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Hering, Ewald

Hering, Ewald



Ewald Hering (1834–1918) was a sense physiologist who played an important role as a pioneer in the new experimental physiological psychology that got under way as a separate discipline in the 1860s. The founder of this new branch of psychology was, it is said, Wilhelm Wundt, who was Hering’s contemporary. Hering’s fame was based specifically upon his contributions to the understanding of the phenomena of vision—the psycho-physiology both of visual space perception and of color vision. Hering was a nativist; that is to say, he believed that the spatial ordering of points on the retina and the skin is innate, that it is not learned, as the empiricists, led by Hermann von Helmholtz, believed. Hering is, however, best known to posterity for his theory of color vision, a theory that for many years remained the alternative to Helmholtz’ theory. Moreover, he designed many beautiful pieces of apparatus to illustrate crucial points in his theories and is more responsible than anyone else for this new psychology’s being dubbed “brass-instrument psychology.” Indeed, he participated in the new experimental movement in many ways; he was, for instance, one of the first editors of the Zeitschrift für Psychologie, the first independent journal of experimental Psychology in Germany.

Hering was born in Altgersdorf, a small town south of Berlin. At the age of 19 he went to Leipzig to study medicine; there he was influenced by E. H. Weber, the physiologist who established the law that bears his name, and G. T. Fechner, the founder of psychophysics. The dean of physiologists, Johannes Miiller, at Berlin, influenced him from afar, and Hering would have liked to work under him but never did. In 1860 Hering began practicing as a physician and also writing in the field of physiology. He had published the five parts of his treatise on space perception by 1864, a year before Helmholtz published the third volume of a handbook on psychophysiological optics—the part that included what Helmholtz had to say about the perception of space. Thus began a long-continued opposition between Hering and Helmholtz–Hering, the nativist; Helmholtz, the empiricist. Hering was following Johannes Miiller, whose thought had been influenced by Kant. Helmholtz, an empiricist, was holding to the tradition of Hermann Lotze and found himself supported by Wundt. Hering’s views were taken up presently by Carl Stumpf and later, after the turn of the century, by the gestalt psychologists, who have readily acknowledged their debt to him. There was a bitter and indecorous quarrel between Hering and Helmholtz about the true shape of the visual horopter, the locus of points perceived as single by the two eyes.

Hering’s publication on space perception was enough to effect a call to Vienna to succeed the distinguished physiologist Carl Ludwig, who himself went to Leipzig. Five years later Hering was invited to Prague to succeed J. E. Purkinje, another well-known physiologist. At Prague his attention turned to the problems of color. His volume of 1878 presented his theory of color vision and again brought him into conflict with Helmholtz, who held to the three-element theory originally suggested by Thomas Young. Hering argued for three different color substances in the retina, each one capable of two reversible, opposite reactions, giving respectively the colors red or green, yellow or blue, and white or black, and their combinations. Both types of theory were still alive eighty years later. Hering also, in 1879, suggested a theory of the temperature sense that was similar to his color theory, cold and warmth being elicited by a pair of antagonistic reactions in the thermal sense organ.

After 25 years at Prague, Hering was called to Leipzig in 1895, to succeed for a second time the now very famous Ludwig. Here he undertook his more mature work on visual sensation, which came out in four fasciculi from 1905 to 1920, the last published posthumously, for Hering died at Leipzig in 1918, at the close of World War I.

At the turn of the century every undergraduate student of psychology was taught Hering’s and Helmholtz’ theories of vision. For a while Helmholtz’ conception seemed to prevail over Hering’s, but subsequently Hering’s view of antagonistic biological processes gained plausibility as a result of new research, and both types of theory continued to receive consideration at a sophisticated level. Hering, the nativist, also influenced gestalt psychology and the scientific movement toward phenomenology and existentialism. With respect to phenomenology, Hering himself showed the influence of two of his great predecessors in visual theory—Goethe and Purkinje.

Edwin G. Boring

[Directly related are the entriesVision, especially the article oncolor vision and color blindness; Perception, article ondepth perception. Other rele vant material may be found in the biographies ofHelmholtz; Müller, Johannes; Stumpf.]


1861-1864 Beiträge zur Physiologie. 5 parts. Leipzig: Engelmann.

1868 Die Lehre vom binocularen Sehen. Leipzig: Engelmann.

(1872–1875) 1964 Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. First published in German. Contains a biographical note and historical discussion by L. M. Hurvich and D. Jameson, translators.

1879 Der Raumsinn und die Bewegungen des Auges. Part 1, pages 343-601 in Ludimar Hermann (editor), Handbuch der Physiologie. Volume 3: Physiologie der Sinnesorgane. Leipzig: Vogel. 2192; For an English translation of this essay, see “Spatial Sense and Movements of the Eye” in the Manual of Physiology of the Sense Organs, published by the American Academy of Optometry in 1942.

1880 Der Temperatursinn. Part 2, pages 415-450 in Ludimar Hermann (editor), Handbuch der Physiologie. Volume 3: Physiologie der Sinnesorgane. Leipzig: Vogel.

1931 Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. 2 vols. Edited by M. Gildemeister. Leipzig: Thieme. → Contains a portrait and a complete bibliography.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See pages 351-356 and 379.

Garten, Siegfried 1918 Ewald Hering zum Gedächtnis. Pfluger’s Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere 172:501–522.

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