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.


ombhurbhuva said...

Knox’s essays I keep coming across in the barrows for a euro. Clear, crisp writing with an ascerbic edge. I snap them up. His detective novels I haven’t read yet. have two of them and I’ve downloaded the one you mention.

Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) has reference to context change in several essays. Learning III he calls it. Learning I is rote learning, Learning II is learning how to learn, Learning III is context alteration and Learning IV is the Mystics apprehension of reality. That’s all in Logical Categories I think.

praymont said...

Thanks, ombhurbhuva. I'll look into Bateson.