Seeing things whole

Gestalt psychology developed in Austria and Germany in the early twentieth century. All three of its founders, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler escaped to the US with the rise of fascism, but Kohler outlived his two colleagues by many years and became its flag bearer. I have always liked Aristotle’s saying ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ Kohler however pointed out that summing parts which are different is meaningless. How in considering an apple do you sum the peel, the stalk and the pips? He preferred ‘ The whole is something else than the totality of its parts.’ More accurate but, alas, not more memorable.
My little granddaughter, like my own daughter, learnt to say Daddy considerably before saying, Mummy and a few weeks later learnt to say two and will, I suspect, learn to say three before she says one. The ground, the environmental norm, sameness requires a much greater effort to notice than change, novelty, difference. The ground is not infinite, but boundless or unlimited, like the visual field. The visual field is boundless, because in order to see a boundary one would have to be able to see the other side of the visual boundary which by definition one cannot. Perhaps the universe is finite but unbounded. What a finite universe expands into is unfathomable. It certainly is true that individual consciousness is finite and unbounded. Perhaps, as Freud seems to suggest against his usual rationalism, the unconscious is not only without temporal organisation but exists timelessly. The unconscious might then be seen as ground zero, that is to say the one from which number arises, counted off in time. As Rilke said we are always moving into the open. Perhaps his most powerful and affecting statement of this theme is in the Fifth Duino Elegy which begins ‘But tell me, who are they really, these travellers, more ephemeral than us even – ’ ( trans. Matthew Barton). The poem was inspired by Picasso’s painting Les Saltimbanques and Rilke’s own memories of seeing circus performers.
Gestalt psychology provided many insights into the nature of perception and also emphasised the role of insight in problem solving. A famous example is of the chimpanzee in the cage with a banana tied out of reach hanging from the bars of the ceiling. There are some crates in the cage as well. Some chimpanzees are able to see or imagine that by putting the crates on top of each other they can climb up and reach the banana.
Kohler also hypothesised the presence of psychophysical isomorphism, a correlation between conscious states and brain states. This is perhaps an unsurprising view, although definitely distinct from materialism. But science is a long way from making any precise sense of it. Decades later, an American philosopher, Donald Davidson developed a more sophisticated theory, Anomalous Monism which resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations. Davidson summed up his view thus: ‘Anomalous monism shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical.’ I must say, I prefer this view to panpsychism which seems to me to silence too completely our puzzlement about consciousness by providing an untestable explanation. Hugh MacDiarmid, in his great poem On A Raised Beach, attributes consciousness to the stones with wonderful rhetorical effect, but we are in no doubt that it is an attitude the poet strikes not the literal truth of the matter. (The gates of a bird are wide open, that is the secret of its song. . .I look at the stones. . . I know their gates are open too, always open, far longer open. . . ).
On the subject of consciousness let me make one personal remark. There is psychotic experience and there is spiritual awakening. They may be far apart or close together in any particular individual, but to use the metaphor of MacDiarmid about the gates being wide open, there is at such moments a dissolving or breaking of psychological defences by an violent upsurge of unconscious feeling. The transformative event which follows is not under the control of the subject, and not experienced as of solely personal significance. That is to say, there is felt to be much more out in the world than had hitherto been realised. It may connect or disconnect the subject from others but it seems, and for all I know is, a deeper apprehension of reality. The reverberations may continue for days, months or years.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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