Gestalt Theory: An Overview

Gestalt Theory, basically put, asserts that the Whole can be something fundamentally different from the Parts. A painting becomes something more than a series of differently colored brushstrokes. An archway serves a different function than its individual stones could serve alone.

The world is full of elements which our brains are constantly (and I do mean constantly) putting together into wholes. An interesting question is… How much of a certain pattern is already present in reality, and how much is supplied by, or created by, the human brain? Indeed, do their even EXIST patterns without a consciousness to perceive them?

Barry Smith tells us in his great overview work, Gestalt Theory: An Essay in Philosophy, that when our brains create a Gestalt (a whole-pattern-from-constituent-parts) we are adding to the Universe a “new value” which did not exist before.  

Via an act of “fusion,” we ignore certain “phenomenal discontinuities” in the World surrounding us– and from what would be an overwhelming chaos engulfing us, we create Form.  And from Form can– sometimes– sometimes– emerge meaning.

The fusion process which creates the different patterns of Gestalts we perceive around us is a multi-layered process of at least four parts.

PART ONE: There are, we will presume for this post at least, the actual elemental components of the physical world outside of us.

PART TWO: Additionally there is the need to PERCEIVE the elements of the World (or certain portions of the World at least– for our senses act as filters to keep information OUT as well as acting as sensors to let information IN).

PART THREE: Then, there is the brain activity which processes and organizes the ascertained information and– through “attention” and probably other measures– continues to filter-out still MORE data.  During this cognitive-processing stage, we take, to use Smith’s example, the raw data of “reds and greens” and turn them into, say, “swallows and tulips.”  In this way, we use the data gathered by the senses –not to ascertain TRUE reality– but as something a bit more modest– as CUES to aid us in our navigation of the world. Smith writes that the… “underlying physical material or process is then to be conceived not simply as an object of perception but rather as a TRIGGER.”  Such perceptions serve to trigger the necessary mental and physical reactions which will assist us in satisfying the demands of our Wills / desires.

PART FOUR: There seems also to be what we may call a psychological response to the ideas formed in our heads by the brain’s structurization of the filtered data supplied by our senses. We not only have the idea of “car”–but we know what “car” means, and may go about associating “car” with memories from our past experiences.

Frequently, several perceptions combine to produce sensations such as “pressure” or “temperature.”  These help to form Gestaltish ideas such as: wetness, smoothness, shininess, et cetera.  Gestalt, Smith tells us, turns a diversity into a unity.

What is strange to consider is that the patterns we put-together out of the elements of the World are not objectively the truest–and certainly not the only– patterns to be formed from the presented data. The patterns we make in our heads are probably due more to the wiring of our brains than to the triggering-cues around us.

There are an infinite number of ways we COULD put-together the world with our pattern-making ways.  As Smith puts it, “there exist many varieties of order, some of which are in competition with each other.”

Some Gestalt-philosophers believe that are no laws as to how the various factors of the environment are put-together into patterns by our minds. Neither is there any way to predict “which factors will mutually support or undermine each other.” However, Smith informs us that some Gestalt-philosophers believe that the mind preferentially creates patterns “which have the greatest possible simplicity, unity, density, closedness, durability, symmetry, balance, [and] concentricality.”

We also tend to create Categories or Types for grouping together similar patterns (what is “similar,” I suppose, is entirely up to us). Smith quotes the following passage from Husserl…

“The factual world of experience is experienced as a typified world. Things are experienced as trees, bushes, animals, snakes, birds; specifically, as pine, linden, lilac, dog, viper, swallow, sparrow, and so on.”

The term “Gestalt,” itself, means “shape” or “form.”  Smith explains that the word Gestalt shares roots with the Germanic “stalla“– “a place to stand.” Only those properties “which gain existence through unification and lose existence through isolation” are “Gestalt” properties. A Gestalt quality (that is, a property of the whole) “disappears when we isolate its parts.”

This reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man felt a different part of the elephant– one felt its leg and thought it was pillar; one felt its tusk and thought it was a ploughshare, one felt its tail and thought it was a brush. Thus we can see that the parts, when isolated, had lost their Gestalt quality of “elephant.”  Smith writes that… “when elements are spread in different consciousness, their unity is lost.”

Perhaps the easiest Gestalts, because we are such visual animals, are the visual Gestalts. Consider a constellation of the nightsky.  A constellation, taken as a Whole, may suggest to the human mind, say, the form of a Dipper. However, there is nothing resembling a Dipper in each star taken individually. The quality or characteristic of “Dipperness” only EMERGES when the individual Parts fuse into the Whole.

But it is not just by visual cues which can be seen “at a glance” that our brains can connect elements.  We can connect parts into a Whole just as easily over Time as we do Space…

One of the first areas studied seriously under the Gestalt approach was music. Individual musical notes produce their certain auditory values… But notes issued closely enough together, and with a certain ordering in time and tone, can produce a “melody.” The brain absorbs the melody, or snippets of it at least, as a Whole. The Whole can do things beyond the reach of the Parts. The Whole can make us want to dance, or fall asleep, or even cry.

It is, in fact, writes Smith, “only in certain simple cases, for example simple visual patterns, that the entire Gestalt can be perceived in one intuitive glance.”  Often, the brain is working by a “cumulative process” combining the past and present with operations of memory to form an overarching, encompassing “whole.”

Smith also includes human activities as “Gestalt processes.” These would include such activities as: speaking, writing, signing,and sketching– to name just a few.

And, similar to music-melodies, “our perception transforms certain kinds of noises in such a way as to constitute phonemes, words, sentences, commands, requests, prayers, and so on.”  Many linguists consider that the human brain comes pre-programmed with certain “canonical sentence patterns”— that is, predispositions to seize certain elements of the incoming auditory data and to combine those elements in such a way as to increase the likelihood that certain Linguistic Gestalts will be formed.

Smith writes that some Gestaltists consider that “the objects we perceive exhibit structures and properties that are not indigenous to the world as it is in itself.” However, my own belief is that formed-Gestalts ARE reflections of the true Reality surrounding us– they will be fractional and distorted reflections, but I do believe that are not total falsehoods; they are, instead, partial truths. That said, there is truth also to the opposite view, as shown in the Muller-Lyer illusion.

In this illusion, the lines, though the same size, APPEAR to be of different lengths. Thus, Smith writes, “there is a discrepancy between the structure we experience, the perceived Gestalt, and the underlying autonomous objectual formation.”

Often, when we are utilizing a Gestalt, we can recognize the elements comprising it. For instance, we can see a Dipper constellation as a dipper– or as a group of stars. Similarly, we can see a forest– or a group of trees. Smith observes that Gestalts are to “different degrees transparent.” Often, he says, we see Gestalts “without recognizing parts” and that “sometimes it takes effort to delineate” the different parts. For example, with the forest, we can see the individual trees easily enough. But it takes a little extra mental effort to see the Gestalt of the “tree” as a collection of “trunk” and “branch” and “leaf.” And each of these components can also be viewed as wholes that are in turn composed of parts.  But what these constituent parts are made-up of is much harder for our brains to ascertain. This breaking-down of wholes into parts can continue down to –at least– the subatomic level.

What is depressing for some Gestaltists is this notion (likely very true) that even what we consider our most elemental perceptions already come to us as consciousness-created Gestalts. If this is true, then we humans may never have any hope of grasping the True and underlying Reality (that we are assuming exists in this post). Some philosophers contend that, in such a situation, the underlying formations could never play any DIRECT role in cognition, and the situation “confines the perceiving subject to a windowless prison.”  (And I thought Economics was supposed to be the “dismal science”).

Perhaps this condition can be somewhat alleviated by the fact that we are not trapped forever into the SAME Gestalts. Smith notes that different Gestalt qualities arise under different conditions. A simple example would be Rubin’s Vase

Or maybe the “Magic Cube.”

Thomas Kuhn famously labelled the situation in which the entire field of perception is changed as a “paradigm change.” It has also been called, not quite as catchily, a “Gestalt-switch phenomenon.” The mere fact that under “the same stimulus conditions, different presentations of Gestalt qualities can be won” demonstrates the high degree of mental construction associated with Gestalts, as well as the relatively low responsibility born by the “real” physical cues for what we THINK we perceive.

Gestaltists have also observed that capacities to grasp Gestalten [multiple Gestalts] may differ over time, and that the mental ability to perform acts of Gestalt-production can be affected by experience.

The phenomenon of “mass suggestion” is well-known, in which an entire population (of whatever size) succumbs, for a variety of reasons, to a similar Gestalt-production– a Gestalt which appears later, or to outsiders, as illusionary.

Smith cites a famous case of mass suggestion in which… “the entire crew of a ship, while searching for a boat in distress” thought they had found the troubled vessel and initiated rescue activities. Various members of the crew claimed to see the craft, to spot members of its crew, or to hear shouts and signals from the ship. However, “this collective hallucination was suddenly dispelled– but only during the last minutes of approach. The ‘boat’ turned out to be a tree with branches and leaves drifting in the water.”  The crew WANTED to see the distressed ship… and so they did.

The same Gestalt-sharing is applicable to the worldview shared by a generation or era. One’s own community’s shared worldview depends upon “a network of systems of reference which are determined by our language, traditions, habits, knowledge.”  Smith points out– and this was largely Kuhn’s point– that even scientists are subject to the shared-worldview condition. It is often difficult for later generations of thinkers to conceive how an earlier generation could have ever “seen” the world as they did “back then.”

As with the forest example cited earlier, there are not only Gestalts, but there are also Gestalts of Gestalts-– and Gestalts of those, and so on. These higher order Gestalts are just as “real” as, and often more encompassing or influential than, the most basic Gestalts.  Considering that we experience much of the World as higher order Gestalts, the World which we “experience” is probably very far removed from its basic elements.

One way I sometimes think of our extremely limited perception of the World is this… What we see of the world is just the tops of a large number of pyramids pointed at us from all direction. The vast amount of material below those tops is directly unknown to us.

And just as there are shared “worldview” types of Gestalt, there are also ultra “personal” Gestalts. Each individual life, in fact, is based upon a “complex of perceived Gestalten” no one of which will precisely match anyone else’s complex.

Each person has his own personal “habits of mind” which predispose him to the formation of a certain, individualized set of Gestalts. The formation of these personal Gestalts will depend, says Smith, on: social factors, institutions, authorities, environmental conditions, and language. All these things act as layers “intervening between perceived data and acts of perception.”

Some Gestaltists consider complex human emotions or moods, themselves, as Gestalts. And they furthermore consider that, when we perceive what we interpret as someone else’s emotional state, we are also forming a Gestalt– perhaps a Gestalt conveying “sadness” or one of “preoccupation.” Smith asks us to consider, by way of the example, the facial expressions associated with “anger”… It is the formation of the Gestalt signifiying someone’s felt-anger “which gives unity to what would otherwise be a heap of simultaneous muscular contractions.”

Even the Ego, contend some Gestaltists, can be thought of as a Gestalt… with the Ego being viewed as “a moment of unity spread-out through time.”

Lastly, there is an interesting tie-in between Gestalt-formation and the work of the Artist. Just as the World gives us “cues” which serve as “triggers” to generate certain perceptions, reflexes, and thoughts in us– so the Artist’s work can supply a trigger to set-off the emotions or other responses in the audience which the Artist desires to set-off.

Gestalt theory appears pregnant with philosophical potential.  However, Smith notes….

As can be deduced from… the lack of any substantial and formally fruitful logical treatment of the wealth of notions clustering around the Gestalt idea, a truly adequate mastering of the philosophical difficulties which surround this idea has never really taken place.”

In other words, Gestalt Theory, as interesting as it is, can seem sometimes kinda like the rough draft of a theory, or perhaps the starting point for several, narrower, more exact lines of reasoning and inquiry.  Just the same, I find myself drawn to the insights of Gestalt theory and its elucidation of the nature of the cooperation and conflict between reality and perception.     


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