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
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
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
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