Why a figure-ground reversal?

Our call for a figure-ground reversal is both a nod to the roots of cognitive science and a rhetorical choice. We think of the interactive stance as a perspective — a way of seeing that deserves to be a key part of the conceptual toolkit of cognitive scientists.

The kind of perceptual grouping we do informs how we see things. This applies to scientific practice just as to everyday perception. Does this figure show the classic cognitive science hexagon, or an assortment of fields opening onto interaction? A figure-ground reversal can turn a bounded territory into a white canvas where everything is possible — and once you’ve seen it like that, it is hard to unsee. We want to make interaction ‘hard to unsee’ for cognitive science.

Multiple vantage points

Although we present a radical stance, we also believe in the utility of seeing things from multiple vantage points.* An interesting feature of figure-ground reversals is that the Gestalt switch they afford is reversible: we can entertain multiple perspectives. Some alternative rhetorical framings, like ‘paradigm shift’ or ‘interactive turn’, seem to us too dichotomous or directive.

As we write, “Seen from Earth, the movements of celestial bodies display near-intractable complexity. When taking not a single vantage point but multiple (here, Sun and Earth), suddenly the picture changes, and new forms of order become visible (Sousanis, 2015). Key concerns of cognitive science may be illuminated by a change of
perspective that locates cognition not in isolated but in interacting minds.”

Figure: Dingemanse et al. (2023). Sources: Left: Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1771), after a similar engraving by Cassini (via); Right: Copernicus (1543) De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium.

Note
* The utility of perspectival changes often goes both ways. One reviewer of our piece recommended that we add, to the caption of the figure above, something to the effect that the geocentric perspective led to ‘misleading theories’ about epicycles. We resisted this recommendation. It is true that Ptolemy’s epicycles may be needlessly complicated in this context. But epicycles have amazingly powerful mathematical properties (Hanson 1960); indeed in their subsequent development by Ibn al Shatir (Roberts 1957) we can even see an early version of the Fourier transform. So the detour was probably worth it. There is no room in a 1250 word letter to go into any of this — but suffice it to say that our firm belief in the importance of the interactive stance does not stand in the way of appreciating complementary perspectives and serendipitous findings.

  • Hanson, N. R. (1960). The Mathematical Power of Epicyclical Astronomy. Isis, 51(2), 150–158. doi: 10.1086/348869
  • Roberts, V. (1957). The Solar and Lunar Theory of Ibn ash-Shāṭir: A Pre-Copernican Copernican Model. Isis, 48(4), 428–432.
  • Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Read on: fellow travellers.