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Perceptual Interpretation: The Duck-Rabbit Figure

Ludwig Wittgenstein

A perceptually ambiguous figure originally introduced by the Gestalt psychologist J. Jastrow, and published in his book Fact and Fable in Psychology (1900). It can be perceived either as a duck or as a rabbit. However, it cannot be perceived as both simultaneously. The duck-rabbit figure is best known in philosophical circles as an illustration of aspect perception or interpretive “seeing as” and is utilized by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in his influential Philosophical Investigations (1953). For many philosophers and experimental psychologists, the perceptual experience elicited and exemplified by the duck-rabbit figure indicates that human perception is fundamentally interpretive, i.e., an aspect-seeing that is theory-laden. The interpretive or theory-laden nature of perception means that our observations are organized by background theories and concepts, experience, language, and, in general, our entire past. We always see something as something. For example, if someone has never seen a rabbit he or she will never identify the duck-rabbit figure as a rabbit. Conversely, lack of any background experience of ducks will likewise preclude that identification option. As such, Wittgenstein rejects a naïve physical account of perception that sharply separates physical vision from the interpretation of what is seen. This physicalist perceptual model renders individual interpretation, based upon one’s background framework of meaning, a secondary act irrelevant to visual perception itself. For Wittgenstein and many others this model is abstract insofar as it illegitimately separates out the formative interpretive component inherent in the concrete act of human perception. Rather, perception is an interpretive act itself. Wittgenstein’s position on perception invites careful comparison with Edmund Husserl’s pure phenomenology, Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and others. In particular, Heidegger’s articulation of the as-structure of interpretation and its inherent role in contributing to one’s referential network of meaning in Being and Time (1927) deserves special mention. Wittgenstein’s concept of perceptual interpretation also bears directly upon the general nature of interpretive meaning, linguistic signification, and theoretical conceptuality.

A brief excerpt from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:

I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience “noticing an aspect...” And I must distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect.... I see two pictures, with the duck-rabbit surrounded by rabbits in one, by ducks in the other. I do not notice that they are the same. Does it follow from this that I see something different in the two cases? It gives us a reason for using this expression here. “ I saw it quite differently, I should never have recognized it!” Now, that is an exclamation. And there is also a justification for it. I should never have thought of superimposing the heads like that, of making this comparison between them.... I describe the alteration (change of aspect) like a perception; quite as if the object had altered before my eyes.... The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged. I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 193-196.

Example: The comic strip below expresses an interpretative seeing-as that is dependent upon a background concept of a liberal. Of course, its interpretive warrantability or appropriateness remains an open question.