What do you see in Fig. 1? This is a typical example of Gestalt problems. The drawing can be seen in two different manners depending on how we look at it, either as a duck or a rabbit. In short, a single drawing can be interpreted in terms of two different Gestalten.
Gestalt is a common German word. Grammatically, the word is formed from the past participle of stellen (to place, to present). Thus its etymological meaning is “something that is placed or presented.” Although the word is usually translated as “form” or “figure,” this connotation sticks around whenever this word is uttered. For this reason, Duden Dictionary lists as its second meaning “unknown person who is not close enough to be identified.” Keep in mind that there are words in German more specifically referring, respectively, to the form and the figure: die Form and die Figur. In other words, there are three words in German corresponding to the form and the figure in English. The third is die Gestalt. Keep in mind that there is nothing special with the word “Gestalt,” though it may sound exotic to the English ear. To avoid this psychological effect, a reader may wish to read it as “form” or “figure” whenever seeing a print “Gestalt” in the following.
Under the German tradition of philosophy, the word, die Gestalt, is often adopted for exploiting its connotations. For this reason, even in translation, it often makes a presentation clearer by retaining this German word without translation. In philosophical discourses, Gestalt means often what we recognize as a “form” by observation. Note that it does not necessarily correspond to a simple form, but it can refer to anything present, as already suggested.
Unfortunately, more often than not, these issues are simply reduced to questions of psychology, because to some extent, it is a matter of how we see things through our own mind. For this reason, studies of Gestalten are often simply tagged as “Gestalt psychology.” psychology.” However, how we see something is not just a matter of psychological subjectivity. This is also a question of how we study a natural phenomenon scientifically in an objective manner.
Special thanks are due to Katherine Straub for her initial positive reactions on the idea of this essay, and also for specific inputs to the manuscript. Ralph Milliff also provided me critical, but encouraging, comments on an earlier version. The final manuscript has been prepared by following extensive, helpful comments by Vokmar Wirth and two anonymous reviewers as well as Emily Jones Becker as the editor. Vokmar Wirth further drew my attention to E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.
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