A central theme of my previous blogs has been the Cartesian picture of the world, where the mind is a distinct entity located in the head, which is separate from both the body and the world, and is made up of entirely different ‘stuff’, which in contemporary parlance we’d call ‘mental’ rather than ‘physical’.
In this blog I’d like to offer a different ‘picture’ which I think will help us as practitioners overcome some of the problems that the Cartesian picture creates, a picture rooted in the Gestalt approach to perception. I’ll firstly reprise some of the difficulties created by Descartes philosophy, then outline the Gestalt approach and conclude with a discussion of the significance of this revised view for our practice.
The Cartesian model and some of the difficulties it creates.
Descartes formulation has been a foundation of Western culture for several centuries, creating what seem like insoluble problems for philosophers and practitioners alike. I have discussed these problems in previous blogs, but here are some of the most problematic:
3. The mind is taken as a distinct separate entity with its own inner workings and dynamics¸ much like a car or computer, which, if addressed at all, requires specialist in the field, professionals who know what they are doing in this potentially dangerous territory. We regular meet clients, participants on programmes and fellow professionals who voice the fear of ‘opening Pandora’s box’ if they are encouraged to attend to the ‘psychological dimension’, and thereby address the emotion as well as thinking that is present in the work we do.
The Gestalt Approach to Perception
I’ve repeatedly said that the Cartesian picture is inadequate. How then can we understand thinking and other ‘mental contents’ such as feelings without attributing them to a separate realm of mind? More generally, how can we overcome the splitting of mind, body and world?
I think the Gestalt approach to perception offers a way forward here, so I’m going to first briefly outline this approach and its implications for addressing the Cartesian splitting of mind/body, and then the significance of this new formulation for our practice.
The Gestalt school of psychology challenged the existing empiricist approaches to perception, which (in line with the Cartesian model) argued that perception was the end result of gathering together a myriad of separate sensations and then combining these into a composite entity. For example, perceiving something as a chair would be the end result of gathering together sensations as colour, touch, identifiable forms such as legs, a place to sit upon, a backrest and so forth. The Gestaltists said this was wrong: we don’t perceive a host of sensations and then put these all together to then see a ‘chair’, rather we’d instantly see a chair – we instantly attribute meaning to whatever we perceive. Likewise with sound, we hear a car door slam or a familiar song, not a series of sounds that we then add together as composites of what is then heard.
There can be rare occasions when it is hard to know exactly what we are perceiving (is that the sea in the distance, or grey clouds on the horizon?) and this can be uncomfortable, but once we’ve ‘got it’ we instantly see (or hear, or feel …) the world in a particular way. Such experiences enable to understand something important, it is our nature to be seeking/giving meaning to what we perceive. We do so even if the pattern of what we see is incomplete but suggestive of something meaningful. We, so to speak, ‘fill in the blanks’, or better put, we interpret what we perceive in an immediate way. For example, I’m sure you cannot help but see a panda in this picture, even though, strictly speaking it is incomplete, just black patches on a white background.
Most importantly for our purposes, the Gestaltists also argued that perception has a figure/ground structure, and used many well-known illusions and images to support this. The ‘figure’ is the meaningful ‘something’ we perceive, in our example the panda, and the ‘ground’ (back-ground) is all that has been organised to form that figure (in our example, of the panda, the black patches and the white of the page).
The figure/ground structure of perception is clear in this next famous image. I have no doubt you’ll be able to see two different ‘figures’, the two faces close-up to each other, and a vase. Notice you cannot see them both at the same time (though you may switch between them very quickly); you can see either one figure or the other because each figure is a distinct meaningful ‘whole’ and each ‘configures’ the ground in a particular way. For example, with the figure of two faces, what lies between them is a space; whereas in the second figure that same ‘ground’ is the stem of the vase itself. So this is a crucial point: the ‘figure’ organises the ‘ground’ into a meaningful whole.
We can see exactly the same principles at work in the second well-known but slightly more complex image of two women’s faces, one older than the other. Again, you can see one face or the other by switching figures, not simultaneously, and again each figure (each face) configures’ the ground in its own particular way. For example, the chin of the older face is the neck of the younger face.
There are a couple of other important points to note:
We will return to these two points later in relation to our practice as coaches, particularly the notion that if you want the client to find new meanings in their established ‘figures’ in the world, then it’s vital to raise their awareness of the ground.
These famous examples are effective in illustrating key aspects of the Gestalt approach, but they are at the same time limited in that they are images isolated from a wider surround or context. The relation between figure and ground becomes even more complex and interesting when the wider context is introduced, because we then find that the meaning of the figure itself cannot be separated from its context. What we perceive, what is figural, shifts as the ground shifts.
This became evident to me recently when choosing colours to decorate a room. The green we were considering looked very different in the morning sunlight to how it looked later in the afternoon, or in the artificial light of the evening. What was the ‘correct’ colour? Well clearly there is no such correct view, only a range of figure-ground colourings.
The significance of the wider ground becomes obvious when we look at artefacts from other cultures and wonder what they are, as without the usual taken-for-granted cultural context what something ‘is’ may be unclear or a complete mystery. The enigmatic faces on Easter Island, or the standing stones at Stonehenge constantly evoke the questions ‘what are they; what do they mean?’ Without the cultural ‘ground’ what something is cannot be known. What would a medieval person make of an aeroplane or a computer? Context shifts everything. Imagine seeing someone laughing. As the picture pans out we see he is watching a comedian. Alternatively, we see he is participating in someone being bullied. These are very different experiences of the smile. Context, the ground, shifts everything.
The figure/ground structure, and the way we impose meaning on complex, ambiguous situations becomes even more urgent and significant when we consider social, political situations, such as Brexit or the multitude of other contested areas of social life. Here people ‘see’ the world in very different ways. With Brexit the figure for some is large numbers of immigrants threatening their world; for others what is figural is a narrow, fear driven nationalism. Each impose their meaning and order on the same ground, configuring it in their own way.
This figure/ground structure is important for us Individually, as each of us configure the ‘ground’ of our lives in our own way, based upon our own particular experiences in life, leading us to see the world in particular ways. Of course, our culture sets up the fundamentals of how the world is configured for us, in ways mostly shared with others, but each of us has our own particular ‘take’ on the world. For some the possibility of redundancy may be configured as an opportunity, for others it may be configured as a threat.
Figure/ground and the Cartesian mind/body/world divide
As we’ve repeatedly seen the Cartesian approach has the mind as a separate distinct entity, a place in which the mental exists, as thoughts, feelings, images and so forth. From the gestalt based approach I am developing here ‘mind’ as such, as a distinct separate entity, though deeply embedded in the common sense of our culture, is an artefact of the Cartesian mode. What then might this Gestalt based approach offer us?
Firstly, it seeks to dissolves the splits of the Cartesian model. The world and our involvement with it are inseparable. To coin a phrase from Heidegger, our existence is being-in-the-world. Thinking, feeling and all the other activities attributed to mind are real aspects of our embodied involvement with the world. How then are we to understand them if not as attributes in mind?
Of course, mostly we’re not attending at all to what we’re thinking or feeling, we are just getting on living our lives, doing what’s needed, and our thinking and feeling aren’t ‘figural’, they are simply aspects of the ‘ground’ of our activities.
At times, however, we may choose to attend more closely to our thinking and feeling. As we do so we make these aspects figural and in doing so make all the other aspects of our being-in-the-world the ground of our thinking and feeling. Given what was said above, there is a vital point to underline here: our thinking and feeling are not stand alone activities but are what they are as aspects of the ground from which they arise, which makes them meaningful. The image of a tapestry comes to mind – particular thoughts or feelings are strands from a tapestry which we have chosen to highlight, but these thoughts and feelings find their place and meaning from the whole tapestry, which have become the ground as we make the thoughts figural.
So the punchline of all this: the ‘psychological dimension’ is not the working of a distinct, stand alone entity called mind, rather it is an integral part of our embodied involvement in the world, and aspects of this psychological dimension (thinking, feeling, assumptions, images etc.) become figural as we attend to them, emerging from the ground of our everyday living. They then become part of the ground as practical tasks become figural.
The Implications of all this for Practice
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior