Wittgenstein meets Hofstadter in Creative Reality – Gestalt & Imagination

I’ve latched onto the idea of a Gestalt view of the world several times in the recent past, and spent most words describing the idea in a post earlier this year with reference to von Bertalanffy’s Problems of Life.

As noted in several other recent posts, I’m reading Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein, the Duty of Genius (DoG) and finding it excellent. After one post picking up points from the first (Tractatus) half of that biography, I have been finding so much more good material in DoG that my notes would, as ever, produce as much blog post as the original text I’m reading. Too much. However, the gestalt idea recurs many times with Wittgenstein, firing off connections with my other existing thoughts.

Monk is emphasising that Wittgenstein’s views on confusions in describing what it means to “get” a joke and or “appreciate” a piece of music or art, are really the same confusions he is pointing out in philosophical problems with science:

Understanding humour, like understanding music, provides an analogy for Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophical understanding. What is required for understanding here is not the discovery of facts, nor the drawing of logically valid inferences from accepted premises – nor still less, the construction of theories – but rather … the right point of view.

We are too easily “Aspect Blind”. We are so used to seeing our model of the physical world as the dominant worldview that we tend to see other aspects – gestalts – as secondary, less tangible objects. We discount or fail to recognise these gestalts as real objects, even fail to see them entirely. We fail to see that the dominant physical model (of science) is itself a gestalt, albeit a very important and useful one.

So many Wittgenstein references to aspect blindness put me in mind of Hofstadter and his Tabletop thought experiment for illustrating Creative Analogies by imagining objects and relationships orthogonal – on a different plane – to those explicitly available in the model in the explicit design space or theatre of operations front of you. The physical objects on the tabletop are – in some sense – no less real than those you can imagine, even though they may be unreal in the physical sense. It’s not a problem that they are not physically real. In fact they’re so useful, they are necessary to human reality.

Indeed Wittgenstein already made the same connection:

“What would a person who is blind towards these aspects be lacking?
It’s absurd not to answer: the power of imagination.”

Three corollaries come to mind, without further elaboration here: One, that physics is fundamentally at root Information & Computation (previously on Psybertron and recently in New Scientist). Two, that the gestalt idea is pretty fundamental to physical problems with Anthropic Principles. Discounting trivial AP interpretations, all our models of the world – even our most objective physical sciences – are modelled from our actual human perspective in the cosmos. Our models are all anthropic; they are our gestalts (previously on Psybertron). Three, that creative analogies with approximate relations and definitions are valid because they are approximate (analogous but not identical). If they were one-to-one mappings in every respect – tautologous identities – they wouldn’t tell us any new knowledge. What matters is how good they are. Reminded me of Dennett (a) putting off definitions until you find something worth defining and (b) working with the kinda / sorta operator in developing arguments, ideas and theories.


[Post Note : Drafted and published simultaneously with the above is Rev Sam’s (Elizaphanian) most recent post, also on the imaginative aspect of physical reality (targetted at Dawkins). As I may have mentioned, Sam of course was person who first introduced me to Wittgenstein.]

[Post Note : Having now read to the end, so much more I could say, but strangely the one item for now is the phrase immediately following the last one quoted above:

…. the power of imagination.

But the imagination of individuals, though necessary, is not sufficient. What is further required for people to be “alive” to aspects (gestalts) [and therefore humour, music, poetry, arts generally] is a culture.

That “Tabletop” from which leaps of imagination are made is the smorgasbord of existing things accepted as being “a thing” in the surrounding culture. I’m guessing in the arts and humanities, no-one would find that cultural take remotely controversial. Of course what we’re saying, Wittgenstein and I, is that’s just as true for philosophy, politics, economics and science. Established memeplexes provide the background, the platform, from which new memes can spring. The previously accepted things are no more real that the new imagined things. It’s their ongoing acceptance, standing the empirical tests of time in terms of validity and utility, that differ. The imagined can become accepted and culturally established, or not.]

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