10 (2007), Nr.4/December



Niklas Luhmann’s art theory referring to Fritz Heider’s thing theory. Contribution to an aesthetics of the media. Translation of introduction and part I (on Heider) of „Luhmanns kunsttheoretische Differenzierung von Fritz Heiders Dingtheorie. Ein Beitrag zur Medienästhetik“, paper delivered for „Aisthesis und Medium. (In-)Differenzen der Beobachtung von Kunstkommunikation?“, interdisciplinary conference of Fernhochschule Schweiz and Universität zu Köln at the Museum for Applied Arts in Cologne, November 15-17, 2007. To be published in print in: Christian Filk/Holger Simon (eds.), Aisthesis und Medium 2008. The work for this paper has been supported by Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung/Österreich. 20195 Zeichen.



Suppose, Niklas Luhmann is in heaven and would like to observe himself. He could do it only from his effects. He would log in the internet of the earth by means of the I-phone just thrown on the market. As he is interested in publications on his work, he would not only google, he would also search in library catalogues. And as he follows traces of his discoveries of scientific writings, he would enter the title „Ding und Medium“ and be impressed by the fact that this article from a journal has been edited recently in book form, even by neither a psychologist, nor a historian of art, but a sociologist - his probably most known student Dirk Baecker.(1) Perhaps he would also have a look in one of today’s online catalogues of library networks, that is in Germany’s Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog, maybe even the Austrian analogue Meteor. Of the latter he would well be surprised that five of six library locations of „Ding und Medium“ are devoted to art although the title of the book has nothing to do with art and the content next to nothing.


I. „Wenn die Lokomotive pfeift, kann ich erwarten, dass der Zug bald abfährt.“(2)


In „Ding und Medium“ (in medias res?), the first publication of Austro-American philosopher and psychologist Fritz Heider (1896-1988), is at stake, although not addressed by notion, an ontology, more precisely an ontology of perception and the world in the widest sense. This ontology of perception is designed to lay foundations for the predominantly experimental research of psychology as to be encountered at the time and to keep on touch with the philosophical concerns of an overa all view of human reality.(3)


In the first half of the treatise (4) Heider attempts to single out the role of the medium for the perception of things, cognition included. Something surfaces for us most of the times, in the course of seeing, hearing and smelling, the so called distal senses, as thing units and processes. The core formation of this „something“ consists of chains of coupled causes and effects. They result in things intrinsically conditioned or conditioned by themselves, things that are situated as unitary centers in the world. Yet „something“ can also be an ensemble of independent parts that are as non-intrinsically conditioned ones indifferent to the form of loose processes to a great deal. In this way they become suitable for design from the outside.


Now, the medium - Heider’s first concept of it - amounts to be one of two substrates of what happens, the thing being the other one.(5) Caused physically, waves or particles diffuse in chains of causes and effects entering over distances into sensory processes. The substrate of the media ends at the thing not caused (considered as causing) on the one side and at the brain on the other whose phenomenal states cannot be deducted causally in part.


Inasmuch the medium may become an object of observation in this way, the notion of forum, in „Zur Subjektivität ...“, is offered for a second concept of medium. Even though the notion of forum disappeares in „Ding und Medium“, nothing prevents us from dealing with Heider’s discussion of his Dissertation „Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten“ in which he takes up the very notion from his Ph.D. mentor Meinong.(6) In the forum the inner physiological and mental events as well as the outer physical elements come together to influence the qualities of the perceptual content. Besides, the disturbing of the attribution of the experienced phenomena to the thing as immediately perceived in the context of appearances, is structured aesthetically by means of the forum.


This is exemplified by Heider with reference to an important aesthetic topic of his time. Before and after 1900 and in the course of the detachment of Kunstwissenschaft from philosophical aesthetics it was intensely discussed especially by art historians how to transform the question concerning the essence of art into the question concerning the historical origins of art. This was the case with Max Verworn whose lecture „Die Anfänge der Kunst“ is discussed by Heider.(7) Verworn’s task was to show that already paleolitic hunters achieved, what only human beings of our times, as often believed, are able to acquire in diligently practicing, namely the rendering of objects without assembling accompanied by reflection. Back then already they, according to Verworn, had been capable of depicting a memory image true to the immediate sense impressions. However, as Heider puts it in the thesis, the co-appropriation of all disturbances through the forum had already been mastered in primitive art. In perfect imitation no additional effort for higher definition had been necessary in the first place.


Be that as it may, Heider drives at a specification of the medium besides its being indifferent to event and perception in causal processes on the one hand or being the medium as forum on the other. In the second half of „Ding und Medium“, further interpretation is given to the physically caused distal perceptions of seeing, hearing, smelling - third concept of medium - with reference to explicitly so called mediations, „Vermittlungen“.(8) In order to get hold of all the media phenomena of reality, Heider gives an account of the world with layers.(9) To the quasi-immediate mediation of perception adds the layer of mediation of cognition. This kind of mediation runs through kinds of apparatus, as Heider says, that record certain traces like measuring data or traces of sounds on paper or wax and light on photography or film. Decidedly Heider steps on to complete the mediations of perception and cognition with the mediations of personality by means of expressions. In this way not only the characterization of the personality reveals to be structured medially, as with expression comes the motoric mediation of actions.(10) If that is the case, it is proven that tools or instruments in action as always accompanied by perception especially are media. Tools and instruments are media of expressions used for orientation to things of the outer world, for instance by car drivers, painters or writers. A painter expresses him- or herself. He or she work on the "intention of his picture even if it is to be only an abstract painting."(11) Heider is interested in the expression of action just because the medium is a thing of its own, besides its instrumental suitability. Even though he treats art almost as a minor thing among others, it becomes evident that the performative instruments for performing music, dance, acting as well as the productive tools brush, camera and typewriter enable us to do/become something, namely that any of these things „frees the organism from gross physical relationships“(12) in the midst of sensiblity and action. As support, the medium itself is a thing, as Heider wrote already 1920. Back then he recognized the sometimes thing-like constitution of the media. A mirror appears to be a thing and a medium at once or, as one could say, as thing-extensional medium, event though Heider explains the mirror as a different thing and separate from its perception.(13) The same applies to the movie screen. Here Heider exclaims laconically: „Was wird nicht alles der weißen Wand des Kinos aufgezwungen!“(14)


When deducing the kinds of mediations in „Ding und Medium“ Heider almost abruptly returns to perception, to „Die Sinnesqualitäten“(15), and in the context here to perceptual apparatus, to resonance, gestalt theory and characteristic effects. How come? Because the sensible qualities contribute to the psychical success of perception beyond causal function und achievement. Colours and sounds for instance, even mediation as a whole - although psychically not present most of the times - is crucial, as far as we can focus mediation „as color, sound - in general, as sensory quality“(16), focus „perception on the mediator itself“(17). In doing so mediation works kind of immediately, and this is so because of the subjective, sensible quality of sensations.(18) According to Heider this has got to do with the unification of sensations in a whole. Parts are seen, together with the whole. Or, with colour for instance, its attribution to singular points as in pointillist or divisionist painting - not named by Heider - is excluded by addititive unification. Because subjectivity depends on sensible qualities, waves of light and sound appear as artificial and wholist unities of colours and sounds. For this reason light can be experienced as for instance serene as well as the environment may profit from "mediation ... <having> its own phenomenal representation"(19): „the colors, and also the form in so far as it is not yet interpreted as figure and ground“ and not yet quality will then be of "true ambiguity"(20). Precisely for this reason many ornaments may be representational in terms of real objects. There is no stronger epistemological consequence for Heider than, under particular circumstances, the possibility of the transferral of sensible qualities from the phenomenon to a thing just because of the forum or medium. This is the thesis disserted by Heider albeit without referring to John Locke’s theory of secundary qualities.(21)


It may have become clear that an epistemologically restricted treatment of the attribution of phenomenon and thing does not preclude the win of its aesthetic signification. With respect to the nature of the medium Heider shows the medium’s characteristics as a thing on the one hand, and our being-related to a point of view on the other. He reveals the physical ground in front of which is experienced the figure of the thing as a medially undisturbed gestalt. Yet although the medium is not noticed at first, aesthetically, the power of diverse appropriation prevails in secret. A mastered mediating expression by means of an action allows for moving the sensible qualities to the center - the business of art proper - , as well as getting finally to the qualities of the medium itself. In doing so Fritz Heider steps on the floor of an aesthetics of the media already in the golden 1920ies.


(1) Fritz Heider: Ding und Medium, ed. Dirk Baecker, Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos 2005. In the following I quote the first publication Fritz Heider: Ding und Medium, in: Symposion. Philosophische Zeitschrift für Forschung und Aussprache 1 (1926/27), no. 2, p. 109-157 whose page numbers are given on the left and right page margins of the 2005 edition. This volume of the journal also contains Moritz Schlick’s essay „Vom Sinn des Lebens“ (also bound as Separatum) and in the next year the journal’s publisher Wilhelm Benary’s Weltkreis-Verlag in Berlin-Schlachtensee will have printed Rudolf Carnap’s two books „Der logische Aufbau der Welt“ and „Scheinprobleme der Philosophie“ heraus. - As Heider tells, he wrote the text in 1922/23 and discussed it with gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin. Thereupon Lewin went with Heider to a conference of the Philosophical Society Erlangen in spring 1923, whose members would be interested in „Ding und Medium“ as Lewin believed. The disappointing meeting for Heider - Carnap gave a talk, Reichenbach was present - took place in the Aristoteles-Saal of the Society, the collapse of the house of which soon after was considered by Heider as symbolic - see Fritz Heider: Das Leben eines Psychologen. Eine Autobiographie, trsl. Agnes v. Cranach, Bern/Stuttgart/Toronto: Hans Huber 1984, p. 48-51.


(2) Fritz Heider: Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten, phil. Diss. d. Univ. Graz, 1920 (87 pages typoscript), p. 38


(3) Heider came in contact with experimental research directly as an assistent electrician working for the gestalt psychologists at Berlin University in the early 1920es - see Fritz Heider: Das Leben eines Psychologen, op. cit., p. 44-48. The gestaltists themselves undertook attempts in philosophical foundations in later years. - Heider as well as other students were used by Vittorio Benussi for his trials. This lasted as long as frustrated Heider called on Benussi to teach psychology. Yet he got from Benussi not more than the keys to the laboratory. So Heider was already an experimenter during his time as a philosophy student. The theoretical interest in his student years may have been the reason to not write an experimental-psychological but a philosophical dissertation in the proper sense with Meinong (op. cit., p. 27). - Compare the seminal position of Benussi who had begun the research carried later to success by the Berliners as outlined by Fritz Heider: Gestalt Theory: Early History and Reminiscences. in: Mary Henle/Julian Jaynes/John J. Sullivan (ed.), Historical Conceptions of Psychology, New York-NY: Springer 1973, p. 63-73, in particular p. 66-70). Encouraged by Lewin, Heider decided only at the end of summer 1926 to choose an academic career as psychologist. „Ding und Medium“ appeared at the end of 1926, probably after increasing publicity by word of mouth for years, and made a stir immediately (op. cit., p. 72f.). Heider was invited as assistent professor straight away by Karl Bühler in Vienna and William Stern in Hamburg and accepted Stern’s offer (op. cit., p. 75f.). Bühler testified to his appreciation of Heider in his crucial 1927 book „Die Krise der Psychologie“ where Heider’s article is discussed.


(4) Fritz Heider: Ding und Medium, op. cit., not numbered sections 1 through 19.


(5) according to the seventh of the 35 not numbered sections titled „The Process and its Substratum“ („Das Geschehen und sein Substrat“) in Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, in: On Perception and Event Structure, and the Psychological Environment. Selected Papers, = Psychological Issues 1 (1959), monograph 3, p. 1-34, p. 3f. (Ding und Medium, p. 115f., comp. p. 118). In itself and for us the thing is not medium and the medium is not thing, according to G. W. F. Hegel: The Phenomenology of Mind, trsl. and ed. by J. B. Baillie, third edition, London-E/New York-NY: George Allen & Unwin Ltd/The Macmillan Company 1949, p. 162-178. However for art and media art in particular, one might add, both thing and medium are connected with each other in a special way.


(6) Fritz Heiders thesis „Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten“, op. cit., is an occupation with Alexius Meinong from the beginning to the end: Alexius Meinong: Über die Erfahrungsgrundlagen unseres Wissens, in: Gesamtausgabe, Bd.V, hg. v. Rudolf Haller, Rudolf Kindinger u. Roderick M. Chisholm, Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt 1973, p. 369-481. This monography of 1906 deals from the beginning to the end with perception. Heider discusses particularly the forth and last section „The outer perception“ („Die äußere Wahrnehmung“, in the following my translation). In the last § Meinong delivers a summary of the treatise und does so with the significant title „The outer world once again“ („§ 26. Noch einmal die Außenwelt“, p. 478-481). Consequentially at stake is perception in relation to its function of a foundation of what is the outer world for us. This world may not be dissolved, as Meinong puts it, to „mere perceptions“ (§ 17, p. 447-457, „bloße Wahrnehmungen“). And therefore perceptions for the recognition of the outer world and the assumption of its existence need not be replaced. However the presumptive evidence („Vermutungsevidenz“, § 18, p. 457-459) of the existence of phenomenal properties is insufficiently marked compared to that of the outer world. Here Meinong argues vis-a-vis Kant’s logical-subjective deduction of the restriction of the epistemic value of appearances in an ontological-objective way. With the relations of comparison („Vergleichungsrelationen“) the phenomenal properties reveal to be comparable and transferable to the noumenal properties of things („§ 19. Ding und Erscheinung“, p. 459-462). We need to concede, says Meinong in the section „The prerogative of difference and the forum of perception“ („§ 22. Die Prärogative der Verschiedenheit und das Wahrnehmungsforum“, p. 468-470), a prerogative of difference before identity and that of the relations of phenomenon and noumenon, however only in the case of an identical forum of perception called by Meinong at one point „environment“ („Umgebung“, p. 470) when going on to speak of Locke’s trial concerning the sensation of temperature with diving the hands from hot to cold and after that to lukewarm water or of „occasional media, the word used in the widest sense“ („allfällige Medien, das Wort im weitesten Sinne verstanden“, p. 469). Also, it is not at stake the inner of subjects or the different outer sensory organs, but the perception of things, for instance as far as they belong to the „the distance from and the location toward the sensory organ“ („Distanz vom und Lage zum Sinnesorgan“, loc. cit.). The forum does not show with the act of perception, but emerges only from from a causal analysis of it (p. 470). In any case, the semblance given with perception remains after the correction by the insight in the forum. Better fora enhance the perception of differences, whereas „that forum needs to be signified as the worse that provides less differenciated data“ („dasjenige Forum als das schlechtere zu kennzeichnen <ist>, vor dem minder differenzierte Daten zu gewinnen sind“, p. 470).


(7) Fritz Heider: Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten, op. cit., p. 79f. Compare Max Verworn: Die Anfänge der Kunst. Ein Vortrag, Jena: Gustav Fischer 1909, p. 50. The discussion is still echoed in front of the modern background of primitivism and expressionism in particular of Vincent van Gogh in Martin Heidegger: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, = UB 8446/47, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. 1960 (<1936> 1950; comp. Peter Mahr: OK o.k.? Philosophische Überlegungen zum Expressionismus Oskar Kokoschkas und seiner Rezeption, in: Hochschule für angewandte Kunst in Wien/Archiv und Sammlung/Oskar-Kokoschka-Zentrum (ed.), Oskar Kokoschka - Aktuelle Perspektiven, Wien: o. V. 1998, p. 56-58).


(8) Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 15-34, not numbered sections 17-32 (Ding und Medium, a.a.O., S. 133-157, not numbered sections 20 through 35). Heider speaks, already on the occasion of writing about mediation (Vermittlung) compared to things (S. 122f.), explicitly of „media as mediation“ („Medien als Vermittlung“, p. 122), of seeing- and hearing-through, of sensible transparancy, of the emptiness of the space of action.


(9) Not unlike the layer models of reality in Heider’s time as for instance Rudolf Carnap’s Konstitutionstheorie, Helmuth Plessner’s anthropology, Nicolai Hartmann’s ontology and Roman Ingarden’s phenomenology.


(10) Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 32: „As we see the thing through the medium, so we act through tools and are concerned only with the core event of the action". (Fritz Heider: Ding und Medium, a.a.O., S. 155: So wie wir „durch das Medium das Ding sehen, so handeln wir durch die Werkzeuge hindurch und sind mit dem Bewußtsein nur bei dem Kern des Geschehens der Handlung“).


(11) Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 33. „Ding und Medium“ (op. cit., p. 155) still has: „Intention seines Bildes, bestehe sie auch nur in einer Farbkomposition.“ This is the place to remind of Heider’s comparison of Picasso’s synthetic cubism (Three Musicians, 1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Max Wertheimer’s „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt“ from 1923 whose unifying/uniforming (einheitsbildende) factors can be analysed with the visual opposites in Picasso’s painting according to Fritz Heider: Gestalt Theory: Early History and Reminiscences, op. cit. p. 71. - There is no way of speaking of a mere translation of the 1926 essay in 1959. Comparisons in reading reveal soon two versions. The specificities of the 1926 and 1959 versions remain to be desribed in terms of translation (terminology!), additions, deletions.


(12) Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 33. (Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 155: „Freiwerden von den grob physikalischen Zusammenhängen“)


(13) Fritz Heider: Zur Subjektivität ..., op. cit., § 9, p. 28-30.


(14) Fritz Heider: Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 134. (The corresponding English passage, Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 17 runs like this: “For example, consider what appears upon the motion picture screen simply as the result as selective illumination.”)


(15) op. cit., p. 149-152 (section „Sensible qualities“)


(16) op. cit., p. 28:  („als Farbe, Ton, überhaupt als Sinnesqualität“, Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 150)


(17) loc. cit.: „focus perception“ (my emphasis. Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 149 „in den Mittelpunkt des Auffassens stellen“.)


(18) Addressed are the secondary qualities. The locus classicus here is John Locke: An Essay Concerningn Human Understanding, Amherst-NY: Prometheus Books, II/vii/23, p. 89f.: „The qualities ... are of three sorts: ... Secondly. The power that is in any body by reason of its insensible primary qualities, to operate after a peculiar manner on any of our senses, and thereby produce in us the different ideas of several colours, sounds, smells, tastes, &c. These are usually calles sensible qualities.“


(19) Fritz Heider: Thing and Medium, op. cit., p. 31 (Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 153: „Vermittlung <kann> Eigenwert <haben>“)


(20) The whole sentence in German Ding und Medium, op. cit., p. 153 runs as follows: „Nun kann aber die Vermittlung Eigenwert haben, die Farben und die noch nicht als Grund oder Figur gedeutete Form, und dadurch erst kommt es zustande, daß wir auch von einem psychisch Gleichbleibenden reden können, einer wahrhaften Merhdeutigkeit“. I give my own translation of the last two words because there is no English translation or equivalent in „Thing and Medium“.


(21) P. 63 of Fritz Heider: Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten, a.a.O. And a bit earlier, p. 61: „We found above that the proofs for the subjectivity of sensible qualities ... that hold against the transferability are mainly based on the fact of the forum. It is the forum that disturbs the unambiguous attribution between phenomenon and noumenon; unambiguous attribution would be the condition for the identity of both.“ (my translation of: „Wir sahen oben, dass sich die Beweise für die Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten ..., die sich gegen die Uebertragbarkeit wenden, hauptsächlich auf das Vorhandensein des Forums stützen. Das Forum ist es ja, das die eindeutige Zuordnung zwischen Phaenomenon und Noumenon stört; eindeutige Zuordnung wäre aber die Bedingung der Gleichheit beider.“) This could be a point of departure for discussing the notion of attribution that gave an area of psychology its name. See the short remarks of Dirk Baecker: Vorwort, in: Fritz Heider, Ding und Medium, hg. v. Dirk Baecker, Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos 2005, p. 7-20, p. 9f. Heider affirms the existence of the noumenon in one of the notes of his notebooks after 1978: „The task of the eye is not to inform us about the intensity or quality of the light that comes from the things, but it is to inform us about the things themselves.“ (Fritz Heider: The Notebooks. Vol. 2: Perception, hg. v. Marijana Benesh-Weiner, München/Weinheim: Psychologie Verlags Union 1988, p. 157). Heider could have only arrived at aesthetics in full with integrating Locke’s theory of secondary qualities and the ensuing discussions in the lines from Leibniz to Herder and from Hume to Meinong.


Peter Mahr © 2007

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