Wertheimer, Max

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Wertheimer, Max




Science is rooted in the will to truth. With the will to truth it stands or falls. Lower the standard even slightly and science becomes diseased to the core. Not only science, but also man. The will to truth, pure and unadulterated, is among the essential conditions of his existence; if the standard is compromised, he easily becomes a tragic caricature of himself.

Max Wertheimer, "On Truth," published in Social Research in 1934.

For Max Wertheimer and the Gestalt therapy for which he became best known, truth began with a train trip and a simple child's toy. When 30-year-old Wertheimer left Vienna, Austria for a vacation in Germany's Rhineland in 1910, he had no idea that his holiday would never come to be. Equally he had no idea that his idle thoughts on that train trip would lead to a discovery that would irrevocably alter not only his own life, but produce profound changes in psychology-related disciplines all over the world. Gestalt, the notion that the whole is not only greater than its components, but also different from those components; was little more than a lone, obscure, and struggling concept that summer day in 1910 as Wertheimer rode the train.

On that day, psychology was little more than a fledgling discipline, still widely considered a sideline for philosophers. "Gestalt" was the name Christian von Ehrenfels, one of Max Wertheimer's teachers, had coined to describe the philosophical concept nearly 25 years earlier. Yet so impressive was Wertheimer's work on the subject that he would become to be known as the father of the movement. Much of Wertheimer's research and unique experiments were merely the initial battles in a rebellion against a notion prevailing in European psychology at the time: the "Elementalism or Structuralism" of famed German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. But Max Wertheimer's version of Gestalt psychology would do far more than negate previous psychological assumptions. It would profoundly change the way educators, psychiatrists, psychologists, rehabilitation specialists—anyone involved in the helping professions—look at their clients and their work.

Wertheimer's train trip exposed him to a phenomenon that would ignite his imagination. As he rode from Vienna to Frankfurt, he became aware of two separate and alternating light patterns from the train's window. As he watched, Wertheimer discovered that if the spacing, on-time, and off-time were just right for these lights, his mind would perceive the dual lights as one single flashing light moving back and forth. Reaching Frankfurt, Wertheimer disembarked from the train and put an end to his vacation plans. He proceeded to a store and bought a toy stroboscope, then a popular child's toy, and checked himself into a hotel room.

There he repeated his visual perception experiment over and over to test the validity of what he had seen on the train. Stroboscopes, the precursors of motion pictures, were a revolving disk that can be synchronized with movement to make an object appear either to be standing still or moving slowly forward or backward. This simple experiment, not even terribly original in its nature, would lead Wertheimer to an original name for what he had just observed—the phi phenomenon. His observations, though, would go far beyond what researchers and thinkers before him had seen or realized. From the phi phenomenon Wertheimer would go on to rethink and revolutionize psychology's notions about how human beings see and experience things. It would also make him one of the many people responsible for the creation of early cartoons and motion pictures.

It was in those early years in Frankfurt that Wertheimer also found two soul mates. His two research partners at the University of Frankfurt, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, would become his lifelong colleagues in both their testing and formation of the Gestalt theories. They would revolutionize the psychological world with their new way of looking at things. Though Wertheimer believed in Gestalt psychology as avidly as any of his disciples, he appears to have acted more in the role of a facilitator than preacher. He never published a definitive summation of the Gestalt psychology he made famous. Though he was a man given to passionate beliefs, neither did he engage in the tiresome dialogues about the efficacy of his hypotheses that seemed to have plagued so many of his contemporaries. He wrote far less prolifically and therefore was far less known than many other mental health figures of his time, notably Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, or Carl Rogers. Yet his impact upon psychology is undeniable.

Wertheimer was rather like a shooting star that streaked across the study of the mind, shooting off sparks of brilliant insights and then moving on, leaving others to fill in the more mundane facts and procedures deduced from his insights. As his friend Edwin B. Newman noted in his 1944 American Journal of Psychology article, "Max Wertheimer: 1880–1943," "He tended to be impatient with experimental plans that called for meticulous care in their details. The neatest of plans was invariably upset and rearranged after he had finished with them. It was not easy to work under Wertheimer just because of this restlessness."

In addition, the early papers that he did manage to publish, many written during the years that Germany was a combatant nation in World War I, did not receive worldwide recognition until well after the war, in the early 1920s. Yet quietly and with humility, Max Wertheimer influenced his colleagues and countless students. It would be those students who would carry on the research and develop the principles that would become an accepted worldwide school of psychological thought. But both Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, who provided so much of the structure for Gestalt psychology, would always acknowledge that it was Wertheimer who originally saw the flaws in the then-current psychological ideas and recognized the significance of what he had observed for a brief time on a train. Koffka referred to Wertheimer as "the first founder" (of Gestalt theory).

As had happened to so many other German Jewish intellectuals, Hitler and the Nazis would force Wertheimer out of Germany and across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Initially the language and cultural barriers he experienced would mask a brilliant mind. But like many of the other intelligentsia, Wertheimer would find a second home in the New School of Social Research initiated in New York City in the 1930s. A well-rounded individual who deeply cared about the social issues of his time, Wertheimer became an intellectual giant operating at the new school.

He would go on to write and lecture on an eclectic array of psychological and philosophical subjects ranging from ethics and morality to the meaning of freedom. In all of his philosophical discourses, he would demonstrate how Gestalt principles applied to even these ethereal philosophical concepts. Many observers have described Wertheimer's Gestalt psychology as applicable only to how we perceive things. For Wertheimer, howver, perception was only one side of the equation. Thinking and problem-solving were the other aspects of that equation, something Wertheimer would demonstrate again and again. He would show it in his much-publicized conversations with Albert Einstein on the development of the theory of relativity, which became part of his last work, published posthumously as Productive Thinking.


  • "Experimentelle Untersuchungen zur Tatbestanddiagnostik." Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie 6 (1905): 59–131.
  • "Musik der Wedda." Sammelbãnde der internationalen Musikgesellschaft 11 (1910): 300–09.
  • "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung." Zeitschrift für Psychologie 61 (1912): 161–265.
  • "Über das denken der Naturvõlker. I. Zahlen und Gebilde." Zeitschrift für Psychologie 60 (1912): 321–28.
  • "Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. 1. Prinzipielle Bermerkungen" (A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology). Psychologische Forschung 1 (1922): 47–58.
  • "Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt." 2. Psychologische Forschung 4 (1923): 301–50.
  • "Gestaltpsychologische Forschung." Einführung in die neuere Psychologie. Osterwieck am Harz, 1928.
  • "Zu dem Problem der Unterscheidung von Einzelinhalt und Teil." Zeitschrift für Psychologie 129 (1933): 353–57.
  • "On Truth." Social Research 1 (1934): 135–46.
  • "Gestalt Function in Visual Motor Patterns in Organic Disease of the Brain." Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 33 (1935): 328–29.
  • "Some Problems in the Theory of Ethics." Social Research 2 (1935): 353–67.
  • "Freedom: Its Meaning." A Story of Three Days, edited by R. N. Ashen. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.
  • "Gestalt Theory." Social Research 11 (1944): 78–99.
  • Productive Thinking. New York: Harper, 1945.


The early years

Prague, the capitol of the Czech province of Bohemia, had been a German city for 14 years when Max Wertheimer was born there on April 15, 1880. Bohemia had alternated between German and Austrian rule over most of the century, and in 1866, Prussian troops had besieged Prague and won the battle that would end what was then called "The Seven Weeks War." That defeat had left Bohemia completely under Germany's control. Very little has been written of Wertheimer's early years. It is known that his father was a schoolmaster who had charge of a commercial high school in Prague, and that both of his parents wanted him to be a musician. He attended a local gymnasium, a school that prepared students for the university, and in 1898, at the age of 18, he began his studies at the University of Prague. For two and a half years, Wertheimer studied law there, but then came to realize that a legal career was not for him. In those first two years at the university, he had already shown an interest in philosophy, attending several lectures on the subject. In the spring of 1901, the 20-year-old Wertheimer made the study of philosophy his major.

Though the University of Prague did not have its own psychological laboratory, it certainly did boast some of the luminaries of European psychology and philosophy as members of its teaching staff. During his time at Prague University, Wertheimer listened to the lectures of Christian von Ehrenfels and Ewald Hering, two of the foremost names in psychology and philosophy of that era. Prophetically, von Ehrenfels's primary intellectual pursuit concerned what he called Gestaltqualidt, or "form quality," the forerunner of Wertheimer's later credo, Gestalt psychology. Wertheimer became acquainted with the field of experimental visual psychology through hours spent in the Physiology Institute, working in Ewald Hering's visual laboratory on the study of color perception. In 1902, Wertheimer completed his studies at Prague University and moved on to the University of Berlin. Here psychology was a well-established field, and Carl Stumpf, a good friend of American psychologist William James, was his teacher. But Stumpf apparently was much involved at the time in his study of the psychology of music. Stumpf's assistant Friedrich Schumann, though well-known for his collaboration with G. E. Muller in the invention of the Memory Drum, was a teacher who failed to provide the intellectual stimulus Wertheimer sought. From his own accounts, Wertheimer spent his first semester in Berlin studying volume after volume of the still-growing German psychological textbook Zeitschrift für Psychologie.

Wertheimer moved on to the University of Würzburg in 1903. Once again at Würzburg, he was fortunate to have as teachers Karl Marbe, well-known in his time for his work on imageless thought and industrial psychology; and Oswald Kulpe, considered the father of the modern study of thought processes. In an era when philosophy and psychology were considered to be closely interrelated, Wertheimer was awarded his doctorate in philosophy summa cum laude from Würzburg in 1904. His doctoral dissertation was on an old interest, the law. He discussed the use of word association techniques in determining the guilt or innocence of defendants in criminal cases. But even then, his interests were not only psychology and philosophy. Wertheimer had an equally sustained interest in both mathematics and languages. Interestingly, though he chose not to follow his parents' wishes and become a musician, he maintained an avid love for music as well. It was a pursuit that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

The period between 1904, when Wertheimer received his Ph.D; and 1910, when he took his memorable train ride, appear to have been years of restlessness. In an article written for the magazine Social Research by Wertheimer's good friend Horace Kallen in 1948, he described those years as "a period of wandering from place to place and task to task." Parts of the first two years were spent in both Prague and Vienna, and some of that time apparently was spent working in psychiatric hospitals. But there is no record of the actual projects he was involved in during this time. It is known that in 1906 he (uncharacteristically) became involved in a dispute with Carl Jung over Jung's word association technique. Though he had decided not to become an attorney, Wertheimer apparently continued to embrace a fascination with law. Many of his earlier papers, written with a young lawyer identified only as "M. Klein," concern the mental processes of court testimony. Klein and Wertheimer attempted to use the Jungian free association idea as a means of distinguishing the truthfulness of testimony. These papers seem far removed from the Max Wertheimer of Gestalt theory. As Edwin Newman notes in "Max Wertheimer—1880–1943" in the July 1944 American Journal of Psychology, "Only one thing in it (one of these papers) foreshadows his later interests: That is the emphasis on the problem of truth, a problem which becomes even more acute in the realm of logic and reasoning."

Wertheimer shortly moved on again to Berlin, where he was reintroduced to an earlier love, music. In Berlin, he quickly formed a close and abiding friendship with Erich von Hornbostel, an Austrian music scholar who had been Carl Stumpf's assistant at the Berlin Psychological Institute. During the time he spent there, Wertheimer worked with both Stumpf and von Hornbostel at the Phonogramm Archives, a Berlin institute for the study of music and culture. The Phonogramm Archives was among the first places to record various ethnic music (including that year, Siamese opera) with the American Thomas Edison's new phonograph recording equipment. Like many of the other friendships in Wertheimer's life, his alliance and collaboration with von Hornbostel would continue even after both men came to the United States.

The train trip that led to Gestalt psychology

In 1910, Wertheimer was once more back in Vienna, when he boarded a westbound train for the Rhineland and a vacation. As the train chugged along through the night that he became aware of a strange illusion. Two separate lights were visible from his train window. But because the on-times and off-times for these lights were synchronized in a certain manner, Wertheimer found that his mind would not distinguish them as being two lights, but rather one light in motion, rather like changing neon lights or rotating lights on a Christmas tree. It was Wertheimer's nature to immediately become enthusiastic about some phenomenon that his curious mind encountered, and this observed light pattern was no exception. At the next train stop, which happened to be the city of Frankfurt, Wertheimer left the train and his vacation plans behind.


Kurt Koffka

Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) was born into a comfortable, upper-class family in Berlin on March 18, 1886. His father, an attorney, had served as a royal legal councilor. Koffka had governesses as a child, one of whom was English-speaking. He attended the University of Berlin and used the English he had learned as a child when in 1904 he took a year to study at the University of Edinburgh. Like Max Wertheimer before him, he changed his major from philosophy to psychology when he returned to Germany in 1905. Koffka's earliest published work studied color blindness, a subject he knew something about due to his own color blindness. In 1909, Koffka served as assistant to two of Germany's luminaries in psychology: Karl Marbe and Oswald Kulpe. That same year he married Mira Klein, whom he had gotten to know when she served as a subject for experiments related to his doctoral dissertation.

The next year, 1910, newlywed Koffka moved to Frankfurt and found employment as an assistant to Friedrich Schumann at the Psychological Institute there. That move proved to be the most fateful of his career. Max Wertheimer had unexpectedly shown up there earlier that year, and Koffka soon became one of the subjects for Wertheimer's experiments in apparent motion. By the time the study was finished, Koffka, too, had become a believer. He moved on to the University of Giessen in 1911, but he continued to spread the Gestalt ideas throughout Germany. With Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, he founded the first psychological journal completely devoted to Gestalt psychology, Psychologische Forschung. He remained at the University of Giessen with intermittent trips to the United States for the next 16 years. His book on child psychology, Growth of the Mind, was written during the Giessen years. As noted earlier, Koffka had a special interest in education, and was a strong opponent of rote learning. In 1922 he wrote an article for Psychological Bulletin, which first introduced Gestalt theory to the United States. He left Germany in 1927, far ahead of the exodus created by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, and moved to the United States. He became a professor at Smith College that same year and continued there until his death, involved in research on color vision in relation to the organization of perception. Koffka did not survive his old mentor Wertheimer. He died in 1941, at the age of 55.

Wertheimer first found a hotel, paid for a room, and deposited his suitcases there. Then he went shopping. What he purchased was a toy stroboscope, a child's drum-shaped toy that spun. The stroboscope had regularly spaced slots and pictures inside for viewing, similar in manner to a very simple movie machine. He spent several days in that Frankfurt hotel room, repeating over and over again his experiment in perception based upon his experience on the train. Then he was ready to act. His former teacher in Berlin, Friedrich Schumann, was now a professor at Frankfurt's Psychological Institute. Wertheimer brought his novel idea to Schumann, who was immediately supportive of the research. In place of the child's stroboscope, Wertheimer was now offered the use of the university's tachistoscope, a psychology lab device that provides a visual stimulus. This stimulus could be adjusted to afford brief interval exposures through the use of a gravity-operated shutter. But far more importantly, Wertheimer was offered the help of Schumann's 25-year-old assistant, Wolfgang Köhler. Within a short time, Kurt Koffka, then 26, joined the research group. Both Köhler and Koffka had earned their PhDs at the University of Berlin, under the tutelage of Friedrich Schumann.

Before their fateful meeting with Wertheimer, both Köhler and Koffka had already been involved in other psychological research. Köhler's work had been related to hearing, and Koffka had studied imagery (in particular, color perception) and thought. As is the accepted procedure, neither of Wertheimer's subjects was told anything about the research in which they were involved. But in 1911, when Wertheimer's study was completed, he met with both young men to discuss the study that had just been completed. It was during this conversation that the first two disciples of Gestalt therapy were made. What Wertheimer told them convinced both young men sufficiently that they would spend the rest of their lives researching, modifying, and explaining Wertheimer's Gestalt ideas.

The World War I years and his early teaching

In 1912, Max Wertheimer published his ground-breaking paper, "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement." He stayed on at the emerging University of Frankfurt, the place he had come to so impulsively from a trip on a train. His stay in Frankfurt was the result of Schumann and the faculty there inviting Wertheimer to remain as a Privadozent (called PD for short). A Privadozent is a unique position in the university system of Europe and most common specifically in German academic life. Begun in Prussia in the early 1800s, it is a title bestowed on a scholar who has earned a PhD, written a second thesis, and lectured on the scholar's area of expertise at the university for which he is a candidate. Following the lecture, the faculty then votes whether they wish the person to remain at the school as a PD.

If voted in, the new PD is both permitted, and expected, to teach at the university. A PD gives lectures and advises PhD candidates on their theses. It is a typical way for an aspiring professor to begin his or her career. The down side of such a position in Wertheimer's time—what Simmel called "the purgatory of Privadozent-ship"—was that PDs received no salary and had no formal position or status. Wertheimer did receive lecture fees or payment for classes taught, but that was all. PDs are less common in Europe today, and especially since university reform in Germany in 1968. For those that remain, there has been massive improvement in working conditions over the years since Wertheimer served in this position. Currently it is most common for PDs to receive a modest stipend.

The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by a Serbian revolutionary plunged Europe into the "war to end all wars," World War I. For the first two years of the war, Max Wertheimer remained in Frankfurt. But in 1916 his old friend Erich von Hornbostel invited him to come to Berlin. He was placed on leave from his Frankfurt Privadozent position and collaborated with von Hornbostel on war-related research. Much of this work had to do with the development of listening devices to be used in locating enemy sounds both on land, sea, and air. Some of their work, apparently related to early studies of sonar, was conducted aboard submarines, and other portions involved being stationed at harbor defense installations. The war ended in 1918, but Wertheimer and von Hornbostel's work did not become published until 1920, when a paper describing their findings during the war was presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. During this same period of time, Wertheimer was elected a Privadozent at the University of Berlin.

Career and marriage in Germany

However, this time Wertheimer's career as a PD was a short one. He was made "Professor Extraordinarius" at the University of Berlin in 1922. This assurance of having an income solved one problem for Wertheimer: It finally made it financially feasible for him to marry. In 1923 he married Anna Caro, one of his Berlin University students with whom he had fallen in love. Wertheimer was then 43 years of age, considerably older than his wife. The Wertheimers remained in Berlin for the next seven years, and it was during those years that their four children were born. Two sons, Rudolph and Valentin, were born in 1924 and 1925, soon followed in 1927 by another son, Michael. Their daughter, Lise, came into the world the next year, in 1928.

Wertheimer became an immensely popular teacher at the University of Berlin. One of the characteristic components of all his classes was himself at the piano, playing music and querying his students as to what philosopher or even cartoon character he was musically portraying. It was also during these years in Berlin that Wertheimer made the acquaintance of a man who would remain his friend for the rest of his life, physicist Albert Einstein. It appeared that Wertheimer had found his academic niche in Berlin. But events would soon change all of that. In 1929, he accepted the position of professor where his career could be said to have begun, the University of Frankfurt.

In some ways, it seems odd that Wertheimer accepted a teaching position back at the University of Frankfurt. The head of the Psychological Institute there, his old teacher Friedrich Schumann, and Wertheimer had by then developed a rift that was destined to deepen. Schumann apparently was less than pleased by, and disagreed with, the growth of Gestalt psychology. When Schumann assigned one of his students named Fuchs to assist him in research on the phenomenon of transparency, Fuchs told him that it could only be understood by using Wertheimer's Gestalt principles. Schumann immediately showed great antipathy towards Fuchs's ideas simply because they embraced Gestalt theory. The animosity between Schumann and Wertheimer only deepened when Schumann refused to allow Fuchs to publish his work on the project. By 1933, however, the disagreement between the two academics had become a moot point with the coming to power of Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party.

Emigrating and adjusting to America

Wertheimer seems to have understood from the beginning that Germany would no longer be a safe place for intellectuals—let alone Jewish intellectuals—after Hitler and the Nazis took charge of the German government. In 1933, the same year that Adolph Hitler was elected chancellor, Wertheimer, his wife, Anna, and their four children traveled from Germany to his native Czechoslovakia, an independent country since the end of World War I. It was part of a prearranged plan. Their next journey would take them across the Atlantic to the United States. The Wertheimers settled in New York, and the next year Max accepted a previously made invitation offered while he was still in Germany: to join the "University in Exile."

The notion of an entire European-style university functioning in New York as part of the New School for Social Research had been the idea and dream of several German refugees from Nazism. The New School itself was an innovative place that had been developed in 1918, long before Hitler and the Nazis had become an issue. But the New School's "University in Exile" came into being in 1933 through the efforts (and donations) of several American and European philanthropists determined to find a safe place for some of the brightest minds in Europe, many of whom were German Jews, now at risk for their lives. Initially only two from each of several different disciplines were invited to teach there. Wertheimer was one of the two psychologists invited to put together a masters degree and doctoral program in psychology for the new university. Later the school would enlarge its teaching roster to include a greater diversity of nationalities and thinking.

At the outset of the 10 years Wertheimer would spend at the University in Exile, he was very much hindered by the strangeness of everything American and the New School. He learned English as thousands of other immigrants before him had done—through exposure to it. It is said that despite his brilliance in so many areas, he never did get English exactly right. Yet Wertheimer quickly developed a love for America, his new home. Always a man of many interests, he became passionately interested in American politics. He made many new friends as well as maintaining several of the friendships that had begun in Germany. This was possible because so many of his former colleagues were now also his fellow refugees. His old friend from pre-World War I days, Erich von Hornbostel, was one of these. Von Hornbostel had also come to the University in Exile in 1933 as a musicologist. Nominally a Christian, von Hornbostel's "sin," making emigration the only safe course, had been that his mother was Jewish. Sadly, von Hornbostel only spent two years in America before he died.

One of the immediate differences Wertheimer and the other refugee academics encountered at the New School was the transition of psychological and philosophical studies from the humanities to the realm of social science. This particular change seems to have been one to which Wertheimer easily adapted. He increasingly studied, taught, and wrote about how Gestalt theory applied to other social issues. His eloquent essays about ethics and the meaning of freedom are evidence of this shift. It is said that Wertheimer continued to do small psychological experiments informally, but he published none of this work.

The American students Wertheimer eventually taught were also mostly of a far different category than those that he had taught in Germany. They were most often practicing psychologists who were furthering their education or just interested in hearing Wertheimer's lectures because of his fame as the founder of Gestalt psychology. In the same way that Wertheimer had won over his students in Germany, he soon began to make his classes at the University in Exile among the most popular classes held there. The golden age of psychology had passed back in Germany thanks to the Nazis, but Wertheimer's impact remained. Despite Nazi efforts to write him out of psychology literature in Europe, his influence was still strongly felt among students on both sides of the Atlantic. Friends have said that Wertheimer never was very concerned with dignity and pomp. He was simply a natural-born teacher who always seemed to be more excited about learning than most of his students.

Some have suggested that the 53-year-old Wertheimer had become weary by the time he reached the United States. His friend Horace Kallen describes him as "frequently exhausted." However, his child-like spirit was still capable of giving him the enthusiasm for which he was famous. Another friend, Edwin B. Newman, states that "the dreariest experiment would become cosmic in its scope as he would brush aside details and keep pushing you on, insisting that you get to the heart of the matter." Wertheimer made research studies into games, debates into a test of his students' resourcefulness. One of his students, quoted by Horace Kallen in Social Research, described him thus:

The impact of his personality was so strong that the whole atmosphere seemed to change. . . . Most of us experienced a refreshing and stimulating adventure in which Wertheimer himself took an active part. Shouting and gesticulating, walking between the benches, he was indifferent to all demands of dignity; his carefree and completely natural manner made us forget his age and his fame. His words had the power to bring to life even figures and geometrical drawings.

Another of his students noted that Wertheimer was "an extremist . . . either passionately for or passionately against (whatever issue he became interested in)."

During his 10 years at the New School, Wertheimer functioned as both professor of psychology and philosopher. He led a joint seminar on social sciences each week as well as being involved in what was called a "General Seminar." This group met and discussed problems in all the areas covered by the University in Exile, and attempted to find Gestalt theory solutions to these difficulties. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States declared war on the Axis powers, 61-year-old Wertheimer immediately contacted the War Department and volunteered his services. It is said that he and his students at the University in Exile did psychological research for the armed forces during the early part of World War II, but the exact nature of that work is unknown.

Max Wertheimer and Albert Einstein

Another of the brilliant minds that Wertheimer remained in contact with in the United States was physicist Albert Einstein. Arthur I. Miller states in Albert Einstein and Max Wertheimer: A Gestalt Genesis of Special Relativity Theory, History of Science that Einstein, throughout his life, stayed in contact with many of the intellectual luminaries of his time. There are archival records of his correspondence with Sigmund Freud. Contained in these letters is the disagreement he expressed to Freud as to whether psychoanalysis was truly science. Einstein's relationship with Wertheimer was different. They first met in Berlin in 1916, and liked each other immediately. They shared similar interests, including physics and a passion for sailing.

Their proximity after coming to the United States—Einstein was at Princeton University and Wertheimer at the University in New York—made it feasible for the two men to continue their friendship. Much of Wertheimer's work was based on Einstein's forte, physics. Wertheimer would later try to reconstruct the conversations he had had with Einstein over 20 years earlier in Berlin. These discussions on how the mind must abandon old, unproductive ways of looking at things and develop new ways in order to make discoveries would become part of Wertheimer's book Productive Thinking. He showed how Gestalt ideas applied to Einstein's vision that produced the theory of relativity.

The last years

Over the years, Wertheimer had in many ways acted like a butterfly, flitting from project to project, leaving little that was tangible. He had never written a cogent, complete statement on Gestalt theory, nor shown any interest in doing so. Yet all of his work had consistently remained within the parameters of the Gestalt theory that he had published in 1912. He had published as many articles on ethics, music, and other non-psychological subjects as he had on Gestalt psychology over the years since. With typical abandon regarding the details, much of his work on mental illness and brain damage had been published under others' names either because they had helped with the research or because the data had been transcribed by others since Wertheimer did not take the time to write it down. Prime examples of this are "A Gestalt Theory of Paranoia," "A Case of Mania with its Social Implications," and "Some Aspects of the Schizophrenic Formal Disturbance of Thought," all of which have listed as their author Erwin Levy. In fact Wertheimer wrote all three of these articles, if not completely, then for the most part.

Wertheimer also contributed lectures such as "Understanding Psychotic's Speech" that were later published by A.S. Luchins, one of his biographers; and Max Wertheimer's Research on Aphasia and Brain Disorders: A Brief Account, published posthumously by his son Michael, also a psychologist, and Viktor Sarris. There remained, however, one more important contribution that Wertheimer wished to make to the province of psychology. During the same period of time that he was assisting the War Department, in 1942, he also began working on the only book he ever published, Productive Thinking. Productive Thinking was initially envisioned as the first in a series of three books explaining how Gestalt psychology helped people come up with innovative solutions to old problems.

Horace Kallen describes Wertheimer as "sweating and suffering" over this book. He was a perfectionist, and always felt that language was an imperfect "vehicle" in which to express the truth. However for the most part, the man that hated details managed to put the relevant ones into this work. Sadly, he did not live to create the two books that he had hoped would follow. He had barely completed Productive Thinking when he suffered a heart attack. Wertheimer never saw his book in print. He died at his home in New Rochelle, New York, on Columbus Day, October 12, 1943. As R. I. Watson noted in The Great Psychologists, "His spontaneity and brilliance made for his productive contributions to psychology. Paradoxically, he was compulsively careful about gathering and analyzing data. Only when the data was crystal clear and unequivocal would he publish his results." This compulsiveness made his co-workers and the students who actually heard him lecture the only people who were fortunate enough to truly appreciate the brilliance of his mind.


Wilhelm Wundt's theory of structuralism

Explanation It is difficult to discuss Wertheimer's research and theories without explaining what he and other psychologists of his time were trying to disprove. Wilhelm Wundt was the first person that history records as having been called a psychologist. Born in 1832, psychology prior to his time was considered one small division of the larger and more illustrious field of philosophy. Wundt, a trained medical doctor, was well aware that he was creating a new field—the science of psychology—when he wrote the first edition of his Principles of Physiological Psychology in 1874. In its preface he notes that the book was written to "mark out a new domain of science." It was his strong belief that since psychology was science, there was no room within it for metaphysical hypothesis. Though he believed that there were indeed psychic processes that went on within the mind, he was equally convinced that the physiologic (brain) processes were separate, parallel activities. At the University of Leipzig where he taught, Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in 1875. (It is worth noting that 1879 is usually cited as the year that Wundt began his laboratory. However, that is actually the year the University of Leipzig formally acknowledged his psychological lab. It had then been in operation for four years. It is also worth noting that American psychologist William James had also equipped a small laboratory in that same year, 1875.)

Wundt perceived philosophy as being part of psychology, a view that was the total reverse of what most academics of his time believed. In 1881, a year after Wertheimer was born, Wundt began publishing Philosophische Studien (Philosophical Studies), a journal devoted to the reporting of the psychological research being conducted at his new laboratory. This new lab and Wundt's approach brought students to Leipzig from all over Europe and even North America and extended his ideas all the way to the same locations. He adamantly denied that psychology should be involved in anything other than physiological and psychological research. Students who deviated from that belief, according to R. I. Watson in The Great Psychologists, were viewed by Wundt as if "this were desertion in the face of the enemy." Wundt's "school" of psychology was profoundly physical (often called "structural" or "elemental"). Painstaking research was carried on, examining feeling through measuring pulse, breathing, and muscular strength. But if Wundt studied the minutest details of sensation, perception, reaction, attention, and feeling; he equally ignored learning, motivation, emotion, intelligence, thought, and personality.

Though his writings were described by American psychologist G. Stanley Hall as "lusterless as lead, but just as solid," Wundt became widely read and acknowledged as the premier psychologist of his time. The work of Wundt and his students quickly became the most popularly accepted set of working premises employed by European university psychology departments, the only place psychology was an accepted part of the curriculum in the late nineteenth century. Wilhelm Wundt was a man of very strong opinions. He was eminently capable of expressing scorn for theories with which he disagreed. Child and educational psychology were particular targets for Wundt's derision, as were Oswald Kulpe and the other educators at the Würzburg University, where Wertheimer had studied.

Wundt's school of structuralism or elementalism held that each individual stimulus is experienced by the human mind separately from all other stimuli. It then produces within the brain a sensation that is remembered. When a stimulus is experienced again, the mind's perception of the event is based on that previous experience. Such perceptions are integrated within the brain following the experience of the stimulus. This would mean that the person's mind literally experiences what it sees, hears, smells, or touches, and nothing more. Wundt identified three facets of consciousness—sensations, images, and feelings. Even in those early days of Wundt's studies, there were many researchers and thinkers who saw flaws in this simplistic view of things. Wertheimer was one of them.

Example Wundt was already aware of the apparent movement that Wertheimer studied in 1910 and 1911, as were many other psychologists. Because Wundt believed that each stimulus created its own separate sensation, he postulated that apparent movement occurred when the movement of the eyes created a floating sensation illusion. Wertheimer invalidated this belief by having his research subjects look at lines set up so that two simultaneous motions occurred in opposite directions at the same time. Apparent movement, or "the phi phenomenon," was still observed. Since it was impossible for the eyes to move in two different directions at the same time, Wertheimer's experiment disproved Wundt's explanation.

Wertheimer's theory of perceptual grouping

As Wertheimer disciple Wolfgang Köhler explained in 1947, Gestalt, in the German language, can mean either the shape or form of an entity or the entity itself. Wertheimer had tried, many years earlier in 1924, to explain his theory by saying,

The basic thesis of Gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely, what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.

Explanation Wertheimer's initial theories related to perception, or how people perceive the world around them and their relationship to that world. Gestalt theory relies upon a basic tenet that Wertheimer had proven with his early perceptual research in Frankfurt in 1910 and 1911: that the human mind is not only capable of, but consistently, perceives things in other ways than was commonly believed at that time. These perceptions were nowhere near as simple, or "elemental," as Wundt and others had described. Nor are they mirror images of what the brain sees, hears, feels, or senses. What Wertheimer actually proved with his stroboscope and tachistoscope experiments was that the human mind consistently creates for itself the perception of motion from a rapid succession of non-moving and separate sensory stimuli. Human beings can see motion where there actually is none simply because, to the mind, it "makes better sense" that way.

Example As noted earlier, an example of Wertheimer's early research would be a set of Christmas tree lights strung around a tree that alternately light up and go dark, creating the illusion that the lights, though stationary, are in motion, and traveling around the tree. Wertheimer termed this mind-trick the phi phenomenon. This ability of the mind to create an illusion of movement is also the primary basis that made the invention of motion pictures possible.

This phenomenon could be dismissed as a simple illusion or hallucination. However, the phi phenomenon is so consistent to human beings' perception that it could not possibly be caused by brain pathology, as hallucinations are. This phenomenon could be categorized as an illusion. Putting a label on it does not answer the fundamental questions that Wertheimer was asking, however. An illusion is often thought of as an inaccurate assessment of a perception by the mind. For Wertheimer and other Gestaltists, seeing this illusion indicates that the mind is "doing its job"—interpreting perceptual input and trying to make rational sense out of it, rather than simply acting like a camera and passively recording what it has seen.

However, Wertheimer's hypothesis went far beyond observing illusions or helping to create movies. He demonstrated that human beings are innately able to experience both the entire event (the string of lights illuminating at set intervals) and the relationship to the whole of each of its individual components (each separate bulb as it lights up). Gestalt theory goes beyond stating that human beings have the ability to do this; it states that the mind has a compelling tendency toward this recognition, thus making the mind's capability a far more complex thing than the functions attributed to it by Wundt. In 1912 Wertheimer published his findings under the title "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement." This research into what has often been called "apparent movement" led to literally hundreds of research papers that further validated Wertheimer's work.

Principles of Gestalt psychology

Explanation Wertheimer did not immediately comprehend all the implications of his initial study. After the publication of his 1912 paper, Wertheimer became actively involved in the German war effort during World War 1. This meant that much of the time from 1914 to 1920 was devoted to research and development on subjects other than Gestalt theory. It was not until 1923 that Wertheimer published a tract further enlarging upon his ideas about perception and perceptual grouping. In reality, what he attempted to do was to look at what the human mind actually does as opposed to what it might be doing.

Wertheimer tried to illustrate his belief that people perceive all things in the world around them in the same manner that they see apparent motion as demonstrated in the phi phenomenon. They perceive things not as a group of separate sensations, but as one unified whole. He attempted to demonstrate this through the use of some elemental illustrations—clusters of dots, dashes, lines, figures, or musical notes—things that functioned as visual or auditory stimuli. He used them to show how the mind organizes perceptual information, whatever sense provides that perception. This ability to organize perceived information discounts the notion that the human mind reacts only to individual stimuli.

Pregnanz Pregnancy (Pregnanz in German), referring not to the word's literal definition but rather to being "pregnant with meaning," is the primary tenet of Wertheimer's Gestalt principles. He believed that this basic standard upheld all the rest. Gestalt theory espouses a fundamental belief that the human mind is innately meant to experience things in wholeness, to compose as complete a perception as possible. This can mean sensing things in an orderly, simple, consistent, and/or symmetrical manner as is feasible. From this primary principle of Pregnanz, all of the other principles emerge.

Example Pregnanz is exemplified by a line of boldface print showing the capital letters "A B C." Each letter, not completely closed, is displayed above boldface numbers "12 13 14." The demonstration reveals that the broken-line "B" is identical to the "13." However, the common perception is to see it as a "B" when it is placed with "A" and "C," and as a "13" when grouped with the "12" and "14."

Proximity Proximity is the premise that portions of an entire item which are physically close to each other will be seen as belonging together.

Example When "tap-tap, pause, tap-tap, pause, tap-tap" is heard, the listener will normally relate the two taps as belonging together rather than last tap of each section belonging with the first tap after the pause.

Symmetry Symmetry is the tendency to disregard proximity in favor of what the human mind observes to be a symmetrical relationship.

Example [ ] [ ] [ ]

In spite of the possibility that these should be grouped by closeness, or proximity, the mind quickly sees that the brackets are symmetrical and that the principle of symmetry overrules proximity.

Similarity Similarity is the concept that portions of the entire item that appear to be alike will be grouped together by the mind.

Example If dots of a certain shape or color are included in a larger pattern of dots, they will be distinguished as a separate portion of the larger pattern.

Closure Closure is the inclination of the mind to complete the stimulus, whether it is a visual illustration or something we hear. (Wertheimer also noted that there is anxiety until the stimulus is "closed.")

Examples If a person is given a picture to look at which has missing lines here or there, as some cartoons or caricatures are intentionally drawn, there is an inclination for the viewer to not consciously "see" the picture as incomplete. Instead the viewer will unconsciously fill in the missing features.

Wertheimer himself gave a more humorous example of closure that shows the anxiety preceding completion. It was one he often proved in restaurants after he and his guests had finished dining. It was found that the waiter without fail knew the exact amount of the dinner check if asked the amount prior to being paid. Yet if he was called back to the table a few moments after being paid and again asked the amount, the waiter would invariably be unable to remember how much had been owed.

Continuity Continuity is the tendency to see things as continuous, rather than stopping at certain points and then again going forward.

Example The simplest example of this principle is two intersecting lines that are viewed as intersecting with, and crossing, each other rather than perceiving this as two angular merging points.

Figure-ground This principle was borrowed from the Danish phenomenologist Rubin, and is a classic in the psychology of perception. It involves being able to see two separate visions within the same picture. However, the human mind apparently is not geared to perceive both of them simultaneously. Perception, it was discovered, is selective. The perception portions of the brain tend to make one "picture" the foreground and the other the background.

Examples The classic illustration of figure-ground is Rubin's "Vase." It is either a black Grecian urn, or two faces in profile looking at each other.

Another common example of this principle is the tendency of most people to focus upon the recognized face against a number of unknown people in a group picture, making that face the foreground and the unrecognized faces the background.

Many more of these Gestalt principles would be developed by Wertheimer's followers. They would involve not only perception, but also memory and learning. By 1933 it was estimated that there were 114 separate "laws" or principles.

Gestalt insight learning

The "insights" Wertheimer and the Gestaltists speak of are different from the almost miraculous, intuitional revelations of Freud and others in the field of mental health. Gestalt "insight" is rather a mode of problem-solving using a "Gestalt" or organizing principle. This idea presupposes what Wertheimer and his followers believed: that there is an order to the world around us. When we make that orderliness visible, "dis-cover" it, we are then able to use it to solve our problems. This has obvious repercussions involving multiple (if not all) fields of human endeavor, and most definitely includes both education and learning and mental health.

Example Probably the most cited example of insight learning is found in the research that Wertheimer's associate Wolfgang Köhler did while stationed at Tenerife in the Canary Islands between 1913 and 1917. He worked with chimpanzees and used bananas as rewards. Köhler hid a stick in the ceiling of their cage while all the chimps were watching. The next day a bunch of bananas was placed outside the cage, out of their reach. One of the chimps immediately began looking for something with which to reach the bananas, and not finding it, climbed up to the ceiling, removed the hidden stick, and used it to get hold of the bananas. Some chimpanzees carried out this procedure better than others, and their ability to succeed in obtaining the bananas was used as a measure of their intelligence. Köhler saw this as proving that the chimpanzees possessed the capacity for insight learning. They showed both continuity in being goal-directed, and closure by being able to solve the problem. (It is an interesting aside to this animal research that Koffka, Köhler, and other Gestaltists felt that the reason animals learned to negotiate mazes and other "tricks," developed as part of common psychological investigations of the time, was that the animals were not offered the chance to develop their own problem-solving techniques in these studies.)

Isomorphism Based on his 1910 and 1911 research, Wertheimer had hypothesized that the actions of the brain that resulted in the phi phenomenon, or apparent movement, were identical to the mental processes that occur when real movement is perceived by the brain. This was based on painstaking studies that had repeatedly shown that the reaction of the mind to either real or apparent movement appears to be identical. From this, Wertheimer and his disciples inferred a further deduction: that there is a neurological correlation, a physiological patterning of the brain based on the psychological experience of the event. Put simply, Wertheimer and Gestaltists guessed that there was a correlation between the actual mental experience and the physical brain processes used to process it. Wertheimer guessed that there was a neurological "shortcut" utilized by the brain each time that motion is perceived, and that a tangible (physical) proof of his theory would eventually be found.

This revolutionary notion was an early step toward the mind-body connection, or holistic approach to the mind and body. Mind-body Gestalt, or wholeness, has always been a part of Eastern medicine, but has increasingly gained credence in Western medicine and psychiatry in recent years. Wolfgang Köhler took the mind-body notion further. Like Wertheimer, he believed that there is direct interaction between the perceived event and the brain process that perceived it. But Köhler theorized that these two functions were structured identically, and the perceived event was "mapped," as psychologist George Boeree puts it, within the brain. The Gestalt notion of isomorphism has not yet been proven to be unequivocal truth. However, neither has the mind-body connection of isomorphism been disproved.

Examples Whether a person sees a comet actually race across the sky or a stationary neon light go on and off depicting motion, the person sees both events in the same way, using the identical brain processes, even though the comet actually moves, but the neon light does not.


Wolfgang Köhler

Though born in the Baltic state of Estonia, Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967) was German. When he was six years old his family moved back to Germany, to a town named Wolfenbüttell. As a young man he attended the Universities of Tübingen, Bonn, and Berlin, and studied under both Carl Stumpf and physicist Max Planck. Having earned his Ph.D in 1909 for a paper on acoustics, Köhler moved to Frankfurt to join the Psychological Institute there. The next year, his fateful meeting with Max Wertheimer not only opened new doors, it changed his life. After becoming involved in Wertheimer's apparent motion studies, Köhler became convinced of the veracity of Wertheimer's Gestalt theory. He would spend the rest of his life deciphering and elaborating on that complex hypothesis.

In 1913, a new opportunity appeared for Köhler when he was offered the directorship of Anthropoid Station, a research center located on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. He spent most of World War I there, doing research and beginning his first book, The Mentality of Apes.

Köhler returned to Germany in 1920, a time of great post-war chaos and political unrest. He was appointed Director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin in 1922. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, Köhler became well known in psychological circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Together with Wertheimer and Koffka, in Germany he founded a psychological journal devoted to Gestalt psychology, Psychologische Forschung. He made several trips to the United States, and was a visiting professor at both Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the University of Chicago. He was also a William James Lecturer at Harvard University. Additionally, in 1929 Köhler wrote the book that Wertheimer never did write: Gestalt Psychology. Though he certainly could have stayed in the United States, he opted to return to Germany about the time the Nazis took control of the German government in 1933.

This period of Hitler's rise to power became a time of great trial for Köhler. Seeing the beginnings of the persecution of Jews (and in fact all intellectuals) in Germany, Köhler courageously spoke out against this murderous and dangerously intolerant regime. Yet he managed to stay in Germany until 1935, when he published a letter denouncing Nazi policies in a Berlin newspaper. This resulted in Gestapo interference with his position as Director at the Berlin institute, and he shortly afterward immigrated to the United States. In 1938, he published The Place of Value in a World of Facts, a collection of his Harvard lectures that attempted to assess the value of things based upon Gestalt theory. For the next 20 years, Köhler served as a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. In 1956 he was elected President of the American Psychological Association. He then spent a brief time at Princeton University and finished out his career at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Köhler died at Enfield, New Hampshire, on June 11, 1967, at the age of 80.


The study of the mind is hardly a new endeavor. Eastern intellectuals, including Muslim (Sufi) thinkers such as Afghanistan's Jalaludal Rumi and El Ghazali from Persia, and the writings of philosophers, physicians, and priests in Ancient Egypt and Greece, all refer to the study of what we would term psychology. But it was the thinkers of the nineteenth century, in Europe and specifically in Germany and Austria, who made strides to establish the field of psychology as we know it today. One of the earliest of these nineteenth-century intellectuals was the "father of modern psychology," Wilhelm Wundt, discussed above. Born in 1832, in a small village near Heidelberg, Germany, he studied medicine at Heidelberg, Tübingen, and Berlin. His major interest and earliest book concerned physiology, specifically the action of the muscles of the body and how they responded to specific stimulus.

Prior to and even during the early years of Wundt's professional career, philosophy was considered the preeminent discipline involved in the study of the mind, with psychology operating as a small facet of the larger field. The philosopher Goethe had examined the perception of color and other areas that we would consider psychological studies. As early as the late 1700s, philosopher Immanuel Kant had talked about "the unity of a perceptual act," meaning that though we view things as developing from bits and pieces, actually a formation by the mind has occurred, creating a "unitary experience." This idea is much more in line with the beliefs of the Gestaltists, and diametrically opposed to what Wundt would eventually propose. Despite this, it was Wilhelm Wundt who changed the relationship between psychology and philosophy. In 1867, he began giving a course at Heidelberg University entitled "physiological psychology," and established the first known psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1875. Wundt's work at Leipzig was notable for its insistence upon scientific research as opposed to the creation of abstract, unprovable theories. He praised the use of physical measuring equipment for these studies and greatly disdained anyone who tried to alter what he envisioned as pure, scientific psychology. His obsession with measurement would eventually be the basis for one important step in psychology: the development of the Binet Intelligence Scale.

If Wundt's groundbreaking work at Leipzig could be said to be one pole of the study of the mind, Sigmund Freud, operating in Vienna during those same years, might be described as the other pole. As Wundt demanded facts and physical proofs for his "introspective" manner of research, Freud postulated theories of psychoanalysis based upon little more than his own remembered (and therefore suspect) childhood experiences. Franz Clemens Brentano operated somewhere in between these two poles. Brentano was the grandson of an Italian merchant, an intellectual and former Catholic priest. He was born in 1838, and his ideas inspired most of the people who eventually influenced Wertheimer. Brentano publicly questioned the principle of papal infallibility and had wanted to marry. These actions made him the target of Rome's displeasure and eventually caused him to leave the Catholic Church. A highly charismatic teacher, he also very publicly disagreed with Wundt's ideas, considering them to be rigid and artificial. Brentano promoted what he called "act psychology," encouraging the study of "acts" such as judging, recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, hoping, and loving. Like Wundt, he called his approach to psychology "introspective," but his vision of this was in many ways closer to the later ideas of Wertheimer and the Gestaltists. He insisted on describing consciousness in the first person, and is considered by many to be the guiding force that led to both phenomenology and analytic philosophy.

Ernst Mach, who gave us the term "Mach 1 . . . Mach 2," looked at several areas of physics, including spatial patterns (such as geometric shapes) and temporal patterns (music). He theorized that these things retained their basic qualities even if the sensation changed. That is, our minds perceive a square as remaining a square whether it is lying flat on a piece of paper on a table or floating in the air in three dimensions; a melody is still recognized as the same piece of music whether hummed simply or played as part of a complex orchestral opus. (Mach used the German word "Gestalt," in its meaning of "shape" in his work, making him one of the early thinkers utilizing this concept.) One of Brentano's students at the University of Vienna was an eccentric but remarkable scholar, philosopher, musician, and composer named Christian von Ehrenfels. In addition to performing on the stage and promoting the legalization of polygamy, von Ehrenfels would take Mach's work further. In the 1890s he wrote a paper entitled "Gestalt Qualitaten," considered the beginning of the modern Gestalt movement. One of the attendees at von Ehrenfels's lectures at the University of Prague was a young law student named Max Wertheimer.

Another of Franz Brentano's students was a German youth from Bavaria named Carl Stumpf. Stumpf came from a musical background, but, like Mach and von Ehrenfels before him, he was also interested in space perception. This led him to research on the perception of both music and space. His belief was that the basic material of psychology is phenomena such as tones, colors, and images. He created a name for the study of these—"phenomenology"—and believed that psychology should be studied as "an unbiased experience," just as it occurs. Phenomenology has been described as "the discipline that helps people to stand aside from their usual way of thinking so that they can tell the difference between what is actually being perceived and felt in the current situation and what is residue from the past." His musical leanings led to studies of several auditory activities, including attention, analysis, and comparison of sounds. Equally, he was interested in speech development in children and the origins of childhood fears.

Most importantly, Stumpf was the first person since the ancient Greek philosophers who insisted that the whole of anything is different from its parts, the concept on which Gestalt psychology is based. Stumpf's beliefs earned him the ire of Wundt, and a bitter enmity existed between the two scholars for many years. Stumpf maintained that true experience could not be broken down into separate elements, but must be perceived in its entirety. If this does not happen, the perception loses its genuineness and becomes false and an abstraction. Clearly Stumpf's notion is the heart of Gestalt psychology, and this hypothesis was vehemently disputed by Wundt. G.E. Muller, who taught at the University of Berlin and together with Hermann Ebbinghaus and Friedrich Schumann developed the memory drum, had a primary interest in the study of memory. He wrote and lectured about what would eventually be called "proactive interference," old methods of learning that interfere with new ways of acquiring knowledge, a concept Wertheimer would use in his "Einstein Conversations" portion of Productive Thinking.

One of Muller's students was Oswald Kulpe, who went on to found the Würzburg School. Like Wundt, Kulpe was interested in the development of a scientific model of psychology. The difference between the two was that Kulpe wanted to study many of the things Brentano had spoken of—thinking, judging, remembering, and doubting—while Wundt saw these things as beyond the scope of psychology. Kulpe came up with the concept of "imageless thought," another idea that was anathema to Wilhelm Wundt. Wertheimer was one of Kulpe's students at Würzburg. It was Kulpe who supervised Wertheimer's dissertation on the use of word association techniques in identifying guilt or innocence in defendants in criminal proceedings.

Edmund Husserl became known as the "father of phenomenology" due to his extensive work on the perception of phenomena. Like Brentano, he was interested in the pure, subjective experience of things as they occur. Unlike Brentano, who believed that his "acts" only concerned things outside of the person, Husserl thought that the internal experience of phenomena was equally important. His phenomena were whole, unbroken, meaningful experiences instead of the fragments described by Wundt. Edgar Rubin was another phenomenologist from Denmark whose primary interest was in "ambiguous figures." It is to Rubin that the credit goes for the figure-ground concept borrowed by the Gestaltists.

Despite all the conflict between Wundt, the nominal founder of psychology, and other German psychologists, this time remained the "Golden Era" of German psychology, recognized around the world as on the cutting edge of all new psychological research and ideas. The ideas would be exported across the Atlantic to the United States and Canada through students who studied in Germany, then considered the perfect place for rounding out a good education. G. Stanley Hall, who had studied with Wundt, had been sufficiently impressed with the German model of a psychology laboratory to establish the first American one at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1880. Hall would go on to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he first introduced the German concept of graduate education. Later Hall would host Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in Freud's only visit to the United States in 1909, when Freud and Jung lectured at Clark University. This visit would essentially introduce Americans to Freudian theory. The first psychological studies of learning, with rats negotiating mazes, occurred at Clark University under Hall's auspices. These studies clearly were more in line with Wundt's ideas than the Gestaltists. Yet Gestalt psychology, too, had made its way into the United States. Both Köhler and Koffka had made several trips to the United States throughout the 1920s and 1930s, lecturing at American universities and writing for American professional journals.

Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist Party (NAZI) that came to power in Germany in 1933 put an end to that German "golden age." Many of the original thinkers who had made Gestalt psychology possible did not survive to see that bitter day. Mach, Kulpe, and Brentano had all passed on by 1920, and von Ehrenfels, Stumpf, and Husserl did not see the beginning of World War II. Neither Kurt Koffka nor Wertheimer would live to see the Nazis defeated. Yet it is both remarkable and fortunate that so many of the great intellects of that time managed to survive those horrible years and to bring their most valuable possession, their brilliant ideas, across the Atlantic to America. Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Erich Fromm, Albert Einstein, Karen Horney, and Erich von Hornbostel are only a few of the long list of these luminaries.


Gestalt psychology in Europe

There was a remarkable volume of criticism between the Wundt's (elementalist or structuralist) school of psychology and nearly every other psychologist of any note in Central Europe. But as noted, the era of structuralism had effectively come to an end with the widespread acceptance of Gestalt theories in Germany and across the rest of Europe in the 1920s. Despite Nazi Germany's devaluation of Gestalt psychology (and in fact all psychology) in the 1930s, the influence of Gestalt psychology remained across Europe even if it seemed watered down and rife with divergent groups with differing beliefs. Gestalt psychology could still be said to have successfully supplanted Wundt's assumptions for Europe, and indeed most of the world.

Early years of Gestalt psychology in the United States

The United States was the exception to that rule of Gestalt primacy. Though American psychologist William James had strongly disagreed with and debated structuralist ideas in Wundt's heyday, there were many American psychologists who very much supported his theories. Chief among these was probably E. B. Titchener. An English immigrant to the United States, Titchener had studied under Wundt at Leipzig and later returned to the United States to write Titchener's Textbook of Psychology, published in 1909. It is to Titchener that the credit can be given for developing the American version of Wundt's structuralism. (It is worth noting that in the United States, structuralism was the name usually used for this psychology, rather than elementalism.) A simple explanation of the difference between this theory and the "functionalist psychology" then prevalent in American universities was made by James Angell, an early American Psychological Association president in the early 1900s. Angell explained that "Structuralists ask, What is consciousness? (made of) while functionalists ask, What is consciousness for?" Neither Wundt nor his detractors in Europe had ever made the long-standing debate this easy to understand.

Whether Gestalt ideas would have thrived, declined, or "died a natural death," as so many theories of mental health have, across the rest of the world prior to World War II is unknown. (Gestalt ideas certainly have neither declined nor died a natural death as of today. It is still a popular and widely accepted concept in most areas of the world.) The rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis forced those responsible for Gestalt theory to escape to the United States in order to survive. This immigration essentially brought Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka's ideas to the forefront of American psychology. At first the difficulty of translating Gestalt's complicated context to English slowed its acceptance in America, as did the suspicion that Gestalt was more philosophy than psychology. Yet another common criticism that found its way to Gestalt psychology's door was recurrent reports that further attempts at replicating Köhler's World War I research with primates in the Canary Islands had not shown the same results.

As in Europe, the psychological community in the United States had recently discarded Wundt's simplistic, coldly detached view of the mind. In America, other schools of thought quickly came into being and filled the vacuum created by the discrediting of structuralism. Thanks to both the positive message of their ideas and the prolific amount of writing publicizing their theories, the humanist school of psychological thought gained credence across the United States. Developed from the work of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Wertheimer's fellow German émigré Karen Horney, humanist psychology's support rose as much from the American public as from the academic community. Classic Freudian theory, too, was well represented in the respected work of psychiatrists such as Karl Menninger, and an emerging behavioral school of psychology was beginning to gain credence. The most remarkable relationship among these various schools of psychology was the early and enduring kinship that came between the Gestaltists and the humanists. Because they shared positive beliefs regarding both the human condition and the human mind, Gestalt psychology soon found itself allied with the humanistic school of psychology. It would prove to be a mutually beneficial affiliation. Equally, in the growing behavioral movement in the United States, Gestaltists discovered the successors to Wundt's structuralism.

In the behaviorists, the carriers of Gestalt theory to the United States found an immediate and conveniently placed opponent. The behaviorist "S-R formula" (stimulus leading to response formula) seemed to Gestaltists appallingly similar to Wundt and Titchener's "brick and mortar," laboratory research response to all questions about human behavior. The entire concept of all activities of the mind being the result of reflexes and response to conditioning was pure heresy to Wertheimer and his disciples. "What is a stimulus?" Wertheimer is said to have asked when the S-R formula was explained to him, and "What is the relationship between the physical aspect of a stimulus and its perceptual aspect?" Despite this dispute, American psychology for the most part took a "take what you like and leave the rest" attitude regarding Gestalt psychology as well as behaviorism.

Other American criticisms of Gestalt theory

For Titchener and Wundt, perception had always been the result of the joining together sensations that had meaning derived from prior happenings. Wertheimer and the Gestaltists had always seen it differently. They were less interested in these supposed meanings, which they believed to be mostly false or unreliable. With seeming accuracy Gestalt psychology said that the human mind tends to organize sensory input in a manner that "makes sense" to that individual human mind, but is not necessarily an accurate depiction of the true physical qualities of that sensory input. The ambiguous figures and illusionary pictures discussed previously are examples of this. Another example is the classic differences noted between the descriptive statements about an event made by several different "witnesses" to that same event. By the 1930s, when Gestalt psychology truly became known in the United States, the study of psychology had moved far beyond these arguments about how things are perceived. Many American mental health professionals were bewildered by the ongoing attacks by Gestaltists on structuralism. Since Titchener's American brand of structuralism had long-since been eclipsed by humanist and behaviorist psychology, they saw these attacks as "beating a dead horse."

Harry Helson, an early follower of Wertheimer who came to the United States and modified many of his beliefs, was nonetheless highly supportive of Gestalt ideas. Yet even Helson had made note of a flaw that other American mental health professionals soon observed. Helson saw that Gestaltists had followed the advice of the philosopher Goethe regarding how to solve a problem: simply change the problem into a postulation. Wertheimer's followers, Helson noted, did not consider how the activities of the mind are organized as a issue to be studied and debated, but rather a "given," something obvious to them from their observation of the nature of the mind. Helson and Gestalt's American critics said the Gestalists solved the quandary regarding the organization of the mind by simply denying that there was a quandary. Also, it was unfortunate that when Gestalt psychology initially came to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, many of those American psychologists who had heard Köhler and Koffka in their early lectures misunderstood the full scope of Gestalt psychology. They believed it to be nothing more than a new theory that addressed perception only. This was a misunderstanding that has persisted, according to R. I. Watson in The Great Psychologists, up until the present.


It is probable that Gestalt theory would have remained far more of an abstract notion with little application in everyday psychology had it been left to Max Wertheimer. Wertheimer possessed a restless, brilliant mind that was poorly suited to the day-to-day, more mundane task of making his ideas work in everyday life. In this way, he was far different from two of his contemporaries, Karen Horney and Carl Rogers. Both Horney and Rogers, throughout their careers, consistently saw patients and wrote books describing the application of their personality and therapy ideas. Wertheimer, on the other hand, threw out a brilliant theory to those around him, and then stood back and waited to see what they would do. Clearly the first two "catchers" of Wertheimer's ideas were his two laboratory assistants in Frankfurt in 1912, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka.

Köhler's mind-body approach and Gestalt psychology

In 1913, Wolfgang Köhler left Frankfurt, Germany for primate research in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. Many of the problem-solving studies that he did with chimpanzees there led directly to Gestalt therapy, the treatment of the mind using Gestalt principles. In 1917, he wrote of his experiences in his book, The Mentality of Apes. Increasingly, though, and especially after his return to Germany and appointment as director of the laboratory at the University of Berlin, Köhler concentrated on his belief that the physical body as well as the mind possesses Gestalt qualities. This belief, called isomorphism, would re-acquaint Western medicine with the mind-body connection that has always been accepted by many other societies. However, like his primate research, Köhler's isomorphism theory has not been well supported by research. Demonstrations of exactly how the physical brain works to interpret sensory stimuli were noticeably absent from Köhler's work. In reality, the scope of such research was probably far beyond the capabilities of Köhler's time.

Koffka and Growth of the Mind

Wertheimer's second laboratory assistant, Kurt Koffka, left Frankfurt soon after completing the original research and spent much of the next 16 years at the University of Giessen. Koffka also took several trips to the United States between 1911 and 1927, and was largely responsible for disseminating Gestaltist thought to America. His Growth of the Mind, originally published in German, was translated and printed in English in 1924. Using Gestalt theory as a background, the book was an introduction to child psychology with a special focus on childhood learning. Koffka agreed with William Stern's hypothesis that when learning takes place, there is a melding or "convergence" of outer conditions and inner (mental) capability. He was a strong opponent of rote learning, seeing it as the death of creativity. Equally, Koffka believed that neither a reward system nor trial-and-error were the reasons that humans learn, but rather that the mind has an innate desire to learn, to experience "good Gestalt." In these ways, Koffka applied Gestalt psychology to education, and the application of Gestalt ideas has spilled over into many educational concepts, including the Montessori method of education.


Wertheimer's apparent movement study Though the tachistoscope Wertheimer used at the Frankfurt Psychological Institute was more complex, the child's stroboscope he initially used in the hotel room demonstrates the same function. If one looks into a box that has two slits cut into it, and a source of light is placed so that it alternates shining behind each of the slits, the person looking into the box will perceive one moving light even though there are two lights and no movement. Whether the line between the two lights is vertical or horizontal, the effect is perceived the same way. The point of this, according to Wertheimer, is that we do not "put things together" to produce a certain stimulus. Apparent movement exists in our minds exactly as it is perceived.

Köhler's animal studies The previously described experiments with chimpanzees on Tenerife in the Canary Islands were one of Köhler's research projects using animals. He also studied chickens. Grain was scattered on pieces of paper that were colored two different tones of gray. The hens were trained to take the grain from only one color of paper—the darker gray paper—by allowing them to eat freely from the dark gray paper and driving them away if they tried to eat the grain on the lighter gray paper. This process was repeated hundreds of times until the chickens "got it right" and only pecked at grain placed on the darker gray paper. Now a darker shade of gray paper was introduced into the experiment. The idea behind this research was that if the hens ate only from the same shade of gray paper (now the lighter shade), they would be responding to their training, to a specific color of paper. If they pecked at the darker tone of gray, it would indicate that they were making a judgment regarding the situation, using a concept that included a response as to which shade of gray was darker. Köhler's chickens used the Gestalt method; they chose the darker shade.

Gestalt therapy Easily the most impressive contribution to Gestalt psychology as a mode of treatment is the work of Fritz and Laura Perls and Gestalt therapy. "Fritz" Perls was born in 1893 in Berlin, and studied medicine and classic (Freudian) psychoanalysis. In 1926, Perls went to Frankfurt-am-Main to work with neurologist Kurt Goldstein at the Institute for Brain-Damaged Soldiers. There he met his future wife, Laura Posner, a psychologist quite influenced by the then-current Gestalt psychology. Perls, too, became interested in Wertheimer's theories. He was also interested in the humanist philosophies of Karen Horney, Wilhelm Reich, and others. Like other mental health professionals of the time, Perls chafed under the dogmatic tenets of Freudian psychiatry. Together with his wife, Perls began the development of a new type of therapy, which they called "Gestalt."

Like other schools of mental health treatment, Gestalt therapy developed its own personality theory, complete with its own vocabulary. Personality, Perls argued, is not put together by the addition of layer upon layer of conditioning, as behaviorists believe. Nor is it the result of the reaction to associative symbols as Freud believed. For Perls, the personality is seen as configured according to Gestalt principles. Gestalt therapy serves to help people reach awareness—not in amazing flashes of insight, but in small steps toward wholeness, or "Gestalt."

Some of the more common terms used in Gestalt therapy are listed below:

  • Mental metabolism is the term Gestalt therapists use to describe the processes of the mind. The analogy is that human beings "bite off what they can chew"—whether it is food, ideas, or relationships. It is then "chewed" (assessed), and if it is nourishing (good for the person), it is kept. If it is toxic (bad for the person), it is spat out. Mental metabolism cannot occur unless the person trusts his or her own judgment, and his or her ability to sense stimuli outside of him or herself.
  • Regulation of boundary relates to maintaining a permeable boundary between one's self and the external world. This boundary can be crossed when it is necessary or advisable, but remains in place to protect the person. (It is the basis of much of the discussion of "boundaries" so prevalent in mental health today.) Disturbances in this boundary—the inability to differentiate between self and others—is referred to as "confluence" (fusion). In "isolation," the boundary has become so impenetrable that it is impossible for the person to connect with others at all.
  • Retroflection is dissention or splitting within the self, which can lead to mental health pathology or, at times, be the appropriate action. For example, if a person suppresses anger by "biting his tongue," it may be mentally unhealthy. However, if growing angry is going to make a problem worse, sometimes "biting one's tongue" is the better alternative to "biting the other person's head off."
  • Introjection is the undiscriminating intake of external information without using any type of assessment or evaluation. An example might be how some people living in police states take in the propaganda that is fed to them, without evaluating it for truth, morality, or appropriateness.
  • Projection is little different from the Freudian use of the word—the attributing to some external source of qualities that in reality belong to the person, i.e., "You made me do that." Typical of Gestalt and humanist psychology, "projection" is considered to be possibly good if used in relation to creating a work of art such as writing a novel, painting a picture, or acting in a drama.
  • Deflection is the evasion of contact or perception. This can be done by not making eye contact, by talking about (rather than to) another person, or by not expressing or addressing a feeling. Like retroflection, deflection can be an appropriate response when it helps to avoid a severe argument.
  • Organismic self-regulation is the process of learning and making choices holistically, and is markedly similar to Carl Rogers's "organismic trusting." Mind, body, thoughts, feelings, spontaneity, and deliberation are all integrated.
  • Awareness is the only goal of Gestalt therapy. It is also one of the therapy's two primary tools. In the Gestalt lexicon, awareness is the ability to know and understand one's own existence. Awareness operates in a continuum that is forever in motion, with differing awarenesses coming to the forefront as their primacy becomes necessary.
  • Dialogue is the other Gestalt tool. Gestalt therapists are free to "be themselves." They express how they are feeling as they help the patient reach awareness.
  • Integration is the name given to the successful outcome of psychotherapy. It refers to the identification and acceptance of all of mind's functions—ideas, actions, and feelings.

The object of Gestalt therapy is not the modification of behavior. Its only goal is the above-mentioned awareness. There are no "shoulds" in this mode of treatment, and the most important thing to be achieved is the patient's autonomy and self-determination. (This achievement would be a "preference" rather than a "should.") The therapist's relationship to the patient is warm, honest, and supportive. It focuses on the present. In Gestalt therapy, it is considered appropriate to let the person know how she is perceived by others, or to mention how her awareness process is limited by the interactions between the patient and therapist. It is made clear to patients in Gestalt therapy that they are responsible for the choices they make. Though Gestalt therapy will work with any patient population, there are certain personality types who apparently can benefit more from Gestalt therapy than others. In the chapter on Gestalt therapy in Current Psychotherapies, Gary Yontef notes that Gestalt therapy is most effective for people "open to working on self-awareness and for those who want natural mastery over their awareness process." Yet it has been successfully used in situations as diverse as crisis intervention, with people in a ghetto poverty program, patients suffering from psychosomatic disorders, and with people who have difficulty dealing with authority. Gestalt therapists traditionally show very little interest in psychiatric diagnoses. Gestalt therapy can be done individually as psychotherapy or in group experiences or workshops. The average frequency of therapy sessions is once per week.

Case studies

The following case studies exemplify how Gestalt therapy works. They are citations from Gary Yontef's chapter on Gestalt therapy in Current Psychotherapies.

The patient is a 45-year-old married man named Tom. He is noted to be proud of his independence and self-sufficiency. This has caused his wife to feel unneeded and inferior. He is unaware of his own dependency needs and rage about having these unmet needs. He notes with pride to the therapist that when he was a kid he had to learn to rely upon himself because his mother was always so busy. The therapist replies, "I appreciate your strength, and when I think of you as such a self-reliant kid, I want to stroke you and give you some parenting." Tom looks tearful and replies that no one has ever been able to do that. The therapist observes that Tom looks sad, and the patient recounts more sad memories from his childhood. The end result of this therapy is Tom's awareness that he felt shame as a child toward his unavailable parents and in compensation, became too-well able to take care of himself, to the exclusion of his wife and others.

This following case study was part of a film called "In the Now," a Gestalt therapy motion picture produced in 1969. A woman in her late thirties who lives in California and is called "Peg" was initially seen at a Gestalt workshop dealing with grief. At the workshop, she had been working on her grief and the rage she felt toward her late husband, who had committed suicide, leaving her with the care of their children. She had found it necessary to return to work after being a housewife for several years. In the film, as part of that workshop, she talks about a recurring dream that she has in which she is on a dirt road at Camp Pendleton, a nearby military base, watching several tanks roll by in a formation. She is holding a platter of cookies. She suddenly sees a pair of shiny black shoes within the line of tanks and discovers that the person in the shoes is her best friend's husband. She then wakes up, and finds that she is laughing, but states that the dream always becomes less funny once she awakens.

When she finishes recounting the dream, the therapist makes no response regarding the dream. Instead, Peg is immediately asked what she is doing now. She replies, "Trying to stop my teeth from chattering." The therapist asks her what her objection is. Peg speaks of not liking the feeling of anxiety and fear that she is experiencing at that moment. The discussion goes on to air Peg's feelings of low self-worth and fear of being ridiculed. The therapist asks several questions about what Peg is good at, and with prodding she is finally able to say that she is a good cook, housekeeper, and baker. The therapist notes that she would make someone "a good wife" and Peg replies, "I was a good wife." Ultimately she is able to talk about her belief that she doubts that she will ever "make anyone a good wife again." There is no analysis per se of her dream, simply a process of helping her to discover what it is that she is anxious about and getting her to talk about her imaginings of the ridicule that she fears. (An interesting aside regarding this case is that Peg, far from being ridiculous or worthy of her own low self-esteem, had shown the strength to start a crisis clinic in her home town. Despite her belief that she would not marry again, Peg also met a man at this Gestalt workshop whom she eventually married.)


1880: Wertheimer born on April 15, 1880, in Prague.

1898: Begins studies at the University of Prague.

1902: Studies psychology at the University of Berlin.

1904: Receives his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Würzburg.

1910: Discovers the phi phenomenon on a train ride and published his groundbreaking paper "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement" two years later.

1923: Marries Anna Caro, one of his students.

1934: Arrives in New York and begins teaching at the "University in Exile" for the next 10 years.

1941: After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Wertheimer immediately volunteers himself to the War Department

1942: Begins work on his only book, Productive Thinking.

1943: Dies at his home after suffering a heart attack.

The following conversation between a Gestalt therapist and patient gives some idea of what Gestalt "dialogue" can be like:

  • Patient: "Right now I'm feeling tense."
  • Therapist: "Who are you talking to?"
  • Patient: "I was just thinking about this morning. I was feeling very hostile. I still think I am somewhat hostile."
  • Therapist: "I am aware that you are avoiding looking at me."
  • Patient: "Yes, because I feel that you are very arrogant."
  • Therapist: "That's true."
  • Patient: "And as if I might get into a struggle with you."
  • Therapist: "You might."
  • Patient: "So the avoidance of eye contact is sort of a put-off of the struggle. I don't know whether this can be resolved."
  • Therapist: "Would you be willing to tell me what your objections are to my arrogance?"
  • Patient: "Well, it's not very comforting. If I have a problem and I talk to you about it and you're arrogant, then that only makes me arrogant."
  • Therapist: "You respond in kind is what you are saying. Your experience is that you respond that way."
  • Patient: "Yes. Right on. Then at this university I feel that I must be arrogant and I must be defensive at all times. Because I am black, people react to me in different ways . . . different people. . . and I feel that I have to be on my toes most of the time."



Boeree, C. George. Gestalt Psychology. 2000. http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/fromm.html.

Coleman, James. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1956.

Does the Mind Always Represent the World Accurately and Unambiguously? 1998. http://www-rci.rutgers.edu.

Gestalt Psychology and Isomorphism. 2004. http://www.ipfw.edu/bordens/history/overhd4.htm.

Kallen, Horace. "Max Wertheimer: 1880–1943." Social Research 15 (1948):1–4.

Kaplan, Harold I., MD, and Benjamin J. Sadock, MD. Synopsis of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences and Clinical Psychiatry. Baltimore: William and Wilkins, 1991.

Newman, Edwin B. "Max Wertheimer:1880–1943." American Journal of Psychology 57 (July 1944): 3.

Watson, R. I., Sr. The Great Psychologists, 4th ed. New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1978.

Wertheimer, Max. "On Truth." Social Research 1 (1934): 135–46.

Wertheimer, Michael. "Max Wertheimer, Gestalt Prophet." Gestalt Theory 2 (1980).

Yontef, Gary, and James Simkin. Current Psychotherapies, "Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction." Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock, Publishers, 1989.

Further readings

Henle, Mary. "A Tribute to Max Wertheimer: Three Stories of Three Days," 1879 and All That: Essays in the Theory and History of Psychology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Wertheimer, Max. Productive Thinking. New York: Harper, 1945.

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