Mercedes, there are indeed some important differences in the use of figure/ground terminology between Gestalt psychology and what you usually find in Gestalt therapy literature. For a Gestalt psychologist the use of figure/ground terminology in Gestalt therapy at first glance appears completely wrong and in total contrast to human phenomenal experience. Take for example the notion that your interest or need creates a figure before an empty background, e.g. you notice a person you are urgently looking for in a crowd. In this everyday experience nobody ever sees the figure of this person before an EMPTY background, but this so-called background is full of people and these other people forming the crowd still remain figural in the sense that they are segregated, formed units. Your interest in this case does not CREATE a figure, but focusses on a specific figure out of a multitude of other figures. Or take the notion that it is a sign of healthy functioning if you are able to switch figure/ground. Again, from a Gestalt psychological view this does not make sense. Take for example the figure of a tree before the background of the sky. That the tree is figure and the sky is ground is not a matter (only) of your interest but of the specific properties of the tree and the sky. For example the sky "goes through behind the tree", if you take away the tree, there is not a hole in the sky, but you see the part of the sky which was hidden by the tree. What is figure and what is ground does usually not depend on what you are looking for, what you desire, what you are needing, but of the specific properties of the one and the other. It would by no way be a sign of healthy functioning if you would be easily able to see the tree as ground for the sky in this example, in the contrary. There are only very specific cases where it is quite easy to switch figure and ground (like in those special ambiguous pictures you have perhapy seen somewhere, vase / faces, checkerboard and so on). In normal situations this is not the case.
So, from a Gestalt psychological view, is it complete nonsense what Gestalt psychotherapy literature is talking about when it uses the figure / ground terminology? Not entirely. But you have to "translate" this usage in Gestalt psychological terms. When Gestalt therapy literature is talking about figure and ground this is not what Gestalt psychology means by figure and ground. What Gestat therapy literature is talking about when using figure / ground terminology actually means what in Gestalt psychology is called the "intentionally accented figure" and the "intentionally neutral ground" (these terms were coined in the 1930s by German Gestalt psychologist Kurt GOTTSCHALDT). An example for that: You stand in front of your bookshelf and you are looking for a specific book. Both the bookshelf and the books on it are PHENOMENALLY FIGURAL for you (the phenomenal ground in this case will normally be the wall before that the bookshelf is standing). Now your interest in a specific book does search and select this specific book from all the others, this one book becomes INTENTIONALLY FIGURAL before the INTENTIONALLY NEUTRAL GROUND of all the other books (which still are phenomenally figural, but intentionally neutral). Now all the contradictions pointed at above (relating to the use of figure/ground in Gestalt therapy literature) can be easily resolved: If you make this important Gestalt psychological differentiation between phenomenal and intentionally accented figure, phenomenal and intentionally neutral ground, it does in fact make some sense to say that the ability to variations in what you make your intentionally accented figure out of an intentionally neutral ground says something about your healthy functioning. By the way, from this it should have become clear that the widespread idea that Gestalt psychology was/is not interested in intentionality, the influence of needs and so on on perception and behaviour, and that Gestalt therapy had to overcome this Gestalt psychological restriction, is complete nonsense. Gestalt psychology has - as I have demonstrated in short strokes - not only taken into account intentionality and other states of the person and its surroundings, but has also developed its own terminology for this. Perhaps it would be not so bad an idea to adopt this terminology in Gestalt therapy literature too, because it could help to overcome the confusion in the use and understanding of the figure / ground terminology which seems to be widespread in Gestalt therapy literature and discussion.
--------------------------- Website of the GTA: http://rdz.acor.org/gestalt!/gerhards/