Truth and The Basis for KnowingEpistemology, one of the main disciplines within philosophy, is concerned with the nature of knowledge. Valid knowledge is presumed to maintain the structure of existence through whatever means of communication may be available. Since Gestalt therapy is a discipline and a theoretical system relating human growth and change to personal perceptions of the world, the basis for firm and valid knowledge of the world becomes important.
Gestalt therapy approaches the problem of valid knowledge in nontraditional ways. In traditional Western epistemology, certain knowledge is believed to exist apart from man's awareness of it. It is assumed that "meaning" exists and can be grasped, that communication about something can be true, that cause and effect apply in knowledge-seeking, and that knowledge can be analyzed. In Gestalt therapy, these assumptions are challenged, and a different orientation toward valid knowledge emerges.
First, the Gestalt therapist believes that absolute and certain knowledge is a myth. When we realize the multiordinality or existence, we see that no things are exactly like other things. Everything is different in some unique ways from every other thing. Perceptions of similarity and comparison are invented. Comparison does not exist outside the human framework, and without comparison certain knowledge is impossible. The existing "knowledge" of the world is largely based upon such statements as this is bigger than that, less differentiated than those, better than this, more red than that, etc. When we compare, we establish relations. These relations come from the individual.
The traditionalist further assumes that there is a meaning in things, that a meaning exists. Perls (1972) denies both:
- A meaning does not exist. A meaning is a creative process, a performance in the here and now. This act of creation can be habitual and so quick that we cannot trace it, or it can require hours of discussion. In every case a meaning is created by relating a figure, the foreground, to the background against which the figure appears. (Pp. 64-65)
In these terms, all that we can know about a thing are the relations we perceive. As relations are perceived, they are expressed as clearly as possible in language. However, verbalizing carries with it the assumption that a verbal statement about something can be true, that the speaker's belief in the truth of a statement can be "justified." The criteria for justifiability of belief are based on verbalization of truth: (1) the statement must be true, (2) the person must believe that it is true, and (3) the belief must be based upon adequate evidence that it is true. However, the process of making a statement about something obscures the thing itself through overgeneralization, selective reporting, out-and-out lying, and so forth. Korzybski (1933) says that the act of describing an event inevitably falsifies it. Perls agrees: Gestalt therapy operates on this assumption, that "verbal communication is a lie." Verbal communication is a report of an experience; it is not the experience itself. It is a map of the territory of experience.
The structure of most of our everyday discourse suggests that cause and effect operate in the world. Although it is difficult to conceive of total randomness in the world, it is equally false to believe that knowing why something exists is, in fact, knowing that thing. All events are overdetermined, and the line of inquiry that leads to causes for the effects must either dissipate into endless causes or mislead by leaving out causes. Knowing why does not necessarily help in "knowing." If we try to explain current behavior by means of past behavior, we run the risk of endless explanations, speculations, and interpretations. All of those exist; we do explain, speculate, and interpret. However, such verbalizations cover up or are removed from the real experience. To know the experience itself, we must focus upon how we feel and not why we feel. Knowing how is the intelligence of the organism.
In Gestalt therapy, organismic knowing is not merely constituted by the intellect, which searches for meanings and for causes. The firmest ground for experience lies in the individual's awareness of bodily sensations (Levitsky and Perls 1970). Gestalt therapy is founded on this concept. As a person becomes aware of body feelings and sensations, she or he bases awareness and choice firmly in the present process of experiencing and being.
The Gestalt therapist recognizes that "laws" of behavior are abstractions developed to explain various patterns and processes that have been observed. The Gestalt therapist also understands that behavior hay have consequences. However, he also understands that there is not necessarily an intervening "reason" for either the consequences or the behavior. Patterns, processes, and events can be recognized and dealt with without analyzing them.
Intellectual knowing also assumes that knowing can be approached analytically, broken into its component parts, and organized categorically. Knowledge, however, in the sense of awareness of organismic "knowing" occurs integratively, not analytically. A person grows, matures, increases, and becomes more whole as he integrates (accepts and assimilates) parts of himself and perceptions of his world.
Gestalt therapy has many links with Eastern thought, as we have noted. One of these emerges from our discussion of the two ways of "knowing." An understanding that encompasses all things at one time is not subject to time and place limitations; this understanding is convergent and synchronous, sometimes beyond words and eluding description. In Zen understanding (Suzuki 1970), this is prajna, or intuitive knowledge. There is also the vijnana, or discursive knowledge. Vijnana is used to describe, separate, analyze, and compute. Prajna is used in grasping the totality of an experience. Perls makes a similar distinction between intellectual knowing ("the whore of intelligence") and organismic knowing ("the whole of intelligence").
Gestalt psychologists Kohler (1925) and Wertheimer (1959) emphasize the integral experience of recognizing the structural relationships in the whole of a problem. In the system of General Semantics Alfred Korzybski distinguishes the thing-as-it-is from the thing-as-it-is-described. Martin Buber's (1958) theological/philosophical perspective offers the I-Thou interaction and the I-It interaction, as do philosophers Merleau-Ponty (1969), Husserl (1970), and others. Kierkegaard (1944) says that it is the totality of the existential encounter, awareness, and choice that are most important and meaningful, most creative of the individual. The ethical stance of Fletcher (1966) and others, as we shall see later in this chapter, proposes a holistic view of interactions and personal responsibility.
In short, the theoreticians and practitioners referred to in this chapter bring to their understandings the holistic view, the oneness or situationality of experience. This view, in one of its oldest forms, is expressed in the Taoist document, the I Ching (Wilhelm-Baynes translation, 1950). As C.G. Jung states in the Introduction to the text, the wholeness of the experience of an observed moment includes everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, no matter how great or powerful. Such an approach reflects the Eastern notion that all ingredients of a moment may encompass a philosophy of life, a weltanschauung, which may be transmitted in a therapeutic interaction as, perhaps, the integral, although often unstated, aspect of this interaction (Naranjo 1970).
A review of our discussion of the epistemology of Gestalt therapy indicates that all of the elements interpenetrate. That this is true suggests that knowing is a gestalt, a pattern, an irreducible phenomenon. As an experience, it cannot be parcelled, bifurcated, analyzed, subsumed, detailed, explained, or ordered in advance.
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