"AHA" Revisited: A Hermeneutical Account of Private and Public Everyday GeniusRoger D. Carlson
Eastern Washington University
Paper presented at the meeting of the Western Psychological Association, Portland, April, 1992
"Insight" occupies a surprisingly powerless position in the present hierarchy of psychological knowledge. While it is most often acknowledged by Gestalt psychologists and researchers interested in the psychology of creativity, and the nature of reasoning, it is given only passing notice by experimental psychologists. Here, we seek to show that the epistemology of insightful events can be more rigorously understood through the added lens of the hermeneutic paradigm.
In psychology, the "reality" of experience is based upon its fundamental repeatability. By way of contrast, "insight," "discovery," or "genius" are characterized as spontaneously felt "truths." Historically, both sides of this binary have waged a fierce battle over the reclamation of the "AHA" phenomenon known as "insight." While Gestalt psychologists were recognized for subverting the focus of an otherwise radically behavioral psychology, they have been criticized for invoking an essentially "mysterious" mechanism, far too vague and mentalistic to explain the specific processes or influential factors of "insight."
In sum, the irregularity and unrepeatability of "insight" render this human experience virtually unapproachable by science and thus, "insight" is rendered an essentially unfounded mentalistic event in the best traditions of behaviorism and logical positivism (Gadamer, ).
Ironically, it can be argued that the most "person-centered" arena in psychology, the therapy setting, revolves around this very notion; not only do we attempt to share potentially "transformative" "insights" with the client, but we attempt to create the conditions whereby the client can achieve his or her own "insights." By virtue of what empirical principle is this process actualized? Operating within Popper's logical positivism the problem of accessing subjective phenomena such as "insight" is systematically sidestepped by invoking the criteria of operationalism and repeatability. The systematic marginalization of insight bears heavily on theoretical, metatheoretical, ethical, metaphysical, practical, and even political questions for psychology.
Hermeneutic theory recognizes that unlike behaviors, "insight" is composed of a polyphony far too complex and interconnected to be divided into explicitly defined and operationalized variables. While hermeneutics celebrates the use of empirical "insight" as a tool among many assisting us on our way from one place to another, its "real" "explanatory" force is also essentially mysterious. To understand human phenomena, hermeneutics inspires a challenge to the ontological "all-or-nothing" monopoly on truth in scientism, by underscoring the role of objective "truth" as secondary to the "human agency" of "interpretation." By way of this, along with a perceptual shift analogous to Gestalt theory itself, hermeneutics seeks to forego the a priori descent into "mystery." To achieve internal consistency in our theories, hermeneutics stresses the importance of traveling outside the limits imposed by science, to move beyond and manipulate the otherwise arbitrary true-false, subject-object, empirical-rational binary system therein.
Wittgenstein showed how the truth of language and that to which language refers depends upon its "repeatability" within a language-using community -- at once individual and shared.
In terms of language, the meaning of a word is governed by tacit rules in a community which give assent to cases which meet the implicit behavioral criterion for meaning. Gestaltists underscored this context of meaning. At the simplest level we either agree or disagree that a case is an instance of a concept. (Of one who does not agree we would say that he or she is "mis-using" the language (in accordance with prevailing patterns of use within a language-using community)). On one level, the meaning of a concept is based then on a "yes" or "no" communal, binary system of fit. When we listen to an utterance, intelligibility is based on our ability to comprehend overall meaning (or "insight") from the "understood" elemental concepts which use as their criteria for meaning, exemplary cases which we would call instances of the concepts. The word, then, "calls up" "gives rise to" exemplars which give "meaning" to the concept (Ricoeur, 1967). This is at once similar to and different from the perceived "mystery" thought to be inherent in "insight."
Moreover, Henri Nouwen has argued that language is only a medium to reveal -- a tool. The word is instrumental. The power of language does not lie in the word, but in what it reveals. It brings insight or discovery. Merleau-Ponty compares this to the light in a room -- something to which we usually do not pay attention, because it is the medium by which we see other objects. Usually, we do not pay attention to language in its own right, but we pay attention to what it reveals. (Of course, we can pay attention to light, and of course we can study it, but usually we are more concerned which what it reveals. And, of course, different kinds of light, e.g., ultraviolet, infrared, reveal different kinds of things, just as different words or languages can reveal different kinds of things.) Revelation depends upon an internalized context of meaning. What is insightful, then, can only be determined within the context of individual background -- a background which is essentially shared and common. Understanding one's "insight" and the historical embeddedness pertaining thereto, leads to the development of a private epistemic matrix of criteria for "meaning," "enlightenment," and "understanding," characteristic of the hermeneutic paradigm.
From a hermeneutical point of view, we might argue that there is a contextual fabric of meaning developed out of the social, political, and moral milieu which is internalized. There is not a disjuncture between inner and outer or between what is "objective" and what is "subjective," as is approximated in the lab. The social purposes of language (and thus meaning) as described by Foucault, and social criteria of meaning as described by Wittgenstein, render private "understanding" as identical with public "understanding." Individuality, or individual insight then can only be understood by the internalization of the external, communal. This is where the subject-object distinction collapses. There is no disjuncture of the outer and inner, nor is the latter "really" mysterious. Subject and object, inner and outer realms, existence and essence, quality and fact, all are inextricably bound together in the real world. Thus, subject and object cannot be defined or even conceived in isolation because they are one in the same. Collective recognition of truth, genius, or insight does nonetheless occur when what is discovered is discovered for many people who were previously unaware of the discovery. Common public understanding or meaning is perhaps best understood by using the consensual (vs. representational) views of language as developed in the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. For Wittgenstein, the truth of language is a consensual agreed upon truth developed in the context around tacit rules in language-using communities.
Given these assumptions, what then is the character of private "insight," "understanding," or everyday "genius"? It is a mistake to ponder such a question only in terms of operationalization. The words of a poem, a dilemma, a paradox, and inspirational, call up "understanding," given the individual's internalized social history as a context of understanding. These insights then become incorporated as the personal (private) social history of the individual. The potentially insightful word often described as a "hint," (as opposed to the ordinary, mundane word) demands conceptual change thus shedding new light or enlightenment upon the subject. Change implies movement and thus the conceptual history of the person develops. What is "discovered" in "insight" is discovered for the individual--a "discovery" in the life of a small child is not necessarily a "discovery" in the life of an adult.
The revelatory character of language is what brings about the subjective twist of insight. It has been argued by Russell and Koestler that discovery is emergent from the montage of truth against truth, or experience against experience. The Buddhist koan or Taoist verse rely upon emergent discovery. Clever or witty juxtapositions of realities serve to allow emergent relationships unthought of prior to the juxtaposition. The phrase "still life in the fast lane," is an example of such a juxtaposition. This phrase reveals a particular circumstance emergent from the words themselves, makes the paradox possible and collapses the binary (Foucault). Such insights, in fact most of the insights which yield conceptual development might be characterized as the product of a truth (namely, a word or phrase generated within a social context which is potentially insightful) ingested into one's personal contextual fabric of truth made up of one's personal (private) social history. Enlightenment, while individual, is a product of the social, where the individual meets society. The word is, like Merleau-Ponty points out, a vehicle, a catalyst for conceptual development and change.
Given this interpretation, what is public truth cannot be understood without understanding the private social history of the understander, and what is private truth cannot be understood without also understanding the private social history of the understander. To know the world, without an understanding of the context of what is known, or the private social context of the knower is to know the construct as opposed to an "insight." Likewise, individual genius has a very publicly recognized character by the collective recognition of insight against a collective cultural context of truth.
Just as Witttgenstein soundly defeated the notion of a private language, so we too, feel that there are no a priori grounds for assuming that "insight" lies in a mysterious ether untouched by the world of language that so persuasively invades human knowledge. To assume otherwise is to reintroduce solipsistic privacy to the events which we know individually and collectively as "insightful events." Those events constitute everyday genius.
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