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Gestalt Shift

Wittgenstein wanted to say "what is involved in seeing something as something", for example seeing a single drawing as either a drawing of a rabbit or as a drawing of a duck (the duck-rabbit), but he told Drury this is not easy to do. Wittgenstein was talking about logic (concepts in the philosophy of psychology), not about psychology (PI II, xi, p. 193), but I don't know if he wanted to say something philosophical about this phenomenon. There are many aspects to the discussion, however.

Note: Wittgenstein did not use the expression 'Gestalt shift'. In fact, as that expression is used on this page, it seems to be my jargon or eccentric use of language (This is not the first time I have unintentionally done this, as also 'Socratic ignorance' and 'logic of language'). Wittgenstein wrote:

I call this experience 'noticing an aspect'. (PI II, xi, p. 193)

And so we have a pattern (a "Gestalt") and we can see that pattern this way or that way, ways which are mutually exclusive, as in the examples which follow. "I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently" (ibid.)

Philosophy as Gestalt shifts

Among his remarks in 1947, Wittgenstein wrote (CV p. 61) --

A philosopher says: "Look at things this way!"

And, I think, you must see the world afresh, and that means seeing a new world. To understand a philosopher is to experience a universal Gestalt shift. But those two statements are metaphors and we must test their limits (the logic of comparison).

'Gestalt shift' defined (jargon)

RPP i 70 duck-rabbit example of Gestalt shift

What is the Gestalt shift in the case of Wittgenstein's later logic of language? What I am calling a 'Gestalt shift' (DEF.=) has three parts: an absolute given (as the duck-rabbit figure is) and its two aspects (as the duck and the rabbit are), and there is a visual jump between seeing one aspect and seeing the other. In Wittgenstein's case: there is language (the absolute), whose two aspects are (1) the meaning of a word is the thing the word stands for, and therefore the meaning of language is independent of man, and (2) the meaning of a word is its use in the language as a tool for the various kinds of work man does with language, and therefore language meaning is dependent on man.

Note that Wittgenstein is only metaphorically what I am calling a 'Gestalt shift', because it is not a visual snap experience. (We use the word 'see' equivocally otherwise.)

Wittgenstein's later work is not only a shift in way of looking at language -- a new logic (methods and definitions in philosophy) -- but also a feeling that you no longer have to be the plaything of language (like leaves swirled about by the view of language as "names of the essence of things"), at the mercy of the vagueness and confusion that abstract language creates -- why? because language's meaning has become determinable. Wittgenstein's logic gives ways to define the words and sentences of language; it makes an objective distinction between sense (language with meaning) and nonsense (undefined words or combinations of words).

"The question is -- who's to be the master, you or the words?" (Through the Looking-Glass vi)

Replacing one pattern of thought with another

The old picture, the false grammatical account: that an abstract noun somehow has meaning in itself -- not because it is a word with a use in our life -- but because it denotes an essence that is independent of language -- whether anyone is able to say what that essence is or not (and therefore there are only opinions about what the "real" or "true" meanings of words are).

The term 'abstract object' or 'abstraction' is related to the "theory of abstraction", the notion that we somehow (who knows how) abstract the common nature that is the meaning of a common name even though we cannot tell others what that common nature is. In other words, the notion does not come from the facts in plain view but from an unverifiable thesis (metaphysical speculation) about an imagined reality hidden behind those facts.

And that in itself is reason not to use expressions like 'abstraction' and 'abstract object of thought': "An unsuitable type of expression is a sure means of remaining in a state of confusion. It as it were bars the way out" (PI § 339). It locks you into a particular way of looking at and seeing things. It is that lock Wittgenstein's Gestalt shift breaks.

Although I wouldn't expect come to an understanding of everything a philosopher says at first blush, i.e. before I explain its meaning to myself, I should expect that an objective explanation of the philosopher's meaning can be given, that I can hold myself and the philosopher to the standard: "Every explanation I can give myself, I can give to others too. And when I do this, I do not tell them less than I know myself." (cf. PI §§ 210, 208)


Outline of this page ...


The following is a question ("search query") from my site's logs:

Query: Gestalt shift - what is it?

We can see the two-dimensional figure below as a [three-dimensional] cube. There are [at least] two ways to do this, and the switch between the two is called a 'Gestalt shift'. It is not a voluntary shift, although one can try to bring it about.

Cube example of Gestalt shift

If I fix my eyes first on the corners a and only glance at b, a appears in front and b behind, and vice versa. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.5423, tr. Ogden)

We [i.e. most people, or, It is the common experience that we] can see this figure as two differently oriented cubes. That is, I can see either face a, a, a, a as the face of the cube that is nearest me (at lower left), or I can see face b, b, b, b as the face of the cube that is nearest me (at upper right). The visual experience of seeing it first one way and then another way is called a 'Gestalt shift'. The shift is actually more like a snap; it is not gradual but instant; and it may shift back despite our unwillingness for it to do so.

In the case I have in mind, however, with respect to Wittgenstein's logic of language's new point of view, is that it seems impossible to shift back -- i.e. to see [experience] philosophical problems in the old way. Although any picture may awaken confusion in us, we nonetheless see the -- i.e. a -- way out of that confusion: "a method has been found," Wittgenstein told G.E. Moore.

The Duck-Rabbit

In the Philosophical Investigations [II, xi, p. 194], Wittgenstein has a figure he calls 'the duck-rabbit' [derived from a drawing reproduced in Joseph Jastrow's "The Mind's Eye", iv, in Fact and Fable in Psychology (1900), p. 295], which may be seen to be either a duck or a rabbit (or neither if the one looking at the figure hasn't the concepts 'duck' and 'rabbit'), depending on where you focus your attention (direct your eyes). In either case you see an eye, but then either a duck's bill and creased skull or a rabbit's ears and mouth (The rabbit is looking skyward, the duck straight ahead to the left).

Duck-rabbit example of Gestalt shift

Gestalt is a German word for 'shape' or 'form' or 'pattern' in English. We can say that a "shape shift" is: an involuntary perceptual jump from one shape [or, form or pattern] to another, e.g. from the duck-shape to the rabbit-shape. By 'Gestalt shift' we may mean: seeing a single pattern now this way, now that: e.g. now the duck, now the rabbit; this is an involuntary visual shift from first one "aspect" (Wittgenstein-Anscombe's word) or shape to then another "aspect" or shape, without the pattern itself changing: all that changes is our perception of the pattern: asked to draw now the duck, now the rabbit, we will produce identical drawings.

About the duck-rabbit I don't know what to say, maybe because Wittgenstein's presentation of his ideas seems to need no special background in this case, but also because I am not perplexed by -- or rather not too interested in -- psychological phenomena: "Now you see a duck looking straight forward; now you see a rabbit looking skywards; the duck's bill has become rabbit's ears." But what is there that is philosophically interesting here -- except maybe from the point of view of a possibly confusing metaphor, for example that of N.R. Hanson ("Seeing is theory laden") -- or mine in saying that to understand Wittgenstein's logic of language requires a Gestalt shift: "In a large class of cases [i.e. in those cases where the word is not defined by pointing at an object or objects] a word's meaning is its use in the language" versus "The meaning of a word is the thought or idea or thing the word stands for"? Look at the search query above: the question "What thing is it? What is its essence?" versus the question "What is the meaning of this language? How do we use these words?"

Seeing as in contrast to seeing to be

In 1949 Wittgenstein showed Drury the drawing of the duck-rabbit and said:

Now you try and say what is involved in seeing something as something; it is not easy. These thoughts I am now working at are as hard as granite. (Recollections p. 159)

He had earlier written to Rush Rhees:

My lectures aren't too terribly bad but they're are pretty poor. I'm talking about problems of Gestalt psychology and am frightfully unclear myself and unable to get the deep aspects of the matter. (Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951 (2008), ed. McGuinness, Document 348, Letter dated 7.2.1946, p. 395)

I myself was never able to see "the deep aspects" (cf. PI § 387: "The deep aspect of this matter readily eludes us"). Perhaps I should be perplexed here, but I am not. The shift phenomenon, the way we are able to focus on an area of the duck-rabbit drawing and thus see the drawing shift from one "aspect" to another -- i.e. "Now I see a duck, then suddenly I instead see a rabbit" -- does strike me as psychologically interesting. But philosophically?

On the other hand, Wittgenstein later wrote about "concept blindness", which is a metaphor for the inability to see one or another aspect (e.g. being able to see only the rabbit, but not the duck [which would be "aspect blindness" or being "gestalt-blind" or "aspect-blind" [RPP ii § 478] with respect to the duck-aspect]). What exactly is to be done with this metaphor, I don't know. Maybe it is an example of philosophy as clarification by full-stop (Drury, DW p. xii), as there are limits. N.R. Hanson reproduces a drawing which he says can be seen either as a young or as an old woman. I was not at first able to see the drawing to be of a young woman.

But what philosophical consequences that visual fact has -- i.e. that not everyone [or even that no member of the human species] can see every aspect or (acquire every concept) -- I don't know. But it is connected to Wittgenstein's notion of "forms of life" and to "The limit of thought [in philosophy, science, mathematics] -- is concept formation". It seems a powerful metaphor for that.

Old Woman-Young Woman

Old woman-young woman example of Gestalt shift

But when Hanson adds that if one looks at the drawing "à la Toulouse-Lautrec" (Patterns of Discovery (1958), p. 11) then one sees a young woman ..... I wonder if in this case it is useful to speak of a Gestalt shift. Certainly if you add Toulouse-Lautrec, then you do encourage a shift of sorts -- i.e. a particular way of looking at things, at a human face e.g. ("Yes, now I can see her as a young woman") ..... I would not call this an example [instance] of Gestalt shift (even if there is a "family resemblance" to that, because ... as if resemblances were ever hard to find; indeed, a limitation of Wittgenstein's metaphor is that resemblances are only too easy to find). Hanson has provided a context -- whereas a Gestalt shift should be raw [spontaneous]? But by labeling the cube above, does not Wittgenstein also place that drawing in a context?

When I wrote the two paragraphs below I was experiencing "aspect blindness" (cf. "concept blindness") or inability to see an aspect of a Gestalt, although I am now able to see two demonstrable aspects of the "old woman-young woman" image. Nonetheless, not everything in the next two paragraphs is incorrect, for it is not clear why Hanson says what he does about the drawing.

What I would say is that in the case of Hanson's "old woman-young woman" drawing, there are not two aspects, because both the young and old woman are absolutely identical -- i.e. you cannot show Hanson's distinction by pointing to specific places on the drawing as you can in Wittgenstein's examples: "Focus on 'a', now on 'b'" and "Here is a duck's bill; but now, there is a rabbit's ears". Instead, in Hanson's example you look at the drawing with Toulouse-Lautrec's posters in mind (and easily see a young woman), or without Toulouse-Lautrec (You see an old woman). That is, to call Hanson's example an instance of Gestalt shift has a blurring effect: it dissolves an otherwise sharp distinction.

In sum, if you allow yourself too much freedom in how you apply the expression 'Gestalt shift', then any drawing at all might be used as an example (You have only to provide a context as Hanson does). Thus, considered as a tool, it would be more useful to apply the expression 'Gestalt shift' only to cases where the viewer experiences a snap or jump from one aspect to another. In Hanson's "old woman-young woman" drawing, the viewer experiences no such snap.

How to See the Young-woman Aspect

With regard to the old woman-young woman, a correspondent wrote, "It is as most certainly a Gestalt shift as the duck-rabbit. The old woman's eye is the young woman's ear, the underside of the old woman's nose is the young woman's jaw line, and the old woman's smile the young woman's choker around her neck. The young woman is looking away, her neck exposed" (30 September 2009).

The outline of the young woman in the old woman-young woman Gestalt

In other words: The end of the old woman's nose is the young woman's chin. The young woman's face is turned away from us, and the old woman's eye is the young woman's left ear, but the hair is the same for both aspect-women. (That, of course, assumes that the old woman is the aspect that resembles a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.)

Aspect blindness. At first I could only see that young woman after I used a colored pencil (to outline her face and neck) and an eraser (to remove much of her hood and dress), but I can thus see her. Although then I do not see the point of Hanson's adding "à la Toulouse-Lautrec". It is possible, in any case, to simply see the drawing either as an old woman (in our normal style of drawing) or as a young woman (in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec) without any need for a Gestalt shift. And either way of looking at the drawing serves Hanson's purpose, I think, but there is some broadening of Hanson's point if the drawing is looked at in the latter way -- i.e. without a Gestalt shift.

Query: drawings where two different images can be seen but not at the same time.

That would belong to the defining characteristics of 'Gestalt shift', the criteria for classifying any particular image as an example of a Gestalt shift. If we want to make that rule ... (The limit of a concept is a rule.)

Query: Gestalt concepts overlap.

What might the query mean by the word 'overlap'? The duck and rabbit aspects do not overlap (1) in the sense of 'overlap' that one aspect partially covers up the other, because each aspect wholly covers up the other, or (2) in the sense of 'overlap' that they have something in common (cf. Venn diagram), unless that simply means that they are both aspects of the same image.

Is it not an important point that they don't overlap? that they are different concepts, not inter-connected but only externally connected. I.e. nothing would be lost by the duck-aspect if there were no rabbit-aspect, or any other aspect besides the duck-aspect, to be seen in the duck-rabbit image. Just as it is logically possible that ducks might exist without rabbits also existing.

Comparison. Although the part of speech of both the words 'duck' and 'rabbit' is name-of-object word, the objects that are pointed to when those two words are ostensively defined are different: the meaning of one is independent of the meaning of the other.

Is a Gestalt shift image ambiguous in meaning? Maybe we could say that, if the old woman or the duck is one "meaning", and the young woman or the rabbit is another. And if the same image can have different "meanings", then it is an example of what we mean by the word 'ambiguous'. (Then maybe it would be the case that 'a Gestalt switch image' = 'an ambiguous image'.)

Query: in between Gestalt switches.

What characterizes this phenomenon, and is used to define it -- i.e. to define ("to limit", "set boundaries to") the concept 'Gestalt shift' -- is that there is no "in between", i.e. no transition from seeing one aspect to seeing the other; it happens in an instant (and thus expressions such as 'Gestalt snap' or maybe 'Gestalt flip' may be particularly apt). Note that 'Gestalt shift' is defined by psychological not physiological criteria, by testimony rather than by e.g. events in the central nervous system.


Gestalt Shift as Simile

That was how I began this page, when I used the expression 'a universal Gestalt shift', with a comparison. The form of a simile: A is like B. But that comparison is undefined language until it is stated in what way A is like B. And that statement may be true or false, because A may or may not be like B in that particular way.

Query: seeing aspects, Wittgenstein, religion.

Gestalt shift would in this case be a metaphor, like 'concept-blindness' (Wittgenstein's remark about blindness to the concept 'God'). But how is that like the duck-rabbit? Suppose it were the case that some people could only see one or the other aspect. But how is being unable to see the rabbit-aspect (e.g.) to be compared with not being able to understand how any reasonable human being could seriously use the word 'God' (how the concept 'God' may have an important place in a reasonable man's thinking)? Can one be blind to the religious aspect of life?

Some similes are suggestive -- suggestive or too vague to make things clearer. Which is this example?


"Seeing is theory-laden"

Seeing a bird in the sky involves seeing that it will not suddenly do vertical snap rolls ... This is knowledge. (N.R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery. The English word 'pattern' is equivalent to the German word 'Gestalt')

And not asking the geese in the park for directions and the time of day. We may perhaps say that this is knowledge (an example of what we call 'knowledge'), but (1) is that knowledge a theory, and (2) what relationship has that knowledge to seeing? "If you see a goose, you also see that ..." or "If you see a goose, you see at the same time that ..." or "Seeing a goose is seeing that ..." Perhaps Hanson's point is that: there are not two acts here, only one. (I'd say that seeing is "concept-laden" rather than "theory-laden". Maybe by 'theory' Hanson means 'concept': percepts (sense impressions) are not bare, but are instead "conceived facts" as in Hanson's example.)

Does making a connection to perception make something clearer here; what does Hanson accomplish by making that connection? Is the connection that normally we don't think about these things: I don't normally deduce: "That is a goose, and geese do not bite, and therefore I need not be afraid that this goose will bite me." Although I might, if asked, give this deduction as a justification for my behavior, my behavior can be compared to seeing in the sense that it can also be compared to instinct: I act without thinking. I do not say "This is a staircase and ... and therefore I must lift my foot if I wish to climb it."

When I see a goose I see an object about which I know many things -- i.e. have many expectations (PI §§ 481-2, 485), and if I am in familiar territory, then I have a clear attitude towards anomalies ... or have I? I don't know how I would respond if a prodigy occurred, e.g. if a goose spoke to me. We do not live in a world where such things happen very often (Indeed they are quite rare outside fairy tales), and our concepts reflect that.

Is Hanson making a comparison [an analogy, a metaphor]? But conceptions ("conceived facts") and bare sense perceptions are not the same thing: they are different concepts (i.e. the rules for using those words are different). To contrast Hanson and Kant: but Hanson's pre-conceptions can be changed (reconceived), whereas Kant's categories, as e.g. "time" and "space", cannot be changed. They belong to the essence of the human mind.

Query: Gestalt switch in science.

A scientific theory is a selection of facts plus imagination: imagination both makes the selection and offers a way of organizing -- i.e. looking at -- the data. I won't take the query in the sense that I spoke metaphorically -- because the shift is not visual or in some other way perceptual, e.g. aural -- of Gestalt shifts in philosophy, but ask whether at least sometimes a change in the basic model of scientific understanding is not a non-metaphorical Gestalt shift.

For example, did Darwin see life differently from those who used the model "Species were all independently created and are immutable", e.g. looking at artifacts: seeing a fossil (which is itself a conceived, not absolute, fact) as a stage in the evolution of a species? Did Einstein see events in the sky differently from Newton with the model "relative space frames" rather than absolute space (what the eye of God would see, e.g. 'motion' as an absolute rather than a relational concept) -- 'see' in the visual sense? With Darwin and fossils, I think maybe so, but that in the case of both Newton and Einstein, the meaning of their words is not a visual picture, but instead the mathematical methods of measurement (e.g. to measure motion and space) they use.


Kant and Wittgenstein

The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception's being unchanged. (PI II, xi, p. 196)

To express this in Kant's jargon, if I understand Kant's jargon, which I my not, although its application seems clear in this case: In a Gestalt shift the concept changes, but the percept does not change. Here, Wittgenstein's "aspect" -- which Wittgenstein is (ambiguously and therefore confusingly, I'd say: distinctions have to be made in language even if they cannot be made in reality -- i.e. we can label the features of e.g. the duck aspect, "Here is the eye" etc., but we cannot force anyone to see the duck aspect) calling "a new perception" -- would correspond to Kant's "concept".

Thus, in Kant's jargon, the duck-rabbit drawing is the percept (which does not change), and the individual aspects, namely the duck and the rabbit, are the concept (which does change). And yet, Wittgenstein says, the percept itself does change (or seems to change: The question is, is there a percept in itself, a reality independent of perception. And how is that question to be answered? Because the drawing of the duck and the drawing of the rabbit are identical and yet different at the same time. This is one of the curiosities of the phenomenon of Gestalt shift).

The duck aspect of the duck-rabbit The rabbit aspect of the duck-rabbit

The duck-rabbit drawing (which in itself would be a "bare percept"; cf. bare sign) does not itself show the concept-change. That change can only be shown ostensively -- i.e. by pointing to areas of the duck-rabbit drawing: Don't you see, these might be a rabbit's ears rather than a duck's bill, for example, and hoping that others will now see a rabbit rather than a duck where at first they saw only a duck.

By contrast, in the example of the cube faces above, would we say that there is a concept change as well as a percept change, or only a percept change -- because both in case 'a a a a' and case 'b b b b', there is only one concept, namely, 'cube'. But yet in that example of Gestalt shift, we do nonetheless see different aspects of the cube, and we can specify these as "convex-cube" and "concave-cube" (We don't have to be poor in categories, i.e. concepts, much less force ourselves to be poor).

Query: shifting realities, Gestalts.

Or is it shifting perceptions of reality? Because is it reality that changes ("shifts") or is it instead that our perceptions of reality change? (That of course presumes that there is an independent-of-perception reality.) An example of a change of reality would be if an actual cat metamorphosed into a rat -- but such a change would not be what we mean by the expression 'Gestalt shift'.

Whatever we mean by the word 'reality', we don't as we normally use the word 'reality' mean mere conceptions or perceptions. Indeed, the words 'conception' and 'perception' are antitheses of the word 'reality', because as we normally use that word, reality is what is independent of our perceptions and conceptions of "it", whatever "it" may be. But, of course, as we normally use the word 'reality' (i.e. setting Kant's metaphysics aside), we are able to say what reality is, as e.g. in the case of the duck-rabbit, reality is the line drawing itself.

[Related discussions. the conceived percepts are without foundation if they themselves are the foundation (Kant and Gestalt shift) | Is a Gestalt shift "only in the mind"?]

If I remember his work aright, Bishop Berkeley does not go so far as to say that perception = reality, which would amount to saying that the word 'perception' DEF.= the word 'reality'. To go that far, to make that identity would be nonsense, because nonsense (i.e. undefined words) is what results when a word is either identified with or divorced from its antithesis: both words lose their meaning. (Cf. 'hot' and 'cold', 'illusion' and 'reality', 'selfish' and 'selfless'. In metaphysics, philosophers often want to say that "All A is really B", but such a claim, if it follows the pattern I have described, is nonsense.)

Query: how does a picture of a duck-rabbit show the principle of perception?

That "percepts without concepts are blind"? For if there were a concept 'rabbit', but no concept 'duck' in our language -- because language is the concern of logic, although there may be other uses for the word 'concept' than to mean 'rules for using a word' -- then would the duck-rabbit be an image of a rabbit only?

You only "see the duck and rabbit aspects" if you are already conversant with the shapes of those two animals. There is no analogous condition for seeing [the black and white crosses of the double-cross image]. (PI II, xi, p. 207)

In other words, having the concept 'duck', whether from knowledge of the world or of fairy tales or imagination, is necessary in order to see the duck. And if there were no such concept, it would not be logically possible to see the duck aspect -- indeed, that aspect simply would not exist.

Should we say here: whether or not something exists is a matter of agreement in language, not opinions (PI § 241)? Why -- isn't it possible that someone should see what no one else sees? Only if that person is able to explain to others what he sees, thus making others able to see it too? Knowledge is public; knowledge is "by general consent" only (OC § 555), but that is a grammatical remark (a description of how the word 'know' is used in the language); knowledge belongs to the community, not to the individual. If only one person can [This is logical possibility (a description of what is seen by a god who sees what we cannot see)] see-an-aspect = know something, then can [This is grammatical possibility] no one see-that-aspect = know that thing? Grammar is not ontology, and the picture of a god who sees what is really real and therefore knows whether a person sees what no one else sees -- is metaphysics.

Query: Kant, categories - Wittgenstein, forms of life.

Wittgenstein called two things "ways or forms of life" -- (1) ways it is possible for human beings to choose to live, and (2) ways in which there is no choice. Each "life form" has its own possibilities and limits: the human is different in profound respects from the feline and canine life forms, for example.

A comparison to Kant would be that Kant's categories are the kind of "form of life" where there is no choice. Kant's categories form a frame of reference that belongs to the essence of the human mind, so that it is impossible to think without them.

A contrast is that Wittgenstein's "forms of life" is a description of the facts in plain view (OC § 559), whereas Kant's categories, like Plato's Forms, is metaphysical speculation about what may lie behind those facts.

If we wanted to extend Kant's notion of categories, we could compare those categories to Plato's Forms (Patterns, Archetypes, Absolutes, "Ideas"), that is to say: the common nature that is presumed to be the meaning of a common name would be a category in the mind rather than a Platonic Form outside the mind.


Philosophy as Gestalt shift (Other examples)

Query: Kant's Gestalt switch.

I imagine that you could apply the metaphor, if metaphor it is, I have applied to Wittgenstein's logic of language to the work of every philosopher: a new way of looking at things replaces our old way of looking at things. But, as I intend the metaphor to be understood, this is not simply seeing a new aspect of a familiar figure, but the replacement of e.g. the duck with the rabbit, not the keeping of both.

Thales, Socrates, Descartes, Wittgenstein

Thus when Thales' set philosophy's standard as seeking to know solely by the natural light of reason alone, that was a new model of thinking, a new Gestalt (pattern) of thinking. But when Socrates set philosophy's standard of "If anyone knows a thing, he can explain what he knows to others" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1 and Plato, Laches 190c), that was not a replacement of Thales' standard for knowing; the Gestalt of Thales was made sharper and stricter. We can use the Gestalt shift metaphor for Thales and the birth of philosophy, but speaking of a new Gestalt (model, pattern) is clearer because it is not metaphorical.

But Socrates' standard for knowing wasn't essential to Thales' Gestalt, because for a time it was replaced by Descartes' "new way of ideas" -- that the direct object of knowledge is an idea in the mind (in contrast to a common perception), and as such, need one be able to explain what one knows to others? Wittgenstein's Gestalt was another refinement of Thales' standard, but it was also a return to Socrates' standard that knowledge is a public, not a private, event.

The Categories of Kant. Archimedes

Another example of a philosophical shift is Kant's notion of innate human categories of organization (in contrast to absolute categories of reality), which Hume's work suggested to him, namely that there is no reality independent of human perception: perceptions without concepts -- in this context: categories -- are blind. Another example is Archimedes' recognition that there is no absolute point of reference, no absolute fulcrum, but only relative points. Relative points contrast with one another, not with a point absolute in itself (The choice of an origin for a Cartesian grid is a more or less arbitrary). Of course, what is important here, to Wittgenstein's way of thinking, is that these are grammatical remarks, remarks about defined and undefined combinations of words.


Sunrise as a Gestalt shift

Query: rabbit, duck, different view points, theory.

Are contrasting scientific theories -- ('A theory' is 'a selected set of data plus a point of view, i.e. facts plus imagination') -- examples of Gestalt shifts, as e.g. the geocentric and heliocentric models of the relative movements of the sun, moon, earth and planets, which are different "pictures" of the exact same set of data? Are they "aspects of a Gestalt shift" in the way that the duck and rabbit are aspects of the duck-rabbit?

The geocentric and heliocentric models are not aspects of the night sky (as the duck and rabbit are aspects of the duck-rabbit). We do not see them when we look at the night sky (It is not like seeing a constellation of stars as one mythological figure rather than another). But maybe they are aspects of the sun appearing in the morning, whose two aspects are (1) the sun coming up over the horizon, and (2) the earth turning towards the sun. But yet, there are two differences from the duck-rabbit. First, there is no visual snap or aspect jump ("Now I am seeing the sun come up over the horizon; now I am seeing the earth turning towards the sun"), and second, it does not seem to be a way to label the two aspects as we can with the duck-rabbit and the outline-cube.

Similarly, regardless of whether our picture of the moon is a disc or a sphere, the moon in the sky looks exactly the same: there is no Gestalt shift (as I am using that expression). For in neither example do not find the characteristic "snap" or visual "jump" between aspects that I am calling, based on the examples Wittgenstein gives, 'Gestalt shift'. And if it is not the visual experience of that snap, then what are we are highlighting by using the expression 'Gestalt shift'?


The three parts of a Gestalt shift

An image (e.g. the duck-rabbit) plus aspect 1 (the duck) and aspect 2 (the rabbit). Whether there are examples of triple-aspect Gestalt shifts, I don't know, but the above criterion for a Gestalt shift seems universal: there must be an image plus (at least) two aspects. (Another example: the rat-cat photograph plus the cat-aspect and the rat-aspect.)

And so we mustn't unconscientiously assert that contrasting scientific theories are Gestalt shifts, although some may be. Because in the case of geocentric and heliocentric theories, it is not a matter of different visual Gestalts (Gestalten, patterns) as it is with the duck-rabbit. Because although we organize the facts differently using those two models, we do not see the facts in the night sky differently -- those look (and are) identical in both cases: we do not see the geocentric and heliocentric arrangements when we see the night sky. (Seeing the sunrise as a Gestalt shift.)

With the duck-rabbit, the percepts are the same -- i.e. the single drawing, the fact -- but the concepts, namely 'duck' and 'rabbit', are different.

We use the word 'picture, like we use the word 'concept', in many different ways, some equivocal, some quite vague.

There is also Gestalt shift, not as a metaphor, but as a picture that can be used to give a sense to 'Time is not real' (although it is a fantasy picture).

Usefulness to science

What application might the duck-rabbit have to science? One is as a warning -- that one ought not to assume that all identifiable aspects of an image are known. Another is that a theory is based on a particular aspect of an image (That is the metaphor here), and therefore theory-making should never be regarded as having come to an end, not with Aristotle, not with Isaac Newton, not with Quantum Physics, etc. Reality has unlimited aspects.

A contrasting example is the rat-cat Gestalt shift as something that happens e.g. in biology where a doctor misdiagnoses a patient's condition, seeing a rat where really there is a cat. Note that it is not a theory that the photograph is of a cat, but a verifiable statement of fact.

Gestalt image of A seen as A or B

In the rat-cat kind of case, the operative criterion is: whether there is a "really" or not; because the duck-rabbit is not really the image of a duck rather than a rabbit, whereas the photograph really is of a cat, not a rat. The rat is an illusion of perception, whereas it would be nonsense to call either the duck or rabbit that.

Seeing something as something

Hearing the short woodwind passage from Beethoven's 6th Symphony as music or as a cuckoo: an aural Gestalt shift, i.e. an absolute sound whose aspects would be (1) 'music' and (2) 'birdsong' ('cuckoo'), is logically possible. Whether it is also psychologically possible is a question to ask experience rather than logic (which is concept investigation or description only).

The words 'I am seeing x' and 'I am seeing y as x' are used differently. The second means [deciding] to look at something in a particular way, but nonetheless we can't simply equate 'seeing as' with 'looking at' without an explanation of our meaning. Hearing the woodwind cuckoo as birdsong (looking at the absolute sound that way) is different from simply hearing birdsong (The concepts are different).

Another example. When the inspector in the story Silver Blaze says, "But the dog did nothing in the night-time," and Holmes replies "That was the curious incident", is that a Gestalt shift -- the dog's doing nothing in the night-time whose aspects would be (1) 'no incident', and (2) 'an incident'? In contrast, Holmes might have said to the inspector, "Try to see the dog's doing nothing in the night-time as an incident rather than as no incident."

The "conceived fact" versus the absolute

If we amend The Adventure of the Priory School to imagine Holmes only solving the case when he sees the cattle-hoof patterned horseshoes in the duke's glass cabinet, then the image is hoofprints in the soft earth whose aspects are (1) hoofprints of cattle, (2) hoofprints of horses.

"It is impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong. Yet you saw for yourself. Can you suggest any fallacy?"

In the actual story Holmes suddenly sees that the tracks, despite their shape, cannot be the hoofprints of cows because cows do not walk, canter, and gallop, and so he now sees that the prints are the hoofprints of strangely shod horses. The image and the aspects are the same as above. (Cf. the case of the rat-cat.)

Is that the impressions are hoofprints a "conceived fact" (That is Einstein's expression)? But then, what would the absolute image be -- the impressions in the soft earth? The word 'absolute' here means 'bedrock', i.e. what is not called into question -- not what it is logically impossible to call into question (because, ex hypothesi, we cannot know the image in itself ("the absolute") because "percepts without concepts are blind"). In the case of the duck-rabbit image, if the figure itself is absolute, then what are the "conceived facts", if any? (Concepts are tools, not prisons.)

The example of the Priory School is akin to the example of Charles Darwin contrasted with Hegel's curious theory about fossils: the fossil, which in other contexts is a "conceived fact" but is here absolute, is the image whose aspects are (1) imprints in stone of once living creatures, (2) anticipations in stone of later living creatures.


Query: metaphors create a Gestalt shift in perception.

This proposition is itself a metaphor, "A metaphor creates a Gestalt shift", and any metaphor must be treated with skepticism, carefully restated in prose, the comparison's limits traced. But the query also suggests the question: is a Gestalt shift a shift in perception -- or a shift in conception? Both? In Kant's jargon, do both the percept and concept change? and yet we experience the pattern shift as if they did (cf. PI II, xi, p. 195).

If I say, as I have, that "To understand Wittgenstein's logic of language is to experience a universal Gestalt shift", that shift is only in the domain of logic. Compare the motto of the Philosophical Investigations:

It is the nature of every advance that it appears much greater than it actually is. -- Nestroy. (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Memoir (1958), p. 60. Nestroy's words have been translated in various ways, as e.g. "It is the nature of progress to appear greater than it is"; but M. O'C. Drury (DW p. 113-114) used the above translation.)

And indeed neither the Philosophical Investigations nor the rest of Wittgenstein's post-TLP work in any way responds to the eternal philosophical questions of metaphysics and (in Plato's words) "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live" (ethics). At most, it may point away from false paths in thinking about them. Logic of language is not philosophy itself.


Photograph Gestalt shift

Photograph example of Gestalt shift, 20 KB

Photograph by E.M. Axelsson

I will call this photograph the rat-cat. In the photograph, the sleeping cat's right ear is the rat's left ear, a dark spot the rat's left eye, and then the roundish dark spot before the white of the cat's nose is the rat's nose, and the cat's head is the rat's body, and the dark semi-circle at the cat's neck is the rat's right ear.

If we want to classify both these phenomena as Gestalt shifts, then there are at least two basic kinds of Gestalt shifts. The rat-cat is one kind, the duck-rabbit the other. In the case of the rat-cat, we know that the object in the photograph is really a cat (Compare the pig-man Gestalt). But in the case of the duck-rabbit, the question of whether the object is really a duck or really a rabbit is undefined language (i.e. nonsense).

Wittgenstein also alludes to the example of trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") architecture (RPP ii § 479). As in a drawing or painting, the surface really is flat despite appearing to be three-dimensional. That is an example of an optical illusion; the duck-rabbit is not. (Is the rat-cat an example of an optical illusion?)

Double-cross and the duck-rabbit

Double-cross example of Gestalt shift

Another distinction can be made by comparing the double-cross image (from Köhler's Gestalt Psychology) with the duck-rabbit image (and the rat-cat image as well).

Wittgenstein writes that in the case of the double-cross, which may be seen either "as a white cross on a black ground [or] as a black cross on a white ground", in reporting which aspect we are seeing, we can simply point "alternately to an isolated white and an isolated black cross.... The duck and rabbit aspects could not be described in an analogous way" (PI II, xi, p. 207).

Step example of Gestalt shift

This figure is Wittgenstein's convex-step (PI II, xi, p. 203), the rise and landing of a single step which can be seen from above or from below. A difference between the double-cross and the convex-step is that "one may look at [the double-cross] in this way or that, that the aspect is, at least to a certain degree, subject to the will" (RPP i § 971); that is, whereas the shift of from convex to concave is involuntary (both in the case of the convex-step and the three-dimensional cube), the shift from the black to the white cross can be effected by focusing on a white section of the cross.

Interpretations voluntary ("subject to the will")

Text-book illustration given interpretations

Wittgenstein says we can imagine this illustration "appearing in several places in a text-book" where "something different is in question every time: [1] here a glass cube, [2] there an inverted open box, [3] there a wire frame of that shape, [4] there three boards forming a solid angle. Each time the text supplies the interpretation of the illustration. But we can also see the illustration now as one thing now as another." (PI II, xi, p. 193)

And so the illustrious cube is in this respect similar to the double-cross, that seeing the aspects "is, at least to a certain degree, subject to the will" (RPP i § 971). It seems to me that 'to interpret' here means nothing more than 'to try to see the figure as an illustration of this or that'. As with the directions: "See the following sentence: (1) as an example of alliteration, (2) as an example of metaphor, (3) as a declarative sentence, etc."

Final Remarks

There is a lot to this topic, most of which I haven't thought about, as there are many other distinctions that might be made.

One last example. The case of identical twins who impersonate one another. If on the basis of what one twin said to you, you recognized twin A was really twin B, you could not say there had been a visual Gestalt shift: you could not point to different visual aspects (as you can with the duck-rabbit and the double-cross). What would change is hidden by the image, not revealed by it. Is this a Gestalt shift, then?

The limits of concepts

The twins is an example of a "borderline case", the border being conceptual, i.e. how a word (e.g. 'Gestalt shift') is defined. A concept's borders may be a strict or a rather vague frontier. If we are going to call various things 'Gestalt shift', then we ought to be clear about which qualities, if any, we are going to treat as essential (i.e. defining of 'Gestalt shift'). Is x a Gestalt shift, or only a phenomenon that can be compared to a Gestalt shift in such-and-such a way? Conceptual frontiers, the limits of a concept, are guarded by rules or not at all. (Nothing is more wounding to the philosophical understanding than failing to distinguish between statements of fact and metaphors.)

Badling of ducks or colony of rabbits

Is the image above of a badling of ducks or of a colony of rabbits (RPP i § 70) (background may create a context)? And if someone, who had not been told what we were expecting him to see, namely a duck or rabbit, were to say, "I thought they were sheep." Ought we to say, "A rabbit may look like a sheep" (cf. ibid.), or that there may be more aspects to an image than are commonly seen? (Hanson's philosophy of science: seeing what is there, what may be there, what is not there.)

Questions about the phenomenon. Can we place two images of the duck-rabbit side-by-side and simultaneously see a duck in one and a rabbit in the other? But does that question belong to logic or to empirical psychology? 'I can see both aspects if I look out of the side of my eye, although this leaves one aspect a bit out of focus' is not a proposition of logic (rule, definition).

What is difficult to see?

Here it is difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts. (PI II, xi, p. 204)

By "fixing of a concept" Wittgenstein means setting the limits defining the frontier or border of a concept (i.e. what is and what isn't to be called a Gestalt shift), which is a question of logical possibility, or, in other words, what can be described (whether or not it ever happens). To describe a possibility is to put into words to explain to others, an explanation which can be tested by Socratic cross-questioning for clarity (The limit of logical possibility is nonsense, i.e. undefined language). Any other limit I might set will be logically arbitrary, although I may set one for a specific reason or interest, as I have done with 'Gestalt shift' on this page.

Why is that "difficult to see"? Partly because anyone who does not understand Wittgenstein's logic of language presumes that what he is looking for is a speculative theory about what the Gestalt shaft phenomenon really is -- i.e. what its natural essence is -- rather than only describing the concept 'Gestalt shift' -- i.e. the use of words. And what is the difference? Where logic finds the limits (border, frontier) of a concept ill-defined, it simply notes that; it doesn't presume that there must be a clear (well-defined) limit -- which if the meaning of 'Gestalt shift' is the essence of the phenomenon it names -- there must be, if that expression isn't meaningless. (Definition in Socrates-Plato in contrast to Wittgenstein.)

Another part of why it is "difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts" is expressed by the above question 'Can we simultaneously see ...?' which shows that we are unclear about whether our investigation is factual or conceptual. (That unclarity is the source of much philosophical "difficulty".)

What belongs to logic is what is logically possible. For example, Beethoven's absolute sound can be heard as music or as a bird's call -- i.e. we can identify an image and two aspects, and therefore it is a logically possible aural Gestalt shift -- but whether hearing that shift (whether there is snap between aspects) is also psychologically possible is a question that belongs to experience, not logic of language.

Gestalts and aspects without shifts

Metaphors. The Form of virtue as a Gestalt and the individual virtues as aspects of that Gestalt (Plato, Protagoras). The Catholic Trinity as a Gestalt and the three Persons of the Trinity as aspects of that Gestalt. Like the comparison to the faces of a cube, there isn't more than the ghost of a Gestalt and ghosts of aspects to shift.


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