Gestalten: A Resource for Comparative Philosophy?
Written by Ryan Harte
The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the third meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Rohan Sikri (University of Georgia) for his talk, “Gestalten: A Resource for Comparative Philosophy?”
Sikri proposed Gestalt theory as a fruitful approach to comparative work, both in philosophy and more broadly. He began by briefly noting the limitations of comparative methods that isolate specific ideas or concepts in different cultures. Sikri referenced work by G.E.R. Lloyd and Nathan Sivin, which suggests comparison of “manifolds,” or complexes of socio-historical, linguistic, cultural, etc. arrangements. Gestalten offer a similar resource in that they emphasize the primacy of the whole rather than isolated components, insisting on the interrelationality of each part within the complex.
Sikri foregrounded his talk with a brief historical account of Gestalt theory in its original therapeutic context and also its adoption into the Deep Ecology movement. From the former, Sikri emphasized the relational model of self which sees the self as one part of a unified field with the world, as well as a rejection of traditional mind/body dichotomies. From the latter, Sikri highlighted the potential for Gestalten to shift not just particular opinions but entire frames of reference, coming to see the world itself from less anthropocentric viewpoints. After these general background remarks, Sikri turned to the implications for Sino-Hellenic comparative philosophy in particular.
Plato’s Phaedrus and the Zhuangzi provided the textual examples for Sikri to illustrate his method, focusing in particular on the famous passages in each featuring metaphors drawn from the skill of butchery. Sikri argued that despite the vast historical distance between Plato and Zhuangzi, the butcher metaphors in each text share certain qualities illuminated by Gestalten—that is, illuminated by a reading that sees the metaphors as part of a larger web of issues. Sikri drew special attention to how the skillful methods of Socrates in the Phaedrus and Butcher Ding in the Zhuangzi both rely on and borrow from medical discourses of their respective times to formulate a new conception of dialectics and philosophy itself as a kind of therapy. Granted certain differences, Sikri maintained that with a Gestalt-like view of multiple interrelated discourses, Plato and Zhuangzi appear to be engaged in comparable enterprises, something professional philosophy has typically missed by focusing on isolated and piecemeal analyses.
Sikri’s talk elicited several excited questions. One question raised the issue of whether the model of self in the Phaedrus that is doing the therapeutic philosophy is in fact the same self as the one featured in the Zhuangzi. Another question asked after the implications of Gestalt theory for written stylistics and other formal concerns involved in reading ancient texts. A third representative question sought to clarify Sikri’s use of Gestalten as a formal or systematic method.
We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more details about the series schedule.