Gestalt Theory

views updated May 17 2018

Gestalt Theory

Perceptual organization

Memory and association


Social psychology

Major issues



The problem that gestalt theory confronts is that of an extended event, whether an experience or an action, that cannot be adequately described as a sum of smaller, independent events. Such an event is called a gestalt; this term can be translated as “form,” “configuration,” or “structure.” Facts of this character were largely ignored in the atomistic psychology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although a few thinkers had begun to question this neglect.

The gestalt movement introduced a new approach to the treatment of psychological facts. It arose in Germany in the second decade of the twentieth century as a reaction against atomistic psychology. Its founders and pioneers were Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka. The first 25 years of its existence were a period of rapid development of ideas and of intensive investigation. Beginning with the 1920s it commanded wide attention in the psychological world. With the rise of Nazism the leading gestalt psychologists left Germany for the United States, and the subsequent course of the movement became, in a measure, part of the history of American psychology. [See the biographies ofKoffka; KÖhler; Wertheimer.]

The gestalt movement advanced a searching examination of the presuppositions of atomism; more important, it introduced an alternative conception that became the basis of many investigations and theoretical proposals. The earliest contributions of gestalt psychology were concerned mainly with problems of perception. Subsequently, its investigations extended to the areas of thinking, memory, and learning, and, more recently, to social psychology and the psychology of art; it also made contact with certain aspects of logic and ethics. As its investigations came to include new areas, gestalt theory stood revealed as a systematic orientation within psychology.

The source of the gestalt movement can be traced to one paramount concern. As a rule the events of mental life possess form, sense, and value; these are its striking characteristics. Yet, the prevailing scientific psychology contained virtually no reference to these attributes, and its accounts appeared correspondingly limited and barren. The customary reply to this stricture was that scientific procedure requires analysis into elements and therefore permits no other outcome. Accepting this reasoning, some thinkers concluded that important human phenomena and problems necessarily fall outside the reach of science. Others, among them the vitalists, appealed to higher and undefined agencies as sources of form and sense. Gestalt psychologists rejected such a solution on the ground that it adopted a questionable postulate about the demands of scientific investigation. An approach that fails to do justice to the most obvious facts of experience cannot, they held, be scientifically correct. They saw in this situation a challenge to re-examine the starting point of psychology.

Perceptual organization

The formulations of gestalt theory were first tested in perception. This was the most advanced part of systematic psychology and the area in which atomism was most strongly entrenched. In the psychology of the early twentieth century the elements of perception were simple and irreducible sensations, each having its unique quality and a constant relationship to a particular excitation of the sense organs. To explain the combinations of these isolated sensations (and their images), this psychology invoked the mechanism of association by contiguity, which, it held, brought order into the initial chaos of sensations. The goals of this psychology were to identify the elements of experience and the corresponding stimulus energies and to describe the manner in which the elements become associated, all based on the method of analytic introspection.

The issue was brought to a head when Wertheimer took the radical step of denying the reality of sensory elements as parts of perceptual experience. His study of apparent movement ([1912-1920] 1925, pp. 1-105), which marks the formal beginning of gestalt theory, provides a specific illustration of this thesis. The experience of motion was traditionally described as a sum of successive sensations of position, each corresponding to successive local excitations. Apparent movement results when two stationary objects in distinct positions— for example, two lines—are exposed in succession with a suitably small time interval between them; the observer sees one line moving from one to the other position in a manner indistinguishable from real motion. This phenomenon, which is at the basis of cinematography, was well known. Wertheimer pointed out that apparent movement is not a series of sensations but an effect of two stimulus events cooperating to produce a new, unitary outcome; perceived movement cannot be split up into successive stationary sensations. The static character of the external situation is not represented in experience, while the movement perceived has no counterpart in the objective situation. From the assumption that experience consists of having one sensation followed by another, one cannot account for the experience of change inherent in motion, a conclusion that applies equally to the perception of real motion.

A further and more important step in this development was the gestalt account of grouping, or unit formation, in perception. Visual experience consists of things that may, in turn, form groups; certain parts of the visual field appear to cohere and to form units that separate themselves from the surrounding space and from other units. The units of perception are trees, houses, persons—not innumerable sensory elements. It was the contribution of gestalt theory to show that the formation and segregation of units cannot be taken as selfevident, as it seems to common sense, but constitutes a central problem for the psychology of perception. The physical energies that are reflected from the points of an external object are entirely discrete; each hits the eye independently of the others, with no indication of whether each comes from the same object. They form a mere mosaic of stimuli that may be grouped in numerous ways and that provide no basis for the veridical organization of the percept. Unity of the physical object does not account for unity of the percept. How then do units emerge from discrete stimulation? Wertheimer described certain fundamental principles of grouping, or unit formation, in perception, among them those of proximity, similarity, closure, common fate, and good continuation (Wertheimer 1925). Working with discontinuous points or lines, he demonstrated that they tend to fall into groups, in accordance with relative spatial proximity and qualitative similarity; grouping also occurs in accordance with closure and good continuation. Wertheimer considered one principle, that of Prägnanz, fundamental and inclusive of the others. The principle of Prägnanz maintains that grouping tends toward maximal simplicity and balance, or toward the formation of “good form.”

The facts of grouping establish, first, that sets of stimuli produce effects not derivable from the effects of the single stimuli. These effects, observable only in extended wholes, are dependent upon strictly objective conditions—namely, specific geometrical relations between stimuli. Second, the stimulus relations logically permit other groupings that do not in fact occur. Thus, the facts of grouping give evidence of selective principles according to which sensory data are organized, and the units of perception must therefore be considered products of organization or specific effects of processes resulting from certain relationships. Third, the same sensory conditions of grouping that usually give rise to veridical perception sometimes produce non-veridical perception. As the facts of camouflage show, physically real units are not necessarily perceived, and perceptual units sometimes arise in the absence of corresponding physical units. Fourth, Wertheimer concluded that he had identified primary principles of grouping in perception. He explicitly included past experience as one determinant of grouping but maintained that it cannot account for the other grouping tendencies that are themselves necessary conditions of learning. Last, the principles of grouping have a broad range of application; foremost is their capacity to explain object and form perception in general.

The treatment of partwhole relations, which is central to the gestalt position, may best be illustrated with the contribution of von Ehrenfels, who in 1890 described perceptual facts that are not a sum of independent local components. A property of a visual entity, such as roundness or symmetry, does not reside in its separate parts or in their sum; the same is true of the character of a tem poral unit, such as a melody. Such properties are also transposable; a melody is recognized in a new key, although it shares no tones with that heard originally, and a square is recognizable as such when it is enlarged or reduced or when it appears in a new part of the field. There are innumerable facts of this order that refer to qualities in wholes only, among them those we call straight, closed, hard, smooth, translucent.

These form qualities, or Gestaltqualitäten, posed a problem for a psychology that took sensations as the sole contents of experience. Reversing the traditional formulation, Wertheimer proposed not only that a coherent whole has properties and tendencies not discoverable in its isolated parts but also that a part has properties which it does not possess when it stands alone or when it belongs to another unit. The character of a whole often determines whether one of its parts will be perceptible or not and what its properties will be. Given three dots in a linear array, one is perceived as middle, the others as ends; these properties are relationally deter mined and do not exist for the isolated components. This thesis of partwhole determination asserts that a part is a dependent property of its whole and thus draws a basic distinction between “part” and “element.”

Furthermore, a host of discoveries demonstrated that the identical stimulation, at different points in time, of a given region can produce markedly different effects, depending upon the stimulation occurring in neighboring regions. The perceptual constancies and the so-called illusions revealed striking discrepancies between what is in fact observed and what should be observed if local sensations alone were the content of experience. The shapes and sizes of objects remain within limits approximately constant as their orientation and distance are varied, and the colors of objects tend to look the same when the conditions of illumination change widely. The same proximal stimulation may cause perception of bright or dark, of upright or tilted, of large or small, of motion or rest, of motion at a high or at a low velocity, depending upon other stimulus conditions. In an effort to bolster the classical position the interpretation advanced was that the sensations in question were in fact unchanged but were corrected by judgments or “unconscious inferences” formed in the course of past experience. A clearer and more consistent explanation of these and other facts could be given using the assumption that they were effects of perceptual organization initiated by specific stimulus relations. [SeePerception, articles onPerceptual constancyandillusions and aftereffects.]

Important support for the gestalt treatment of perception came from the demonstration by Rubin (1915) of the distinction between “figure” and “ground,” between the thing-character of the former and the formlessness of the latter. A step in the same direction was the subsequent discovery by Michotte (1946) that particular conditions of successive stimulation produce the experience of causality. When figural units are perceived to move in relation to each other at certain rates, they are experienced as functionally connected; the observer refers to the motion of one object as the cause, while the motion of another object is perceived as the effect. Still other patterns of movements, which can also be clearly specified, produce the impression of animated movement. In the light of these and related findings atomism in perception ceased to be a viable position.

Physical and physiological gestalten

The concept of gestalt received a fundamental elaboration in the work of Kohler (1920; 1940). As a first step Kohler called attention to a striking similarity between certain aspects of field physics and facts of perceptual organization. He pointed to certain in stances of functional wholes in physics that cannot be compounded from the action of their separate parts. There are macroscopic physical states that tend to develop toward an equilibrium and in the direction of maximum regularity. One can describe the local conditions in such functional wholes with any desired degree of precision, but they do not function as independent parts. Systems of this character, of which there are numerous instances, are physical gestalten. They meet the criteria of von Ehrenfels (1890) for a gestalt quality.

Following the lead of the phenomenal data, Kohler proposed that there are macroscopic field processes in the brain, involving interactions which account for the effects of grouping and segregation and for the operation of the Prägnanz principle. Traditionally, cortical action was described in terms of separate excitations conducted along insulated fibers to circumscribed areas. The relational determination of experiences implies that the neural processes corresponding to separate stimulations must influence each other across distances in a manner that depends on their relative properties.

Köhler proposed a fundamental change in the conception of cortical functioning. A region such as the optic sector may be considered an electrolyte; the processes within it occur according to physical laws of self-distribution rather than according to the microanatomy of neural networks. Local states of excitation are surrounded by fields that represent these states in their environment and interact with other local states similarly rep resented. On this basis Kohler put forward the hypothesis that there are physiological processes which are special instances of physicochemical gestalten and that these are the correlates of phenomenal gestalten.

Implicit in the preceding examination is the assumption of psychophysical isomorphism, or the proposition that brain processes include some structural features that are identical with those of organized experience. Isomorphism refers not to metrical but to topological correspondences; brain processes are assumed to preserve the functional relations of symmetry, closedness, and adjacency, not the exact sizes and angles of patterns projected on the retina. This formulation diverges from the widely accepted view that phenomenal and physiological events are lawfully correlated but have no further likeness between them. The postulate of isomorphism is intended as a heuristic guide to investigation. In this manner Kohler sought a unified explanation for facts in neurophysiology and psychology among certain facts of physics. [SeeNervous system, article onstructure and function of the brain.]

Memory and association

There is a natural transition from the gestalt study of perception to memory. When a form has been perceived it may be subsequently recognized and recalled; thus, the products of perceptual organization are among the contents of memory. The persistence of past experiences requires a concept of memory traces; further, the resemblance between memories and original experiences implies that memory traces preserve the organized character of earlier processes. Gestalt studies of memory start from this assumption; a first effort to elaborate a theory of memory-trace action will be found in Koffka (1935).

The preceding formulations lead directly to one of the problems of memory—recognition. The facts of transposition to which von Ehrenfels first called attention imply the recognition of wholes or gestalten and, further, that recognition occurs on the basis of gestalt similarity and in the absence of identical elements in past and present situations. Since recognition depends upon the activation of specific memory traces and is highly selective, the gestalt proposal is that such memory-trace contact occurs on the basis of distinctive similarity, analogous to grouping by similarity in immediate experience. This formulation further implies that if the process corresponding to a present experience is to contact a corresponding memory trace, it must have its effect beyond its immediate locus and that neural conduction along insulated nerve fibers alone does not suffice to explain recognition. Thus, according to this account recognition depends upon an interaction that is relationally determined.

With respect to the concept of association two points are of main consequence. First, the gestalt account of perceptual organization was intended as a direct alternative to the interpretation that perceptual units are made up of associations between elements. Second, association theories have in practice all but abandoned the phenomena of perception; they tend to take the presence of perceptual units for granted and concentrate instead on connections formed between one unit and another. In treating these facts, one principle, that of association by contiguity, was increasingly singled out as basic. According to this principle, temporal contiguity is the crucial condition of association. In this account an association has the character of a bond that does not alter the terms it connects.

From the standpoint of gestalt theory the concept of an association as a mere bond is not a satisfactory basis of explanation. Processes in nature are as a rule relationally determined. In this connection Kohler (1929; 1941) proposed that an association is not a new process, but an aftereffect of organization and that it is dependent upon the relative properties of the respective terms. When two items are connected they form a unit and leave a corresponding unitary trace; subsequent excitation of a part of this trace will spread to the entire trace. Given this starting point there is no reason to single out the relation of contiguity, to the exclusion of others; all relations, such as those of similarity and good continuation, should bind events to each other. More generally, conditions favorable to organization should be conditions of association. Accordingly, the formation of associations and perceptual organization receive a unified interpretation. There remain unresolved issues in this area, but the available evidence supports the conclusion that relations other than contiguity exert pronounced effects on the formation of associations (Asch 1960). [SeeForgetting.]


Two themes have been most prominent in the gestalt treatment of thinking: one concerns the occurrence of understanding or insight; the other, the occurrence of processes of discovery. Of these, understanding is the more general phenomenon; it occurs often in the absence of the discovery of solutions and provides a basis for them. To understand is to have an awareness of a required relation between immediately given facts. When such understanding is present the relation is experienced as “following from” the given facts—that is, the nexus between them is itself understandable. Given two premises and a conclusion the latter either develops out of the former or contradicts it. Such relations, which have the character of “if A, then B and only B,” contrast most strongly with the association between heterogeneous facts; the terms and their relation form a unit all parts of which are dependent upon one another. An understandable relation between two terms is not a third term added to them; given any two of the parts the third is demanded. The relation in question is thus a dependent part-property of a whole. The first point of the gestalt account of thinking is that understanding or insight in the sense here described per vades human experience and that no thinking is possible in its absence. Understandable relations have the character of requiredness, or “oughtness.” This is the outstanding trait of facts of aesthetics and ethics as well as of logic; in each of these realms requiredness is relationally determined, being a property of an interdependent situation. Thus, the concept of value becomes related to that of organization. One observes an important aspect of requiredness when a situation is incomplete; in such cases the gap has particular properties that produce tendencies toward completion in accordance with the character of what is given. Gestalt theorists have sought to explore the conditions of requiredness out of a concern for establishing whether there are ethical invariants; these invariants would provide an alternative to a relativistic foundation for ethics.

Connections between concrete empirical events are not, however, understandable in the same way as logical connections. That heavy bodies fall when dropped cannot be automatically deduced; the underlying functional connections are hidden, and conclusions concerning them must be based on induction. Accordingly, the prevailing tendency of psychology since David Hume has been to stress the role of purely factual regularities in our knowledge of causal action. Gestalt psychology proposes that empirical events too are often related in ways that are structurally simple and that these relations facilitate the learning of the causal interplay. Duncker (1935) has pointed out that there are farreaching correspondences between the phenomenal properties of causes and of their effects. They are often coincident in space and time and thus stand out against a background of more indifferent events. A sound is heard where an object is seen to strike; a sheet of paper acquires a crease where it is folded; fire burns shortly after a match is applied to an object. There are also pronounced similarities of content and form between cause and effect. The shape of a footprint corresponds to that of a shoe; a hot object transmits heat to its surroundings; a wet object moistens things in contact with it. Further, variations of cause often produce parallel variations of effect. The accelerated rhythm of the motions of knocking parallels the changing rhythm of the sounds produced; the stronger the push one applies to an object, the faster and farther it moves. These relations make possible a systematic ordering of empirical facts, although the relations are not fully intelligible.

Gestalt psychology treats productive thinking as the development of new structures or organizations. The discovery of a solution begins with a situation and a goal that cannot be directly reached; what requires explanation is how the gap is bridged. The principal point of the gestalt account is that the operations of thinking do not occur piecemeal but are effects of organization and reorganization. First, thinking is a directed process based on an initial view of a coherent but incomplete situation. The direction arises from the problem itself—more accurately, from the gap between the view of the given conditions and the goal. The urge to over come the difficulty creates the tensions and vectors that lead to a re-examination of the materials and of the problem. This formulation asserts a distinction between an aggregate of independent facts and a structure; there can scarcely be productive thinking when the possibility of grasping a principle is excluded. Further, under the stress of the initially incomplete view the material is reorganized; parts and relations previously unnoted or in the back ground emerge, often abruptly, analogously to the reversal of perceptual forms, and parts previously separated become united. These changes in the meaning of parts, including changes of relation and direction, produce the transition to a new view that has greater coherence. From the outset the steps are guided by the main lines of the problem and are taken with reference to each other. The operations of centering and recentering, of separating fundamental from peripheral features, spring from the whole character of the situation or from a structural view of the gap and its stresses. These formulations account for the fact that the organization of the problem situation often changes before the more detailed steps can be elaborated.

The preceding account represents only some first steps toward a theory discovery. There is at this time no satisfactory explanation of the occurrence of sudden reorganization that favors the emergence of a solution. Reference to understanding or insight does not constitute an explanation, since these are descriptive terms that do not clarify the underlying operations.

The treatment of thinking in gestalt psychology was formulated in explicit opposition to the associationism of the early decades of the twentieth century, which excluded reference to understandable relations and, indeed, to relations generally. Associationism postulated that connections between psychological events are neutral and devoid of meaning—that is, given events A and B, nothing in the character of A points to B rather than to any other event. Associationism also excluded reference to operations of organization and reorganization. Accordingly, it described the emergence of changed views and of new solutions in terms of the reshuffling of associative chains, the components of which remain constant. This approach defined knowledge as a repertoire or inventory of specific data and of connections between them. From the standpoint of gestalt theory the striking powers of thinking seem to disappear under the associationistic treatment. Thinking involves functions different from association, although it draws some of its materials from associations. No purely contingent associations, however strong, can provide understanding.

Another point at issue is the role of past experience in the process of solution. Associative accounts treat thinking mainly as a product of past experience. Gestalt theory does not question the contribution of past experience but asserts that thinking involves more than recall. Since innumerable associations lead out from a given problem situation, a solution cannot arise on the basis of associative reproduction alone. Some selection must take place. Further, it is questionable whether the products of past experience enter into thinking in unaltered form; they may have to be reorganized in order to meet the demands of the problem. Nor may one neglect the fact that recalled material is itself often the product of understanding that has occurred in the past; reference to past experience does not exclude understanding. Finally, the solution of a problem may not even require recall of added facts; this is the case when the appropriate facts are given as part of the problem. Conversely, one may fail to solve a problem under these conditions.

In recent decades a revised associationism has attempted to encompass the organized character of thinking operations within the framework of a stimulus-response analysis. Realizing the inadequacy of the earlier one-stage associative paradigm, it has postulated the presence of intervening mediational processes, which would bridge the gap between apparently noncontiguous events (e.g., Osgood 1953). The inferred mediating events in question are assigned the same properties as overt stimulus-response connections. Their function is to introduce further associative links between overtly observable connections and, thus, to provide a replacement for cognitive operations. This elaboration admits no organizing principle other than that of association; it continues to adhere to a linear model of thinking operations, treating them as chains of stimulus-response connections. It is too early to evaluate this effort; at this time it is not clear how it can accommodate the presence of rules or principles, the seeing of given materials in a new way, or the achieving of a view in terms of which one can understand a mass of detail.

The psychology of thinking touches upon questions of education, of teaching and learning, since there is no sharp separation between discovering a solution and understanding it when it is explained. This aspect has been treated most extensively by Wertheimer in Productive Thinking (1945). In this connection he has contrasted learning by drill and by understanding. A pupil may memorize the steps of a solution and reproduce them without error, but if he has failed to understand, he will become helpless or make senseless errors when the details of the problem are changed. If he has understood the relation of the steps to the goal, he will be able to adapt the solution to a new set of conditions that retains the essential structural relations. Indeed the ability to produce the necessary transpositions constitutes an operational test of understanding (see, e.g., Katona 1940). In teaching and learning, as in the discovery of a solution, to leave out the relation of a given fact to the whole is to take away the essentials of thinking. Educational practices that stress piecemeal preoccupation with details, exactness of repetition, and instantaneous response tend to be inimical to thinking. [SeeLearning; Problem solving; Thinking.]

Social psychology

Gestalt theory has in recent decades provided the starting point for a number of systematic efforts in social psychology, among them those of Lewin and Heider. The following are some selected examples of problems studied from this point of view.

(1) Social action in man depends upon the capacity of the participants to perceive and understand one another. These operations involve reference to the mental processes of others; in everyday life one makes sense of the actions of persons by referring to their feelings, perceptions, intentions, and ideas. Yet, it is widely accepted that there is no access to these internal events in others, that one can only observe their actions, and that these actions need not be expressive of internal events. How, then, is one to explain the conviction that another is in pain or is angry or that his voice is charged with sorrow? According to one account such conclusions can only be reached indirectly, on the basis of association and inference by analogy with one’s own experiences. A more behavioristic account disregards reference either to the experience of the observer or of the observed; the actions in question are said to acquire significance on the basis of association with other actions and environ mental conditions. Each of these formulations treats the perceived actions of others as initially neutral. Gestalt theory proposes a fundamentally different conception of the relation between action observed in others and their experience, holding that these are structurally closely similar. Fearfulness, joy, hesitation, boldness are expressed in action as much as in the dynamics of experience. The outward form of an action is an expression of underlying forces. If so, understanding the mental life of another person is not primarily a question of generalizing from the physical to something unrelated to it.

Perception and understanding of other persons depend to a marked degree on the observation of their expressive, or physiognomic, characteristics. For gestalt theory physiognomic facts are a crucial part of perception (Arnheim 1954; Koffka 1940). Percepts, including those that are inanimate and static, are rarely neutral. One perceives in visual and auditory patterns the dynamic characteristics of tension, balance, rhythm; these are indeed the primary contents of everyday perception. Expressive qualities depend upon the pattern of an entire situation; they tend to be lost when one concentrates on separate parts. They are often more immediately and more vividly observable than shape and color; the clouds that hang in the sky are ominous as well as dark, a face is alert as well as elongated. Expressive qualities are functionally important, since they determine approach and withdrawal. Gestalt theory assumes that certain patterns and movements are initially perceived as inviting or repelling, cheerful or somber; further, the perception of identity of expressions across different media and modalities depends upon similarity of form qualities. Gestalt theory therefore opposes theories that try to derive the expressive character of a whole from those of its separate components. Illustrative of this is the effort to arrive at the expressive characteristics of a face from an analysis of its individual parts or to read character from handwriting based on a list of isolated characteristics. [SeeExpressive behavior.]

(2) The proposition that each individual acts in accordance with his wishes and needs has received a particular interpretation in contemporary psychology—namely, that human relations are with out exception based on self-interest. So incontrovertible has this assumption appeared that it has dictated that membership in groups and even concern for others and action in behalf of others be treated as derivatives of self-interest. Gestalt psychology calls attention to the farreaching ambiguity and vagueness in this position. It begins with the observation that the phenomenal self is only one part of the phenomenal field. The world that is represented in the experience of each person and that spurs him to action includes far more than the self; in fact, the self constitutes a small portion of it. The question then arises of specifying the kinds of relations that obtain under different conditions between the phenomenal field and that part of it we call the self; this is a special case of partwhole relations. Seen in this light it becomes evident that the customary formulation confuses the phenomenal self with the entire psychological field. In consequence the correct—and tautological—proposition that motivational vectors have their source in the individual is equated with the quite different proposition that the vectors arise from the self. The latter proposition too is often correct, but its universal validity is no longer selfevident. In perception one finds that under certain circumstances the coordinates of the surroundings become the coordinates for the self—that is, that the self is perceived and localized with respect to the surroundings, and not conversely. Thus, there are conditions that induce a person to perceive himself in motion when he is stationary or tilted when he is upright.

By analogy it becomes necessary to ask whether there are not also motivational conditions in which the individual feels and is moved to act as part of the social field, subject to its demands. In the light of this analysis it is dogmatic to presuppose that acting in accordance with the needs of others or with the demands of a situation must be interpreted as a version of self-centeredness. There may rather be circumstances when self-centered action is unnatural. Actions called right and wrong are particularly instructive in this connection. They cannot be simply equated with preferences since they often go against personal inclination, nor are they always in accord with convention or social approval. The issue as restated becomes a factual one: under what conditions does action become self-centered, and under what conditions is it in accordance with needs and requirements that are located outside the self and to which the self is responsive? No propositions of gestalt psychology prescribe an answer to this question; rather, the example illustrates the role of phenomenological analysis and of a concern with partwhole relations in the formulations of a psychological problem. [SeeSympathy and empathy.]

(3) Forming an impression of a person has a place of obvious importance in social psychology. Is it adequate to say, in accordance with an atomistic interpretation, that to have an impression is to possess a number of facts about a person, to know that he has these and these characteristics? Certain initial observations stand in the way of such a conclusion. An impression of a person appears in some sense unitary; also, certain aspects are felt to be more fundamental than others. To this one must add that a change in one characteristic may alter the character of the entire impression. Thus, the discovery of one new fact about a person may have drastic repercussions upon one’s entire view of him; one may be compelled to reorganize one’s view and to conclude that one had not really known him. Furthermore, even when one “knows” a man, at some point one may realize, without the benefit of new information, that his characteristics are really organized quite differently than one had originally supposed and that one had missed the main point about him.

These observations form the basis of a gestalt theory of impression formation that emphasizes the interrelations among observed characteristics and the manner in which these characteristics modify each other (Asch 1952). An impression has the characteristics of a structure the parts of which cooperate to produce a particular organization. From these initial assumptions the following, more specific propositions emerge from investigation: (a) The items of knowledge about a person do not remain isolated but interact and mutually alter each other, (b) The interactions depend upon the properties of the items in their relation to one another. (c) In the course of interaction the characteristics group themselves into a structure in which some become central and others dependent. (d) The resulting interdependence creates a unitary impression which tends to be subjectively completed in the direction of becoming more consistent and coherent, (e) It follows that a given item of information or a characteristic functions as a de pendentpart, not as an element, (f) If so, the “same” trait in two persons is not necessarily the same. The issue under discussion is not limited to persons; the same questions arise when one considers the knowledge of any extended and interrelated situation, whether it concerns the perceived character of a group or the structure of an attitude. [SeePerception, article onperson perception.]

(4) Acts and utterances of persons and groups are constantly judged and evaluated; how these judgments are made is a problem that has attracted attention. One general observation has been the starting point of considerable investigation: a given act or assertion is often differently evaluated depending upon its source. Thus, one may accept an opinion from one person or group but reject it when it comes from another. The customary explanation of this effect has been in terms of prestige suggestion; a judgment or opinion is said to be changed by the attachment to it of positive or negative prestige. Of theoretical consequence is the assumption that an object of judgment is one thing, its evaluation another, and that these separate factors can be connected at will to produce an arbitrarily desired outcome. An alternative interpretation assumes that actions and evaluations are relationally determined (Asch 1952). Specifically, an act or assertion does not retain a fixed character when it is related to two different sources but functions as a dependent part of its context, altering in con tent and significance as it is referred to different sources. If so, the datum that is accepted is not psychologically the same as that which is rejected, and the effect in question does not concern primarily a change in the evalution of an object but of the object being evaluated, not a change of response to a fixed condition but a change in the condition to which one is responding. This interpretation diverges importantly from the usual one for both critical and uncritical judgments. [SeePerception, article onsocial perception.]

(5) A formally similar problem arises at a more comprehensive level in the psychological interpretation of culturally determined values. Thinking must guard against two opposed dangers: taking profound cultural differences too lightly and accepting their incommensurability too readily. Behavioristic learning psychology derives cultural values from the operations of conditioning and reward. The most striking application is to ethical judgments, which are said to be learned by the application of reward and punishment. From this standpoint it follows that the same act evaluated as morally right by one society may well be regarded with indifference or as wrong by another. Gestalt theory introduces several considerations that this approachignores. First, ethical tendencies may be considered vectors or requirements that follow directly from observation of specific conditions. Second, the relation between conditions having a specific character and the ethical judgment they generate is invariant. This postulate would suffer disproof if it were shown that a situation possesses the same cognitive character for those who judge it differently. However, much evidence in support of ethical relativism fails to consider the definition of the situation, which often varies considerably as a function of differences in knowledge and factual assumptions. Indeed, on the assumption that there are invariant principles of right and wrong, differences of situational meaning must produce differences of evaluation. There is no reason to expect that two people would value identically what they see and hear if they do not see and hear identically, even though they are facing the same objective conditions. A limited conclusion from the available evidence is that the range of cultural relativism is substantially narrowed when one takes the situational context into account. From this examination emerges the following re formulation of the problem of ethical relativism: can one attach different or opposed evaluations to a situation that has a constant cognitive content? Without prejudging a full answer to this difficult question, it appears that such an outcome is far from certain. [SeeCulture, article oncultural relativism; Ethics.]

Major issues

An examination of the main themes of gestalt theory may clarify their mutual relevance and their relations to other directions within psychology and may point to issues that remain unsolved.

Parts and wholes

The most general goal of scientific inquiry is to describe and explain the interdependence of observed events. This has been the aim of both atomistic and gestalt theories in psychology; they are essentially formulations about operations or modes of dependence. Given the atomistic assumption of discrete elements, the connections formed between them are neutral or independent of the terms they join. It follows from this starting point that ordered events, whether simultaneous or successive, are summations of components. This beginning has the appeal of simplicity; it reduces the operations underlying the coherence of phenomena to a bare minimum—namely, to traditional associations. The gestalt treatment of dependence takes as its starting point the evidence of experienced wholes. The observation that a change at one point of a coherent whole creates systematic changes at other points suggests that there is mutual determination of parts within a whole and that there are processes of interaction which depend upon relations between the parts. The recognizability of transposed wholes provides strong support for this formulation. Further, since parts of wholes often have a hierarchical character, their structure is not adequately described in terms of a sum of relations.

The following examples illustrate the point at issue. A child who places a solid geometrical form in a form board appears to be guided by similarity of shape between the object and the area to which he fits it. A gestalt account of this performance would begin with the primary role of perceived similarity in steering the action. An associationistic account finds no place for the direct effect of such an intrinsic relationship; instead it begins with operations based on contiguity and derives the effects of similarity from them. The following quite different illustration bears upon the same point. How can one characterize the relation between an emotional experience and the apprehension of the conditions that produce it? It is customary to suppose that the provoking conditions function as a spark or trigger that releases the emotional effect. In this formulation the connection between the antecedent and consequent conditions is again neutral; nothing in the properties of the former accounts for the properties of the latter. The alternative gestalt account proposes that an intrinsic relation connects the respective events: we flee from the horrible and laugh at what is amusing. More generally, a clarification of interdependence among events may involve more than the statement that A is followed by B; it requires an explanation of how one event grows out of another, how the character of one determines the character of the other.

Despite its pivotal position, the notion of partwhole determination has not been fully clarified. Some students have objected to the gestalt claim that parts do not enter into wholes with a fixed character, on the ground that a whole can alter a part only if the latter has definite properties of its own. This formulation raises no logical difficulties but it does point toward problems that await investigation. Gestalt psychologists have concentrated on two extreme types of conditions: those that give rise to highly coherent units and, in contrast to these, conditions that approximate to a mere aggregate of data. There is doubtless a multiplicity of intermediate instances deserving of study that would clarify the kinds of partwhole relations that occur. Thus, under certain conditions the parts of a unit are clearly perceived and are available in a relatively independent way; the omission of a part may have quite distinct effects depending upon the kind of unit in question.

A difficulty has also arisen over the formulation that an additive analysis is not adequate to account for facts of organization. One generally attempts in investigation to relate a given effect to a number of conditions. The customary procedure in psychology is to trace the total effect to effects produced by pairs of variables—A and B, A and C, B and C, etc.—and to derive the final outcome from an accumulation of these separate effects. This mode of analysis slights the fact that once inter action has occurred between A and B, neither of these is any longer present in its original form when one considers their interactions with C, etc. Given an organized context, the effect cannot be decomposed into independent strands; explanation requires a law of the mutually interacting forces taken as a whole.

Certain misconceptions concerning wholes and parts are probably less widespread at present than in the past. First, it had not been sufficiently under stood earlier that experienced gestalten are not related to any possible gestalt characteristics of the objective conditions. These last, when considered as conditions of stimulation, are never gestalten; the consequences of organization on perceptual experience always transcend the conditions of stimulation. Second, emphasis upon wholes does not imply an indiscriminate dependence of facts upon each other or the assumption that there are no facts independent of each other. Wholes are selflimiting, since segregation is the counterpart of unit formation. Third, gestalt psychology is not opposed to analysis. The position it has taken is that analysis is fruitful provided it deals with the units and natural parts actually found in experience. Fourth, the most general implication of whole-part determination is that crucial characteristics of local facts are ignored unless one takes into account their place within a wider scheme. In the early days of gestalt psychology there was a tendency to neglect the converse point, later investigated by Köhler (1958), that a larger organization may suppress the individuality of its parts by obscuring its suborganizations. Last, whether a given experience or action is a sum of components or a product of organization is a wholly empirical question. Thus, the issue of “relational,” as against “absolute,” choosing in discrimination learning is to be resolved by evidence, as is the question whether an impression one forms of a person consists of a sum of data or of their transformation into organized form. The contribution of gestalt psychology to these problems has been to formulate the alternatives more sharply and, where possible, to devise procedures for testing them.

The principle of “Prägnanz”

No proposition is more characteristic of gestalt thinking than the principle of Prägnanz: experienced perceptual wholes tend toward the greatest regularity, simplicity, and clarity possible under the given conditions. This principle also applies to certain physical systems, and Köhler in particular has applied it to the cortical correlates of perception. Two opposed outcomes derive from the tendency of experienced gestalten to turn into particularly simple and clear structures: depending upon given conditions a gestalt will have either a maximum articulation of its parts, or it will be highly simplified. It is also implicit in these formulations that ambiguous conditions, which do not fully prescribe the perceptual outcome, produce a special direction toward the completion of gaps and the resolving of contradictions, so that all parts are determined by the structure of the whole.

Although intended to have a general application, the principle of Prägnanz was oriented mainly to ward facts of perception. Thus, Wertheimer subsumed the laws of grouping under it. Some thinkers, while accepting good continuation and closure as clear illustrations of Prägnanz, have wondered in what sense the latter describes grouping by proximity or similarity. However, in gestalt theory the tendency toward Prägnanz is not one process among others, but is inherent in all processes and products. Accordingly, one would say that grouping per se introduces regularity and simplicity and that to group in accordance with proximity and similarity is to have a radically simpler phenomenal field than absence of grouping would yield. This formulation admittedly renders concrete investigation difficult; accordingly, investigators have sought empirical tests to compare actually obtained “good form” with other alternatives that are logically possible under the same stimulus conditions. While it has not been possible to establish unambiguous criteria for good form, a great deal of selectivity has been demonstrated: where stimulation is compatible with a nearly infinite number of different experienced events, only a limited number—often only one or two—will actually be realized.

There is, however, a set of phenomena that argues convincingly for a principle of maximum simplicity in perceptual experience: where a given stimulus array can be organized in alternate ways, that organization is realized which yields a constant, rather than an ever-changing, perceptual object. A black circle moving across a homogeneous white ground is perceived as such, while the alter native organization, namely, a succession of black areas, each emerging from and returning to the white ground, is not realized. Phenomenal identity as studied by Ternus (1926) and Wertheimer also demonstrates a powerful preference to maintain a constant organization when one views a moving form. Another important instance of this tendency is the kinetic depth effect that Wallach and his associates have described (Wallach & O’Connell 1953). When an observer follows the deforming shadow of a slowly rotating object on a screen, he organizes the successive views so as to see a rigid shape moving in the third dimension; he does not see changing two-dimensional shapes. Wallach (1940) has also shown that in sound localization with head movement, one tends to perceive the sound as coming from a stationary source rather than from a moving source. The perceptual constancies may also be considered instances of the same tendency. [SeePerception, article onperceptual constancy.]

In areas other than perception the principle of Prägnanz has in general resisted conclusive investigation or clear definition. An early hypothesis of Wulf (1922) that memory traces undergo changes in the direction of greater regularity and simplicity has not been supported. In thinking, the discovery of a solution often marks a transition to a simpler structure, but this formulation lacks explanatory power. Equally rudimentary is our present understanding of tendencies in action toward the completion of situations that contain a gap, in accordance with the demands of the given structure. In social psychology the prevalence of extremely simplified views of groups and of public issues is a striking fact, but investigation has not advanced sufficiently to be theoretically relevant. A some what nearer approach is the study initiated by Heider (1958) of preferences for balanced con figurations of interpersonal relations, and of the tendency to convert unbalanced configurations into a preferred form. Despite the difficulties, interest in the principle of Prägnanz persists and continues to be a concern of investigation.


Gestalt theory holds that organization in accordance with general principles of physical dynamics is present from the start in psychological functioning. This position leaves wide scope for unlearned processes. At the same time, the widespread view that gestalt theory underestimates the effects of past experience is oversimplified. It is more important to note that the concept of organization determines the treatment of both unlearned and learned functions. Gestalt theory refers unlearned operations mainly to relationally deter mined physicochemical processes rather than to the action of specific anatomical structures. Similarly, it holds that the effects of past experience are also products of organization, or determined by structural requirements.

The treatment of form perception brings this position into sharp relief. From the standpoint of gestalt theory, unlearned organizing principles determine the perception of form, and past experience cannot exert an influence until the sensory processes are organized. It thus takes issue with the assumption of the empiricists that visual perception consists originally of a mosaic of sensations and that learning transforms them into shaped visual objects. There is in fact substantial evidence that some form perception is unlearned. Figure-ground articulation is governed by an unlearned function, as is articulation in accordance with good form. The selective principles according to which sensory data are organized in perceptual grouping, in perception of visual motion, or in the perception of identity are similarly independent of specific learning. Other perceptual functions also appear to be unlearned, among them stroboscopic motion, bright ness contrast, and distance perception in lower organisms. Particularly instructive are observations of perceptually ambiguous situations; the fact that observers markedly agree in favoring one outcome over another indicates that the processes which order perception into coherent entities are not products of specific learning. There is also evidence that spontaneous organization of form often takes effect before an influence of past experience can occur.

The assumption of unlearned organizing principles does not, however, imply neglect of the history of past stimulation. To a degree this becomes evident in the treatment of temporal organization in perception. Gestalt psychology has from the start considered perceptual organization of temporally extended events equal in importance with that of simultaneously given data. The role of successive stimulation in apparent motion was the first phenomenon that Wertheimer formally investigated, and he illustrated the principles of grouping with melodies as well as with static visual forms Further, he identified one principle of grouping, that of objective set (objektive Einstellung), which directly concerns the effect of membership in a temporal sequence upon the phenomenal characteristics of a given structure. In these cases, as in the work of Michotte on phenomenal causality, perceptual organization depends directly on prior stimulation. [SeeTime, article onpsychological aspects.]

In addition, recent advances in investigation have brought about a further development in gestalt thinking, as in psychology generally, pointing to the conclusion that a history of prior stimulation is a necessary condition of adequate perceptual functioning. Thus the investigation of figural after effects by Köhler and Wallach (1944) demonstrates that all perceptual experiences at a given moment are in some important respects a function of what a person has experienced in the past. The import of this conclusion is that the perceptual system requires not only an adequate amount of previous stimulation but particular kinds and distributions of stimulation. [SeePerception, article onillusions and aftereffects.]

The work of Helson (1964) on the organization of data across time illustrates the continuity of current investigation with gestalt contributions. The “adaptation level” demonstrates that temporally separated stimulations interact, so that the phenomenal intensity of a given stimulation is lawfully determined by preceding stimulation. In addition to establishing that perception depends upon the articulation of a stimulus array in the temporal dimension, it also demonstrates that the same datum may be obtained from different structures, each of which determines its subjective values. This line of inquiry brings to the fore the importance of sensitivity to successive arrays of stimulation.

Furthermore, gestalt psychology does not question the more customary effects of past experience upon perception. Indeed, it finds a definite place for them and has formulated the rudiments of a memory-trace theory to account for them (Koffka 1935). Gestalt psychologists have opposed unexamined and ad hoc assumptions about the effects of past experience that were introduced to bolster the atomistic position. Such claims, they maintained, require proof and an account of the operations by which past experience exerts its effects. More specifically, they have combated an elementaristic concept of past experience and insisted that unorganized experience cannot organize perception. Accordingly, they have proposed that the organization of form in past experience can reorganize a percept by means of memory-trace contact. The demonstration of a memory effect of three-dimensional form perception by Wallach (Wallach et al. 1953) provides a clear illustration. A pattern which has previously been experienced as three-dimensional on the basis of appropriate depth cues will subsequently be seen as three-dimensional in the absence of these cues; in this case the outcome is dependent upon past organization. [SeePerception, article ondepth perception.]

Gestalt psychology leaves vast room for past experience and education in its treatment of thinking and learning. At the same time, it places emphasis in these areas on processes that have not previously occurred. These draw upon materials of the past, but the organizations that occur are not exclusively products of past experience. A chimpanzee needs relevant past experience with the functional properties of sticks, bars, and food in order to solve problems, but the organization of these experiences is a new step. Similarly, a child’s understanding of a relation such as that of transitivity requires knowledge of the terms in question. The latter example raises a new question—namely, whether simple logical operations are learned. The implication of the gestalt position is that once the facts are given, the mental operations of creating a structure from them and of reading them off ensue directly. Such relations are mental products; they are not given as facts about the environment. These formulations are consistent with observations, such as those of Piaget, that a given level of maturation is necessary before a child can grasp a relation such as transitivity, that he must pass through earlier intellectual stages before he is capable of handling it. Other developmental studies of the recent period raise a different problem. Harlow has shown that infrahuman primates require prolonged experience before they can handle relations such as those of oddity and reversal. Do these findings demonstrate that the relations in question are “learned”? An alternative that must be considered is that past experience is necessary in order to find out what relation is important, but that the relation per se is not learned. [SeeDevelopmental psychology, article ona theory of development; Intellectual development.]

Phenomenological method

Gestalt theory is phenomenologically oriented. It assigns a place of crucial importance in psychological inquiry to the data of immediate experience. They are part of its subject matter and therefore require explanation; in addition, they are indispensable as a basis for the construction of theory. This position has a general affinity with the phenomenological tradition represented in the modern period by Husserl and is in sharp contrast to the direction of behaviorism. [SeePhenomenologyand the biography ofHusserl.]

There is an obvious relation between the character of phenomenal events and the initial formulations of gestalt psychology. In the area of perception the primary concern has been to explain why things look, sound, and feel as they do; the phenomenal facts are in this case the facts requiring explanation. More specifically, the observation that wholes and whole qualities are given in immediate perceptual experience was the basis for the rejection of elementarism and for the adoption of the concept of partwhole determination. Similarly, in thinking, the presence of understandable relations and of reorganization serve as primary observations and as first steps toward an eventual theory. This is equally the case in social psychology, where a clarification of the ways in which persons comprehend a given situation often provides crucial information about the phenomena to be studied and a basis for further exploration. The work of Heider (1958) is an example of the possibilities of a phenomenological procedure in the study of interpersonal relations. Finally, it is hard to conceive of a psychology of aesthetics that ignores direct experience [seeAesthetics].

Although the explanatory concepts that gestalt psychology seeks are not themselves phenomenal facts, it assumes an intimate relation between them. It holds, first, that behavior cannot be adequately explained without reference to central processes and that these may be represented in immediate experience. Second, the postulate of psychophysical isomorphism suggests that an examination of what is phenomenally given can be both a source of hypotheses about neural events and a testing ground for them. From this perspective psychology possesses, in contrast to the natural sciences, a unique access to central processes. As Albert Einstein is reported to have once remarked in connection with this issue: “If atoms could talk about their internal processes I would not believe everything they say, but I would certainly listen.”

The main requirement of phenomenological observation is to render an unprejudiced report of immediate experience under specified conditions. This general rule at once differentiates phenomenology from analytic introspection, which was dominated by a prior theory about the character of the events to be described. The phenomenological observer must be open to his experiences as they appear to him, independently of prior beliefs or assumptions about them and should not exclude what is strange or contrary to preconceptions. When viewing a visual contour, he will not allow his knowledge to deter him from noting that it appears in front of the ground, while the ground itself appears unbroken in the area that the figure occupies, or that the contour delineates the figure and not the ground. In turn the investigator will consider the explanation of these facts necessary to a theory of figure-ground organization. Although this mode of observation is not quite naive and requires cultivation, its aim is natural observation. The import of phenomenology as a psychological procedure is that it restores everyday experience, with its qualitative diversities, to psychology.

Phenomenal facts would be of reduced import if they were unconnected with action. In fact, the connection is close; persons act in a situation in accordance with the ways they perceive, feel, and think about it. If a person misperceives a situation, he acts in accordance with his misperception, not on the basis of conditions as they are. It is, consequently, of the utmost importance to relate action to the cognitive apprehension of given conditions. However, in the absence of a coherent rationale the relation between direct experience and action reduces essentially to a correlation between incommensurable data. From the standpoint of gestalt psychology the phenomenal facts are, as stated earlier, the most direct, although partial, expressions of those mediating processes that steer action. These processes are organized representations of external and internal conditions. Interposed between stimulation and action, they have the status of cognitive representations, comprising relations and systems of relations between facts, between means and ends, and between grounds and consequents. Since they steer action, they have the status of causes and are necessary to the prediction of action. Phenomenal facts—percepts, ideas, hypotheses, inferences—are more closely related to these central processes than to any other events, and therefore, they throw light on the events that issue in action. The cognitive analysis that gestalt psychology has pursued in different areas of human psychology and that has opened new paths for investigation derives from these assumptions.

At the same time gestalt theory does not favor a purely phenomenological psychology. Central processes are more inclusive and continuous than phenomenal events; therefore, the latter alone cannot provide the basis for a coherent science. In all areas of psychology, including those of perception and thinking, there are functional relations that are inaccessible to phenomenology. Other areas are at best poorly represented at the phenomenal level; habits and attitudes are formed unawares; the formation of associations and the operations of retention are not open to inspection; and there are always factors outside the phenomenal field that determine action. These considerations point to the need for inductive procedures in psychology; they do not, however, justify the neglect of direct experience when it is accessible.

The importance that gestalt theory attaches to immediate experience rests on a farreaching examination that cuts across generally accepted categories. It distinguishes sharply between phenomenal and functional facts, the latter referring to events that are outside immediate experience and that are the object of scientific inquiry. Direct experience includes both objective facts, such as rocks and animals, and subjective facts, such as wishes and pains; indeed, the distinction between objective and subjective is one that occurs within the phenomenal domain. Thus, secondary and tertiary qualities are often phenomenally highly objective, since they appear located in specific objects in outside space.

Consequently, direct experience is a condition of all scientific inquiry. Observation consists in the first instance of phenomenal facts; it begins with what is seen, heard, touched. At no point do the procedures of science eliminate these phenomenal components. The most refined observations, such as those represented by pointer readings, are perceptual situations that depend upon the identification of units, the perception of motion, and the discrimination of positions. Moreover, the theoretical constructions erected to explain observations, including the rules of logic and mathematics—in general, the structures of inference and proof necessary to scientific activity—are also strictly phenomenal events. There is thus a necessary continuity of direct experience with the concepts and procedures that science fashions; ultimately all concepts have a phenomenal base. The scientist’s picture of the world is based on the achievements of perception and thinking; his choice of units of observation is based on his perception of form, and his inferences must obey logical demands and the cognition of causal relations. Although the investigator who concentrates on a particular problem must take this background for granted, it cannot be ignored in a systematic account of the character of scientific investigation.

These considerations throw a new light on the distrust of phenomenal data in behavioristic psychology. Early behaviorism rejected direct experience in favor of objective data on the ground that the former is private and inaccessible to public check and, therefore, cannot form part of the body of scientific knowledge. Since one cannot place experiences side by side and compare them, behaviorists concluded that one can observe only the behavior of another, not his experiences. However, the assumption that objective data are free of phenomenal components was based on a naive realism that failed to consider the role of the observer. The behaviorist as investigator reports his observations and inferences—that is, the contents of his phenomenal field. It is therefore hardly consistent on his part to rule out the reports of other observers simply because these observers happen to be his subjects. More recently, behaviorists have accepted that the data of science are based on phenomenal reports but have proposed to include only those observations which command agreement among independent observers. It is generally accepted that observations on which qualified observers can agree have a special standing in science. However, the implication that phenomenally subjective events are generally untrustworthy and ipso facto fail to command agreement cannot be sustained. [SeeObservation.]

There are, to be sure, sources of error to be guarded against and difficulties to be resolved when one includes the reports of observers in a system of functional concepts. No doubt it may be more difficult to find the appropriate referents to the report “I am feeling dizzy and confused” than to the report “The rat depressed the bar five times.” Nevertheless, the methodological purism of the behavioristic position has in important respects had negative effects. The proposals to reduce perception to overt discriminative responses and to treat the reports of persons as “verbal behavior” have not been fruitful. In fact, they marked an abandonment of interest in phenomena and problems that are most specifically and significantly human. They also discouraged, because they failed to realize, the constructive contribution of free observation and description in the discovery of new phenomena. Consequently, they underestimated the creative phases of scientific activity that precede proof and that set the goals for proof. These attitudes have had a profoundly restrictive effect on human psychology.

The more serious reason for the behavioristic distrust of phenomenal data has been the belief that they are epiphenomena, with no place in a causal-explanatory scheme. Gestalt theory reserves judgment on the mind-body problem, while seeking a bridge between direct experience and the concepts of natural science; it sees in the clarification of this relation a challenge to psychology and to science generally. The distrust, bordering on aversion, of direct experience that behaviorism has demonstrated is also motivated by the attempt to imitate the natural sciences in their progressive elimination of phenomenal data. From the standpoint of gestalt theory human experience is an important part of nature and too significant to be discarded. An account of human functioning that omits reference to direct experiences is as incomplete as would be the description of a musical instrument that included all details of its materials, construction, and functioning but made no mention of the music it produces.

Relation to behaviorism

Certain other divergences between behaviorism and gestalt psychology have to do with the respective problems they have considered. Gestalt psychology grows out of studies in human perception and thinking, while behaviorism takes its start from the study of infrahuman organisms. There are also diverse tendencies within behaviorism itself, some of which are closely connected with gestalt positions. Thus, a concern with the organization of central processes unites gestalt theory with investigators such as Lashley, and the work of Tolman exemplifies an approximation to a gestalt behaviorism in animal psychology [see the biographies ofLashleyandTolman].

However, the “stimulus-response” psychologies constitute one variety of behaviorism, highly influential on the American scene, that is strongly opposed to gestalt psychology. Stimulus-response accounts of behavior are atomistic; although their units are molar, they treat behavior as composed of chains of stimulus-response units and changes of behavior as the addition and elimination of such units.

From the perspective of gestalt psychology, action is characterized by organization, and coordination of complex movements poses problems analogous to organization in perception. Accordingly it questions the adequacy of accounts of action that employ isolated stimulus-response units. Further, it holds that organized cognitive representations steer intelligent action in animals and man; sequences of chained units do not do justice to the operations of organizing and reorganizing that external conditions initiate. Also, the “stimulus” of stimulus-response psychologies implicitly refers to perceptual configurations, which are not, however, treated as such.

These problems are magnified when one turns to human psychology. It is a significant feature of the stimulus-response programs that they aspire to base a psychology of man on concepts and methods derived exclusively from the study of infrahuman organisms. This aim presupposes that no problems or processes will be discovered that are unique to human functioning. Instead of freely examining human achievements and asking how one can account for them, they attempt to fit observations to concepts derived from another area. The question arises whether concepts pertaining to one range of facts retain their meaning or relevance when extrapolated to a new area or whether they become mere labels for phenomena that have not been examined in their own right.


Gestalt theory was the first attempt within psychology to give a fundamental treatment to problems of wholes and partwhole relations. It was productive of new discoveries and concepts; it generated new questions and proved relevant to basic issues of psychology. Its contributions laid the foundations for the modern study of perception; it broke new ground in the investigation of thinking, memory, and learning; it initiated new steps in social psychology. These achievements deeply affected the outlook of psychology, not least so when they provoked opposition. They spurred a sharpening of issues and the revision of alternative positions; there is little work of consequence in psychology that has been wholly untouched by gestalt ideas.

It is nevertheless questionable to conclude, as some students have, that the contributions of this movement have been fully absorbed and that it has died of success. It is more likely that its natural development was blocked when it was uprooted from its milieu in Europe following the Nazi catastrophe. To this one must add that there were barriers to a full comprehension of its perspective and of its conception of science in the profoundly different intellectual environment that prevailed in the United States. It is therefore more appropriate to stress that gestalt theory is not a completed system, that many of the issues it raised await resolution, and that it might be best described as a program of investigation or a region of problems. Thus, there is as yet little understanding of the physiological foundations that gestalt theory sought for psychology, and the postulate of isomorphism remains a heuristic principle. Further, gestalt psychologists were selective with respect to the problems they studied; in general they preferred those that lent themselves to exact investigation and clear theoretical decisions. Consequently, there are large areas to which it has not notably contributed, among them developmental and abnormal psychology and the psychologies of personality, of language, and of action. Neither has it contributed directly to the psychology of motivation, with the exception of Lewin and his group, whose concepts are related to those of gestalt theory. At the same time, the formulations of gestalt theory contain important implications for these areas. [SeeAchievement motivation; Field theory; and the biography ofLewin.]

Although there are no procedures peculiar to gestalt investigators, a distinctive style is evident in their formulations of problems and in their manner of studying them that reflects an implicit attitude toward the tasks of science. Perhaps first in order of importance is a sensitivity to the danger of distorting the subject matter by obeying prior prescriptions about the demands of scientific procedure. It is a natural consequence of the phenomenological orientation of gestalt psychology to think it presumptuous to expect phenomena to conform to rules that precede observation. Connected with this starting point is the belief that faithful observation is an essential step to explanation. Consequently, gestalt psychology accords a place of importance to qualitative observation and, while welcoming exact experimentation, rejects the view that measurement is the sole source of valid evidence. Indeed, some of its own most significant discoveries were essentially systematic demonstrations. One consequence of the more customary assumption is that a phenomenon is not considered important if it cannot be studied experimentally; it is, however, more correct to say that experimentation is only one kind of observation. Indeed, there is danger in stressing experimentation before essential questions have been clarified—the danger of aimless experimentation.

An equally prominent theme of gestalt theory is that clarification of fundamentals requires attention to fairly large areas of phenomena. This becomes evident in gestalt investigations of particular questions, as well as in its broad conception of psychology. It specifically included facts of logic, ethics, and aesthetics as part of the subject matter of psychology at the same time that it sought to establish contact with the concepts of natural science. This approach questions whether the study of ever more detailed problems in special fields will yield knowledge of psychology as a whole. Psychology still has to discover its fundamentals; exclusive attention to those questions that can be studied in exact ways may ignore important phases of the subject and may even lose sight of the realization that the discovery of fundamentals is urgently needed. Indeed, facts in a limited area may be seriously misinterpreted, however carefully they are studied, if their reference to a wider scheme remains obscure.

A sense of the human and philosophical import of psychology pervades gestalt writings. Their critique of arbitrary dissection, of focusing on narrow facts, was based on technical considerations; they also expressed a concern about the destructive implications of such procedures for a conception of man. Science is a way to clarify major issues of mankind. If psychology eliminates or distorts essential facts and if these are represented as the main evidence about his nature, man himself will appear of little account. Gestalt theory questioned the assumption that certain convictions prevalent in psychology were scientifically derived. The denial of understanding, the view that actions and judgments are in principle subjectively determined, the treatment of value in terms of neutral facts, and the consequent rejection of valid value did not, it claimed, necessarily follow from scientific thinking. There is also a quality of moral optimism in gestalt psychology, which some may consider extrascientific if not antiscientific. This charge cannot be easily leveled against a movement that strictly opposed the approach of vitalism to facts of life and that sought to find a basis for psychology in natural science. The charge itself may be an expression of moral pessimism.

Solomon E. Asch

[Directly related are the entriesField TheoryandThinking, article onCognitive Organization and Processes. Contrasting approaches to behavioral phenomena are discussed inForgetting; Learning, especially the articles onClassical Conditioning, Instrumental Learning, Reinforcement, andDiscrimination Learning; Psychoanalysis. Other relevant material may be found inAesthetics; Attitudes; Groups; Perception; Phenomenology; Problem Solving; Social Psychology; Systems Analysis, article onPsychological Systems; Thinking; and in the biographies ofHusserl; Katz; Koffka; KÖhler; KÜlpe; Wertheimer.]



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KÖhler, Wolfgang 1951 Relational Determination in Perception. Pages 200-230 in Lloyd A. Jeffress (edi tor), Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior. New York: Wiley.

KÖhler, Wolfgang 1958 Perceptual Organization and Learning. American Journal of Psychology 71:311–315.

KÖhler, Wolfgang; and Wallach, Hans 1944 Figural After-effects: An Investigation of Visual Processes. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 88:269–357.

Lewin, Kurt (1926–1933) 1935 A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. New York: McGraw-Hill. → Papers first published in German.

Lewin, Kurt (1939–1947) 1963 Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. Edited by Dorwin Cartwright. London: Tavistock.

Michotte, A. (1946)1963 The Perception of Causality. London: Methuen. → First published in French.

Osgood, Charles E. (1953) 1959 Method and Theory in Experimental Psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Rubin, Edgar (1915) 1921 Visuell wahrgenommene Figuren: Studien in psychologischer Analyse. Copen hagen: Gylendal. → First published in Danish.

Ternus, Josef 1926 Experimentelle Untersuchungen über phänomenale Identitat. Psychologische Forschung 7:81–136.

Wallach, H. 1940 The Role of Head Movements and Vestibular and Visual Cues in Sound Localization. Journal of Experimental Psychology 27:339–368.

Wallach, H.; and O’connell, D. N. 1953 Kinetic Depth Effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology 45: 205–217.

Wallach, H.; O’connell, D. N.; and Neisser, U. 1953 The Memory Effect of Visual Perception of Three-dimensional Form. Journal of Experimental Psychology 45:360–368.

Wertheimer, Max (1912–1920) 1925 Drei Abhandlungen zur Gestalttheorie. Erlangen (Germany): Philosophische Akademie. → Contains three early contributions: “Über das Denken der Naturfölker” first published in Volume 70 in the Zeitschrift für Psychologie; “Experimentelle Studien uber das Sehen von Beweg-ung” published in Volume 61; and Über Schlafs-prozesse im produktiven Denken.

Wertheimer, Max (1925) 1944 Gestalt Theory. Social Research 11:78–99. → First published in German.

Wertheimer, Max 1934 On Truth. Social Research 1:135–146.

Wertheimer, Max 1935 Some Problems in the Theory of Ethics. Social Research 2:353–367.

Wertheimer, Max 1937 On the Concept of Democracy. Pages 271-285 in Max Ascoli and Fritz Lehmann (editors), Political and Economic Democracy. New York: Norton.

Wertheimer, Max (1945) 1961 Productive Thinking. Enl. ed., edited by Michael Wertheimer. London: Tavistock. → Published posthumously; the product of a lifelong concern with problems of thinking, logic, and education.

Wulf, Friedrich 1922 Uber die Veranderung von Vor-stellungen. Psychologische Forschung 1:333–373.


Allport, Floyd H. 1955 Theories of Perception and the Concept of Structure. New York: Wiley.

Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experi mental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Guillaume, P. 1937 La psychologie de la forme. Paris: Flammarion.

Heidbreder, Edna 1933 Seven Psychologies. New York: Appleton.

Henle, Mary 1965 On Gestalt Psychology. Pages 276-292 in Benjamin B. Wolman and Ernest Nagel (edi tors), Scientific Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Metzger, Wolfgang (1940) 1954 Psychologie. 2d ed. Darmstadt (Germany): Steinkopff.

Petermann, Bruno (1929) 1932 The Gestalt Theory and the Problem of Configuration. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Gestalttheorie und das Gestaltproblem.

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

Scheerer, Martin 1931 Die Lehre von der Gestalt. Berlin: Gruyter.

Woodworth, Robert S. (1931) 1964 Contemporary Schools of Psychology. 3d ed. New York: Ronald. → See especially pages 214-250 on “Gestalt Psychology.”

Gestalt Theory

views updated May 29 2018


The Gestalt movement in psychology began early in the twentieth century; its founders were the German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka. A Gestalt is essentially an organized whole whose parts belong together, as opposed to being simply juxtaposed or randomly distributed. As Wertheimer put it, "What happens to a part of the whole is determined by intrinsic laws inherent in this whole." The Gestalt theorists believed this principle to be of wide application and to be relevant to the psychology of perception in particular.


As early as 1890 Christian von Ehrenfels had pointed out that to appreciate a melody we need to be aware not of single tones in isolation but of a succession of tones

which combine in a particular way. If notes of the same pitch as those of the original melody are presented in a different temporal order, there will be a completely different effect, whereas the same melody played in a different key is immediately recognizable, even though the notes are different in pitch from the original ones. The melody as a whole was said by von Ehrenfels to have a Gestaltqualität independent of the qualities of the separate notes. Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka were concerned to apply the concept of Gestalt over a wide area and thus give a new direction to psychological research.

A central feature in their view was the doctrine of isomorphism, which asserts that our experiences have the same structure as the brain processes which underlie them. Thus, if the stimulus is a nearly complete circle which the subject sees as a complete circle the doctrine of isomorphism would assert that there must be some pattern in the brain that is isomorphic with the complete circle, as opposed to the incomplete one. The detailed neurological hypotheses which they put forward are of questionable value, but the general principle is still of interest, as is Köhler's demonstration that there are Gestalten in physical nature, for example, the soap bubble, whose spherical shape is the necessary result of the total forces in operation at any one time (see Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, p. 14).

The following are some typical examples of the Gestalt principle as applied to vision: Figure 1 appears as a cross; if, however, we consider the effect on the retina of

the eye of each of the dots in isolation, there is nothing to account for the way in which they are organized. Implicit in traditional thinking, according to Köhler and Koffka, is the so-called constancy hypothesisthe hypothesis that stimulation of a particular point on the retina has a constant effect regardless of the total pattern of stimulation. Yet if the constancy hypothesis were true, it would be hard to explain the obvious recognizability of the "4" in Figure 2a and its camouflage in Figure 2b, since the same retinal points are being stimulated in both cases. Similarly one cannot explain how a person who moves from twenty yards away to ten yards away continues to look approximately the same size, since the retinal stimulation must by the laws of optics be quite different. Indeed there are many characteristics of the perceived world (what Koffka terms the "behavioral," as opposed to the "geographical," environment) which do not bear a one-one relationship to anything in the pattern of stimulation. Thus, in Figure 3 we see the lines as four pairs, but the "togetherness" of each pair has no direct counterpart in the system of stimuli; and in Edgar Rubin's famous example (Figure 4), whether we see the white as "figure" and the black as "ground" or vice versa, there is no direct counterpart to the "thinglike" character of the figure and the absence of this character in the ground.

This thinglike character, the character of "productivity," which occurs in some causal transactions, the character of "being mine," which belongs to, say, my hand in contrast to an object on which my hand is resting, the character of anger present in someone's facethese are some of the many features which are present in the behavioral environment, even though they are necessarily absent from the world of physics because there is nothing in the stimulus situation directly corresponding to them.

On the Gestalt view what is all-important is the way in which the immediate, or "proximal," stimuli (for example, light waves or sound waves) combine in space and time; when these combinations are of a certain kind, certain perceptual organizations will arise (for example, two parts of a diagram will be seen as belonging together), and laws can be framed in terms of which such organizations can be predicted. Details of these laws have been set out by David Katz; they include the law of proximity, which states that, other things being equal, in a total stimulus situation those elements which are closest to each other tend to form groups, and the law of closed forms, which states that, other things being equal, lines which enclose a surface tend to be seen as a unit.

A law of a more general kind is that of Prägnanz. As formulated by Koffka (Principles of Gestalt Psychology, p. 110), this law states: "Psychological organisation will always be as 'good' as the prevailing conditions allow. In this definition the term 'good' is undefined. It embraces such properties as regularity and symmetry, simplicity and others." In other words, when the stimuli are of a certain kind, there are forces within the organism that operate in the direction of maximum simplicity; hence, we tend to see "good" figuressquares and circles, for examplerather than less regular ones. The word Prägnanz is of course ultimately connected with the Latin impregnare. The suggestion here, however, is not that of something being fertilized or made pregnant but rather of something being stamped or pressed into a particular shape (compare the word prägen, which is used primarily to refer to the minting of coins). Certain types of configurations, one might say, are particularly impressive; they carry a certain stamp or they strike us in particular ways.

Contrary to what has sometimes been said, the Gestalt psychologists did not dispute that past experience can influence perception; this is made plain by Katz in Gestalt Psychology (pp. 2829). Their criticism was

directed against the view of perception that invoked past experience as a deus ex machina when observed results did not fit the constancy hypothesis. Thus a penny, unless its flat surface is directly in front of us, might be expected from the laws of optics to look elliptical. Since it does not, one can preserve the view that the "basic datum" is an ellipse by postulating a rapid process of inference based on past experience. On this view we infer that the penny is round because of our alleged previous experience of round pennies. According to the Gestalt psychologists, however, not only is there nothing in introspection to suggest such an inference; they would also have questioned whether in fact it is particularly common in ordinary life for pennies to have their flat surfaces directly in front of the observera condition that their opponents' theory seems to require. In contrast, their view was that when the proximal stimuli combine in a certain way a particular perceptual organization is forced upon us; thus a circle is a "good" figure, and hence the "internal forces" will operate in the direction of a circle rather than an ellipse.

Interesting experimental studies include those of Wertheimer ("Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung," in Zeitschrift für Psychologie ) on the perception of movement, those of Köhler (The Mentality of Apes ) on problem solving in apes, those of Wertheimer (Productive Thinking ) and K. Duncker ("On Problem Solving") on problem solving in humans, that of Katz (The World of Colour ) on the perception of color, that of Rubin (Synsoplevede Figurer ) on the figure-ground distinction, those of Kurt Lewin (Principles of Topological Psychology ), who has attempted to apply Gestalt principles to the study of social situations, and those of Albert Michotte (La perception de la causalité )although he was not a member of the original groupon the conditions in which we receive an impression of causality. A recent interesting development is the attempt to relate figural goodness to the amount of information (in the mathematical

sense) needed to specify a particular pattern or figure (see especially Fred Attneave, Applications of Information Theory to Psychology, p. 82). The problem of perceptual Gestalten has arisen in an acute form in the programming of computers to carry out pattern recognition (see, for instance, Kirsch, "Computer Interpretation of English Text and Picture Patterns").

Science and Common Sense

The advance of science continually brings in its train a challenge to our commonsense beliefs about the world. At one time or another in the history of scientific thought it has been held, for example, that sense perception is unreliable, that the things around us are not really colored, that the floor on which we walk is not really solid, and that no two events are ever exactly simultaneous. In contrast with many other scientific systems, Gestalt theory involves the attempt to call us away from such paradoxes back to common sense; it invites us to consider the world as we in fact experience it, not as we might expect to experience it in the light of the latest scientific developments.

It does not, of course, follow, that philosophical paradoxes can be disposed of simply by pointing out that experience is in fact of such-and-such a kind. Thus, it is no argument against John Locke's account of substance or David Hume's account of causality to point out that the behavioral environment is found by experience to consist of things in causal interaction, any more than it is an argument against the distinction between primary and secondary qualities to point out that we are aware of greenness as being in the grass and not in our heads. Similarly, a philosopher who wishes to defend the sense-datum terminology cannot be refuted simply by an appeal to Rubin's claim that what we perceive is organized into figure and ground and is not just "a mosaic of sense data." As a corrective against those who mistake the point of philosophical arguments, it may be helpful on occasions to make explicit exactly what we are aware of at the commonsense level, but this does not prove the philosophical arguments to be wrong.

Despite the emphasis on naive judgment, however, the Gestalt program does not involve an uncritical return to naive realism. Rather, its claim is that the gulf between what common sense tells us and what science tells us is not, after all, as great as might be supposed; the world of nature is gestaltet no less than are our experiences. Moreover, although in some of their discussions Köhler and Koffka speak in traditional terms about "the relation between mind and matter," their views do not fit easily into the traditional categories of interactionism, epiphenomenalism, and parallelism; indeed, like many modern philosophers, they are critical of a starting point which forces us to decide between theories couched in these terms.

Positivism and Behaviorism

The prevailing scientific attitude of the time, which Koffka called "positivism," was mistaken, on the Gestalt view, because it allowed no place for the categories of meaning and value. The important fact for psychology is that the behavioral environment is organizedit is intelligible. Thus we are making sense out of a person's facial expression when we say that he is angry. Similarly, if a person listens to music, he is sometimes aware that a chord with the leading note (the seventh of the scale) at the top requires to be followed by the tonic chord of the original key; the cadence has its special meaning only if the second chord follows the first. This remains true even though such "requiredness," as Köhler terms it in The Place of Value in a World of Facts, can play no part in the world of physics. As physical science advances we are enabled to make continually more refined statements about the geographical environment; but in so doing, on the Gestalt view, we are in danger of losing sight of factsthose of the behavioral environmentwhich for the psychologist are of special interest. Koffka agreed that vitalism is "no solution but a mere re-naming of the problem"; but by taking seriously the concept of Gestalt one can, he held, be antimechanistic without being obscurantist.

There is also an attack on the allegedly "scientific" creed of behaviorism, whose development was almost contemporary with that of Gestalt theory. The term behaviorism, as Köhler understands it, implies a denial that there can be "a science of direct experience," either because there is no such thing as direct experience or because if it exists, it is not accessible to public scrutiny. In reply Köhler points out that no scientist can even begin to experiment unless he starts from his own experienced world. He also points out that one has as little or as much justification to be skeptical about the world of experience as one has to be skeptical about the world of physics; there is no good reason why the behaviorist should choose to ignore the world of experience while taking the world of physics on trust.


It is far from clear whether the doctrine of isomorphism constitutes a radically new discovery, as the Gestalt theorists supposed, or whether it is a somewhat high-sounding way of asserting the obvious. Most modern psychologists, if asked, would doubtless express the hope that complete explanations of perception and learning will eventually be found in terms of brain processes. If, therefore, the contribution of Gestalt theory is to be distinctive, clearly some more far-reaching claim must be involved.

Koffka expressly pointed out that Gestalt theory does not stand or fall with the correctness of a particular theory about perceived movement. According to Koffka its more general objective is to contribute to "the integration of value, life, and mind. The Gestalt concept cuts across the division of realms of existence, being applicable in each of them." That is, there are Gestalten in nature (for example, the soap bubble); there are Gestalten in the living brain; and there are Gestalten in our conscious experience. In traditional discussions about the relation between mind and body, according to Köhler, it was "tacitly assumed that only microscopic events in the cortex can be the correlates of mental life." In contrast, the doctrine of isomorphism invites us, in Koffka's words, to "think of the physiological processes not as molecular but as molar phenomena. If they are molar, their molar properties will be the same as those of the conscious processes which they are supposed to underlie." As has already been pointed out, this is not just an answer within the context of traditional mind-body dualism; it is an attempt to look at this whole family of problems afresh.

The distinction between the geographical and behavioral environments gives rise to difficulties of its own. One very reasonably asks, in the first place, what kind of duality is involved. Clearly, there are not two environments in the same sense that there areor might betwo rooms in a country cottage. If a child specialist recommended a change of environment for a child, it would make no sense to reply "very well; we will change him from the geographical to the behavioral environment." One is reminded in this connection of Arthur Eddington's claimwhich in fact involves the same kind of difficultythat he is writing simultaneously at two tables. Second, if we take the idea of two environments at its face value, we are tempted to ascribe some kind of superior status or "reality" to one or the other. It is the geographical environment, according to Koffka, whose contents are "real": "The pen with which I am writing is a unit in my behavioural environment and so is the real pen in the geographical" (italics added). What is "real," however, does not apparently coincide with what is "given"; "every datum is a behavioural datum; physical reality is not a datum but a constructum." The suggestion that each of us somehow "constructs" a physical world out of his immediate experiences implies a phenomenalist view which in the last resort leads inevitably to solipsism. Clearly this was not Koffka's intention, but he gave no indication how such a conclusion can be avoided.

The important point, according to Köhler and Koffka, is that the concept of Gestalt cuts across these two different kinds of reality. In the words of Köhler, "Any actual consciousness is in every case not only blindly coupled to its corresponding psychophysical processes, but is akin to it in essential structural properties." The difficulty here is that anything can be regarded as "structurally akin" to anything else, provided enough rules are given. Many maps are structurally akin to landscapes in that they involve the same geometrical shapes; but if one is allowed sufficient rules for specifying what represents what, a map of England (as we now call it) could function without any misrepresentation as a map of France. What Köhler needs to argue for is some relatively clear-cut and uncomplicated structural relationship. Thus, it may well be that the shape of the areas stimulated in the cortex has something in common with the shape which we observe in an object, although it is hard to see how there can be any close parallel in the case of color, since, when X is looking at a green object, Y does not find anything green in X 's cortex. One must suppose that the use of the term psychophysical (instead of physical ) to describe processes in the brain is intended to emphasize these relatively close structural similarities.

Knowledge of Other Minds

In reply to the charge of solipsism, Köhler and Koffka could point out that they both discuss the problem of knowledge of other minds at some length. The main feature of philosophical interest in these discussions is that structural similarities are pointed out between behavior which is noticed by others and so-called inner states, which are discriminated only by the person himself. A person's wincing may have precisely the same temporal properties as his twinges of pain, and the sound of his rising voice may have the same movement properties as his inner feelings of rising anger. Koffka pointed out that a character in a Mickey Mouse cartoon can quite well look exuberant or dejected; and if we can directly observe such exuberance or dejection in these cases, there seems to be no reason why we should not directly observe it in our friends. Similarly, Michotte has argued that visual experiences of live movement are structurally similar to kinesthetic and other experiences that we have when we make an effort. These considerations are not, of course, sufficient to remove all possible skeptical doubts; but they at least make clear the conditions in which we can justifiably say of a person that, for example, he is angry, dejected, or making an effort.

"Seeing" and Inference

Koffka suggested that the word see should be used in a "purely phenomenological" sense, that is, in such a way that the words which follow are a simple description of our experience. Thus, if we look at a table that is partly covered by a book, we are not aware of any gap or hole in the table in the area where the book is; and Koffka therefore wanted to say that what we see is a complete table. On his view it is necessary to describe our experience without being influenced by considerations of what we might expect to see on the basis of scientific knowledgein this case, by our knowledge about the characteristics of the light waves striking the retina.

In ordinary usage, when we say that we or someone else saw something, this is normally not just the report of a visual experience; there is also an implicit claim to correctness. If the person is in fact deceived, then one is wrong to use the word saw, just as one would be wrong to say that a person has "proved" something if his argument contains a fallacy. One might therefore express Koffka's difficulty by saying that, as our knowledge of physics increases, claims to correctness will force us further and further away from naive description. "Why," he asked rhetorically, "are we so hopelessly stupid as to call the colour of our table-cloth on the candle-lit dinner table white, when Helmholtz told us that it was yellow?" According to Koffka's proposed usage we actually see a white tablecloth, the evidence of the physicists notwithstanding.

This "purely phenomenological" sense of "see," however, is unnecessary. We already possess the expression "seeing-as" for situations where we do not wish to make claims to correctness. On this usage, we see the tablecloth as white even though we might have expected to see it as yellow. Similarly, a person who is exposed to an ambiguous diagram may see it as two-dimensional, even though on another occasion he sees it as three-dimensional. Unless one is an extreme skeptic and asserts that claims to correctness are never appropriate when visual perception is involved, it is surely useful to have a terminology which enables us to make such claims on some occasions and to withhold them on others.

Moreover, Koffka's proposed usage, if adopted consistently, carries the paradoxical consequence that we can never be sure or unsure about what we see, nor can we be right or wrong. If we look more carefully at something, or if others give us a verbal description or point to a contour line, we may, of course, see something new; but we were still neither right nor wrong about what we saw before.

There is the further paradoxical consequence that no two people can ever see the same thing. Köhler is apparently prepared to accept this, since he expressly tells us that no two scientific investigators ever see the same galvanometer. Moreover, if everything that we see (in Koffka's sense) is, by definition, part of the behavioral environment, this has the effect of turning the behavioral environment into a home for every erroneous perception which has been made. It is as bad as having to postulate false facts to ensure that false propositions refer to something. In general, the distinction between the geographical and behavioral environments involves many points of interest, but in philosophizing in this area, Koffka in particular was not successful in avoiding paradoxical consequences.

As far as psychology is concerned, the work of the Gestalt theorists has led to the discovery of a large number of new facts, particularly in the sphere of perception, and to a reinterpretation of facts which were already known. On the basis of the laws of structural organization, predictions can be made about what will be perceived when the proximal stimuli are of a particular kind, and these predictions normally work. The neurological explanations are inadequate by present standards, but even in this area the Gestalt theorists have at least called attention to problems which require to be solved, and, in particular, they have taken seriously the challenge presented by our ability to perceive spatial and temporal relationships.

On the broader theoretical issues, traditionally the province of philosophy, their main contribution has been to indicate the need for a change of emphasis. In the light of advancing scientific knowledge, it appeared to be the case that what we thought we were perceiving was not what we were really perceiving at all ("the grass is not really green," "the white tablecloth seen in candlelight is really yellow," and so on). For the Gestalt theorists, however, as for some modern philosophers, such claims were paradoxical and confused. Whatever physics tells us, the starting point, on the Gestalt theorists' view, must necessarily be the world as perceived by common sense; this is the world to which organisms respond, and it is therefore of special importance for the psychologist; moreover, if we ourselves did not perceive it in certain ways, physics could not even begin. This is to say, in effect, that language descriptive of ordinary experience can never be reduced to the language of physicsa thesis that has been held in many forms but which has seldom been defended in such a sustained and systematic way.

See also Behaviorism; Eddington, Arthur Stanley; Ehrenfels, Christian Freiherr Von; Hume, David; Koffka, Kurt; Köhler, Wolfgang; Locke, John; Perception; Phenomenological Psychology; Positivism; Psychology.


Attneave, Fred. Applications of Information Theory to Psychology. New York: Holt, 1959. For the relevance of information theory to Gestalt theory, see especially p. 82.

Duncker, K. "On Problem Solving." Translated by L. S. Lees. Psychological Monographs 58 (5) (1945). A short monograph with some interesting experiments on problem solving.

Ehrenfels, Christian von. "Über Gestaltqualitäten." Vierteljarsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 14 (1890): 249292. Of historical interest.

Ellis, Willis Davis. A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1938. A helpful collection of the writings of Gestalt psychologists in one volume; recommended as a standard textbook.

Hamlyn, D. W. "Psychological Explanation and the Gestalt Hypothesis." Mind 60 (240) (1951): 506520. A philosophical article in which, among other things, the concept of Gestalt is compared with that of substance.

Hamlyn, D. W. The Psychology of Perception. London: Routledge and Paul, 1957. Contains a critical examination of some of the concepts of Gestalt theory in the light of recent British philosophy.

Hartmann, George W. Gestalt Psychology; A Survey of Facts and Principles. New York: Ronald Press, 1935. A readable account of the history of the movement and its discoveries up to 1935. Contains brief biographical details of Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka and a list of important dates. Recommended as a standard textbook.

Henle, Mary, ed. Documents of Gestalt Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. A collection of papers on Gestalt psychology by various authors, mostly dating from 1950 onward.

Katz, David. Der Aufbau der Farbwelt. Translated by R. B. Macleod and C. W. Fox as The World of Colour. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1935. Interesting discussions of the perception of color.

Katz, David. Gestalt Psychology; Its Nature and Significance. Translated by Robert Tyson. New York: Ronald Press, 1950. An excellent introductory textbook.

Kirsch, R. A. "Computer Interpretation of English Text and Picture Patterns." Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Transactions on Electronic Computers, Electronic Devices 13 (4) (1964). Illustrates some of the difficulties in programming computers to be aware of perceptual Gestalten.

Koffka, Kurt. The Growth of the Mind. Translated by R. M. Ogden. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924. An introduction to child psychology from the Gestalt viewpoint.

Koffka, Kurt. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935. A comprehensive survey of all the relevant experimental work up to 1935, accompanied by theoretical discussion of wide scope. Not easy reading, but a standard text. See pp. 655661 for discussion of knowledge of other minds.

Köhler, Wolfgang. Dynamics in Psychology. London, 1942. An amplified version of lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1958.

Köhler, Wolfgang. Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology. New York: Liveright, 1947. An interesting although somewhat discursive discussion of general principles. See Ch. 17 for the problem of knowledge of other minds.

Köhler, Wolfgang. The Mentality of Apes. Translated from the 2nd rev. German ed. by Ella Winter. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925; paperback ed., Harmondsworth, U.K., 1957. A classic work on problem solving. This work and his Gestalt Psychology (see above) are recommended as standard texts.

Köhler, Wolfgang. The Place of Value in a World of Facts. New York: Liveright, 1938. William James lectures. A scholarly discussion of philosophical issues.

Lewin, Kurt. Principles of Topological Psychology. Translated by Fritz Heider and Grace M. Heider. New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1936. An attempt to apply Gestalt principles to the study of social situations.

Madden, Edward H. Philosophical Problems of Psychology. New York: Odyssey Press, 1962. Contains a critical examination of some of the key concepts of Gestalt theory.

Michotte, Albert. La perception de la causalité. Louvain, Belgium: Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, 1946 and 1954. Translated by T. R. Miles and E. Miles as The Perception of Causality. London: Basic, 1963. A systematic study of moving Gestalten, with special reference to the conditions in which we receive an impression of causality. See Chs. 1213 for the problem of knowledge of other minds.

Rubin, Edgar. Synsoplevede Figurer; Studier i psykologisk Analyse. Copenhagen and Oslo: Gyldendal, Nordisk, 1915. Translated by Peter Collett as Visuell wahrgenommene Figuren. Copenhagen, Berlin, and London, 1921. An abridged version, translated by Michael Wertheimer, appears in Readings in Perception, edited by D. C. Beardslee and Michael Wertheimer. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1958. Pp. 194203. Interesting pioneer work.

Wertheimer, Max. "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung." Zeitschrift für Psychologie, Part I, 71 (1912): 161265. Of historical interest; commonly regarded as marking the beginning of the Gestalt movement.

Wertheimer, Max. Productive Thinking. Edited by S. E. Asch et al.. New York and London: Harper, 1945. An important contribution to the study of problem solving.

T. R. Miles (1967)

Gestalt Psychology

views updated May 18 2018

Gestalt Psychology


Gestalt theory, a major school of psychology during the first half of the twentieth century, was an influential counterpoint to the other mostly atomistic psychological systems of the time: structuralism, functionalism, and behaviorism. While its controversies with these other systems during the age of schools in psychology have receded into history, its major tenets once again became salient toward the end of the twentieth century in such fields as social psychology, cognition, personality psychology, and visual neuroscience.

Gestalt psychology proposed a radical revision of the atomistic view that had prevailed for centuries in Western science and social science. Natural wholes, according to the Gestalt view, are not simply the sum total of their constituent parts. Rather, characteristics of the whole determine the nature of its parts, prescribing the place, role, and function of each part in the unified whole. The Gestalt principle of Prägnanz, furthermore, asserts that the organization of any whole will be as good (i.e., balanced, simple, integrated) as the prevailing conditions allow. This insistence on holistic processes applies equally to all integrated wholes, from physical systems such as electrical fields, magnetic fields, and soap films to psychological systems such as cognitive processes, the organization of perception, personality, and social phenomena.

The Gestalt movement is generally viewed (Ash 1995; King and Wertheimer 2005) as having been launched by a series of experiments by Max Wertheimer (18801943) on apparent movement published in 1912, although clear indications of a Gestalt perspective were already evident in two earlier publications of Wertheimer on musical structures (1910) and on aboriginal thinking about numerical issues (1912). Two of Wertheimers colleagues who served as observers in these experiments, Wolfgang Köhler (18871967) and Kurt Koffka (18861941), became his collaborators during the next decades in promulgating the new Gestalt approach (Köhler 1929; Koffka 1935). A typical experiment in Wertheimers series involved, for example, exposure of a short vertical line in the visual field, followed after a brief interval by exposure of a second similar vertical line a short distance away from where the first one had been exposed. If the time and distance relations are appropriate, observers see a single line moving from one location to the other. The experience is indistinguishable from watching an actual short vertical line move from one location to the other; in both cases, the perception of motion is immediate and compelling. The prevailing alternate theoretical orientations, maintaining that percepts always correspond with their correlated physical stimuli, could not explain the perceived motion when the actual stimuli are two stationary lines successively exposed. The whole, the experience of motion as a Gestalt, cannot be derived from a combination of the component sensations of the two stationary stimuli.

The Gestalt school became prominent in European and American psychology. Its principles of perceptual organization have been summarized in almost every introductory psychology textbook; Wertheimers book Productive Thinking. (1945) challenged the computer models of the late twentieth century to try to account for the ubiquitous cognitive processes of insight and understanding.

SEE ALSO Gestalt Therapy


Ash, Mitchell G. 1995. Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 18901967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

King, D. Brett, and Michael Wertheimer. 2005. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Koffka, Kurt. 1935. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Köhler, Wolfgang. 1929. Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright.

Wertheimer, Max. 1910. Musik der Wedda [Music of the Veddas]. Sammelbände der internationalen Musikgesellschaft 11: 300309.

Wertheimer, Max. 1912. Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung [Experimental studies of the seeing of motion]. Zeitschrift für Psychologie 61: 161265.

Wertheimer, Max. 1912. Über das Denken der Naturvölker, I. Zahlen und Zahlgebilde [On the thinking of aboriginal people, I: Numbers and number structures]. Zeitschrift für Psychologie 60: 321378.

Wertheimer, Max. 1945, 1959, 1971, 1982. Productive Thinking New York: Harper; University of Chicago Press.

Michael Wertheimer

Gestalt Psychology

views updated May 17 2018

Gestalt psychology

The school of psychology that emphasizes the study of experience and behavior as wholes rather than independently functioning, disparate parts.

The Gestaltists were at odds with the popular school of psychology of the day, known as structuralism, whose proponents believed that the mind consists of units or elements and could be understood by mapping and studying them in combination. The Gestalt psychologists believed that mental experience was dependent not on a simple combination of elements but on the organization and patterning of experience and of one's perceptions. Thus, they held that behavior must be studied in all its complexity rather than separated into discrete components, and that perception , learning, and other cognitive functions should be seen as structured wholes.

The Gestalt school of psychology was founded in the early twentieth century by the German psychologist Max Wertheimer and his younger colleagues, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler . The association between the three men began in 1910 with early studies of perception that ultimately led to the wide-ranging Gestalt view of the whole as more than the sum of its parts. Investigating the phenomenon of "apparent perception" on which motion pictures are basedthey discovered that when two lights were flashed in succession under specific conditions, an illusion of continuous motion was produced. The subject perceived a single light which appeared to move from the position of the first light to the position of the second light. This and other experiments led the Gestaltists to conclude that the mind imposes its own patterns of organization on the stimuli it receives rather than merely recording them, and that the significance of the mental "wholes" thus formed transcends that of their component parts. In a series of lectures in 1913, Wertheimer outlined a new psychological approach based on the belief that mental operations consist mainly of these organic "wholes" rather than the chains of associated sensations and impressions emphasized by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and other psychological researchers of the day.

In the same year Köhler began six years of experimental animal research on the Canary Islands during which he made many discoveries that applied Gestalt theories to animal learning and perception. One of his most famous experiments was with chickens which he trained to peck grains from either the lighter or darker of two sheets of paper. When the chickens trained to prefer the light color were presented with a choice between that color and a new sheet that was still lighter, a majority switched to the new sheet. Similarly, chickens trained to prefer the darker color, when presented with a parallel choice, chose a new, darker color. These results, Köhler maintained, proved that what the chickens had learned was an association with a relationship, rather than with a specific color. This finding, which contradicted contemporary behaviorist theories, became known as the Gestalt law of transposition, because the test subjects had transposed their original experience to a new set of circumstances.

Although its founders conceived of Gestalt theory as a way to understand motivation , learning, and other cognitive processes, much early Gestalt research was concentrated in the area of perception. In the dozen years following the first studies in apparent motion, additional rules of perception were discovered. Among the most well-known are laws involving proximity (objects that are closer together are more likely to be seen as belonging together); similarity (similar elements are perceived as belonging together); continuity (sensations that seem to create a continuous form are perceived as belonging together); closure (the tendency that makes people mentally fill in missing areas to create a whole); texture (the tendency to group together items with a similar texture); simplicity (grouping items together in the simplest way possible); and common fate (grouping together sets of objects moving in the same direction at the same speed).

Another well-known Gestalt concept illustrating the significance of the whole involves the interdependence of figure and ground. The Gestaltists introduced the idea that perception occurs in "fields" consisting of a figure (which receives most of the viewer's attention ) and a ground (the background). Neither figure nor ground can exist without the contrast they provide for each other: thus, they form an inseparable whole that can only be understood as part of a dynamic process greater than the sum of its individual parts. (The phenomenon of figure and ground is most often illustrated by the Rubin vase, which can be perceived as either two dark profiles on a white background, or a white vase on a dark background.) Köhler's work with primates during this period yielded important findingstransferable to humanson learning and problem solving that contributed further to the body of Gestalt theory. His experiments emphasized "insight learning," through which the test subject finds a solution to a problem by suddenly "seeing it whole" rather than through random trial and error attempts, or reward-driven conditioning . Hence, Köhler offered a basis for viewing learning as the result of higher-level thinking involving the creative reorganization of data to produce new ways of envisioning a problem.

In 1921, Köhler was appointed to the most prestigious position in German psychologydirectorship of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. Under his leadership , it became a center for Gestalt studies, which remained a major force in German psychology until the mid-1930s, when Nazi pressure led to Köhler's resignation and emigration to the United States. Articles and books published in English by Kurt Koffka had also popularized Gestalt psychology in the United States beginning in 1922, and both Koffka and Köhler received invitations to lecture in America throughout the 1920s. By the early 1930s, however, the Gestalt school had become subordinated to the reigning enthusiasm for behaviorism , a movement antithetical to its principles.

While the Gestaltists were at odds with many popular psychological views of their time, including those held in introspective psychology, they did maintain the value of an unstructured form of introspection known as "phenomenology." Phenomenological investigation explored questions regarding personal perception of motion, size, and color and provided additional feedback regarding perception and its importance in psychological experiences. This information influenced later perception-centered theories involving problem solving, memory , and learning.

See also Gestalt principles of organization

Further Reading

Köhler, Wolfgang. The Task of Gestalt Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

McConville, Mark. Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Gestalt theory

views updated May 18 2018

Gestalt theory An early twentieth-century development in psychology and an alternative to empiricist theories of perception and knowledge. A gestalt is a coherent whole with its own laws, seen as a construct of the perceiving mind and eye, not as given in reality. (Gestalt is a German word meaning pattern, form, or configuration.) Gestalt theory argues that the functioning of the various parts of a social entity is determined by the behaviour and nature of the whole, seeks to organize human and social phenomena in terms of larger units of analysis, and is therefore opposed to atomism (or analysis of ‘wholes’ in terms of their constituent and simpler parts). It is a background influence in much phenomenological sociology.

gestalt psychology

views updated Jun 11 2018

gestalt psychology School of psychology characterized by the expression ‘the whole (gestalt) is greater than the sum of its parts’. It opposed the dominant theories of behaviourism. It was founded (c.1912) in Germany by Max Wertheimer, Wilhelm Wundt, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka.