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The epistemology of ideology: pattern recognition, Gestalten, and perspectivism

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.

The epistemology of ideology: pattern recognition, Gestalten, and perspectivism


1. Introduction:

2. The Gestalt:

3. Examples of Gestalten:

4. This is Perspectivism, not Relativism:

5. Playing with Gestalten regarding race and gender:

6. Playing with Gestalten regarding debates about race and gender:

7. Strategies for evaluating ideologies:

1. Introduction:

Question: How is it that people living in the same world can have such different takes on it? These different takes are not just different emotions or experiences or habits, but different worldviews. Suppose someone like John Locke said: "You say people of different races/cultures and genders experience the world differently? Well, we'll soon fix that! Let's all just be careful that we're really 'getting onto' the real world accurately, and then we'll all agree."

Why won't this strategy work? (The answer is at the end of 3..)

2. The Gestalt:

The above strategy would probably work if human organisms perceived things in the way that computers "perceive" things, in pixels, bit by bit, giving no extra importance to any bit more than to any other bit until programmed to do so. But humans, and presumably other animals, perceive in a radically different way. Our sensory fields are constantly being overwhelmed by a vast amount of data. The way we sort through this data is by scanning for patterns that we recognize and regard as important for some reason. (This makes sense in terms of evolutionary use. The early human who doesn't naturally scan for patterns of "large cat" and "large cat motion" but accords equal attention to every speck in his visual field, and every sound in his auditory field, won't last as long as the one who does scan for possible predators.)

This scanning for patterns, or interpretation, occurs at the very level of perception itself. Until recently, neurophysiologists assumed that the human brain first received optical information and then, in a subsequent step, sorted through that information. (They were, largely unaware of the fact, basing their assumptions on the epistemology -- i.e. "philosophy of knowledge" -- of Immanuel Kant.) Recently, however, it has been shown that the brain seems to make sense of the images as it is receiving them. Apparently there is no such thing as "raw, uninterpreted, visual data." (See Semir Zeki, "The Visual Image in Mind and Brain," in Mind and Brain: Readings from Scientific American Magazine, 1993. Incidentally, many philosophers debating cognitive science are still unaware of much of this.)

Zeki's findings support the theory that humans perceive in what are termed Gestalten (a German term meaning "pattern," or "whole," pronounced "Geshtalt"; German nouns are capitalized, and foreign words are italicized, so the convention is to capitalize and italicize it). The fundamental structure of the Gestalt is:

First: some part of a sensory field that is highlighted, given attention, focused on -- this is called the figure or alternately the foreground -- which is thereby brought out "in front" of :

Second: the rest of the sensory field -- this is called the ground or alternately the background.

Psychologist Arthur Combs has suggested that this structure can be used to refine Freud's division between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. Subconscious memories, thoughts, beliefs, etc., are simply those that we find more difficult to bring into the "figure" position.

Why is this important? It explains that what we focus on as "figure" may obscure other possible "figures" or interpretations left in the background. And that, nonetheless, the less conscious background of our sensory fields, memories, etc., does heavily influence how we are able to perceive whatever is in the "figure" position. Subconscious and semiconscious beliefs, expectations, hopes, etc., color and censor our conscious lives. Overcoming this -- gaining self-knowledge and self-determination -- is frequently an enormously difficult though fulfilling accomplishment that occurs over a lifetime.

(Incidentally, we also perceive sounds in Gestalten: you can listen to a piece of music focusing on one instrument, and listen to it again focusing on another instrument. Tactile and kinaesthetic Gestalten are also part of our overall sensory fields. See Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for clinical examples of Gestalten and the loss of Gestalt-forming abilities.)

3. Examples of Gestalten:

Let's look at some examples of visual Gestalten. Here's probably the most well-known example of an ambiguous Gestalt. Either we can perceive the faces as figure, and the white as background, as mere non-face, or we can perceive the vase as figure, and the black as background, as mere non-vase.





Here is another ambiguous Gestalt, demonstrating the different meanings given by taking different perspectives, literally, on the same thing. We can interpret this two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional cube with either the lower facet as nearest us, or the upper facet as nearest us. (And we can't "see" it both ways simultaneously.)



This ambiguous Gestalt is a bit more complex. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was fascinated by this one. A simpler version can be found in his Philosophical Investigations. Is it a duck or a rabbit?




The following two Gestalten demonstrate the background influencing how we perceive the figure.




Now, those examples are simple, and sensory, but the backgrounds we see figures "against" are frequently cognitive and complex, as well. Our intellectual expectations and habits influence which patterns we will recognize and "bring into figure."


These intellectual presuppositions, habits, values, etc., color and categorize, and sometimes censor, what we focus on. Our expectations lead us to look for some things, and may blind us to the unexpected.

For example, someone who has a low self-esteem might be unwittingly scanning for evidence to support his low opinion of himself, and evidence to the contrary, recognized by all his friends, might not register on him.

Here's another example of a more purely cognitive Gestalt: Have you ever had kittens that you were trying to give away, unsuccessfully? Try: not giving them away ("Free to a good home!") but selling them. Against all purported laws of mainstream economics, people seem more likely to want kittens if they're being sold than given. The only explanation I can come up with: If some person is gratefully giving something away, the context may lead to a Gestalt of the receiver taking on a burden. But if the person is offering something for sale, that implies that it's something to be desired, that people are willing to pay for. The context tends towards a Gestalt of acquiring something valuable ("Congratulations! You're so lucky.") (You could always take whatever you're charging for the kitten and give it to the local animal shelter, or to the kitten's new veterinarian, as credit towards future services, but don't let the owner know too soon!.)

Another way of thinking about Gestalten is in terms of metaphors. People frequently perceive the world and act in the world according to metaphors, which may or may not be conscious.

Someone who regards philosophical argument as war ("attack," "right on target") will practice it differently than someone who sees it as artistic play ("what a beautiful conceptual framework! Now, what happens if we add the following claim?").

Someone who regards time as money, as a limited resource to be saved, budgeted, and invested prudently, not wasted or borrowed, will have a completely different experience of time, of schedules and leisure and goals, than someone who regards time as "an eternal present."

The questions we ask also direct our attention to certain aspects and away from others; they also serve to set up implicit Gestalten.

For example, in the debate on fair wages, questions of when and how we will achieve "equal pay for equal work" between the sexes are important, and can also be used to obscure questions about the unfairness of declining lower class wages in general. (The earlier criterion for a fair wage discriminated based on sex, but did consider need: The fair wage for even a lower class married male was said to be a wage on which he could support a wife and children. Today's minimum wage doesn't meet this criterion given living expenses in many parts of the U.S..)

This shifting between perspectives, between sets of presuppositions, is what the phrase "lateral thinking" is about. This perspectivism is also what's behind the new books on visual thinking, such as Dan Roam's The Back of the Napkin.

Here is the answer to our question about different takes on the same world. By giving prominence to some things over others, I see the world through a filter. This filter is necessary for me to make sense of a vastly complex world, but the downside is that it necessarily precludes me from giving prominence to other things at the same time. We live in the same world, but the very process of our perceiving it requires us continually to interpret what we see. Our worldviews are unavoidably limited, and frequently distorted as well as incomplete.

4. This is "Perspectivism," not Relativism:

Fortunately, this is not the same thing as relativism. Proponents of relativism are stuck with claiming that all views are merely relative, and so equally correct, and we have no way of adjudicating between them, or rationally persuading others to change their view. (Relativists are often motivated by a fair-minded desire to respect cultural differences. This can lead even to defending such cultural traditions as female genital mutilation. It's an especially awkward position, especially when they are then confronted by individual women activists from those cultures who are adamantly opposed to female genital mutilation. Where there isn't unanimous support within a culture for a tradition, who should a relativist support? There's no good answer for a relativist, and relativism allows for no "objective reality" or trans-cultural values that a would-be reformer could appeal to. Thus, relativism usually devolves into support for the status quo, whatever it is, and however popular or unpopular, non-violent or brutal, it is.)

But with this perspectivism, we can evaluate different perspectives (or Gestalten or ideologies). Some simply are more accurate than others, or more consistent than others, are based on values someone prefers, etc.. We can expand our background knowledge, we can try on different perspectives to get at more of the "background" reality that our original perspective might obscure, and we can choose to update any of our background presuppositions that we think needs updating. E.g., we can acknowledge both that women are unfairly paid less than men in the U.S., and that the wages for both men and women, when adjusted for inflation and cost of living, have declined in the past several decades, so that often both parents have to work to survive. These are both important facts, and any really good solution will address both of them.

Think of the anecdotal 5 blind men being introduced to an elephant for the first time – one feels the tail and says that elephants are like string; another feels the trunk and says that elephants are like octopus; another bumps into a leg and says that elephants are like trees, and so on. There are many faulty assumptions and distortions here, but they all are making some progress, and they all are working to understand the same animal. Good luck to them!

5. Playing with Gestalten regarding race and gender:

These filters, these expectations, explain the distorting generalizations we might make about others, including their races and genders. Fortunately, playing with these Gestalten helps to bring them to awareness, so that we can decide for ourselves how much to trust the generalizations or not.

If you live in the U.S. or another western country, chances are that you've had the following experience. You're somewhere in public, and somewhere, in a line ahead of you, or just passing in a crowd, you see someone whose gender, for whatever reason, is not immediately apparent to you. Then you get a better glimpse and see that it is a young woman or a young man. And you realize that you had two different sets of expectations – one in case the person was a guy, and one in case it was a girl. (I once heard a friend say of someone in such a situation: "She's nice-looking, but if she was a guy, she'd be gorgeous! " based on two different sets of idealized human beauty! If you're interested in these funny gender ambiguities, you'd probably enjoy Kate Bornstein's website or books; she delights in this kind of thing.)

We can play around with Gestalten regarding behavior, too, of course. "What would we think if the boss who said/did that was a woman, rather than a man?" "How would we respond if the person interviewed on the news was Anglo-Saxon, rather than Hispanic?" The more filters you try on, the more you see through them all, and the more flexible you become, and the less they limit you.

6. Playing with Gestalten regarding debates about race and gender:

Discussions about how to deal with conflicts involving race and gender are also frequently limited or distorted, in exactly the same ways, but just at a more abstract, cognitive level.

E.g. often, especially in times of real ethnic tension, we'll hear people (almost always – interestingly -- people in the most powerful ethnic group) try to shut down a discussion on racism by asserting: "Racism is just part of human nature. We can talk about it, but nothing will ever change." Notice how this is functioning. The speaker is asserting a faulty presupposition ("racism is part of human nature") as if it were a generally accepted fact, though history and psychology tell us it is entirely false. But it's not just a wrong statement. It also has a numbing sort of effect on its listeners – unless they're on their toes and catch what's happening. It's trying to set a perspective of hopelessness and passivity in the face of the inevitable. Seen through that perspective, acts of racism are less likely to be met with outrage and demands for justice, and more likely to be met with sorrow but inaction. (It can be useful to counter this with pointing out that in fact human nature is much more flexible than this, and if we agree that racism is wrong, we should go to the trouble of opposing it. Simple common sense.)

Racial stereotypes in Humor:

A debate that's more interesting, with something to be said for both sides, is the debate about racial stereotypes in humor. If we laugh at comedians playing unflattering stereotypes of, say, dim-witted and spoiled British aristocrats (e.g. Bertie Wooster), sly and randy Frenchmen, or humorless, overly literal German academics (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith's hilarious von Igelfeld books), should we avoid comedians playing unflattering stereotypes of Hispanics or African-Americans, or Arabs, Indians, or Jews?

1) One perspective focuses on a simple kind of consistency: "If we make fun of the Germans, we should be able to make fun of Mexicans, too."

2) The other frequent perspective focuses on the relative power that these ethnic groups have in that place and time: "Queen Elizabeth has plenty of power and privilege, so we're not bullying her by mocking her accent. And people may resent the French and Germans, but it's usually out of something like jealousy. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, on the other hand, are frequently bullied, exploited, and harassed in the U.S., so we shouldn't add to it."

Then there's the further question: If it's not acceptable for a member of the most powerful ethnic group to use racial epithets targeting frequently oppressed groups, is it acceptable for an African-American comic or a Hispanic comic or a Jewish-American comic to use racial epithets targeting his or her own group? More discussion and perspectives needed!

7. Strategies for evaluating ideologies:

Throughout the course, we'll be developing a list of strategies for uncovering ideological presuppositions and for evaluating ideological claims. Here are a few to start off with. When trying to identify and analyze some ideological approach, ask:

a) What is being omitted? (What is in the background that should perhaps be in the figure?)

b) What is being presupposed by the claim(s)? Are these presuppositions acceptable? Are they being passed off as facts?

c) Is there a tacit question or metaphor guiding the line of argument? If so, what is it?

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