A Plea for Visual Thinking / Rudolf Arnheim

Click to access A-Plea-for-Visual-Thinking.pdf

A Plea for Visual Thinking

see also an interview with RA:  http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/rudolfarnheim.php

Rudolf Arnheim Reviewed work(s): Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Spring, 1980), pp. 489-497 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343105 . Accessed: 31/01/2013 13:04

Perception and thinking are treated by textbooks of psychology in separate chapters. The senses are said to gather information about the outer world; thinking is said to process that information. Thinking emerges from this approach as the “higher,” more respectable function, to which consequently education assigns most of the school hours and most of the credit. The exercise of the senses is a mere recreation, relegated to spare time.

It is left to the playful practice of the arts and music and is readily dispensed with when a tight budget calls for economy. The habit of separating the intuitive from the abstractive functions, as they were called in the Middle Ages, goes far back in our tradition. Descartes, in the sixth Meditation, defined man as “a thing that thinks,” to which reasoning came naturally (it obviously doesn’t!); whereas imagining, the activity of the senses, required a special effort and was in no way necessary to the human nature or essence. (The arts and technology are vital to human health and happiness -)

Note: We see the “elevation” of these narrow ideas about “a hierarchy of thinking” (that damn pyramid obsession again) in the denigration of ASD / Asperger abilities: (formal, old-fashioned use of language if language is present; echoing or copying (parroting) of language with an extensive “memorized” vocabulary, but without a “clue” to the “deeper meaning”  of language; an indictment of ASD / AS individuals as robots that are utterly lacking in imagination or creativity; as enthralled by boring subject matter (to social types) and above all, the failure to accomplish what has recently been elevated to the “highest level of cognition attainable, socio-emotional language, exemplified by: Have a nice day!

For “verbally deficient” autistics, this means an immediate judgement of low intelligence.  

So far, we have a very clear historical explanation as to why “visual-sensory thinking” got trashed, demoted and eventually designated as a “developmental disability” by American psychologists. This vital and creative cognitive process has vanished from the “acceptable human social repertoire” of “brain activity” in puritanical” American culture.  

The passive ability to receive images of sensory things, said Descartes, would be useless if there did not exist in the mind a further and higher active faculty capable of shaping these images and of correcting the errors that derive from sensory experience. (Exactly backwards to how thinking works) A century later Leibniz spoke of two levels of clear cognition.’ Reasoning was cognition of the higher degree: it was distinct, that is, it could analyze things into their components. Sensory experience, on the other hand, was cognition of the lower order: it also could be clear but it was confused, in the original Latin sense of the term; that is, all elements fused and mingled together in an indivisible whole. Thus artists, who rely on this inferior faculty (as do many top inventors and scientists), are good judges of works of art but when asked what is wrong with a particular piece that displeases them can only reply that it lacks nescio quid, a certain “I don’t know what.” (Intuitively, you “get it” or you don’t)

Yes, the Descartes – thing is nonsense. Just because a man is a genius is one field, doesn’t mean that he is an expert on everything; but NTs love authority and will believe without question what “great men” say. Our present predicament of relying on a “false pyramid of thinking” based on “dumb” (not reasonable) value judgements from (European white male) heroes of the past, has devastated the power of thinking “outside the box of verbal abstraction and generalities” in entire societies.

In our own time, language has been designated as the place of refuge from the problems incurred in direct perceptual experience; this in spite of the fact that language, although a powerful help to our thinking, does not offer in and by itself an arena in which thinking can take place. Thus the very title of a recent collection of articles by Jerome S. Bruner suggests that in order to arrive at knowledge the human mind must go “beyond the information given” by direct sensory experience. Bruner adopts the belief that the cognitive development of a child passes through three stages. The child explores the world first through action, then through imagery, and finally through language. 

The implication is, unfortunately, that with the arrival at a next level the earlier one falls by the wayside.

This is obviously untrue: adults retain modes of “thinking” from childhood stages. Magical thinking is the default mode of thinking for neotenic social typicals. Magic  “fills in” the gaps left by inferior sensory data and perception, supplying “fantastical” explanations for phenomena. Reasoning, critical analysis, and effective understanding of “how the universe works” (math-science) may be native to a few individuals, but must be taught and cultivated in the majority of children. This is a taboo in highly religious American culture. Reality-based thinking has been abandoned, even demonized, in American education – and for several generations – in favor of socially-promoted emotional narcissism that contributes to a very distorted social reality and description of “being human.” That is, a supernatural orientation is the result of developmental stagnation, and furnishes the status quo in religious, psychological and social engineering regimes. Neoteny is a fact of life for the modern social human. 

Thus when the child learns to go beyond a particular constellation directly given to his eyes, the ability to restructure the situation in a more suitable way is not credited by Bruner to the maturing of perceptual capacity but to the switch toward a new processing medium, namely, language. Thus language is praised as the indispensable instrument for essential refinements of the mind, toward which in fact, language is little more than a reflector.

To claim that “cognition” suddenly appeared out of nowhere, only with the “arrival of human verbal language” is idiotic and unbelievably arrogant! 550 million years of “arms race” evolution, but “sensory thinking” is inferior…

We are told by psychologists that “autistic” children are defective (low intelligence) due to two outrageous prejudices:

1. Lack of verbal language use, and/or failure to use language as prescribed (social scripts) is automatically a “sign” of defective development. (This overturns and discards 550 millions of years of evolution)

2. Superior sensory perception and processing, which are autistic strengths, are denigrated as ‘low-level’ cognition.

Since experts insist that perception offers nothing better than the fairly mechanical recording of the stimuli arriving at the sensory receptors, it is useful to respond with a few examples which show that perception transcends constantly and routinely the mere mechanical recording of sensory raw material. (I am limiting myself in the following to visual perception.) At a fairly simple level, the psychologist Roger N. Shepard and his coworkers have shown that visual imagination can rotate the spatial position of a given object when a different view is needed to solve a problem, for example, in order to identify the object with, or distinguish it from, a similar one. (I have noted previously that this type of “test” is a very limited and rule-based conception of what visual thinking can and does accomplish) This is worth knowing. But reports by artists and scientists indicate that visual imagination is capable of much more spectacular exploits. Indeed, the imagination of the average person demands our respect.

Let me use an example cited in an article by Lewis E. Walkup. The solution of the puzzle should be attempted without the help of an illustration. Imagine a large cube made up of twenty-seven smaller cubes, that is, three layers of nine cubes each. Imagine further that the entire outer surface of the large cube is painted red and ask yourself how many of the smaller cubes will be red on three sides, two sides, one side, or no side at all.

SEE Skipped TEXT

Far from abandoning our image, we discovered it to be a beautiful, composition, in which each element was defined by its place in the whole. Did we need language to perform this operation? Not at all; although language could help us to codify our results. Did we need intelligence, inventiveness, creative discovery? Yes, some. In a modest way, the operation we performed is of the stuff that good science and good art are made of.

Was it seeing or was it thinking that solved the problem? Obviously, the distinction is absurd.

In order to see we had to think; and we had nothing to think about if we were not looking. But our claim goes farther. We assert not only that perceptual problems can be solved by perceptual operations but that productive thinking solves any kind of problem in the perceptual realm because there exists no other arena in which true thinking can take place. Therefore it is now necessary to show, at least sketchily, how one goes about solving a highly “abstract” problem. For the sake of an example, let me ask the old question of whether free will is compatible with determinism. Instead of looking up the answer in Saint Augustine or Spinoza, I watch what happens when I begin to think. In what medium does the thinking take place? Images start to form. Motivational forces, in order to become manipulable, take the shape of arrows. These arrows line up in a sequence, each pushing the next-a deterministic chain that does not seem to leave room for any freedom (fig. la). Next I ask What is freedom? and I see a sheaf of vectors issuing from a base (fig. lb). Each arrow is free, within the limits of the constellation, to move in any direction it pleases and to reach as far as it can and will. But there is something incomplete about this image of freedom. It operates in empty space, and there is no sense to freedom without the context of the world to which it applies. My next image adds an external system of a world minding its own business and thereby frustrating the arrows that issue from my freedom-seeking creature (fig. ic). I must ask: Are the two systems incompatible in principle? In my … GO TO: 

Click to access A-Plea-for-Visual-Thinking.pdf


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