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Science in Context 14(3), 471492 (2001). Copyright Cambridge University Press DOI: 10.

1017/0269889701000175 Printed in the United Kingdom

Helmholtz and the Psychophysiology of Time

Claude Debru
University Paris VII Denis Diderot

After having measured the velocity of the nervous impulse in the 1850s, Helmholtz began doing research on the temporal dimensions of visual perception. Experiments dealing with the velocity of propagation in nerves (as well as with aspects of perception) were carried out occasionally for some fteen years until their nal publication in 1871. Although the temporal dimension of perception seems to have interested Helmholtz less than problems of geometry and space, his experiments on the time of perception were technically rather subtle and seminal, especially compared with experiments performed by his contemporaries, such as Sigmund Exner, William James, Rudolf Hermann Lotze, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Volkmann, and Wilhelm Wundt. Helmholtzs conception of the temporal aspects of perception reects the continuity that holds between psychophysiological research and the Kantian philosophical background.

1. Introduction William James quotes Helmholtz often in The Principles of Psychology, generally with praise, but occasionally with severe judgments. Because these judgments are based on deep insight regarding the German psychophysiological literature, they can be useful as a starting point for discussing Helmholtzs physiological work on the mechanisms of sensation, its philosophical background, and its implications. In the course of this discussion, we will take into account the transformation of Helmholtzs conceptions by comparing the rst and second editions of the Handbuch der physiologischen Optik. Commenting on Helmholtzs Handbuch, James writes:
Can I nd fault with a book which on the whole I imagine to be one of the four or ve great monuments of human genius in the scientic line? If truth impels I must fain try, and take the risks. It seems to me that Helmholtzs genius moves most securely when it keeps close to particular facts. At any rate, it shows least strong in purely speculative passages, which in the Optics, in spite of many beauties, seem to me fundamentally vacillating and obscure. (James [1890] 1983, 908)

One of the occasions for criticism is given by the following passage from the Handbuch:

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The only respect, in which a real agreement of our perceptions with reality can take place is the time sequence of the events with their different properties. Simultaneity, succession, the regular return of simultaneity or succession can take place as well in sensations as in the events. The external events as well as their perceptions unfold in time; accordingly, the time relations of the latter can be the faithful picture of the former. (Helmholtz 1867, 445)1

In William James view, this philosophy is unfortunately too crude (James [1890] 1983, 591). The Americans judgment is perhaps too severe, since Helmholtz recognizes in that same passage that the time-succession of sensations is not an entirely faithful picture of external events, due to differences in propagation times of the nerves to the brain. Perhaps Helmholtz considered James criticisms favorably, for that passage was omitted from the second edition of the Handbuch (1896). However, in an address delivered in 1892, he repeated his earlier comments: It is only in respect to the temporal course that sensations can be images of the course of the events (corrections being reserved) (Helmholtz 1896, 358). The present article will analyze Helmholtzs experiments on time perception in the context of similar attempts by other physiologists, and will discuss the philosophical dimensions of the research and comments he devoted to time perception (see also Debru 1999), with emphasis on the evolution of his philosophy regarding the relationship between time and causality, on one hand, and his relation to Kantianism, on the other hand.

2. The Velocity of Propagation in Nerves and Subsequent Experiments Helmholtzs experiments and ideas on the physiological and psychological aspects of time were initiated by his measurements of the propagation velocity of the nervous impulse (1850), which he carried out on the sciatic nerve and the gastrocnemius muscle of the frog. According to the physiologist Charles Marx, these measurements yielded the rst new datum in nerve physiology since Antiquity (Marx 1969, 16). Using available electrical techniques, including Pouillets galvanometer, Helmholtz was able to measure the time interval between the stimulation of the frogs sciatic plexus and the response of the gastrocnemius muscle. For a distance of about 50 to 60 millimeters, the intervals ranged from 0.0014 to 0.0020 seconds (Helmholtz 1850a, 7173; 1850b, 204206). Frederic Holmes and Kathryn Olesko commented on the methodological issues involved in this research and concluded that Helmholtz

1 On the whole topic of our study, remarks have been already made by Schiemann 1997, 234, 266, 272, 280, 314, 330. Schiemanns remarks were made from a more epistemological point of view. The present paper deals rst with Helmholtzs physiological researches. On Helmholtzs epistemology, see also Heidelberger 1998, 924.

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modied the condition of experimental physiology due to his concern for the accuracy of measurements (Holmes and Olesko 1993, 52). The theme of measurement errors has become particularly prominent since 1823, when the Knigsberg astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel stressed the individual differences in judging the time at which a star crosses a net in the telescope, the phenomenon called personal equation.2 The problem of accuracy in time interval measurement has several aspects, which were well dened by Helmholtz: technical aspects (measurement instruments), physiological aspects (the material, nerves, and muscles used in the physiological experiments), psychological aspects (personal equation), and epistemological aspects (calculation of errors).3 Generally speaking, Helmholtzs experiments on the propagation velocity in nerves had two far-reaching consequences: on the one hand, they showed that the notion of simultaneity between bodily actions and mental representations was illusory; on the other, they opened the eld for further investigation of the time lag between stimulation and conscious awareness of stimulation. After having examined Helmholtzs notebooks, Holmes and Olesko (1993, 52) noted indeed that he had started at that time to extend the scope of his experiments to humans. Thus, the research initiated in 1848 presages the time measurements that were performed twenty years later on the time lag between visual stimulation and visual consciousness. This research was in part carried out in collaboration with the Russian physiologist (and assistant) N. Baxt in 1867 at Heidelberg (cf. Koenigsberger 1903, vol. 2, 9395) and the results appeared in two articles published in 1867 and 1870. In the rst article, reference was made to earlier attempts. Helmholtz noted that the experiments on muscles and nerves yielded widely divergent results; this also held for the contribution of Friedrich Kohlrausch (1866). Technical improvements were introduced in order to achieve greater precision. In the new series of experiments of 1867, Helmholtz borrowed from Etienne-Jules Marey the use of the thumb muscles (instead of muscles of the limbs), thereby eliminating the reaction of too many muscles when the stimulation was performed on a higher level of the nervous trunk (cf. Helmholtz 1883, 933934). In the second series of experiments (Summer 1868/Winter 1869) the accuracy of the time measurements was further improved by the use of a newly constructed Pendelmyograph, a device by which the oscillations of a pendulum

Christoph Hoffmann, in a personal communication, pointed out that this expression is not found in Bessels original work. 3 Helmholtz devoted a full lecture at Knigsberg to several of these aspects (Helmholtz 1850c). He started from the psychological limits partly due to the slowness of the awareness process itself (the very subject of his later researches on time psychology). He described various technological devices to improve the accuracy of the measurements of very small time intervals, a problem of great relevance in contemporary physics, electricity, and optics. He discussed their use in physiological experiments, and presented preliminary results on the human. He concluded with the idea that the workings of the nervous system produce a delay in perception and consciousness.

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induce stimulations at xed time intervals yielding results in the order of less than a millisecond (cf. Helmholtz 1883, 940).4 In a next step, Helmholtz extended the scope of time measurements to the emergence of conscious visual sensations. This implied a signicant move from pure physiology to the psychological part of sense physiology, a eld dened in the rst edition of the Handbuch as separate from pure psychology (cf. Helmholtz 1867, 427). Once again, a key issue of psychophyics as fostered by Fechners Elemente der Psychophysik of 1860 became the subject matter of a lively debate. In the Handbuch, Helmholtz expressed doubts about the overall validity of the Weber-Fechner-law concerning the sensation of light intensity. He stressed its merely approximate character and offered a modied mathematical formula to cover the whole range of stimulus intensities (ibid., 312313).

3. Time Sense and Psychophysics Let us briey take a look at research that was carried out more or less in parallel with that of Helmholtz on the temporal dimension of perception. Ernst Mach was among the physicists and physiologists who were discussing most fervently the new notions of Fechner. Indeed, he lectured on psychophysics at the University of Vienna (cf. Mach 1863) and compared several hypotheses of thinkers belonging to different schools of thought with one another, for example, those of the statistician and astronomer Qutelet; those expressed by Johann Friedrich Herbart in his writings on mathematical psychology; Fechners psychophysics; the ideas of Helmholtz and Wundt; and Ernst Heinrich Webers approach (cf. Mach 1863, 242). In addition, he discussed the conceptions of Wilhelm Volkmann, Johannes Czermak, and Rudolf Hermann Lotze. Mach commented particularly on the already published parts of Helmholtzs Physiological Optics as well as the theories of colors and tones of Wundts Beitrge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmungen of 1862. In this important contribution, Wundt had referred to mental processes that take place between sensation and perception as unconscious inferences. This notion had previously been proposed by Helmholtz and would later be elaborated in the concluding part of the Handbuch. Mach also mentioned Czermaks paper on time sense, but added that he had already begun experiments on this problem in the autumn of 1860 (cf. Mach 1863, 260). The general conclusion of Machs text is worth quoting: Physics, physiology and psychology stay in an indestructible relationship, so that for each of these sciences salvation can only be found in cooperation with the other ones, and that each of them can be considered as an auxiliary science for the other ones (ibid., 365).

4 This means that Helmholtz was indirectly reaching the order of time dimensions of the neurophysiological processes as they are described today. Similar research was later pursued by Sigmund Exner, who explicitly referred to the Hemholtz-Baxt experiments (Exner 1873).

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Czermak is apparently the rst experimentalist who named, and investigated time sense (Zeitsinn) (cf. Czermak 1857, 231). This term was coined in analogy with the term space sense (Raumsinn) as dened by Weber in 1852 in the famous study on the spatial sensitivity of the skin. Now, Czermak proposed a program for time sense research (and quite remarkably also for the sense of velocity) in the same terms as Weber, advocating the method of the just noticeable difference (JND), and raised the question whether the same time interval was estimated identically by different senses. As previously mentioned, Mach began to study time perception in 1860 from the viewpoint of the Weber-Fechner law, and published the rst results in 1863. His Researches on the time sense of the ear (cf. Mach 1865a) appeared two years later and was followed by Remarks on the space sense of the ear (cf. Mach 1865b).5 In the same year, Machs lectures on acoustics and music were published, which contained a long summary of Helmholtzs conceptions (cf. Mach, 1865d), and in 1866, a popular account of Helmholtzs treatise for musicians came out (cf. Mach 1866). In his 1865 work on the Zeitsinn of the ear, Mach noted: When I started, some years ago, to devote myself to physiological-psychological studies in a more intensive way, I was struck by the lack of work on the theory of the time sense (Mach 1865a, 133). By improving the technical devices used in this research, he could show that the ears ability to correctly estimate time intervals was far better than that of any other sense. He also estimated the minimal duration sensed by the ear (Mach 1865a, 145). Thus, he could conclusively demonstrate that Webers law was only approximately valid and that time sensitivity decreased for small as well as for large intervals (Webers law holds only for intermediate intervals in the range of 0.4 to 0.5 seconds [cf. Mach 1865a, 144]). These results were taken into account by Fechner in his 1877 book In Sachen der Psychophysik. In a chapter devoted to the validity of Webers law in cases of extensive magnitudes like space and time, he discussed Machs and Vierordts results on time sensation and sought to specify the psychophysical laws for lower and higher time intervals on the one hand, and for intermediate intervals, on the other hand (cf. Fechner 1877, 174177). Machs philosophical comments are also worth mentioning. Going back to Kants theory of time as form of the intuition, the young Viennese professor noted that one would have to abandon either provisionally or generally the idea of a theory of time sense [cf. in the Kantian sense]. The rst serious and solid attempt to construe a theory of time sense is found in Herbart (Mach 1865a, 145). But Mach also criticized Herbarts psychology of time, which was based on the assumption that time series could be reproduced at will. He pointed out that two melodies of the same

No mention of this problem is to be found in Helmholtzs treatise On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, published in 1863. Indeed, the interpretation of the pitch of a musical tone as produced by the tones vibrational period was not really relevant to the time sense problem (cf. Helmholtz [1863] 1954, 11).

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rhythm cannot always be compared, and that there must exist an independent sense of rhythm a sense different from the sensation of tone (cf. Mach 1865a, 147). Linking the problem back to physics, Mach emphasized that this science had to represent every phenomenon as a function of time. But time was not an independent variable in all instances, since the movement of the pendulum, which could be taken as a measure of time, was represented by the concept of force, which includes the notion of time. If we succeed in representing every phenomenon as a function of the pendulum movement, this would mean only that all phenomena depended on each other in such a way that each one could be represented as a function of any other. Time, physically speaking, is thus the representability (Darstellbarkeit) of every phenomenon as a function of any other (Mach 1865a, 150). In the case of the ears time sensation, this entailed a functional link between the sensation of tone and the sensation of accommodation of the sense organ. Later on, in the Analysis of Sensations, Mach stressed again the existence of a specic time sensation, which was linked to consciousness, and thus to an organic process of energy consumption (Mach 1918, 204). 4. On the Time Necessary for a Visual Impression to Reach Consciousness Apparently Helmholtz did not cross the eld of time psychophysics as studied by Mach and other experimentalists like Ewald Hering and Vierordt. His own work on the psychophysiology of time was a continuation of his earlier physiological studies of the propagation velocity of the nervous impulse, which he subsequently extended to the psychological subject-matter of the time necessary for the arousal of the consciousness of an object following the stimulation of the eye. In 1871, Helmholtz and Baxt published the paper, On the time necessary for a visual impression to reach consciousness (Helmholtz 1883, 947), based on the examination of after-images a much studied phenomenon of physiological psychology. According to his biographer Leo Koenigsberger, Helmholtz made a signicant move by using afterimages to discuss the time-course of visual impressions rather than unraveling the factors (including colors) which affect it (Koenigsberger 1902 vol. 1, 351356).6 The Helmholtz-Baxt experiments used rotating disks with open slots to create a visual stimulus of short duration to allow the after-image to develop, whereupon it would be extinguished after a variable duration by a second, superimposed visual stimulus. Thanks to this device, it was possible to adequately estimate the duration of
6 The duration of visual sensations and many features of after-images are discussed at length in the Handbuchs rst edition of 1867. After-images were considered phenomena of the retina that induced continuous sensation when discontinuous stimuli were delivered (cf. Helmholtz 1867, 338). The author also discusses extensively the circumstances that inuence positive and negative after-images. The phenomena of afterimages have also been used, among others, by Mach to obtain signicant results on visual properties, such as the so-called Machs bands, which were interpreted as a purely retinal phenomenon (Mach 1865c).

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the after-image necessary for the visual stimulus to be recognized. This device had been designed by Sigmund Exner, who combined two different instruments constructed by Helmholtz: an electromagnetic instrument that was able to maintain a constant speed of rotation while allowing for changes of the rotation frequency, and another instrument capable of producing visual stimuli of short duration.7 The approach of the Helmholtz-Baxt experiments went beyond Exners studies in that they used after-images for understanding the relationship between visual mechanisms and consciousness. Under normal conditions, after-images last up to twelve seconds. The interruption of an after-image at an earlier stage than its spontaneous disappearance made it possible to show that the time it took for a visual stimulus to reach consciousness depended on several factors, which included the total duration before the extinction of the after-image, on the one hand, and the structure of the stimulus, on the other. It was shown by measurement that the minimal duration for a stimulus to be perceived (before extinction of the image) was about thirty milliseconds. To enable the determination of the inuence of the stimulus itself, printing type of different sizes were used, smaller type being less rapidly recognized.8 Another interesting aspect of these experiments concerns the phenomenon of attention. Helmholtz noticed that attention could be voluntarily directed towards points of a visual space different from the visual xation point. This phenomenon of peripheral attention permitted him to draw an important conclusion, which he interpreted in terms of a modication occurring in the nervous system independent from the movement of perceived bodies (see Helmholtz 1883, 952). In a way, it was assumed that so-called voluntary attention was based on processes in the central nervous system. Yet, when discussing the phenomenon of peripheral attention in the Handbuch, Helmholtz still used the terminology of a conscious and voluntary effort which directs attention independently from the position of the eyes. James quoted this passage (James [1890] 1983, 414), as well as another relevant passage where Helmholtz had asserted that the relation of attention to will is, then, less one of immediate than of mediate control. According to James, these words of Helmholtz are of fundamental importance (ibid., 399400). Indeed, sustained voluntary attention bearing on the same object is only possible if there is a renewal of interest.

Exner spent some time at Helmholtzs physiological laboratory in Heidelberg and published some of the results obtained there in the paper On the time necessary for a visual perception (cf. Exner, 1868). In this work, he tried to identify the conditions that inuence the time it takes a retinal image to reach consciousness. He enumerated four conditions: light intensity, the size of the visual stimulus and its retinal image, the presence of an after-image in the absence of the real retinal image, and the place of the image on the retina. Although he did not mention Webers law a highly controversial topic, as we have seen he found, for the rst two conditions (light intensity and size of the image), the same kind of relationship between the geometric progression of the stimulus and the arithmetic progression of the perception time that was typical of an entity pertaining to the Weber-Fechner type. 8 James obviously knew this research, for he mentioned it in the chapter on memory of the Principles (James [1890] 1983, 610).

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The novelty of a stimulus is a major factor in attentional processes that does not rely only on will. In 1871, Baxt published another paper dealing with the temporal dimension of visual perception that depended on a slightly different and more precise method, which allowed him to take into account, among other things, the time the extinction stimulus takes to reach consciousness. He was able to demonstrate a relationship between the time it takes a stimulus to reach consciousness and its internal complexity (the number of recognizable objects it contains) (Baxt 1871). Helmholtzs research is also relevant in another respect. The after-images maximal duration of twelve seconds mentioned by Helmholtz and Baxt was of the same range as the duration of the specious present, which may be dened, if we follow William James references to work done by Wilhelm Wundt and his pupils, as the maximum lled duration of which we can be both distinctly and immediately aware (James [1890] 1983, 577). The specious present is probably the dozen seconds or less that have just elapsed (ibid., 578). 5. Time Perception and Temporal Errors Many theoretical consequences could be drawn from the exploration of the time dimensions of perception. Going back to Helmholtzs statement that the time dimension is the only one in which perception agrees with reality, it seems that Helmholtz did not really take into account the possibility of temporal illusions, although he did not miss it entirely. Indeed, he does mention it in the following sentences of the Handbuch:
The sensation of thunder follows the sensation of lightning just as the sonorous disturbance of the air by the electric discharge reaches the observers place later than that of the luminiferous ether. However, one has to notice here that the time-succession of the sensations is not an entirely faithful picture of the time-succession of the external events, since the conduction from the sense organs to the brain needs time, and needs different times from different organs. In addition, the time for eye and ear, which is needed for light and tone to reach the organ, comes now into account. (Helmholtz 1867, 445)

William James did not quote this text entirely. Instead, he felt urged to make some very critical comments on the theory of truth as copying, which, according to him, Helmholtz implicitly indulged in:
One experiences an almost instinctive impulse, in pursuing such reections as these, to follow them to a sort of crude speculative conclusion, and to think that he has at last got the mystery of cognition where, to use a vulgar phrase, the wool is short. What more natural, we say, than that the sequences and durations of things should become known? The succession of the outer forces stamps itself as a like succession upon the brain. The

Helmholtz and the Psychophysiology of Time


brains successive changes are copied exactly by correspondingly successive pulses of the mental stream. The mental stream, feeling itself, must feel the time-relations of its own states. But as these are copies of the outward time-relations, so must it know them too . . . . This philosophy is unfortunately too crude. (James [1890] 1983, 591)

James states the reason why this was the case in a way that is not entirely original. He goes on to say:
Between the minds own changes being successive and knowing their own succession, lies as broad a chasm as between the object and subject of any case of cognition in the world. A succession of feelings, in and of itself, is not a feeling of succession. And since, to our successive feeling, a feeling of their own succession is added, that must be treated as an additional fact requiring its own special elucidation, which this talk about outer time-relations stamping copies of themselves within, leaves all untouched. (ibid.)

These remarks constitute the starting-point of the famous question (which remains a neurophysiological puzzle even for todays neuroscientists): To what cerebral process is the sense of time due? (ibid., 594). According to James, time was no exception to the rule that perception does not reveal itself to be merely a copy of what is perceived. This means that in time perception a particular factor comes into play a factor expressing the activity of central processes, in whichever way such processes are to be conceived. Let us briey look at some developments that seem to have converged on James question. His statement that a succession of feelings, in and of itself, is not a feeling of succession, may be found under various guises in earlier authors whom he quoted or mentioned. One of the founders of mathematical psychology, Johann Friedrich Herbart, in his Lehrbuch zur Psychologie (1816), had raised sharp criticisms against Kants theory of space and time as the only proper internal forms of intuition, independent of each other (Herbart 1887, 5657). Indeed, he considered them rather as serial forms produced upon the occurrence of sensations, and thereby linked the serial character of sensations to the working of arithmetic: Arithmetic is for the psychologists the remarkable play of a kind of representation always rening itself, of a series through which one can wander in both ways (ibid., 58). The representing (Vorstellen) of something that possesses temporal character implies the reproduction of previous states or events. Thus, the whole process of representation behaves in a different way and obeys a different law depending on the viewpoint (things are viewed differently if considered from the beginning or from the end) and on the way the process as such is kept in consciousness (ibid., 119). According to Herbart, this feature was the root of the representation of time. In about the same way as the representation of space, which, according to him, was not spatial due to the nonextensive, hence intensive, character of the soul, the representation of time had something that was not temporal in the sense that it did not ow out (ibid.). The act

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of representing space needed a succession, since it rested on actual reproductions. Two corollary remarks were made in this context: 1) the succession in representing is not a represented succession; and 2) it does not need a nite duration, but only an unnoticeably small time (ibid., 120). In the essay on the time sense of the ear, Mach (1865a, 145) noted: The rst serious and solid attempt of a theory of time sense is found in Herbart. In addition, Mach used to distinguish between the perception of the temporal course of representations, on one hand, and the temporal course itself, on the other hand. He had tried to show that perception was certainly not immediately given by the time course. Mach, in contradistinction, departed from Herbarts intention of reducing psychological space and time to laws of serial reproductions. Regarding time, he pointed out that different melodies displaying the same rhythm could not be considered an analog series of representations reproducing each other, as they were said to be according to Herbart. As previously mentioned, his arguments pointed rather to the existence of an independent sense of rhythm (ibid., 146147). In his Metaphysics, the physiologist Hermann Lotze discussed the problem of succession. The attempt to understand the genesis of the feeling of succession in our representation implies a change of representations in consciousness, since in this way a change in representations could be present, but still no representation of this change (Lotze 1884, 294295). For making this representation of change a comprehensible object, Lotze proposed a theory of time signs which turns out to be an analog of his famous theory of local signs. Yet another approach was developed by Wundt in the Treatise of Physiological Psychology, a large volume that contains a systematic survey of the results obtained by experimentalists on the time dimensions of perception (minimum duration for different kinds of visual, acoustic, etc., stimuli to be perceived, minimum time intervals needed to discriminate stimuli belonging to a series of the same kind or of different kinds, time lags in the perception of different kinds of stimuli presented in simultaneity). In this survey, Wundt envisaged the possibility of an inversion of order between two stimuli of different kinds, e.g., visual and auditory. He even pointed out that such displacements in the series of perceived stimuli could happen for stimuli of the same kind. This phenomenon depended on the way attention was directed towards one of the stimuli, which led to an enhancement of the stimulus intensity (Wundt 1880, vol. 2, 262). But the difculty of attending simultaneously to two different stimuli was also mentioned; it could, in fact, be the reason why illusions regarding temporal intervals were possible. These phenomena were therefore categorized as observational errors that were due to intrinsically mental factors (ibid., 273; also 6th ed. 1908, vol. 1, 536537). The inversion in the order of stimuli following each other was also recognized as relevant by James (James [1890] 1983, 598). The chapter on attention of the Principles follows closely Wundts data and interpretations on serial visual and auditory stimuli. Wundt explains all these results by his previous observation that a reaction

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sometimes antedates the signal (ibid., 388392).9 Another point of Wundts studies concerns the fact that perception was conceived as a temporally discontinuous phenomenon. Once impressions are not simultaneously perceived, they tend to separate: The psychological nature of our time intuition reveals itself as discrete (Wundt 1880, vol. 2, 263). This notion is not to be found in James Principles, which, instead, expresses rather straightforward views on the continuous character of consciousness: The changes from one moment to another in the quality of the consciousness are never absolutely abrupt (James [1890] 1983, 231). Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up into bits (ibid., 233). Thus, when discussing the law of times discrete ow, James wrote: The discreteness is, however, merely due to the fact that our successive acts of recognition or apperception of what it is are discrete. The sensation is as continuous as any sensation can be (ibid., 585). When trying to answer the question, to what cerebral process is the sense of time due? James emphasized that it had to be an element present at every moment of the process, and this element must bear the same inscrutable sort of relation to its correlative feeling which all other elements of neural activity bear to their psychic products, be the latter what they may (ibid., 594; emphasis in original). At this point, and before proposing the idea that the sense of time was due to the summation of stimuli, which entailed the overlap of different brain processes at the same time, James summarized, as has been noted before, several theories regarding the origin of time order. Most of these theories relied on the feeling of the past in his view, clearly an insufcient and question-begging explanation. In this context, he also mentioned Wundts attempts at measuring the shortest time interval whose subjective evaluation came closest to the truth. This interval
of about three-fourths of a second, which is estimated with the minimum of error, points to a connection between the time-feeling and the succession of distinctly apperceived objects before the mind. The association time is also equal to about three-fourths of a second. This association time he regards as a sort of internal standard of duration to which we involuntarily assimilate all intervals which we try to reproduce, bringing shorter ones up to it and longer ones down. (Ibid., 596597)

This association time was one of the elements that allowed James to conclude that the phenomenon of stimuli summation played a role in the perception of time: The amount of the overlapping determines the feeling of the duration occupied. What events shall appear to occupy the duration depends on just what processes the overlapping processes are (ibid., 598). When introducing Wundts law of discontinuous succession in time, of percepts we cannot easily attend at once, he

9 The temporal inversion of stimuli has recently acquired a great signicance in neuroscience, mainly in the work of Benjamin Libet.

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mentions that the brain processes corresponding to the percepts were distributed over different phases. He adds:
If our theory of time-feeling be true, empty time must then subjectively appear to separate the two percepts, no matter how close together they may objectively be, for, according to that theory, the feeling of a time-duration is the immediate effect of such an overlapping of brain-processes of different phase wherever and from whatever cause it may occur. (Ibid., 600; emphasis in original)

But James also devotes a paragraph in the same chapter of the Principles to the fact that we have no sense for empty time. The empty time alluded to here followed closely Wundts remarks and may be conceived of as the result of uctuations of the brain processes occurring in different phases. Indeed, James last words on the cause of time perception, which was also structured, as previously mentioned, by the socalled specious present, were: This cause probably the simultaneous presence of brain-processes of different phase uctuates; and hence a certain range of variation in the amount of the intuition, and its subdivisibility, accrues (ibid., 604).10 Why did Helmholtz encounter such difculties in admitting, in the rst edition of the Handbuch, that time perception was no exception to the general rule of perception and this rule implied that there exists a lack of conformity (Uebereinstimmung) between the act of perception and the perceived object? It seems that the privileged status of time as the universal form of intuition a principle drawn from Kants Transcendental Aesthetics ( 4) of the Critique of Pure Reason (see Kant [1787] 1968, vol III, 57 B 46) constituted the metaphysical background of Helmholtzs own thinking. Traces of this privileged status of time are to be found in the introductory paragraphs of Die Erhaltung der Kraft, which asserts that the task of natural science is to reduce all natural phenomena to ultimate invariable causes, and that these causes should be found in forces which are invariable according to time (Helmholtz 1847, 5).11 But a second look is needed which focuses on the relevancy of time from the standpoint of psychology. In the rst edition of the Handbuch, where Fechner is mentioned in connection with investigations into the nature of after-images, Helmholtz did not seem to have any serious interest in the kind of theorizing
As a comment on the specious present and on the time order problem, it is worth mentioning a remark made by Wittgenstein: Is it not this way: the phenomenon (specious present) contains time, but is not within time? Its form is time, but has no place within time. Whereas language ows in a temporal fashion (Wittgenstein 1989, 98). 11 Michael Heidelberger has rightly pointed out that Helmholtz has been led to his metaphysical standpoint of the Erhaltung der Kraft by Kants Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (Heidelberger 1998, 11). Heidelberger sees this metaphysical standpoint as typical of Helmholtzs rst phase, before Helmholtz became inuenced by Faradays empiricism. Helmholtzs metaphysical standpoint in the introduction of the Erhaltung der Kraft is particularly clear in the use of the causality principle. This principle (or the principle of sufcient reason) is the rst and essential foundation of the conservation law.

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exemplied by psychophysical parallelism in the Fechnerian idealistic-monistic fashion, nor did he make use of this concept. Surely, after having theorized on the conservation of energy, he could no longer consider the metaphysical idea of psychophysical parallelism as a useful one. But in the attempts at clarifying the respective domains of physiology and psychology on visual perception, Helmholtz asserted that he had to consider the content of sensation from the point of view of the perceptually relevant features (for instance, direction or distance). This task could be carried out entirely by means of (purely) natural-scientic (naturwissenschaftlichen) methods. And yet, he went on to say that he would refrain from speaking of mental activities and of the laws involved in perception, since he lacked hard facts and clear and universal principles relating to this eld of research. He therefore separated the psychological aspects of sensory physiology from psychology in the narrower sense of the term (see ibid., 427). In the Handbuchs rst edition, the emphasis was clearly more on physiology than on psychology. But it turns out that these were not Helmholtzs last words.

6. Time as Internal Intuition: the Psychological Foundation of Arithmetic In 1887, Helmholtz published the famous text Zhlen und Messen erkenntnistheoretisch betrachtet, an investigation into the psychological foundation of arithmetic in relation to time. The peculiar combination of empiricism and Kantianism is clearly stressed for both elds, geometry and arithmetic.
In earlier writings I endeavoured to show that the axioms of geometry are not propositions given a priori, but that they are rather to be conrmed and refuted through experience. Here I emphasize once again that this does not eliminate Kants view of space as a transcendental form of intuition; in my opinion this merely excludes just one unjustied particular specication of his view, although one which has become most fateful for the metaphysical endeavours of his successors. It is then clear that if the empiricist theory which I besides others advocate regards the axioms of geometry no longer as propositions unprovable and without need of proof, it must also justify itself regarding the origin of the axioms of arithmetic, which are correspondingly related to the form of intuition of time. (Helmholtz [1921] 1977, 72)

In the comments on various attempts at providing an axiomatic unfolding of arithmetic, Helmholtz raised the question as to whether the cardinal number of a group of objects is ascertainable independent of the order in which they are numbered. He went on: To my knowledge, Mr. Schrder (Lehrbuch der Arithmetik und Algebra. Leipzig 1873, p. 14) was the rst to recognize that there a problem lies concealed; he also acknowledged in my opinion justly that there is a task here for psychology, while on the other hand those empirical properties should be dened

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which the objects must have in order to be enumerable (ibid., 74). With respect to both the empirical and the strictly Kantian theories set up to solve the problem of how to derive a general concept of magnitude, Helmholtz drew the readers attention to Paul du Bois-Reymonds statement that both views were equally possible, since both would equally lead to contradictions. Feeling obliged to give voice to his own thoughts, he made the forceful statement: I consider arithmetic, or the theory of pure numbers, to be a method constructed upon purely psychological facts, which teaches the logical application of a symbolic system (i.e. of the numbers) having unlimited extent and an unlimited possibility of renement (ibid., 7475). Helmholtz drew a distinction between numbering (das Zhlen) and numbers (die Zahlen). The psychological facts involved in arithmetic as a method, were, in his view, to be found in the denition of numbering rather than in the denition of numbers as symbols. Numbering is a procedure based upon our nding ourselves capable of retaining, in our memory, the sequence in which acts of consciousness successively occurred in time (ibid., 7576). In further comments on the so-called natural numbers, which he depicted as a series of arbitrary symbols whose particular succession has been xed by man as a lawlike one, he explained that the natural character of these numbers had to do with a special use of numbering, viz. with giving the cardinal number of things. The lawfulness in the series of cardinal numbers expressed the fact that man could add a new object to the ones which he had already counted. Helmholtz explained that this method had nothing to do with the use of particular symbols in a series. The sequence of symbols has been arbitrarily chosen by our ancestors, and has thus acquired the status of a law of its own, which differed from the lawfulness of the series of the numbers themselves, as described in the process of numbering qua giving the cardinal number of things. The distinction between numbering and number allowed him to recognize the insufciencies inherent in the notion of naturalness as applied to numbers, to emphasize the double meaning of lawfulness in numbering and number, and to stress the symbolic character of numbers. In a comment on this text, Paul Hertz suggests that we should not stop at a psychologistic theory of arithmetic. The psychic is rather, as regards the axioms of arithmetic, completely coordinated with the physical, and is involved only as an object of our cognition. We shall not be allowed to claim that the nature of our cognition is a ground for the validity of those axioms. This seems also to be the view of Helmholtz (ibid., 104). This comment raised the question as to the role the science of psychology could play in the foundation of arithmetic. Where Helmholtz had argued that arithmetic was a method drawn from purely psychological facts, Hertz understood this as meaning that in our reections upon experiences we gain those concepts which possess a signicance projecting beyond the psychic, and which can therefore inter alia also be applied to the physical (ibid., 104). Thus, in Hertzs view, the role of psychology could well be partly dened along the lines of empiricism (a position Helmholtz also claimed for himself), in the sense that it was called upon to

Helmholtz and the Psychophysiology of Time


study the ways in which different kinds of facts are apprehended by the human mind, and partly along the line of Kantian transcendentalism, since time and space were not only made the subject matter of investigation in different sciences, or given in particular experiences, but were also implied as conditions of possibility for experience in general. A closer examination reveals that Helmholtz relied, indeed, at the same time upon specic data stemming from the science of psychological, and upon general features of experience. For in the follow-up of his arguments, he observed that the series of numbers is more rmly established in our memory than any other series, given that this series undergoes more frequent repetition, and he mentioned this fact as reason why we use numbers to specify other series in our memory, thus using the numbers as ordinal numbers. This is a psychological explanation of sort: The series of ordinal numbers has the singular property of having a certain direction, in the sense that the forward and backward directions are different processes, as the series of perceptions in time (ibid., 76). According to this reasoning, the difference has to do with memory, since consciousness may contain actual perceptions or volitions as well as memories, and since the subject is able to differentiate between present perception and memory. This is a matter of fact duly ascertained, which may be further explained, not only by reference to the irreversible character of time, but also, and mainly, by reference to the inescapable form of our internal intuition (innere Anschauung) (ibid., 77). 7. From Time to Causation. Helmholtz and Kant The second edition of the Handbuch (1896) underwent substantial modications. In his general considerations on perception ( 26 of the Handbuchs second edition), Helmholtz emphasized the fundamental character of the intuition of time in a way that links Kantian notions to psychological content. Generally speaking, the question of how pure psychology demarcates itself from the psychological aspects of sense physiology is raised again. The perception of inner mental events and the perception of external objects lack similarity. For the explanation of this fact, Helmholtz resorts to Kants distinction between external and internal sense. As some philosophers and psychologists maintain, the mental world is not a spatial one, but a world of simultaneity and succession, i.e., the world of internal intuition or of selfconsciousness (see Helmholtz 1896b, 578, 588). However, and in spite of the obvious differences between external and internal sense, perceptions in both realms share one common property: that of following a temporal order created by the continuous activity of memory. Indeed, consciousness of our present state of mind goes hand in hand with consciousness of the immediately preceding state of mind. Moreover, it is also based on the awareness of the difference by means of which they are separate. Hence, it is based on the awareness of their temporal order. In Helmholtzs view, this knowledge results from the activity of memory: As long as recollections remain in

486 Claude Debru

our memory, the recollection of their time sequence remains also12 (ibid., 577578). Helmholtz also stresses that the ordering of internal perceptions or memories in time series makes it possible to repeat temporal series of perceptions, to observe, and to recognize them. Repetitions of the original experience seldom happen in the same way as the original experience, because perceptions are accompanied by arbitrary bodily movements and modications which affect the observational process. Hence, the problem of the psychological conditions of time order is addressed in the context of the general question concerning the conformity between perception and reality. As the second edition of the Handbuch shows, Helmholtz starts from Kants conception of the internal sense, but goes beyond the limits of this conception, since he tries to give a psychological account of temporal succession. In these later philosophical developments on perception, he deals repeatedly with the psychology of memory in order to give an empirical content to Kants transcendentalism and to further the understanding of the psychological basis of induction and of lawfulness in our view of nature. The problem which now arises, however, is that of the unconscious character of memory (ibid., 580). This is clearly a problem of cognitive psychology. Strikingly enough, the corresponding passages in the rst edition of the Handbuch on the conformity between time series in reality and sensation, which closely followed Kants famous example of cinnaber, is not found in the second edition, although the analysis of the cinnabers color remains. Instead, Helmholtz discusses in very general terms Kants Ding an sich, the transcendental forms of intuition, the qualities of sensation, and the truth of our representations of the external world, and thereby nds himself once again confronted with the issue of the relationship between image and object, but now in the realm of the internal sense. In this realm, one could nd the most favorable instance of t (gleichen) or similarity between image and object. And once more, the problem of memory is addressed, however in a particular way. Helmholtz does not deal with the relationship between memory and the original experience, but rather with the conformity between memories of the same object at different times. He suggests that there is no need to assume that secondary memories (images) are exact pictures of the original memory (ibid., 591). This shows that psychological approach to memory has replaced the theory of time perception as copying. In a further discussion, Helmholtz comments upon the kind of lawfulness which holds for phenomenal experience, and which rests on correspondences between sensations and bodily movements. In this discussion, we nd no trace of the previous notion that time could make an exception in the difference between perception and reality. Rather, we are faced with memory mechanisms and with their unconscious character. The notion of unconscious inference had already been met in the Handbuchs rst edition (see Helmholtz 1867, 430) in the context of the hypothesis that mental
12 (So lange [die Erinnerungen] uns berhaupt im Gedchtnis stehen bleiben, bleibt auch die Erinnerung an ihre Zeitfolge.)

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activities, which lead to judgments on external objects, are generally unconscious. In the second edition, the notion of unconscious inference is dened as inference made without linguistic means and without voluntary reection (Helmholtz 1896b, 601). However, this is not all which the Handbuch is purporting. The temporal order of conscious experience, and its unconscious mechanisms, whose very existence implies that the temporal dimension of the mental no longer corresponds to real time, constitute barely more than a general framework for the constitution of a stable image (or rather concept) of the world. The explanation for this is to be found in the fact that memory images are purely sensory impressions which do not need to be verbally described and thus transformed into concepts. Sensory impressions form the basic material upon which our knowledge of the behavior of external objects rests. They can be used as elements of linking thoughts with one another without having to be captured by words (cf. Helmholtz 1896b, 601). It is particularly meaningful that the example used to corroborate this assertion stems from projective geometry, in which the representation of a three-dimensional solid body is considered not only as a combination of previously observed perspective images, but also as a concept from which other perspective images can be derived. At this point, Helmholtz concludes that such a process, which rests upon the activity of unvoluntary and unconscious memory, is able to create correlations between representations, which agree essentially with representations resulting from conscious thinking (ibid., 602). But at this point, Helmholtz is no longer concerned with correspondences between real and perceived time as an exceptional example of adaequatio rei et intellectus. Rather, he is engaged in an enquiry about the psychological mechanisms underlying the formation of knowledge. In this enquiry, Helmholtz introduces the concepts lawfulness (Gesetzlichkeit) and causality, which, again, are associated with temporal sequence or order. The language used to introduce the law of causality (Causalgesetz) is surprisingly Kantian: it is described as a regulative principle (ibid., 593), as an a priori given, transcendental law, which is impossible to prove from experience (ibid., 594). In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant described the foundations of objective knowledge as an exemplication of mathematical physics; hence, the latter realized the conditions of possibility of experience in general. It is well known that in the chapter on the Second Analogy of Experience, Kant discussed the foundation of the temporal sequence as the necessary basis for the notion of causality. He explained that the temporal connection between perceptions is not brought about by intuition, but rather by the synthetic power of imagination. Indeed, time itself cannot be perceived. Many philosophers and psychologists seem to agree that we do not have direct experiences of time. Moreover, perception does not determine the objective relationship between phenomena. However, the synthetic power of imagination does not involve the element of necessity that constitutes an experience. It does not even determine the order of representations, since human imagination can reverse this order. The objective, necessary relationship between phenomena must therefore be determined

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in a purely conceptual manner, which imports the element of necessity into this relationship: the concept of the relationship between cause and effect, the principle of sufcient reason, are the foundations of all possible experience (Kant [1787] 1968, vol III, 167 B 233234). In another context, Kant discussed the case of simultaneity between cause and effect, which is the most common case in nature, with the qualication that effect does not immediately reach full development. In this discussion, Kant introduced the highly important distinction between time order (Ordnung) and time course (Ablauf). The temporal order can exist without a real time course, since the temporal difference between cause and effect can be innitely small. In this case, the relationship between cause and effect (the order in time) remains something that can be temporally determined (ibid., 175176 B 247248). Another important remark made by Kant in the Second Analogy had to do with determining the place of an event in time. This determination cannot be made by referring to absolute time, because absolute time is not an object of perception. The determination of the place of an event in time can therefore only arise from the phenomena themselves, according to the general rule of causality: phenomena must determine their places within time by themselves and make them necessary in the time order, it means that what follows or happens must follow what was contained in the preceding state according to a general rule13 (ibid., 174 B 245). It is well known that for Kant, transcendental idealism was compatible with empirical realism. Indeed, a fully edged explanation of natural phenomena rests on intuition (or on perceptual data) as well as on understanding, which confers necessity and universality to that which has been conceptually grasped. In the Second Analogy of Experience, Kant solved the problem of the correspondence between the subjective apprehension of phenomenal diversity and the unity of experience by means of the conceptual principle of causality or sufcient reason. Now, according to Helmholtz, the principle of causality is given a priori. However, it does not seem that the strong statements to be found in the Handbuchs second edition represent his nal view. In 1902, Leo Koenigsberger published the following note from Helmholtzs Nachlass: The causal law (the presupposition of the lawlikeness of nature) is only a hypothesis and not otherwise provable. Lawlikeness in the past can never prove lawlikeness in the future (Koenigsberger 1902, vol 1, 247; see also Meyering 1989, 216). This remark was interpreted by Benno Erdmann as signaling a move towards empiricism (Erdmann 1921, 1112). 8. Concluding Remarks From Helmholtzs physiological research on the temporal dimension of nervous transmission and perception to the later speculations on the psychology of
13 (die Erscheinungen mssen einander ihre Stellen in der Zeit selbst bestimmen und dieselbe in der Zeitordnung notwendig machen, d.i. dasjenige, was da folgt oder geschieht, muss nach einer allgemeinen Regel auf das, was im vorigen Zustande enthalten war, folgen)

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knowledge, the borders between physiology and psychology shifted and interest in cognitive psychology increased. Physiological research done by Helmholtz up until the late 1860s was above all concerned with the issue of accuracy in measurement. It was physical in spirit. The combination of physiology and physics remained under the domination of physics. In later years Helmholtzs contribution to physiology decreased. The Handbuchs 1896 edition was more concerned than the rst edition with speculative developments on the unconscious mechanisms of knowledge. The psychology of memory enriched the physiology of perception. However, Helmholtzs conceptual background on the law of causality and on the distinction between external and internal sense retained a rather classical, and even a Kantian, outlook. In comparison to Ernst Mach for example, Helmholtz is representative of a type of conceptually oriented physicist who constructs and applies principles and laws in order to understand both the world and the nature of knowledge. These laws are invariable according to time, although they describe relationships between highly variable events or processes. Helmholtzs way of thinking about time remained embedded in the classical view of time as an independent variable in the equations of mechanics as well as a basic and independent dimension of psychology. On both points, he relied heavily on Kant. On the occasion of Kants centennial in 1904, the neo-Kantian philosopher Alois Riehl wrote:
Kant remained for a while the man of the physiologists; one put the doctrine of the a priori forms of experience in connection with the progress of sensory physiology. But this is not in this physiological conception of Kant, founded by Helmholtz, . . . that the proper service of the great natural scientist lies for us; we see it more in the fact that Helmholtz generally attracted attention on Kant, and thus reestablished the connection between philosophy and science interrupted by the speculative systems of Schelling and Hegel. (Riehl 1904, 261)

Although a neo-Kantian could not agree with Helmholtzs attempts at devising a psychological interpretation of transcendental concepts, he would recognize that such was the scientists intention to ll the framework of possible experience with real empirical experience. The concepts Helmholtz borrowed from the philosophical tradition were perhaps not entirely suitable to his psychological or psychophysiological purposes, ideas, and discoveries. In this way, he remained much more classical than Mach. In one of the many comments on Helmholtzs theory of space perception, James states in the Principles of Psychology: Helmholtz, though all the while without an articulate theory, makes the world think he has one. He beautifully traces the immense part which reproductive processes play in our vision of space, and never . . . does he tell us just what it is they reproduce (James [1890] 1983, 910). As with the notion of space, Helmholtzs notion of time revealed similar limits of empiricism. They also testify to the lasting inuence of Kants classication and terminology of internal versus external sense. James judgment should be compared


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with Alois Riehls praise: It was Helmholtzs extraordinary service, at the time of the hegemony, or perhaps, looking back at the sixties and seventies years, we could say tyranny of the natural sciences, to have pointed out energetically and with the weight of his authority the right and signicance of philosophy for scientic research (Riehl 1904, 284). Acknowledgments This article was completed during a stay as guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science at Berlin (May to June 1999); I am grateful to Professor Hans-Jrg Rheinberger, Director of this Institute, for his hospitality. I was able to undertake the writing of this paper during a stay at the Institute of Medical History of the Albert Ludwig University at Freiburg im Breisgau in February 1999; I am glad to thank its Director, Professor Ulrich Trhler, for his hospitality in Freiburg. I am also grateful to Pierre and Arlette Buser, Michael Heidelberger, Christoph Hoffmann, David Hyder, Rmy Lestienne, Charles Marx, Alexandre Mtraux, Michel Meulders, Jutta Schickore and Henning Schmidgen for their suggestions or help. I wish to thank Mrs. Witzel for her help at the Archives of the BerlinBrandenburg Academy of Sciences. This paper is a result of the activities of the Helmholtz Working Group of the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, whose members are Andr Coret, Gerhard Heinzmann, Jacques Lambert, Charles Marx, Alexandre Mtraux, Michel Meulders, Philippe Nabonnand. A Conference on Helmholtz and Physiology was organized by this Helmholtz Academy in Strasbourg in March 1997. Additional working sessions were also held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and at the Humboldt University in Berlin in February 1998. References
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