge as a conceptual organization of data of sensory experience (or observation).18 Machs rigorous criteria of metaphysical concepts of absolute time and space (like Newton suggested) prepared the way for Einsteins relativity theory.

Albert Einstein extended a hypothesis from Max Planck, who suggested that the emission of radiation energy is not continuously happening but in discrete packets, called quanta.19 Einstein investigated the interaction of matter and light by explaining the emission of electrons on a metal surface irradiated by light or more-energetic photons. The photoelectric effect was based on the concept that light is composed of photons and that an atom in a metal can absorb either a whole photon or nothing.

Nine years before Einstein´s theoryappeared the physiologist Sigmund Exner published a theory 1894 which claimed that perception is a complex excitement triggered by the consciousness.20 Exner outlined the idea, that the inner representation of the world is possible by the network of neuronal regions in the brain. Exner already recognized the basic idea of the cognitive neurosciences and opened the door to the psychological aspect of perception, which had been discussed four years earlier by the philosopher and founder of the Gestalt psychology Christian von Ehrenfels in his essay Über Gestaltsqualitäten (On the Qualities of Form) 1890. Ehrenfels was convinced of the quality of a perception of the whole, compared to its parts. Alexius Meinong, who had been Ehrenfels´ dissertation adviser in Graz, specified the Gestaltvorstellung (figure imagination) as the result of a psychological act as a product of imagination (Vorstellungsprodukt). Together with Stephan Witasek and Vittorio Benussi the Graz School of Experimental Psychology represented a subjective creation of Gestalten (figures), which is added to the complex of perception as a second or higher level. In contrast the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology with Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka stated a figure (Gestalt) as a primarily object.21

From the development of perception as an inner image of the outer world of the Gestalt theory to cognitive psychology, it was obvious that perception is an important part of a mental process next to attention, language use, memory, problem solving, creativity and thinking.22 The mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener developed this transdisciplinary psychological approach of perception to a regulatory system subsuming it as cybernetics in 1948.23 While the term still remains an understanding of a technological control of any system, Heinz von Foerster developed Wieners concept to the second-order cybernetics, referring to biological processes. Founding the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1958, he investigated self organizing systems, observing systems, cognitive processes in perception and developed with additional parts of physiology, information theory, perception theory, technology and epistemology a further branch of constructivism.24, 25 Foersters comprehension of constructivism entangles an observer indivisible with the observed within a system.26

Parallel to Norbert Wiener the mathematician and electrical engineer Claude Shannon published in 1948 A Mathematical Theory of Communication.27 This paper provided the concepts, insights, and mathematical formulations that now form the basis of modern communication technology and is widely received as the beginning of information theory and the enablement of the information age.28

In the world of arts the image had been a central focus in depicting the world for a long time. The perception of images equaled symbolic markers indicating places and objects of hunting or religious acts. In the development of the central perspective in the renaissance a window had been opened, which imitated reality so apparent to the world of matter, that the imaginary interpretations of this constructed worlds did not attract further attention.

In the scientific study of sight and the behavior of light, images became more and more a representative of developed knowledge. The industrial revolution brought forward the studies of moving images and the reflection of perception in physiological and psychological disciplines. The act of seeing became an autonomous expression of art. The development of technical devices to sharpen the perception changed the view of the world. Peter Weibel called this machine perception (apparative Wahrnehmung).29 Alfons Schilling, Walter Pichler, Oswald Wiener, Max Peintner and Peter Weibel developed in the 60s series of artworks elaborating this questions of perception by machine influence and if „reality had been always a virtual reality“.30


1) Ernst. H. Gombrich, 1960, Art and Illusion, p.33

2) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/01/arab-spring-five-years-on/. Retrieved Jan. 2017

3) Michael Simm (2011), https://www.dasgehirn.info/wahrnehmen/sehen/sehen-2013-k-ein-selbstverstaendliches-wunder. Retrieved April 2016

4) Tanja Krämer, 2011, Von Sehstrahlen und schwebenden Bildern, https://www.dasgehirn.info/wahrnehmen/sehen/von-sehstrahlen-und-schwebenden-bildern. Retrieved April 2016

5) Bakalis, Nikolaos (2005). Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics: Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing

6) Tanja Krämer (2011), ibid.

7) The central perspective was a quantum leap in the history of arts. It creates a point of view, through whichthe applied sciences of Alhazen became entangled with the artificial representation of reality. It was the manifestation of a world view from one single point. A view of the world which was avoided by the arabic scholars who have been convinced that the representation of the world from one point of view is impossible. So an ornamental decentralized view on the world and the universe had been favoured. cf. Hans Belting (2008), Florenz und Bagdad, p.11

8) René Descartes, 1629-1633, The World or Treatise on Light, http://www.princeton.edu/~hos/mike/texts/descartes/world/worldfr.htm. Retrieved Dec. 2016

9) “Huygens’ principle”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2017. https://www.britannica.com/science/Huygens-principle. Retrieved Jan. 2017

10) Martin Davis, 2001, Engines of Logic: Mathematicians and the Origin of the Computer

11) cf. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Baumgarten,_Alexander_Gottlieb

12) Immanuel Kant, 1781, Critik der reinen Vernunft. Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, Riga. https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Critik_der_reinen_Vernunft_(1781)/Erster_Theil._Transscendentale_Ästhetik

13) Arthur Schopenhauer, 1818/19, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Vol. I, Appendix, p. 531

14) Richard L. Hills, 1989, Power from Steam: A history of the stationary steam engine

15) Michael Faraday, 1831, On a peculiar Class of Optical Deceptions, The Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, p. 205

16) Stephen Prince, 2010, Through the Looking Glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects, http://filmoterapia.pl/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Through-the-Looking-Glass-Philosophical-Toys-and-Digital-Visual-Effects.pdf. Retrieved Nov. 2016

17) Ernst Mach, 1886, Beträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen, Verlag Gustav Fischer, Jena, cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Mach#Physiology. Retrieved Nov. 2016

18) cf. Ernst Mach. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 06 Jan. 2017 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ernst-Mach. Retrieved Nov. 2016

19) Despite Christiaan Huygens wave theory of light in 1690 many scientist have been convinced till the late 18th century, that light consisted of particles, called corpuscles. By the end of the 19th century, physicists almost universally accepted the wave theory of light. However, though the ideas of classical physics explain interference and diffraction phenomena relating to the propagation of light, they do not account for the absorption and emission of light. cf.: https://www.britannica.com/science/quantum-mechanics-physics. Retrieved Jan. 2017

20) Sigmund Exner, 1894, Entwurf zu einer physiologischen Erklärung der psychischen Erscheinungen, Deutike Verlag, p. 224

21) Peter Weibel, 2000, Wahrnehmung im technologischem Zeitalter, p. 13, http://www.peter-weibel.at/images/stories/pdf/2000/0678_WAHRNEHMUNG_IM.pdf

22) American Psychological Association (2002). Glossary of psychological terms, http://www.apa.org/research/action/glossary.aspx Retrieved Jan. 2017

23) Norbert Wiener, 1948,Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

24) Peter Weibel, 2000, ibid., p. 19

25) The Biological Computer Laboratory also made essential investigation in the fields of system theory, bionics, parallel computing, neurophysiology, biologic, artificial intelligence, symbolic computing. cf. Albert Müller, 2000, A Brief History of the BCL, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften 11 (1): 9-30

26) Constructivism is also known as the artistic and architectural concept of Vladimir Tatlin originated in 1913 with a great effect on Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, which also influenced graphic design, industrial design, theater, film, dance, fashion and music.

27) Claude E. Shannon, 1948, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379-423, 623-656

28) Robert G. Gallager, 2001, Claude E. Shannon: A Retrospective on His Life, Work, and Impact, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8987/0348fa43e057eff6a8daa7101fbdb5a84b33.pdf Retrieved Jan. 2017

29) Peter Weibel, 2000, ibid., p. 15

30) Peter Weibel, 2000, ibid., p. 16