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Wertheimer, Max

Wertheimer, Max

Early gestalt theories

Experiments and interpretations

Professional career

Influence

WORKS BY WERTHEIMER

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), the originator of gestalt psychology, was born in Prague, the second of two sons of Wilhelm and Rosa Zwicker Wertheimer. His interests reflect the activities of his home, where he came in contact with problems of science, politics, music, art, and education. His father was so successful in tutoring shorthand and bookkeeping that he resigned his position in a bank to devote full time to teaching these subjects. He devised new methods of teaching and eventually established and directed a school, the Handelsschule Wertheimer. The older son, Walter, was trained to succeed his father in the directorship (but died in early adulthood). Wertheimer also participated in discussions of the activities of the school and invented computational devices and a bookkeeping machine. This involvement broadened into an absorbing interest in mathematics as well as in methods of teaching.

His mother was a proficient amateur pianist and dramatist who informally taught Wertheimer how to play the piano. At an early age he also received violin lessons and showed a general aptitude for music. During his teens he composed chamber music and wrote symphonies; it seemed then that he would become a professional musician. Through music he often established social relationships: it brought him in contact with Albert Einstein, with whom he played chamber music and discussed philosophy and science; and Wertheimer’s friends, as well as his students, recall the manner in which he often improvised on the piano and asked them to guess the person, object, or event being “described.” He participated in musicological research at the University of Berlin and liked to use examples from music in his writings and lectures to demonstrate the concept of structure.

In his youth Wertheimer wrote poetry and had friends in literary circles, including the writers Max Brod and Franz Werfel. In later years he was involved with them and with Thomas G. Masaryk (the first president of Czechoslovakia) in the initial plans for certain government projects in the areas of education and welfare. His literary interest is reflected in his own writings and in the work he edited. He insisted not only on the logical expression of ideas but also on a “good style”—one that would help reveal the structure of the ideas. This concern over combining style with logical structure as an integral unity (a task he always admitted was difficult) may explain in part why he wrote so little. Perhaps it was the poet in him that led to his painstaking care in the use of words and to his search for the mot juste and for effective presentation.

Wertheimer was introduced to social and philosophical thought by his maternal grandfather, Jakob Zwicker, who was so pleased by his grandson’s maturity of understanding that on his tenth birthday he gave him a copy of Spinoza’s writings. The boy’s complete absorption in the book led his parents to restrict his reading, but he continued to read Spinoza secretly with the connivance of the maid, who concealed the book in her trunk. Spinoza was not a passing fancy but exerted a lifelong influence on Wertheimer.

When he finished at the Gymnasium (at age 18), it was difficult for him to decide on an area of specialization. In 1900 he matriculated in law at the Charles University in Prague, but before the year was over, he found himself more interested in the philosophy of law than in its practice. He particularly objected to the way in which trials became contests: the defense and prosecution seemed more interested in winning cases than in discovering the truth. Wertheimer was interested in ways of getting at the truth. This led him to work in the psychology of testimony.

In 1901 he left Prague for the University of Berlin, where he studied psychology and did research with Carl Stumpf and Friedrich Schumann. In 1903 he enrolled at the University of Wiirzburg where he studied with Oswald Külpe and was awarded the PH.D. degree, summa cum laude, in 1904 [see the biography of KÜlpe]. His doctoral research involved the invention of a lie detector, which he used as an objective means of studying testimony. Another aspect of his work was the word-association technique, which he devised before C. G. Jung developed it as a diagnostic technique. After obtaining his PH.D., he continued his research in testimony, publishing with J. Klein a classical work in the area (1904). Since he was financially independent, he did not have to hold any academic position and was able to devote himself at various times to independent study and research in Prague, Berlin, and Vienna. He did research on alexia at the Neuropsychiatric Clinic at the University of Vienna, devising new diagnostic methods which demonstrated that alexia involves the loss of ability to perceive ambiguous and complex visual structures. This work is the link between gestalt psychology and the theorizing of the neurologists Adhemar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, who after World War i were Wertheimer’s colleagues at the University of Frankfurt. (Wertheimer’s work between 1905 and 1912 was never published. However, before and after World War I, Gelb and Goldstein developed methods of diagnosing and treating aphasic patients that were based on assumptions similar to Wertheimer’s ideas.)

Early gestalt theories

While in Vienna Wertheimer began to formulate ideas which were later to become essential components of gestalt psychology. It seemed to him that psychology was becoming divorced from the concrete realities of daily life; the problems at the center of academic psychology bore little resemblance to the actual behavior of man. He was dissatisfied with the way in which problems were formulated, with the pedantry of what was considered the exact approach, and with methodology that restricted creative approaches. The solution did not lie in rejecting a scientific or theoretical approach to psychology but in somehow keeping theory in touch with the reality with which it purportedly deals. What was needed, according to Wertheimer, was the development of methods that would meet exacting scientific standards but would not destroy or change a phenomenon, so that it became an artifact of the method.

During this time he had been doing research on music at the Berlin Phonogram Archives (e.g., 1910) and had investigated the thinking of feebleminded children and of primitive people. In his work on music he confirmed what C. von Ehrenfels had previously pointed out, that a melody cannot be understood merely in terms of its individual notes; but he went beyond this formulation. He demonstrated, among other things, that the recognition of an altered melody does not depend on the number of notes changed but on the notes’ positions in the melody’s structure. The meaning of the individual notes depends on their place, role, and function in the melody. In his work with feebleminded children (which, again, was not published) he noted that they are able to solve a problem if they can comprehend its structural requirements. The extent to which the method of presentation clearly revealed these structural requirements determined the amount of difficulty the children had in perceiving certain structures and in understanding and solving problems. His analysis of the number concepts of primitive people showed the need to study the structural features of these concepts and demonstrated that the additive concept of number is only one of a variety of structures.

In this work occurred instances of numerical structures, or “wholes,” that cannot be understood by arbitrarily dividing them into parts, studying these parts in isolation, and then describing the whole as nothing but the sum of such piecemeal analysis. Although piecemeal analysis is appropriate for certain aggregates or structures, there are others that do not lend themselves to it. Analysis of such wholes must begin with attempts to discover the natural structural and functional features or parts of the phenomena and then proceed to study the place, role, and function of these parts in the total structure. This approach was later to be termed the method “from above” to distinguish it from the method “from below.” Wertheimer saw the need to replace description based on an “and-summation” of arbitrarily determined elements with description based on structural understanding that intrinsically relates parts to their context.

Experiments and interpretations

To establish these ideas in a more precise manner, Wertheimer sought examples from the field of perception, an area of psychology with a high reputation for exactness. He had little success until 1910, when he went on a trip, and while on the train, he thought of an optical phenomenon that seemed suitable. At Frankfurt he got off the train and bought a toy stroboscope. In a hotel room he set up the experiment by substituting strips of paper on which he had drawn series of lines for the pictures in the toy. The results were as expected : by varying the time interval between the exposure of the lines, he found that he could see one line after another, two lines standing side by side, or a line moving from one position to another. This “movement” came to be known as the Phi phenomenon.

Wertheimer asked Schumann, his former teacher at Berlin and now at the Frankfurt Psychological Institute, if he could provide someone to act as an experimental subject. Schumann’s laboratory assistant, Wolfgang Köhler, came. For the next experimental session, Kohler brought his friend Kurt Koffka, who also served as a subject. Kohler and Koffka were receptive to new theories, and the three discussed the implications of the experiment. Kohler persuaded Schumann to visit Wertheimer and to invite him to conduct his experiment at the Frankfurt Institute. A simple apparatus to demonstrate the Phi phenomenon was constructed, and the now classical experiment was conducted (Wertheimer 1912a).

Wertheimer explained the significance of the experiment as follows: “What do we see when we see the movements of a hand or a light? Is it appropriate to say that we have a sensation in different places on the retina from which movement is inferred? Is it appropriate to cut the phenomenon of movement in this way into a number of static sensations?” (1937). Although there had been psychologists and philosophers before him who believed that movement was not an inference from static sensations on the retina but was a sensation sui generis, they had not demonstrated this in a scientific manner. Wertheimer now presented the thesis in a way which made experimental decisions possible.

It was not merely Wertheimer’s experiment but his formulation of the underlying problem and the way he proceeded to solve this problem that launched gestalt psychology. Through experimental variations, he tested, one by one, various possible explanations of the Phi phenomenon and found them wanting. According to Wertheimer, the essential features of the Phi phenomenon are the following: it is a counter example to the assumption that piecemeal and and-summative approaches to psychological phenomena are universally adequate; it belongs to a category of genuine dynamic experiences which must be understood in terms of dynamics rather than reduced to static events; finally, it is an example of a structure that is not an arbitrary arrangement of events but has inner connectedness (1937).

Wertheimer felt that there was a need for a model of such dynamic experiences, and he hypothesized a possible physiological process: “The motion is due to a field of activity among cells, …not excitation in isolated cells but field effects” (1937). This model applies concepts of field-theoretical physics to a neurological event. Although Wertheimer has been given credit for anticipating aspects of contemporary neurophysiological theory, he insisted in his lectures that his object had not been to state a neurophysiological theory of movement but rather to show how a dynamic event may take place and what is meant by the structure of a field of events. Nor did he consider it crucial that he had advanced a nonmotor conception of motion. “Even if it were a motor theory, we would still have the question of presenting the dynamic, structural features of the phenomenon” (1937). The issue was not one of optics versus motor behavior but of piecemeal versus dynamic analysis, inner relatedness versus arbitrary and-summation.

The importance of the Phi phenomenon is attested to not only by the commotion created when Wertheimer reported on it at the 1911 Psychological Congress (some members of the audience realized that they were witnessing the beginning of a new era in psychology) but also by the impact it had on psychological thought and the collaborative and brilliant research with Koffka and Kohler which it engendered. Wertheimer also collaborated with Gelb, Goldstein, and Kurt Lewin, who all developed theories which are closely related to gestalt psychology. He directed students’ research projects that are classics in experimentation, e.g., the work of Karl Duncker. Much of this research was in perception, but not because gestalt psychology was primarily concerned with developing a theory of perception or with explaining behavior through perception. “It is a fairy tale that Gestalt psychology is centered on problems of perception,” Wertheimer said. “Perception was chosen because we could get the best scientific techniques in this area” (1937). For the same reason, he used examples of the perception of visual form to illustrate some principles of organization, autochthonous as well as experiential, which have general relevance to the organization or structure of psychological phenomena. He did not claim that the gestalt concepts of Pragnanz, closure, and symmetry are the only principles of perception or organization; he even included in the laws of organization such purely associationistic concepts as habit due to contiguity. The problem as he defined it was to determine the realm in which each principle holds and to find out under what conditions a certain one is crucial. So defined, gestalt theory becomes more than a mere theory: it becomes an approach to research and to theory building.

Although Wertheimer did not like to engage in polemics with regard to the philosophical implications of his research, others have linked gestalt psychology with various philosophical views. It has at various times been characterized as Platonism, Kantian apriorism, and holism (Madden 1962); such allegations ignore concrete research and attribute assumptions to gestalt psychologists which they have in fact taken pains to reject. Similarities have also been noted between gestalt psychology and relativity theory, perhaps because both are field theories. This similarity was often acknowledged by Wertheimer. Less often noted are the relationships between gestalt theory and the pragmatic experimentalism of John Dewey, the ideas of perceptual causality of Alfred N. Whitehead, and the mathematical intuitionism of L. E. J. Brouwer, particularly Brouwer’s concern with intuitively clear concepts, his rejection of the idea that the laws of Aristotelian logic are the laws of thinking, and his distinction between thought and its written expression (Wertheimer 1945; Heyting 1956; Luchins & Luchins 1965; Mays 1959).

Wertheimer himself did not generally think in words, and this may have helped convince him that not all thinking is verbal or subvocal behavior. Nor did he believe that fundamental problems of psychology, of other sciences, and of mathematics are primarily linguistic or logical problems. Although he did not deny the importance of putting thought into precise logical form, he recognized that this was not necessarily the form in which the thinking had originally occurred. He searched for clear-cut examples, free of linguistic ambiguity, to demonstrate a concept, and he considered a good demonstration better than many pages of description.

Professional career

During World War I Wertheimer was a captain in the German army and did research with the physiologist Erich von Hornbostel on the development of a direction finder for locating the source of sounds. Wertheimer was pleased that the direction finder illustrated gestalt principles of auditory perception, but it disturbed him that the device had military applications in the aiming of shells and torpedoes.

From 1916 to 1929 Wertheimer was Privatdozent at the University of Berlin. His lectures were considered brilliant, and his seminars stimulated students to do original thinking. The classes were large (as many as 150 students and faculty members attended), and they attracted not only psychologists but also sociologists, philosophers, logicians, mathematicians, and physicists. Kurt Gottschaldt, a student at the time, has recalled that Wertheimer knew how to discuss a problem thoroughly and how to raise questions which led to crucial experiments. His classes were conducted democratically, with lively interaction between the students and himself, and led to discussions that sometimes continued at his home after class.

In 1923, during his stay in Berlin, he married Anne Caro. Also while in Berlin, together with Koffka, Kohler, Goldstein, and Hans Gruhle, he started the Psychologische Forschung and served as editor for Volumes 1 through 20, from 1922 to 1935. George Humphrey has recalled that he once wrote Wertheimer to ask that a correction be made in his article and that Wertheimer held up publication for several days, maintaining that it was more important to be accurate than for the journal to appear on time.

In the spring of 1929 Wertheimer became a professor at the University of Frankfurt. He conducted courses and research in social and experimental psychology as well as seminars on fundamental problems of mathematics and logic, productive thinking, and a philosophical seminar with Gelb, Paul Tillich, and Kurt Riezler. Edwin Rauch, then his research assistant, has indicated that the same spirit prevailed in his classes at Frankfurt as in Berlin and has noted the sadness of both students and colleagues when the approaching Nazi tyranny caused Wertheimer to leave Germany. His departure did not diminish the impact of his teaching. His students are among the outstanding psychologists in Europe and in their work openly acknowledge their indebtedness to him; e.g., Wolfgang Metzger is director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Münster, Rauch is director of the Psychological Institute at the University at Frankfurt, and Gottschaldt was director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin before moving to the University of Göttingen.

In March 1933, two days before Hitler became chancellor, the Wertheimers went to a neighbor’s house and for the first time listened to one of Hitler’s speeches (they had no radio at home). The speech so disturbed Wertheimer that on the way home he decided to depart secretly the next morning. Leaving all their possessions, he and his wife and their children went to the summer resort of Marienbad in Czechoslovakia. There he received an invitation from Alvin Johnson to join the New School for Social Research in New York, and the Wertheimers went to the United States in September 1933. Wertheimer became an American citizen in 1939. Among his services to his adopted country were his participation in the organization of the Voice of America and his research on an easy and reliable method of teaching the Morse code to soldiers.

At the New School, an adult education institution which introduced to America some of the leading European behavioral scientists, Wertheimer conducted adult education courses, graduate courses, and seminars on a wide variety of subjects, including logic, social psychology, educational psychology, the psychology of music and art, and experimental psychology; he also participated in interdisciplinary seminars. He combined scholarship with teaching skill and could make a complex problem clear by a simple chalk drawing, by playing the piano, or by improvising an experiment or story. It was impressive to see how he presented positions with which he did not agree: if no student would defend the position, he himself would do so. He was not interested in students’ going home with notebooks full of answers but in their becoming curious about the phenomena discussed.

Wertheimer was not an ivory-tower professor but was concerned with social issues. His seminars on social psychology focused on national and interna tional problems as well as on concepts and theories to explain them. He was distressed that some people claimed there was a relationship between the Nazi slogan “The whole (state) is more than the sum of its parts” and gestalt theory’s premise—which actually was that the whole may be different from its parts studied in isolation.

After his first two years at the New School, his seminars, in effect, became colloquia in which American and European professors and graduate students presented their work and exchanged ideas. Wertheimer showed great interest in the work of others, even when he did not agree with them, and he was most generous with his time (often to the detriment of his own work) and helped many people plan and write up their research. As in Europe, his home in New Rochelle, New York, was open to students and professors.

Influence

Wertheimer urged his students to report “everything that happens regardless of the particular aim of an experiment.” He would often point out unanticipated problems which the data suggested, and sometimes these became new foci of research. Thus he taught his students to structure and restructure their views of the phenomena studied. Although he did not have the kind of research facilities to which he had been accustomed in Europe, he was able to engage in and supervise research in social psychology, problem solving, perception, personality, and learning. He had many new ideas about experiments and theories, most of which he did not publish but some of which became the basis of research conducted and published by the participants in the seminars. This group includes the following: Rudolf Arnheim, Solomon Asch, George Katona, Abraham S. Luchins, Abraham H. Maslow, David Rapaport, Martin Scheerer, and Herman Witkin. Their work and the work of their students are frequently cited in contemporary psychological literature.

The breadth of Wertheimer’s interests and the variety of problems with which he was concerned often amazed people. Koffka once said of him, “There isn’t a thing he doesn’t know!” Strangers may therefore have been surprised when first meeting him to find so modest a man, of slight stature with twinkling eyes and a “soup strainer” moustache, who was concerned with his visitors as people and was interested in ordinary things that seemed to have no general significance. This concern with the particular appears to have been one of the important motifs underlying much of his work. He wanted to develop methods and concepts that would grasp the essential features of the particular and yet not lose sight of the generality that it reflects.

The fall of 1943 found him actively engaged in teaching and research activities, in working for the war effort, in seeking to obtain positions for refugee scholars, and in planning the postwar psychology department at the New School for Social Research. In the midst of these activities he died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis. He left an unpublished manuscript which was posthumously published as Productive Thinking (1945). In it he pointed out the need to differentiate between the laws of logic and the laws of thought, between habitual, imitative behavior and creative, productive acts of thinking. He stressed the need for teachers and textbook writers to present material in such a way that it reveals the structural feature of a problem: good teaching reveals the structure, bad teaching beclouds the structure, of the subject matter. Wertheimer was not a theory builder. He was opposed to the idea that repetition is the mother of learning and was concerned with the negative effects of repetition, i.e., mechanization and habituation. His views have led to studies of factors that maximize or minimize habituation and mechanization in problem solving and thinking (Katona 1940; Luchins 1942).

Of him it can be said with even more justice what Prentice said of Kohler: “The many theoretical views, hypotheses, and concepts …proposed over the forty years of his association with a particular point of view are often loosely related …he has never made any attempt to derive large numbers of facts in psychology from a limited number of postulates” (Prentice 1959, p. 427). Gestalt psychology is a viewpoint that has had a stimulating influence on psychology as a science. Wertheimer is considered by most gestalt psychologists who were associated with him as the catalyst that helped create their work. A lecture or a conversation with him is often cited as reference for or source of the problem in question. His greatness lay in his ability to fire the imagination and creativeness of two generations of psychologists in America and abroad.

Abraham S. Luchins

[See alsoGestalt theory. Other relevant material may be found inField theory; Perception; Problem solving; Thinking; and in the biographies ofGoldstein; Koffka; KÖhler; KÜlpe; Lewin; Rapaport; Stumpf.]

WORKS BY WERTHEIMER

1904 Webtheimer, Max; and Klein, J. Psychologische Tatbestandsdiagnostik. Archiv für Kriminalanthropologie und Kriminalistik 15:72-113.

1910 Musik der Wedda. Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 11:300-309.

1912a Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 61:161-265.

1912b Über das Denken der Naturvölker: 1. Zahlen und Zahlgebilde. Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 60:321-378.

1923 Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt, 2. Psychologische Forschung 4:301-350.

1937 [Lectures on Experimental Psychology Given at the New School for Social Research, New York.] Unpublished manuscript.

(1945) 1959 Productive Thinking. Enl. ed., edited by Michael Wertheimer. New York: Harper. → Published posthumously. Contains a bibliography of Wertheimer’s publications. Reprinted in 1961 by Tavistock.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Heyting, Arend 1956 Intuitionism. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing.

Katona, George (1940)1949 Organizing and Memorizing: Studies in the Psychology of Learning and Teaching. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Kshler, Wolfgang 1944 Max Wertheimer: 1880-1943. Psychological Review 51:143-146.

Luchins, Abraham S. 1942 Mechanization in Problem Solving: The Effect of Einstellung. Psychological Monographs 54, no. 6.

Luchins, Abraham S.; and Luchins, Edith H. 1965 Logical Foundations of Mathematics for Behavioral Psychologists. New York: Holt.

Madden, Edward H. 1962 Philosophical Problems of Psychology. New York: Odyssey.

Mays, Wolfe 1959 The Philosophy of Whitehead. London : Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Newman, Edwin B. 1944 Max Wertheimer: 1880-1943. American Journal of Psychology 57:428-435.

Prentice, W. C. H. 1959 The Systematic Psychology of Wolfgang Kohler. Volume 1, pages 427-455 in Sigmund Koch (editor). Psychology: A Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Watson, Robert I. 1963 Wertheimer: Gestalt Psychology. Pages 403-422 in Robert I. Watson, The Great Psychologists: From Aristotle to Freud. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer

The German psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) was the originator of Gestalt psychology, which had a profound influence on the whole science of psychology.

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15, 1880. At the University in Prague he first studied law and then philosophy; he continued his studies in Berlin and then in Würzburg, where he received the doctorate in 1904. During the following years his work included research on the psychology of testimony, deriving no doubt from his early interest in law and his abiding interest in the nature of truth; he also carried on research in music, another lifelong interest.

In 1910 Wertheimer performed his now famous experiments on apparent movement, that movement which we see when, under certain conditions, two stationary objects are presented in succession at different places (a phenomenon familiar in moving pictures). This was the beginning of Gestalt psychology—a major revolution in psychological thinking.

The phenomena which Wertheimer was investigating could not be explained by the then-prevailing psychology. Psychology was, in 1910, characteristically analytical: in naive imitation of the natural sciences, it attempted to reduce every complex phenomenon to simpler ones, the elements which were supposed to make up the whole.

But it was already clear that this analytical procedure could not account for many well-known psychological facts. Some advocates of the older psychology tried to patch it up by adding assumptions to take care of troublesome findings, while leaving the old framework intact. Other scholars, seeing the inadequacy of the customary approach, denied that the problems of psychology could be treated scientifically.

For Wertheimer, neither line of criticism went to the core of the problem. The difficulties of the older psychology went far beyond its failure to explain special laboratory findings. Everything that was vital, meaningful, and essential seemed to be lost in the traditional approach. The trouble, he held, was not in the scientific method itself but rather in an assumption generally made about that method—that it must be atomistic.

But science need not only be analytical in this sense. The viewing of complex wholes as "and-sums, " to be reduced to accidentally and arbitrarily associated elements, Wertheimer described as an approach "from below, " whereas many situations need to be approached "from above." In these cases what happens in the whole cannot be understood from a knowledge of its components considered piecemeal; rather the behavior of the parts themselves depends on their place in the structured whole, in the context in which they exist.

These are precisely the situations which are most important for psychology, those in which we find meaning, value, order. Thus, apparent movement cannot be understood if one knows only the "stills" by which it is produced; nor can the form of a circle, the peacefulness of a landscape, the sternness of a command, the inevitability of a conclusion be understood from a knowledge of independent elements. Here whole properties are primary, and the characteristics of parts are derived from the dynamics of their wholes.

Wertheimer became a lecturer in Frankfurt in 1912. Later he went to Berlin and in 1929 returned to Frankfurt as professor. All this time he was developing his ideas and influencing students who themselves became distinguished psychologists. Although he preferred the spoken to the written word as a vehicle for communication, he wrote some notable articles applying the new approach "from above" to the organization of the perceptual field and to the nature of thinking.

Just before the German elections in 1933, Wertheimer heard a speech by Hitler over a neighbor's radio. He decided that he did not want his family to live in a country where such a man could run, with likelihood of success, for the highest office in the land; and the next day the family moved to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. Soon Wertheimer realized that Hitler was not a passing phenomenon, and he accepted an invitation from the New School for Social Research in New York City to join its University in Exile (later the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science). He resumed his studies of thinking, completing his major work, Productive Thinking, a highly original and penetrating examination of the processes that occur in thinking at its best. In a series of articles he showed the application of Gestalt thinking to problems of truth, ethics, freedom, and democracy. Unfortunately he did not live to write his projected Gestalt logic.

Further Reading

Wolfgang Köhler, The Task of Gestalt Psychology (1969), is an overview of Gestalt psychology by one of its founders and shows Wertheimer's role in its development. □

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Wertheimer, Max

Max Wertheimer

1880-1943
German psychologist who was the originator of Gestalt psychology, which had a profound influence on the whole science of psychology.

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15,1880. At the University in Prague he first studied law and then philosophy; he continued his studies in Berlin

and then in Würzburg, where he received his doctorate in 1904. During the following years, his work included research on the psychology of testimony, deriving no doubt from his early interest in law and his abiding interest in the nature of truth; he also carried on research in music, another lifelong interest.

In 1910, Wertheimer performed his now famous experiments on apparent movement, that movement which we see when, under certain conditions, two stationary objects are presented in succession at different places (a phenomenon familiar in moving pictures). This was the beginning of Gestalt psychologya major revolution in psychological thinking.

The phenomena which Wertheimer was investigating could not be explained by the then-prevailing psychology. Psychology was, in 1910, characteristically analytical: in naive imitation of the natural sciences, it attempted to reduce every complex phenomenon to simpler ones, the elements which were supposed to make up the whole.

But it was already clear that this analytical procedure could not account for many well-known psychological facts. Some advocates of the older psychology tried to patch it up by adding assumptions to take care of troublesome findings, while leaving the old framework intact. Other scholars, seeing the inadequacy of the customary approach, denied that the problems of psychology could be treated scientifically.

For Wertheimer, neither line of criticism went to the core of the problem. The difficulties of the older psychology went far beyond its failure to explain special laboratory findings. Everything that was vital, meaningful, and essential seemed to be lost in the traditional approach. The trouble, he held, was not in the scientific method itself but rather in an assumption generally made about that methodthat it must be atomistic.

But science need not only be analytical in this sense. The viewing of complex wholes as "and-sums," to be reduced to accidentally and arbitrarily associated elements, Wertheimer described as an approach "from below," whereas many situations need to be approached "from above." In these cases, what happens in the whole cannot be understood from a knowledge of its components considered piecemeal; rather the behavior of the parts themselves depends on their place in the structured whole, in the context in which they exist.

These are precisely the situations which are most important for psychology, those in which we find meaning, value, order. Thus, apparent movement cannot be understood if one knows only the "stills" by which it is produced; nor can the form of a circle, the peacefulness of a landscape, the sternness of a command, the inevitability of a conclusion be understood from a knowledge of independent elements. Here, whole properties are primary, and the characteristics of parts are derived from the dynamics of their wholes.

Wertheimer became a lecturer in Frankfurt in 1912. Later he went to Berlin and in 1929 returned to Frankfurt as professor. All this time he was developing his ideas and influencing students who themselves became distinguished psychologists. Although he preferred the spoken to the written word as a vehicle for communication, he wrote some notable articles applying the new approach "from above" to the organization of the perceptual field and to the nature of thinking.

Just before the German elections in 1933, Wertheimer heard a speech by Hitler over a neighbor's radio. He decided that he did not want his family to live in a country where such a man could run, with likelihood of success, for the highest office in the land; and the next day the family moved to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. Soon Wertheimer realized that Hitler was not a passing phenomenon, and he accepted an invitation from the New School for Social Research in New York City to join its University in Exile (later the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science). He resumed his studies of thinking, completing his major work, Productive Thinking, a highly original and penetrating examination of the processes that occur in thinking at its best. In a series of articles, he showed the application of Gestalt thinking to problems of truth, ethics , freedom, and democracy. Unfortunately, he did not live to write his projected Gestalt logic.

See also Gestalt principles of organization

Further Reading

Köhler, Wolfgang. The task of Gestalt psychology. 1969.

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Wertheimer, Max

Max Wertheimer (mäks vĕrt´hīmər), 1880–1943, German psychologist, b. Prague. He studied at the universities of Prague, Berlin, and Würzburg (Ph.D., 1904). His original researches, while he was a professor at Frankfurt and Berlin, placed him in the forefront of contemporary psychology. Wertheimer came to the United States in 1933, shortly before the Nazis seized power in Germany. He immediately joined the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research (1933–43). Wertheimer's discovery (1910–12) of the phi phenomenon (concerning the illusion of motion) gave rise to the influential school of Gestalt psychology. His early experiments, in collaboration with Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, introduced a new approach (macroscopic as opposed to microscopic) to the study of psychological problems. In the latter part of his life he directed much of his attention to the problem of learning; this research resulted in a book, posthumously published, called Productive Thinking (1945, repr. 1978).

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Wertheimer, Max

Wertheimer, Max (1880–1943) German psychologist. Wertheimer was a founder of Gestalt psychology. His early work concerned visual perception. Later, he attempted to apply Gestalt principles to cognitive and educational problems.

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"Wertheimer, Max." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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