Back when I was a lad, the notion of a gestalt was hot in moral philosophy. [I associate the term with Franz Brentano. Is that right?] As opposed to the associationism of Hume and his followers, who viewed perceptions as agglomerations of separable atomic individual sensations, gestalt theory taught, roughly, that certain perceptual presentations made seemingly objective demands on us. For example, it was said, when presented with a line drawing of most of a circle, with a small arc or segment omitted, one experiences a demand that the circle be completed. This fact showed something or other about the objectivity of moral judgments [I may be misremembering this – it has been sixty years, and I was never much impressed with the argument in the first place.]
Which brings me to jigsaw puzzles. The Continuing Care Retirement Community where Susie and I now live has six apartment buildings, each with twenty-seven apartments, and in addition several hundred little one-story dwellings rather grandly called “villas” [use and mention, as Quine pounded into our heads.] We live in Building 5. On the first floor of building 5 is a lobby, in the lobby is a table, and on the table at any given time is a jigsaw puzzle of between 500 and 1000 pieces. Residents stop by the table to chat, to gossip, and, if they are so moved, to try to put a piece or two in the puzzle. I have never done jigsaw puzzles; my tipple, as I have mentioned, is crossword puzzles. But the damned things exercise a demand on me that would warm a gestalt theorist’s heart. Susie seems to be similarly afflicted, and we have quickly become known in the building as relentless puzzlers. It is not uncommon for me to say to Susie, “I am going downstairs to do the puzzle” [we live on the third floor,] and like as not she will join me. The only other thing in the world that exercises that sort of objective pull on me is an apple pie. I feel it to be a sin to leave an apple pie only partly eaten.
We are now in the very last throes of a 750 piece puzzle, and there is serious trouble. We are down to seven remaining pieces, none of which fits comfortably into the remaining spaces. Clearly, somewhere, there are some wrong pieces, but I have not yet managed to find them. The maven of the puzzles, a woman a bit older than myself who has lived in our building for eleven years, says one must simply move on, but I return to the table again and again, trying to spot the misplaced pieces that can be swapped out for those remaining. It just seems wrong to leave the puzzle uncompleted.
Maybe there is something to gestalt theory.