VII: Sheredos on Merleau-Ponty and Gestalt Theory

For our seventh reading we have a recent publication by regular contributor to the blog, Ben Sheredos. ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Immanent Critique of Gestalt Theory’, forthcoming in Human Studies, examines Merleau-Ponty’s attitude towards Gestalt Theory in The Structure of Behaviour.

This paper is of particular relevance to our project since, in addition to treating the relationship between Phenomenology and Gestalt Psychology, it also deals with the third strand of our project: the way in which ideas from these two traditions should inform contemporary cognitive science. As Ben notes, Merleau-Ponty’s work on the relationship between Phenomenology and cognitive science has been taken up by recent writers (such as Hubert Dreyfus and Evan Thompson) who emphasise the importance of continuous, looping dynamical interactions with the environment in explanations of cognition. However, Ben argues that the ‘circular causality’ characteristic of such dynamics is distinct from the ‘circular dependence’ that Merleau-Ponty takes to characterise the relationship between elements of a gestalt structure. Ben’s paper makes the case that understanding the nature of this circular dependence is the key to understanding both Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Gestalt Theory, and the sense in which Merleau-Ponty believed Gestaltist ideas could nonetheless inform our thought about the proper relation between Phenomenology and cognitive science.

For readers unfamiliar with The Structure of Behaviour, don’t worry – the paper includes thorough and lucid summaries of all the relevant parts of the text. Ben has kindly shared a .pdf version of the paper with us, which you can access here. The published version is available here.

Please leave questions and reactions in the comments – see you there!

7 thoughts on “VII: Sheredos on Merleau-Ponty and Gestalt Theory

  1. I miss all the information about the New Phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz. It is avery good way to support the theory of gestalt, because it is a system of philosophy to describe and understand the human beings in their environment.

  2. Ben – thank you very much for this paper, which offers a helpful new perspective on previous readings, as well as some of the debates on previous posts between yourself and Charles.

    While I think I better understand aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s critique / response to the gestalt psychologists now, I’m not sure I find myself convinced by them (yet?).

    To give a very coarse grained summary: against the atomists, both M-P and the GPs argue that form may not be reduced to atomic components. The GPs draw the conclusion that form should be included (non-reductively) in the furniture of the world (M-P’s “reification”), but this opens up the possibility of a different sort of reduction, namely of mental forms to physiological ones, by the principle of isomorphism. In contrast, M-P rejects this reification, allowing that, while there are mental / phenomenal forms, these may not be reduced to physical forms, as they may only be extended from the phenomenal world to the physical one by loose analogy.

    One worry that I have about M-P’s position, as reconstructed here, is that his argument appears to conflate first-order issues about an appropriate science of mind with second-order issues about scientific realism.

    I take it the key step occurs in § The Inclusion of Structures in Laws, and its consequences panned out in the following section (curse you Springer for not providing page numbers!). The key point seems to be that scientific laws may only idealize or approximate actual forms. Yet, as Ben rightly points out in footnote 14, that critique rests entirely on “a mundane epistemology and semantics of science” — frankly, one which in hindsight seems quite naive. It is a commonplace of contemporary philosophy of science that laws / theories / models idealize / abstract from the complexity of the actual phenomena — this observation is taken as a starting point for realism debates, but not as a deciding factor. Nor, crucially, as having any bearing on the methodological question of how science should proceed in practice.

    Thus, when M-P criticizes the GPs of “borrowing the notion of form from the universe of perceived things,” this accusation simply seems irrelevant to the first-order conclusions he wishes to draw about a science of mind or a science of living things. And the “positivistic error [of] assign[ing] forms an existence as realities revealed through science” may indeed be a positivistic error, ie an error about how to interpret science, but (again) it is not probative to questions about the objects which we should allow within science, and insofar as the GPs grant mental and physical forms both as legitimate objects of scientific inquiry, their endeavor to find isomorphisms between them does not seem confused at all. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t see how any of the worries about misplaced positivism, or the idealized nature of forms attributed to the physical, are points about form per se: these same empiricist considerations apply to any sort of scientific object. This critique doesn’t seem to me to latch onto anything special about form itself — if anything, M-P himself seems to be the one making a naturalistic error here (!) by presuming that the problems he identifies as distinctive for attributing form to the world are not problems for any attribution of other sorts of atomic parts, properties, or structure.

    There is a further, distinct issue here, which is whether the mathematics of physics can capture the essentially holistic, temporally extended, and dynamic aspects of vital and mental form. The kinds of field equations that Köhler takes as inspiration for understanding / modeling mental gestalt do describe holistic, spatially and temporally dispersed processes. It simply does not seem correct to say that the mathematics of physics can only treat “static” structures with “isolable” parts. In any case, the crucial point seems to me that this worry is entirely conceptually distinct from the previous one — this is not a worry about the conclusions about the world that can be drawn from a scientific model, but rather about which tools are adequate to construct the model.

    So, playing devil’s advocate here, it seems that M-P’s critique is either a second-order one, about the GP’s philosophy of science, in which case the bearing on their actual (first-order) science of mind is unclear; or it is a first-order critique about the nature of the models GPs employ to explain and predict forms in nature, but then I’m worried that M-P does not take the relevant mathematics sufficiently charitably.

    All that having been said, I agree that first-order and second-order issues are sometimes conflated in GP writings as well. Furthermore, I’m happy to agree with M-P that the empirical success of GP may have implications for our understanding of the relationship between scientific theory and world, and also that these implications have not been fully developed in the writings of the GPs. What I remain skeptical of is whether there are implications of this analysis for a gestalt science of the mind, or whether the GP empirical strategy has been infected by any kind of confusion or error about the dynamic / transient / phenomenal nature of form.

    • I’m going to resist the urge to reply in any detail yet: I hope everyone feels very welcome to raise criticism and pursue discussion, and I don’t wish to stifle it in the least.

      To feed that fire, I’ll openly admit that since my aim was only to try to clarify MP’s argument, the paper does not offer much critical evaluation of the argument. Perhaps it is a bad argument (or perhaps my reconstruction of it is bad). I can’t think of a better group of folks than all of you to discuss these issues further.

      In particular, I grant that MP’s claims about the “reciprocal inclusion” of structures and laws are among the most obscure claims he offers — most commentators have not attempted to make much sense of them. I think Alistair is quite right to focus attention here, and to be suspicious about what they add up to and where my reconstruction leaves us.

  3. Thanks Ben. I was just thinking about J. J. Gibson’s own response to Gestalt theory, as he seems to have a similar response to MP; taking it as inspiration but ultimately finding it a flawed theory.

    In Gibson’s major work (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception), we find a very similar attack on “accepted theories of perception,” and the same problem that MP seems to raise: that while Gestalt theorists were aware of the problem, they were not able to break away.

    For Gibson it is all about meaning being part of the world, where the world is an environmental relation between agent and the place they occupy. So he criticises Koffka for having a duality: “For Koffka it was the phenomenal postbox that that invited letter-mailing, not the physical postbox” (1986:139). For Gibson the postbox, in relation to the agent, should be enough.

    More specifically, Gibson critiques Koffka for having the ego as an object of experience when it seems more the case that we perceive the world, not the ego in relation to the world (this is would be ‘the phenomenal’ above). To me this seems to fit MP in the Phenomenology of Perception. Both MP and Gibson criticise the idea of the self being a ‘field’ or a “‘something’ [that] is always in the middle of something else” (MP 1962:4, Gibson see above). Instead, the meaning is just present in the situation, through direct perception for Gibson, and the intentional arc for MP.

    All that said, I struggled to see how this fit in with the critique in Structure of Behaviour, perhaps something to do with form? Do you have any insights? One possibility is that MP’s critique would also extend to affordances? At least the naturalistic approach.

    And, I think it is of note, that while there are similarities between MP and Gibson, they do not present the same positive theory. So while we may accept their criticisms of Gestalt and traditional theories of perception, that we should then agree with their positive thesis is an altogether separate matter.

  4. Hi Nik! (We “meet” again!)

    I’m planning to make some more detailed responses to your post and Alistair’s in the very near future, but to partially respond to your comments:
    Regarding MP’s views on the subject/object dichotomy in /Structure of Behavior/ I wanted to plug Robin Muller’s very thorough and thoughtful paper which will be coming out soon in /Ergo/. It’s the best article I know to recommend on this topic.

  5. Hi all! I’m quite late to the party. Thank you very much for this text, it has been really helpful in clarifying the nature of the critique of MP to the Gestaltists. If I understand correctly, one of the main features of this critique is that it focuses on the ontological character of forms. For MP, these are not transcendent objects but perceived phenomena. I take that this amounts to a critique of the kind of project that is expected from the question regarding forms, significance, or order. It is not a causal or scientific project, but a philosophical one in that it is the question regarding the constitution of these phenomena. I was wondering whether this amounts to a rejection of Gestalt theory as a valid scientific endeavor? If the constitution of forms is a philosophical matter, the project of Gestalt would only make sense as a philosophy of perception? Or, does MP’s critique redefine the scope of Gestalt as a theory that intends to explain a certain kind of structures?

  6. Hi everyone,

    Having never properly worked through Structure of Behaviour I found this paper extremely helpful – thanks Ben! The main residual question I have about Merleau-Ponty’s position here is about the relationship between i) the arguments about the reciprocality of structures and laws, and ii) his views on ‘vital structures’, as elaborated in section 4.5 of the version Ben shared with us.

    There’s one reading of these ‘reciprocality’ considerations that has them, as Ben says in note 15, following from a mundane epistemology and philosophy of science, rather than anything to do with transcendental Phenomenology. But it looks to me like the the natural way of linking the material in 4.5 up with these reciprocality considerations is by reading them through a transcendentalist lens – e.g. in the passage quoted on p.23 when MP claims that the unity characteristic of forms is essentially the unity of objects of human knowledge, or at the top of p.28 where MP holds that the organism, and the forms which constitute it, are unified ‘in the Kantian sense’.

    A critique in terms of these latter sorts of considerations is the kind of thing (I think) I recognise from his writing about GP in ‘Phenomenology of Perception’. One strand of his thinking there, which I’ve just recently started to pay attention to, is the specific way in which he wants to develop a Kantian view of perception and knowledge. Whereas Kant focuses on ‘pure’ reason, attempting to specify the categorial structures constitutive of rationality in abstraction from the embodied, historical and cultural conditions of their realisation, MP wants to insist that this idealised conception of the categories doesn’t capture the way that normative standards figure in our experience as we live it. Now, it looks to me like *this* kind of argument about the error of ‘reifying’ structures of cognition has, at least potentially (if it can be supported, and made intelligible, that is) a bit more punch than the ‘mundane’ reading of the points about reciprocality. But this sort of argument does look like transcendental phenomenology, rather than mundane epistemology/phil of science. And it wasn’t clear to me exactly how Ben, or M-P, was seeing the relationship between the considerations that make up the bulk of the paper and this sort of ‘transcendental’ line.

    I’m sympathetic to the questions raised by Alistair and Jimena above about whether any of this gives GP, qua science of mind, anything to worry about. Here’s an analogy: In the Phenomenology of Perception I think MP makes it clear that he doesn’t think the main lines of Kant’s ‘intellectualist’ understanding of cognition are false – he agrees, e.g. that spatiality, temporality, and self-consciousness are essential structures of human experience. His problem with ‘intellectualism’ is that it ignores both how those structures arise, and the way in which they figure in our lived experience. But, if our explanatory interest is only in specifying the structures that make human experience what it is, a purely ‘intellectualist’ view that pays no attention to these considerations can do just fine. It seems to me that MP should (and perhaps does?) think something similar about GP and the way it treats the formal structures of experience: If our interest is in elaborating a Phenomenological philosophy that resolves all the theoretical tensions that preoccupy MP, then we must take care not to ‘reify’ those structures by taking them as theoretical start or end points. If one’s interest is just in getting on with empirically characterising and studying the mind, though, it’s not clear to me why a practicing Gestalt Psychologist should care about the Phenomenological bells, whistles and caveats MP wishes to add to their understanding of the formal structures of experience.

    I could ramble on about all this for much longer. But I’m curious to know whether the above makes sense to people, or if anyone has any further thoughts about how the ‘mundane’ and ‘transcendental’ readings of the reciprocality considerations might fit together.

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