Gestalt Theory and Linguistics
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by Jurgis Skilters, organizer of the "Gestalt Theory and Linguistics" page

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Latest update: September 2, 2006

Welcome to our Gestalt theory and Linguistics Pages!

Initially, Gestalt theory was essentially formulated at the level of sensory perception, particularly at the level of visualization. It soon became clear, however, that Gestalt principles were not only relevant to perception but also to other cognitive procedures such as language processing and the determination of meaning (cf. for example, the pioneering work of Ehrenfels).

In recent years, a clear convergence between Gestalt theory (especially that of the Berlin School) and Linguistics has developed within the fields of Cognitive Semantics and Meaning Theory (cf. the contributions of George Lakoff, Leonard Talmy, Ronald Langacker, u.a., in References). In his seminal paper for example, Lakoff (1977) not only mentioned the relationship between Gestalt theory and semantics but also explained Gestalt principles (and the Gestalt concept) in terms of Linguistics.

The development of Cognitive Semantics (within Linguistics, and indirectly the "cognitive revolution" in Neuroscience and Psychology in general [cf. Neisser, u.a.]) has renewed interest in Gestalt principles and perspectives in Linguistics and re-established Gestalt theory as a productive research methodology.

Mainstream Linguistics and Semantics has long been dominated by narrowly defined atomistic, reductionist, and radical behaviourist conceptions of meaning articulation and comprehension. These perspectives can indeed describe certain formal dimensions of semantic phenomena elegantly, but they fail to describe the human processes of meaning formulation essential to semantic articulation.

During the 1970's, there were several approaches similar to Cognitive Semantics (e.g. the Prototype Theory of E.H. Rosch) which used methodology (more or less explicitly related to Gestalt theory) to more adequately analyze human semantic processing. These studies unequivocally demonstrated the parallels between Gestalt theory and the emerging disciplines of Cognitive Semantics and Cognitive Linguistics. Controversy still surrounds only the character and depth of these relationships and parallels, not the principles themselves.

Sometimes the contention of critics concerning the relations of Gestalt theory and cognitive semantics is that Gestalt theory is merely implicit or simply marginal to Cognitive Semanticists (the critique is, for example, that the Cognitive Semanticists are often familiar only with Koffka's "Principles of Gestalt Theory").

However, the latest research in Cognitive Semantics (cf. Lakoff, Johnson, Talmy, Langacker, Taylor, Croft, Cruse, u.a.) has conclusively demonstrated the convergence of Gestalt, Linguistic and Semantic processes in the articulation of meaning and comprehension. Of course there are several terminological disparities distinguishing Gestalt theory from Cognitive Semantics. However, these differences are not necessarily categorical. Shared notions include such concepts as "gestalt", "figure", "ground", "figure-ground", "structure", which often have the same meaning in both Gestalt and Semantic theory.

These parallels between Cognitive Semantics and Gestalt theory, for example, are demonstrated in several aspects of pre-linguistic processing, also as defined from a Husserl-Gurwitsch-phenomenological perspective.

As a result of this merging of Gestalt and Cognitive Semantic approaches, it has been established that the processes of meaning and comprehension start with perception. The methodological significance of this finding is that several principles of semantic organization are already functional at the level of perception, for example in figure-ground structuring. In this respect, one could argue about certain aspects of world-articulation, but it can not be denied that this type of general articulation is functional even at the level of language (cf. especially studies by L. Talmy).

Indeed, the Gestalt principle of "prägnanz-tendency" can be seen at the level of linguistic articulation. These principles can be easily recognized in narrative analysis and in text reproduction (cf. studies by Poppelreuter, Reinhart, Stadler, in References).

Part-whole relationships present a special problem within Semantics. Many trivial aspects of part-whole interactions can not be adequately explained by traditional, elemental-atomistic semantic formulations.

Consider this example: When John is the Conductor of the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra and is thus (definitely) a part of the Orchestra, and when John's nose is (definitely) a part of John, why then is John's nose (definitely) NOT a part of the Orchestra??? The intuitively plausible, and gestalt based answer is: John's nose is not a part-of-the-whole constituted by the Orchestra, i.e., John's nose is (definitely) not a part of the "whole" which is designated as the "Orchestra"!

Of course John's nose is a part of John and thereby has a certain structural function for John-as-a-whole, but for the Orchestra-as-a-whole, as a "gestalt", John's nose has (definitely) no structural function (cf. Wiegand, Moltmann, in References).

There are indeed many principles which originally emerge from sensory processing, which nevertheless function also within the processes of meaning formation and semantic articulation. Some of these principles (e.g. the figure-ground) have been recognized in recent years, others are still the subject of intense research.

Internet venues and forums for Gestalt theory and for Linguistics offer us not only the chance to gather cutting-edge information, but also to actively engage in discussion, data sharing, indeed in creative contact.

We welcome your interest and look forward to productive co-operation!

Dr. Jurgis Skilters

Organizer of the "Gestalt Theory and Linguistics" pages
Spokesperson (Linguistics) of the GTA

Jurgis Skilters

Spokesperson (Linguistics) of the GTA

Organizer of the "Gestalt Theory and Linguistics" pages

Assistant Professor, Department of Theoretical Philosophy and Logic University of Latvia Riga, Latvia

Director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences and Semantics University of Latvia


Editor-in-chief of the Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication

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