Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ronald Knox and Gestalt switches

Here's Mgr. Ronald Knox using (in 1927) a visual-perception analogy to point out a change in belief that involves no new data but, instead, seeing old data in a new way:
[S]uddenly, when I’m thinking of something quite different, a game of patience, for example, I see the whole thing in a new mental perspective. It’s like the optical illusion of the tumbling cubes – you know, the pattern of cubes which looks concave to the eye; and then, by a readjustment of your mental focus, you suddenly see them as convex instead. What produces that change? Why, you catch sight of one particular angle in a new light, and from that you get your new mental picture of the whole pattern. Just so, one can stumble upon a new mental perspective about a problem like this by suddenly seeing one single fact in a new light. And then the whole problem rearranges itself. (emphasis added)
The passage appears in the first of Knox's mystery novels to feature Miles BredonThe Three Taps (1927). At the beginning of Ch. 25, Bredon says that when he's really stumped by a crime and continually hitting dead ends, he likes to get lost in a card game called 'Patience'. Absorption in the game facilitates a change in how he interprets the facts of the crime. The result seems to be not the taking in of any new facts, or data, but, rather, a new discovery or realization that emerges from seeing the facts in a new way. He sees one "fact in a new light," and then the related facts show up in a newly noticed "pattern."

I believe the optical illusion to which Knox refers is the reversible "cubes illusion" (described in Howard Crosby Warren's textbook, Human Psychology [1919, p. 262] - though I don't claim that this book was Knox's source).

Post-war philosophers made similar use of another visual phenomenon, the gestalt switch (though they didn't all use that phrase).

Wittgenstein reflects on gestalt switches in his discussions of aspect-seeing, using the example of Jastrow's duck-rabbit image, in his Philosophical Investigations (Part 2, sect. 11) and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (v. I, sect. 70). (Cf. Robert Angelo's page on these Wittgensteinian passages.) Wittgenstein's reflections are focused on cases of visual perception, in which what one sees (a matrix of lines or dots) remains the same while what one sees (a duck or a rabbit) changes. In these cases, the visual input remains constant while its interpretation or categorization varies. (I don't attribute that characterization to Wittgenstein.)

In the above quotation of Knox, the input data remain constant while their interpretation varies, where the former are the 'facts' of a criminal case. So, while Knox relies on an analogy with visual perception, the diversely interpreted inputs in his example are not limited to visual phenomena.

There must be earlier examples of this idea (same facts - different interpretation).

The first chapter of N. R. Hanson's Patterns of Discovery (1958) builds on Wittgenstein's reflections to illustrate the theory-laden nature of perception. Also, Thomas Kuhn used the example of gestalt switches in his characterization of a paradigm shift. In philosophy of religion, John Wisdom riffed on a similar theme in his 'parable of the garden' in 'Gods' (1944), focusing on disagreements in which the parties agree on the facts but interpret them differently. Recently, Ray Monk has applied the idea of gestalt shifts to the writing of biography.

Did any of the gestalt psychologists or philosophers make something like Knox's point? Perhaps Max Wertheimer did in his book Productive Thinking (1945) -- I haven't read it yet.

This notion (same facts - different interpretation) must have earlier examples. I expect some 19th-century German made the point. I'd appreciate any help in finding such sources.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Towns in my history (part 2)

I posted about my childhood home of Goderich, a town centred on a round 'Square'. At its hub, which was actually an octagon, the clean lines of an Art Deco courthouse cut right angles amid a gnarled host of old maple, chestnut, and elm trees.
The Square, Goderich.
The courthouse wall that faced my street featured a clock above the central window, so that when I looked up the street from my front yard, there they were: the law and correct time.
Huron County Courthouse.
Wikimedia Commons, Rjsbird287 CC BY-SA 3.0
Venturing the other way took one to another juristic octagon, the Huron County gaol, an honest-to-goodness Benthamite panopticon.

Huron County Gaol.
Photo from Bruce Forsyth's page CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
The prominence of the octagon in the town's physiognomy has long fueled speculation, including this note in Goderich's Downtown Core Master Plan:
The uncanny resemblance between the Goderich Gaol design and that of the Square may be mere coincidence, as may be the octagonal shape coinciding with the eight letters of the town’s name, or it may have been deliberate. Certainly an octagon is a very unusual shape for a town 'square' and has few precedents beyond a utopian town layout found in Northern Italy [Palmanova] and in unbuilt town designs from the Renaissance. (Town of Goderich, Downtown Core Master Plan [May 14, 2012], p. 6 n. 1)
These observations conjure a dystopian theme, setting Goderich in the ambit of an all-seeing authority. This motif may find an echo in the Calvinism of the area's settlers, but I won't pursue it. While the region has its dark history, including the miscarriage of justice in the Truscott case, this was before my brief time there. No overbearing authority loomed in my childhood experience of the place. By then, the gaol had already become a museum, and the courthouse seemed barely occupied, a place people visited to pay parking tickets (if they ever went there at all).

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Mgr Ronald Knox anticipating Popper's critique of psychoanalysis

Here's a bit of 'found philosophy' in Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox's first mystery novel, The Viaduct Murder (1925):
If you’re out for [money], I should take to psycho-analysis. The system’s the same, generally speaking, only instead of dealing with primitive man, whom you can disregard because he isn’t there, you are dealing with a living man, who will probably tell you that you are a liar. Then you tell him that he is losing his temper, which is the sign of a strong inhibition somewhere, and that’s just what you were saying all along. The beauty of psycho-analysis is that it’s all ‘Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.’ In medicine, your diagnosis of fever is a trifle disconcerted if the patient’s temperature is sub-normal. In psychoanalysis you say, 'Ah, that just proves what I was saying.' (Emphasis added)
The words are spoken by Gordon, one of the novel's quartet of amateur detectives, during his critique of his friend's too-clever-by-half theories about a murder (and just after denouncing anthropology).

Knox was Penelope Fitzgerald's uncle. Fitzgerald wrote about him in The Knox Brothers. There's also a biography about Knox by his friend, Evelyn Waugh, and another by Francesca Bugliani Knox.

In 2011, I noted George Eliot's anticipation of Popper's use of falsifiability as a mark of empirical science.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Towns in my history (part 1)

I was born after the first malls had opened, but they still confronted me as a deviation from the norm, which had been established for me by the traditional, downtown hub of Goderich, Ontario. The town's agora was the Square, an area delimited by a road that (ignoring its name) follows the contour of an octagonal yard, in which stands the Huron County courthouse. The town's main shops and businesses lined the outer edge of the road. Our house was a short walk north of the Square, which I visited often with friends or on errands for my parents. At first, attempts to reconcile the Square's name and shape flabbergasted my juvenile mind, yet immersion in the local culture soon led me to accept the contradiction as something perfectly natural and puzzling to outsiders only.
The Square (1920), archival image
The original courthouse, an Italianate structure completed in 1856, burned down in 1954.
Huron County courthouse, before 1954 (postcard, Valentine and Sons United Publishing Co.)
The courthouse yard's shape was set by the town's co-founder, John Galt, impressed (as he was) by the insight of an ancient Roman planner, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, whose idea it had been that polygonal sites are easier to defend from attackers, such as the Visigoths (or the Americans on the other side of the lake).
The new courthouse, built in 1954 (Wikimedia Commons, JustSomePics [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])
One was continually meeting history in Goderich -- in the old jail (or 'gaol'), with its legacy of violence, in the lore about devastating storms that had swept in from the lake, in the local museum with its stuffed, two-headed calf and yard full of old artillery pieces, or in the war memorial on the courthouse lawn.

The most conspicuous history was a relic of the early-mid-19th century, when the place was designed and built as an outpost of the British Empire. The Empire loomed at practically every turn. Among the town's streets are these: Victoria St., Trafalgar St., Nelson St., Wellington St., Waterloo St., Wolfe St., Brock St., Elgin Ave. The commemorations said little of the Indigenous peoples who had lived there for millennia: the Wendat (or Wyandotte [aka Hurons]), after whom the county was named, the Attiwandarons of the 'Neutral' Confederacy, and the Mississaugas. They were largely gone from the town and its official, public memory.

Goderich, like its environs in Huron and Bruce Counties (Alice-Munro country), was colonized mainly by Scots-Irish immigrants, some of whom had fled the Highland Clearances. Both of Goderich's co-founders, Galt and William 'Tiger' Dunlop, were Scotsmen. Dunlop took his nickname from an earlier imperial adventure (when he had tried to clear Saugor Island in India of its tigers). He and Galt worked for the Canada Company, the main function of which was to facilitate the movement of British and Irish settlers into the area.

Coat of Arms of the Canada Company

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Follow-ups on earlier posts

Follow-up 1: Almost one year ago, I posted a list of UK philosophers who were among the combatants in WWI. I've added another name to that list: Leon Roth, who served in the Jewish Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Like Rupert Clendon Lodge (see previous post), Roth won Oxford's John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy and taught at Manchester University before leaving England. Roth then taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

It's been easier to identify French or German philosophers who fought in WWI. I guess that's because France and Germany sent higher percentages of their male populations to one of the fronts, including many more middle-aged men, who were old enough to have begun a career in academic philosophy.

Follow-up 2: In October, I posted a note on Caporetto. Since then, Mark Thompson has written in the TLS about Hemingway's sources for descriptions of the battleground in A Farewell to ArmsOther American writers who volunteered for ambulance duty in WWI include John Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings. John McGrath Morris has written a book about Hemingway and Dos Passos: The Ambulance Drivers.

Follow-up 3: I ended my recent post on Hegel in Canada with a note about Rupert Clendon Lodge. As I noted in 2016, one of Lodge's undergrad students was Marshall McLuhan. Lodge also taught the novelist W. O. Mitchellwho based a character (Dr. Lyons) partly on Lodge in Since Daisy Creek. So, add this to my "philosophers in fiction" set of posts.

Also, while there's no Wikipedia entry for Rupert Clendon Lodge, his relatives are certainly well represented there. One of his uncles was a physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge. Another uncle was a historian, Sir Richard Lodge. Rupert's aunt was also a historian, Eleanor Constance Lodge (CBE). A third uncle was the mathematician Alfred Lodge. Rupert's grand-uncle was Rev. Samuel Lodge. Among Rupert's 1st-cousins were Alexander Lodge and Oliver W. F. Lodge. Still more of his relatives have Wiki entries.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hegel in Canada

I've been reading up on the history of Canadian philosophy. Anglo-Canadian academic philosophy was strongly influenced by British, particularly Scots, Hegelians. In 1994, John Burbidge published 'Hegel in Canada', a short piece in which he documented Hegel's influence in Canada via John Watson (among others), a student of Edward Caird's who taught at Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario). According to Burbidge, Watson influenced the training of Presbyterian clergy at Queen's. Here's another item on Hegel and Canada; it's by sociologist David MacGregor.

A new collection of papers, Hegel and Canada (ed. Susan Dodd & Neil G. Robertson), will be released in 2018 by the University of Toronto Press.

In his paper on Watson's influence at Queen's, Burbidge quoted a line about 'seeing life clearly and seeing it whole'. He says that he had often heard these words during his Canadian upbringing, and he takes the phrase to be an especially apt characterization of an idealist outlook. (Update [Jan. 1, 2019]: 'The true is the whole' [Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 'Preface', trans. Terry Pinkardsec. 20 -- that last link is to the older trans. by J. B. Baillie].)

I have the impression that I've heard the line before but can't recall the context. A similar line was used by Charles Prestwich Scott, an editor (and owner) of the Manchester Guardian. Scott had said that 'the function of a good newspaper and therefore of a good journalist is to see life steady and see it whole'. Stephen C. Bandy pointed out that essentially the same phrase was earlier used by Matthew Arnold in his poem 'To a friend' (1849), where Arnold wrote of one who 'saw life steadily and saw it whole'. H. G. Wells used similar wording in a discussion of Gissing in 1897. Probably, though, it was Hamilton Wright Mabie who's responsible for the line's currency in Canada and for its association with idealism (in a loose, popular sense of that label). While largely forgotten now, Mabie published widely in popular American magazines. In his 'Interpretation of Idealism' (1896), Mabie valorized the idealist's attempt 'to see life clearly and to see it whole', by which he meant not just grasping given 'facts' (or data) but understanding them in context, or in relation to a larger whole.

Finally, one of the British idealists who moved to Canada was Rupert Clendon Lodge (1886-1961). He was influenced mainly by Bosanquet's version of idealism. Lodge won Oxford's John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy and taught at the University of Manchester before leaving England. He was visiting Germany on a scholarship when WWI began. He had to leave in a hurry. After fleeing Germany, he taught at the University of Minnesota. He bounced around between there and the University of Alberta before settling in at the University of Manitoba (in Winnipeg) in 1920, where he was appointed Professor of Logic and History of Philosophy and headed the philosophy department for almost thirty years. I've started a public page on Lodge at

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


One hundred years ago the terrible WWI Battle of Caporetto began (on Oct. 24). The battle was named for a town that is now in Slovenia (and is called 'Kobarid' in Slovene) and that used to be in Yugoslavia, in Italy, in Austria-Hungary, etc.

Caporetto was the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, the last in a series of costly and generally poorly planned attacks in difficult mountain terrain.

It was a cataclysmic defeat for the Italians that nearly knocked them out of the War. In the cultural memory, what the Somme is for the British and Canadians, and what Verdun is for the French and Germans, Caporetto is for the Italians. Technically, while Italy lost at Caporetto, the British won the Somme and the French won at Verdun, but these last two battles nonetheless signify for all parties involved the War's senselessness and catastrophic waste.

One of the young men on the Italian side of this battle was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (aka Pope John XXIII), who was a chaplain (according to his German Wikipedia entry). Among the Italian soldiers to be killed at Caporetto was the mathematician Eugenio Elia Levi.

Like other major WWI engagements, Caporetto's cultural ramifications reverberated for many years after the War and include important literary works by people who were swept up in the battle or its aftermath. In English there's Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which describes the Italian retreat and derives partly from the author's experiences with a volunteer ambulance service in Italy about six months after Caporetto.

In Italian, there's Curzio Malaparte's Viva Caporetto! (for which I can't find an English trans.). Emilio Lussu's memoir, Un anno sull'Altipiano, covers the battle and has been translated into English (as A Soldier on the Southern Front). Novelist and engineer Carlo Emilio Gadda was taken prisoner at Caporetto, an experience which he describes in his Giornale di guerra e di prigionia (or War and Prison Diary, unavailable in English). While a POW, Gadda befriended two other literary prisoners from Caporetto, Ugo Betti and Bonaventura Tecchi. I don't know if these last two authors published anything explicitly about their WWI experiences.

Umberto Rossi has written about Caporetto's traces in Italian literary culture.

Rai has a short video about the battle.

The Italians faced an attacking force of Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Erwin Rommel led part of the German group. The Hapsburg troops included many Slovenes, Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, and Hungarians. Among the Hapsburg officers at Caporetto were Ludwig von Mises and the composer Viktor Ullmann, who survived WWI but was murdered at Auschwitz Oct. 18, 1944.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Annus horribilis!

Well, that was a horrible year.

My father died. I was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. My mother-in-law died. Other bad things happened.

I look forward to posting again, starting with some link lists.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sundry items making no coherent whole

I've added content to the following old posts:
These old lines by Mike Royko seem timely:
I always believed that being a Cubs fan built strong character. It taught a person that if you try hard enough and long enough, you'll still lose. And that's the story of life. .... [a year later] Being a Cub Fan prepares you for life because everyone in life winds up a loser. Just check the cemetery. (Royko, 'A Farewell to Cubs' April 20, 1980, and 'When Ya Gotta Go' April 9, 1981, rpt. in For the Love of Mike: More of the Best by Mike Royko [University of Chicago Press, 2001], p. 35 & p. 40)
Leonard Nimoy explains the Spock pinch (the link is to the video for a 1969 CBC interview).

The BBC's list of 10 'lost' books worth our time.

The Guardian's 'top 10 philosopher's fictions'.

Pardon my crooked scanning of this image:

New Words in 1919 (from The New Republic, Oct. 1, 1919)
Hermann Broch (c. 1939-1948): 'When living in a twilight haze, one cannot distinguish between the conditions of nature and those of culture. One's attitude towards culture, then, resembles that of animals towards nature.'* (Hermann Broch Massenwahntheorie: Beitrage zu einer Psychologie der Politik, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler, [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979], p. 69; trans. of 1st sentence: Stefan Andriopoulos, Possessed, trans. author & Peter Jansen [University of Chicago Press, 2008], n. 456)

Roland Barthes (1984): 'Myth consists in turning culture into nature, or at least turning the social, the cultural, the historical into "the natural".' (Barthes, in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard, [NY: Hill & Wang, 1986; 1st published in French in 1984], p. 65)

C. D. Broad (1954):
[Aunt Julia's] cat for a great many years was a large tom, whom even I (who am inclined to be weak about cats) must admit to have been ugly, greedy, lecherous, and lacking in affection. She lavished good food on him .... She had named him Urijah .... Urijah survived his mistress for several years. He was treated with the same marked generosity by my cousin Ernest, who surely cannot have approved of his character, and died in extreme and unlovely old age. (Broad, 'Autobiography', The Philosophy of C. D. Broad, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp [NY: Tudor Publishing Company, 1959], p. 20)
James Lees-Milne (1942): '... Ronnie Norman, the eternal handsome schoolboy, noisily loquacious until he finds the conclusion to an argument, when he stops like an unwound clock.' (James Lees-Milne, Diaries, 1942-1954, ed. Michael Bloch, entry for Jan 12, 1942)

The 'Indiscreet charm of Beryl Bainbridge' by Philip Hensher.

Beryl Bainbridge in Coronation Street:

* Broch's above-quoted remarks in German: 'Wenn der Mensch sich im Dämmerzustand befindet, kann er nicht zwischen den Gegebenheiten von Natur und Kultur unterscheiden. Seine Einstellung gegenuber der Kultur ahnelt dann der des Tieres gegenuber der Natur.'