by Lewis W. Brandt and Wolfgang Metzger

(1st part)

[W. Metzger Bibliography of Publications in English, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish]

Summary: Reality refers to (1) a transcendental, transexperiential world and (2) the totality of one's experiences. It further means (3) what is being encountered as opposed to what is merely represented. Finally, (4) objects, actions, thoughts, and feelings are all experienced as real, unreal or more or less real. These different meanings of 'reality' are delineated and illustrated by various psychological issues.

Much confusion and many arguments are caused by different uses made of the word reality and by its various meanings. By definition empirical psychology deals with 'reality'. However, it excludes some kind of 'inner reality.' Psychoanalysts frequently speak about 'reality testing' without defining what they mean by 'reality.' Aptitudes are considered by some psychologists as measurable aspects of some 'hidden reality.' It is the purpose of this paper to disentangle this confusion by defining and describing four ways in which an event may be real or unreal (or as in the case of the fourth meaning more or less real).

The four different meanings of 'reality' to be illustrated and discussed in this paper are:
Reality1: the transexperiential world which stands to reality2 in the relationship of the pictureed to the picture.
Reality2: the totality of one's experiences, the phenomenal world.
Reality3: what is encountered in the phenomenal world and not merely represented.
Reality4 or 'realness : the extent to which something is experienced as real.


Reality1 consists of everything that we assume to exist independent of and beyond our experiences. It contains all 'scientific knowledge' as well as the objects we assume to underlie our every momentary perceptions. Real1 are, thus, the 'stimuli' of the behaviorist, the 'personality traits' of the psycho-diagnostician, the 'memory traces' of the learning theorist, in short, whatever must be deduced from observations and cannot be directly perceived. To call reality1 the physical world seems an unfortunate term, since we experience the manifest world as physical. It's meaning will, however, become clearer as reality1 is contrasted with reality2 from which alone it is inferred.


Concerning reality2 Metzger (1963) states: "In so far as psychology investigates the manifest world itself everything that exists in this manifest world is simply an undeniable fact: a negative after-image, a vison of a ghost, a dream, a hunch, and an uncertain feeling no less than the table on which I am writing and the people with whom I am talking, and the good and bad moods of these people and their demands and expectations which, even when they are not speaking, I feel as coming from them no less than their bodies and limbs ... The question of the scientific validity of the givens does not even arise bit is replaced by the question about the special laws governing the relationship between this second realm of reality and the first one, the physical world." Obviously, "the good and bad moods" and the "demands and expectations" are those which the observer experiences as present in the observed and which the observed may not have in reality1. In reality1 they may be the result of projection or some other distortion in person perception. Whatever their real1 cause they exist in reality2.

Since an important goal of science is to establish laws concerning the relationship between reality1 and reality2 we shall clarify both the distinctions and the relationships further. The physical object and the manifest object are not one and the same. They are merely similar. When they are not sufficiently similar we get into trouble, e.g., when one tries to bite into a good imitation of an apple. In terms of information theory the physical (real1) object is the beginning of an irreversible chain of transformations which ends in the manifest (real2) object. This applies also to the relationship between our physical (real1) body and our experiences (real2) of it. The similarity is clearly insufficient when one tries to stand on one's phantom leg as happens to amputees.

Lack of similarity between reality1 and reality2 is due to mistakes made in the selection and/or interpretation of charakteristics of reality2 which are taken as indications of certain qualities of the physical world (reality1). Such mistakes must, however, not be attributed to the "perceptual system" which neither chooses nor errs. Nor can the perceptual system be said to "utilize" stimuli any more than a photographic plate "utilizes" the short wave light rays which blacken it and "leaves unutilized" the long wave light rays which do not affect it. Similarly, perception is no more "fooled" by "false stimuli" than the photographic plate by some chemical which, like light, blackens it.

Metzger (1963) emphasizes that "although the things and beings in our immediate surroundings actually stand to the real1 objects in a relationship of a picture to the pictured object, the things and beings around us do not have the manifest character of a picture unless they happen to be pictures in the common sense (paintings, prints, photographs, etc.). Furthermore, they are by no means experienced as refering to some other, true reality as is the case with representations and concepts in the true sense. They are experienced as the final and true, ego-independent reality itself."


The two remaining meanings of reality are clearly phenomenological. Among the totality of one's experiences (reality2) we distinguish between things, beings, events, acts themselves and their representations. Real3 is what is encountered, found or produced. It is in the same sense and on the same level on which I, the observing subject, am real. Unreal3 on the other hand, is what is merely thought, imagined, conjectured, foreseen, remembered, conceptually known, planned and/or intended. The unreal3 has frequently, if not always, the quality of "intentionality," of mediation, imagery or aof meaning something beyond itself. That to which the representations point or refer is experienced as the world of encounterable perceptual objects (reality3). Only after one has conceptualized a reality1 can representations also refer directly to transcendental events. Such direct reference to reality1 remains hoever limited to very specific areas of theoretical-scientific thinking.

Manifest dreams, true hallucinations, hypochondrical symptoms and ideas of reference are, of course, encountered whereas one's internal organs are not perceptually encountered but only known to exist (real1). This is easily demonstrated by asking someone to place his hand on his stomach. Most people will indicate it several inches too low. Even an internal pain is not an encounter of an organ. The non-physician usually does not even know which organ hurts and even, if he does, he does not encounter the organ as a Gestalt.

If the reader feels uncomfortable about calling dreams 'real' and his liver 'unreal,' he has slipped back into thinking in terms of reality1 where the vaguest knowledge about something which is considered to be physical is regarded as reliable while one's experiences are mere appearances. This easily occuring reversal has its good reasons. The relationship between what is represented in imagery and ideas (unreal3) and the perceptually real, i.e., encountered (real3), object has always been the paradigm for epistemological assumptions concerning the relationship between the perceptually real, i.e., encountered (real3) object and the transcendental [bewußtseinsjenseitig], physical real (real1) object. The similarity of these two relationships has again and again led to their confusion, e.g., when discussing the perception of an immediately present thing we implicitly attribute to the perceptual thing (real2,3) the role of the physical one (real1).

We must also warn against another confusion, namely to mistake what is encountered (real3) for 'external reality' and what is represented (unreal3) for 'inner world'. For you my representations are part of my inner world. But for me they may experientially lie in specific locations among the objects I encounter outside of myself. Even if they have no such specific location in space, my thoughts and images are not experienced by me as being inside myself but as in some way in front of me. When one searches one's memory in an effort to recall something, it is more correct to say he entered those areas and moves around in them than to claim that they are in him. Furthermore conceptualizations can interfere in a purely mental way with the classification of what is encountered on the outside. On the other hand, most of one's true 'inner world' is not represented but encountered, e.g., one's feelings, moods, aspirations, inclinations, etc. from hunger and thirst to enthusiasm and bliss.

As anywhere else in life and in science borderline instances exist between the represented and the encountered. A 'good intention' may be experienced as a representation of what one should or would like to want or as an already encountered change of one's will. Can one encounter one's own personality traits directly or can they only be deduced, i.e., represented in opinions, hunches, and convictions? Or, in the external world, are the just pronounced words of a still unfinished sentence encountered or represented? The fact that these questions cannot be answered unequivocally does not invalidate the setting apart of the encountered (real3) within the wider area of the totality of experiences (reality2).

As the German word for reality - Wirklichkeit - indicates real3 and unreal3 can be distinguished on the basis of their respective effects - Wirkung. What is encountered is functionally effective in a way in which the merely represented is not. This is particularly evident whenever one's 'knowledge' of reality1 conflicts with what one encounters. Such knowledge which is a representation (unreal3) has no effect on the encountered reality. Knowledge about the color of human skin does not make hands or faces look any less greenish under a sodium lamp. Nor does one feel any less angry (in reality3) when one knows that there is really1 no reason to feel angry. The two lines in the Mueller-Lyer illusion do not really3 look equally long after one has measured them and knows that they are really1 of identical length.

The futility and illogicality of the attempt to base psychology on anatomy and physiology become clearly evident from the discussion of encountered things and parts of things which belong to the encountered world and cannot be perceived through one's sense organs. Walls, doors, furniture, and tools are (though in reality1 non-existent) encountered in a good performance of Wilder's "Our Town" and are not merely represented like the (in reality1 existing) comparable objects in the next room which I cannot see at the moment. The patient who improved considerably by talking to what she believed to be a therapist in the adjoining room when there was only a tape-recorder and who established "a definite positive transference relationship" to "him" (Dimascio & Brooks, 1961) did obviously not "fantasy" the (really1) non-existent therapist but encountered him. Here the effect (Wirkung) demonstrates again the reality (Wirklichkeit) which might be best described as functional or effective reality.

A change-over from encountered, effective reality (reality3) to representation (unreality3) can be observed in a person who turns slowly several times round with his eyes closed: when the 'invisible' reality3 becomes mere representation for him he begins to stagger. Similarly, the effectiveness of a person's actions makes it possible to decide whether his religious beliefs are real3 or unreal3 and whether his god is manifest or an idea. One basic difficulty in the understanding between Americans and Vietnamese results from the fact that for the Americans the soul of the dead are 'believed' to be in the hereafter while for the Vietnamese the dead are 'present' in their graves and deeply influence the everyday life of the living.

An experiment by Erismann clearly demonstrates the functional effectiveness of 'something' invisibly encountered (real3) though unreal1: On a uniform background two points are lit up alternately at such speed that the stroboscopic motion is seen as 'pure' motion, i.e., as visible motion without transport of qualities. If a visible, non-transparent screen is now placed in front of the line of movement without covering its end points, the impression changes from pure to invisible motion because of the part covered by the screen. This is the so-called "tunnel-phenomenon." If the room is now darkened so that the screen too becomes completely invisible, the impression nevertheless remains; the point seems to continue to move back and forth disappearing behind and emerging from behind the screen. This impression remains the same even after the screen has been removed unbeknown to the observer. Only when the illumination in the room is increased to the point where the observer sees that the screen is no longer there, does the impression change again into one of unobstructed pure motion.

2nd Part

[1] 'This paper is based on the first chapter of Wolfgang Metzger's Psychologie, Die Entwicklung ihrer Grundannahmen seit Einfuehrung des Experiments (1963). We omitted the purely perceptional distinction of 'something or fulness as opposed to 'nothingness' or void which appeared as reality4 in that chapter but for which the concept of 'reality did not seem properly applicable. What is called reality in the fifth sense in the book is referred to as reality4 in the present paper. [-> back to text]

References at the end of 2nd part

Copyright © 1969, Psychological Reports. All Rights Reserved.
This paper was first published in Psychological Reports, 1969, 25, pp 127-135.
It is based on the first chapter of Wolfgang Metzger's book
'Psychologie. Die Entwicklung ihrer Grundannahmen seit Einführung des Experiments'
(Darmstadt: Steinkopff, 1941, 1954, 1963, 1968, 1975).
'Psicologia. El desarollo de sus conceptos basicos desde la adopcion de la experimentacion.'
(Buenos Aires: Editorial Nova, 1968)
'I fondamenti della psicologia della gestalt.'
(Firenze: Giunti Barbèra, 1971, 1984)

W. Metzger Bibliography of Publications in English, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish

Back to the main index of Gestalt Archive

Home GTA International
Gestalt People | Gestalt Publications | Gestalt Conferences | Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy
About Gestalt Theory and the GTA
GTA Home page Deutsch |GTA Home page Italiano |GTA Home page Français