Visual Thinking is a work from which many others emerge. Kress and Van Leeuwen, for example, cite this work as crucial to all of their theories of Visual Design. Kostelnick and Roberts devote much to Gestalt psychology in their writing about visual language. Schriver concentrates on the visual design of text and typography largely for print, and she uses gestalt principles extensively in a section called Seeing the Text. Mark Johnson positions his theories under Arnheim’s umbrella of thought.
Arnheim begins this work by positioning his thought within the structure of Western philosophy, that is, the dichotomy between rationalism (Plato) and empiricism (Aristotle). He comes down strongly on the side of the empiricist and writes:
Aristotle asserts that an object is real to us through its true and lasting nature, not through its changeable properties. Its universal character is directly perceived in it as its essence rather than indirectly collected through the search of common elements .
Arnheim establishes the notion that the visually thinking mind is not simply mechanically recording images and regurgitating them repetitively. He insists that perception is intelligent.
Roy R. Behrens comments on this work:
“In that book, Arnheim intended to narrow the gap between scientific and artistic knowledge, to use scientific findings to better understand the arts while preserving the equally pivotal role of subjectivity, intuition, and self-expression. In a subsequent book, titled Visual Thinking, published in 1969, he challenged the age-old distinctions between thinking and perceiving, and between intellect and intuition.
Contending that "all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention" (1974), he attacked the established assumptions that words, not images, are the primary ingredients of thinking, and that language precedes perception. Rather, Arnheim argued, "the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described by the psychology of thinking" (1969). Like scientific discovery, he wrote, artistic expression "is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined. A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses" (1969)..
Arnheim springs from the original school of Gestalt philosophy. He believes that a certain degree of inbred responses to certain shapes, colours and movements exist, “Shape perception operates at a high cognitive level of concept formation” (29). He also spends a great deal of time describing the way that images are meaningful only in a context, “Things fit together by assimilation and contrast” (65). “To lift something out of its context means to neglect an important aspect of its nature” (71). His writings on figure and ground have been particularly influential (Schriver, Kostelnick, and Kress and Van Leeuwen).
Arnheim also analyzes metaphor and the notion of “routine metaphor” (112). Mark Johnson, who studies the way the body and bodily motion contributes to the metaphoric system underlying all language, makes direct reference to Arnheim.