Modern scientific psychology was started by quantification. Mental functions
were shown to be expressible in purely quantitative terms (Weber's Law), and ever
since then the quantitative interest has done as much harm as good to the further
development of our science. On the one side, we find those who want to measure everything,
sensations, emotions, intelligence; and on the other, those who deny that true psychological
problems are amenable to quantitative treatment; to them, psychology is the domain
of quality, excluding quantity. In my opinion this famous antithesis of quantity
and quality is not a true antithesis at all. It owes its popularity largely to a
regrettable ignorance of the essence of quantity as used in physical science.
Modern science, it is true, begins with quantitative measurement. The present-day
physicist devotes the greatest efforts to making his measurements finer and finer;
but he will not measure anything and everything, but only such effects as in some
way or other contribute to his theory. It is impossible to discuss here all the
functions of quantitative measurement in physics. But it is fair to say that a mere
collection of numbers is never what the physicist wants. What he is frequently interested
in is the distribution of measurable characteristics in a given volume and the changes
which such distributions undergo. Both types of facts he describes by means mathematical
equations which may contain a few concrete numbers but in which abstract numbers
are by far the most important constituents. And the mathematical formula establishes
primarily a definite relationship between these abstract numbers. Measurement
has then the role to test the validity of the equation for the process which it
is meant to describe, i.e., of the relationship established. Such a relationship,
however, is no longer quantitative in the simple sense in which any one concrete
number is; its quantity is no longer opposed to quality. The misunderstanding arises
when one considers only the individual facts with their measured quantities, overlooking
the manner of their distribution. But the latter is no less factual than the former,
and it indicates a property or quality of the condition or process under discussion.
A simple example should clarify this point: In a soap bubble the forces of cohesion
between the soap particles pull them as close together as possible. They are held
in equilibrium by the air enclosed by the soap membrane, whose pressure would increase
if the bubble contracted. The soap, therefore, must remain distributed over the
outside boundary of an air volume, and the distribution will be such that it will
occupy as little space as possible. Since of all solids the sphere is the one which
has the greatest volume for a given surface or the smallest surface for a given
volume, the soap will distribute itself on a spherical surface. A statement like
this seems to me to be as much qualitative as quantitative; the latter, because
it says of each particle that it is here and not somewhere else; the former, because
it assigns a definite shape with all its peculiarities to our distribution. Once
our attention has been drawn to this point we shall find it difficult in a great
many cases to decide whether a statement is quantitative or qualitative. A body
moves with constant velocity; truly quantitative, but equally truly qualitative,
and the same is true whatever kind of velocity we attribute to the body. Thus when
the velocity varies with the sine or cosine of time, the body executes a periodic
movement which is qualitatively quite different from a mere translatory movement.
We conclude from these examples: the quantitative, mathematical description of
physical science, far from being opposed to quality, is but a particularly accurate
way of representing quality. I will, without proof, add that a description may be
quantitative without being at the same time the most adequate one. Of the two analytic
equations of the circle: x' + y' = r', and r = constant, the second
expresses the specific quality Of the circle more directly and hence more adequately
than the first.
And we can now draw a lesson for our psychology: it may be perfectly quantitative
without losing its character as a qualitative science, and on the other hand, and
at the present moment even more important, it may be unblushingly qualitative, knowing
that if its qualitative descriptions are correct, it will some time be possible
to translate them into quantitative terms.
Let us now turn to "order," the concept derived from the sciences of
life. Can we give a satisfactory definition of this concept? We speak of an orderly
arrangement of objects when every object is in a place which is determined by its
relation to all others. Thus the arrangement of objects thrown at random into a
lumber room is not orderly, while that of our drawing room furniture is. Similarly
we speak of an orderly march of events (Head) when each part event occurs at its
particular time, in its particular place, and in its particular way, because all
the other part events occur at their particular times, in their particular places,
and in their particular ways. An orderly march of events is, e.g., the movement
of the piano keys when a. practised player plays a tune; a mere sequence of events
without any order takes place when the keys are pressed down by a dog running over
Both examples may give rise to a particular objection or may lead to a special
theory of order. Let us take up the objection first: "Why," so an opponent,
whom for the sake of convenience we shall call Mr. P, might ask, "do you call
the motions of the piano keys in the second case less orderly than the first? I
can," so he continues, "find only one reason, and that is that you like
the first better than the second. But this subjective feeling of preference is surely
not a. sufficient reason for introducing a distinction allegedly fundamental, and
for deriving from this distinction a new scientific category. And the 'same is true
of your first example. You happen to like your drawing room, but I can well imagine
a person, say a stranger from another planet, who would feet happier in your storeroom.
Look at your two cases without any personal bias; then you will find that each object,
whether in the drawing room or in the loft, is where it is because, according to
mechanical laws, it could not be anywhere else; and just so is each key set into
motion according to the stern laws of mechanics whether it be Paderewski's fingers
or a frightened dog which run over the keyboard. But if the ordinary old mechanical
laws explain these events, why introduce a Dew concept, order, which confuses the
issue by creating an artificial difference between processes which from the point
of view of mechanics are essentially similar?"
To this argument another person (we will call him Mr. V) might reply as follows:
"My dear fellow, it is very generous of you to disregard your own feelings
in the matter, for I know how sensitive you are to badly furnished rooms and how
fastidious your taste is with regard to piano music. I shall therefore exclude from
my answer the person who is merely supposed to look at or live in one of our two
rooms and to listen to the two sequences of tones, just as you said one should.
But even so there remains a difference between the two alternatives in each of the
two examples, and this difference is decisive, since it refers to the way in which
the arrangement and the sequence have been brought about. In my ideal lumber room,
each piece has been deposited as it happened to come without regard to any other.
And since, as you pointed out yourself, every object in this loft is where it is
according to strict mechanical laws, this lumber room is an excellent example of
what mechanical forces will do if left to themselves. Compare this with our drawing
room. Here, careful planning has preceded the actual moving of the furniture, and
each piece receives a place that makes it subservient to the impression of the whole.
What does it matter whether a table has at first been pushed too far to the left?
Somebody who knows the plan, or who has a direct feeling for the intended effect,
will push it back into its proper place: just so a picture hung awry will be straightened
out; vases with proper flowers will be well distributed, all of course with the
help of mechanical forces, but nothing by these mechanical forces alone. I need
not repeat my argument for the two tone sequences, the application is too obvious.
But my conclusion is this: in inorganic nature you find nothing but the interplay
of blind mechanical forces, but when you come to life you find order, and that means
a new agency that directs the workings of inorganic nature, giving aim and direction
and thereby order to its blind impulses." And so Mr. V, in trying to answer
Mr. P's argument, has developed the theory which I referred to at the beginning
of this discussion. Remembering our previous discussion of nature and life, one
will recognise this theory as a vitalistic one. As a matter of fact the strongest
arguments for vitalism have been based on the distinction of orderly processes and
But let us return to the argument between Messrs. P and V. We have already pledged
our psychology to a rejection of vitalism. But can we disregard V's answer to P's
argument, his defence of the distinction between orderly and orderless arrangements
and events? We can not. And that lands us in a quandary: we accept order but we
reject a special factor that produces it. For the first we shall be despised by
Mr. P and his followers; for the second we shall incur the wrath of Mr. V. Both
reactions would be justified if our attitude were truly eclectic; we should then
appear to accept two propositions that are incompatible with each other. Therefore
the task of our system is clearly defined: we must attempt to reconcile our acceptance
and our rejection, we must develop a category of order which is free from vitalism.
The concept of order in its modern form is derived from the observation of living
beings. But that does not mean that its application is restricted to life. Should
it be possible to demonstrate order as a characteristic of natural events
and therefore within the domain of physics, then we could accept it in the science
of life without introducing a special vital force responsible for the creation of
order. And that is exactly the solution which Gestalt theory has offered and tried
to elaborate. How that has been done we shall learn in the course of this book.
But it is meet to point out the integrative function of the Gestalt solution. Life
and nature are brought together not by a denial of one of the most outstanding characteristics
of the former but by the proof that this feature belongs to the latter also. And
by this kind of integration Gestalt theory contributes to that value of knowledge
which we have called reverence for things animate and inanimate. Materialism accomplished
the integration by robbing life of its order and thereby making us look down on
life as just a curious combination of orderless events; if life is as blind as inorganic
nature we must have as little respect for the one as for the other. But if inanimate
nature shares with life the aspect of order, then the respect which we feel directly
and unreflectively for life will spread over to inanimate nature also.
We turn to the last of our categories: significance. What we mean by that is
harder to explain than the two previous concepts, and yet here lies one of the deepest
roots of Gestalt theory, one which has been least openly brought before the English-speaking
public. The reason for this is easy to understand. There is such a thing as an intellectual
climate, and the intellectual climate, just as the meteorological, varies from country
And just as the growth of a Plant depends upon the physical climate, so does
the growth of an idea depend upon the intellectual climate. There can be no doubt
that the intellectual climates of Germany and the United States are widely different.
The idealistic tradition of Germany is more than an affair of philosophic schools;
it pervades the German mind and appears most openly in the writings and teachings
of the representatives of "Geisteswissenschaften," the moral sciences.
The meaning of a personality prominent in history, art, or literature Seems
to the German mind more important than the pure historical facts which make up his
life and works; the historian is often more interested in the relation of a great
man to the plan of the universe than in his relations to the events on the planet.
Contrariwise, in America the climate is chiefly practical; the here and now, the
immediate present with its needs, holds the centre of the stage, thereby relegating
the problems essential to German mentality to the realm of the useless and non-existing.
In science this attitude makes for positivism, an overvaluation of mere facts and
an undervaluation of very abstract speculations, a high regard for science, accurate
and earthbound, and an aversion, sometimes bordering on contempt, for metaphysics
that tries to escape from the welter of mere facts into a loftier realm of ideas
Therefore when the first attempts were made to introduce Gestalt theory to the
American public, that side which would most readily appeal to the type of German
mentality which I have tried to sketch was kept in the background, and those aspects
which had a direct bearing on science were emphasised. Had the procedure been different,
we might have incurred the danger of biasing our readers against our ideas. Living
in a different intellectual climate they might have taken this aspect of Gestalt
theory for pure mysticism and decided not to have anything to do with the whole
theory before they had had a chance of becoming acquainted with its scientific relevance.
At the present moment, however, when Gestalt theory has been taken up as a main
topic of discussion, it seems only fair to lift the old restriction and expose all
To do this I shall revert for a moment to the origins of our theory and to the
leading ideas of its first founder, Max Wertheimer. What I said about the German
intellectual climate does not apply to German experimental psychology. Rather, experimental
psychology had carried on a feud with speculative psychologists and philosophers
who, not without reason, belittled its achievements and claimed that mind in its
truest aspects could never be investigated by scientific methods, i.e., by methods
derived from the natural sciences.' How could, so the argument would run, the laws
of sensation and association, which then composed the bulk of scientific psychology,
ever explain the creation or enjoyment of a work of art, the discovery of truth,
or the development of a great cultural movement like that of the Reformation? The
facts to which these opponents of scientific psychology pointed and the facts which
the experimental psychologists investigated were indeed so far apart that they seemed
to belong to different universes, and no attempt was made by experimental psychology
to incorporate the larger facts in their system which was erected on the smaller
ones, at least no attempt which did justice to the larger.
Weighing this situation in retrospect we are forced to take an attitude similar
to that which we took with regard to the materialism-vitalism controversy. We must
admit that the criticism of the philosophers was well founded. Not only did psychology
exhaust its efforts in trivial investigations, not only had it become stagnant with
regard to the problems it actually worked on, but it insisted on its claim that
it held the only key to those problems which the philosophers emphasised. Thus the
historian was right when he insisted that no laws of sensation, association or feeling
- pleasure and displeasure - could explain a decision like that of Caesar's to cross
the Rubicon with its momentous consequences; that, generally speaking, it would
be impossible to incorporate the data of culture within current psychological
systems without destroying the true meaning of culture. For, so they would say,
culture has not only existence but also meaning or significance, and it has value.
A psychology which has no place for the concepts of meaning and value cannot be
a complete psychology. At best it can give a sort of understructure, treating of
the animal side of man, on which the main building, harbouring his cultural side,
must be erected.
On the other hand we cannot disregard the attitude of experimental psychology.
Its position was this: for ages psychology had been treated in the way which philosophers
and historians claimed to be the only true one, with the result that it had never
become a true science. Clever, even profound, things might have been said about
men's higher activities by speculative philosophers and "understanding"
historians, but all these dicta bore the stamp of their authors' personalities;
they could not be verified and could not produce a scientific system. Science wants
an explanation in terms of cause and effect, but the kind of psychology they opposed
gave explanations in terms of motives and values. This, the experimental psychologists
averred, was no explanation at all, whereas their work was concerned with true causal
theories. If it failed at the moment to include the cultural aspects, it did so
only because it was so very young. But a building had to be erected from the bottom
and not from the roof. "Psychologie von unten" was their slogan.
And there is much to be said for this attitude. If we believe that the sciences,
natural and moral, are not merely a collection of independent human activities,
some players playing one kind of game, others another, but that they are branches
of one all-embracing science, then we must demand that the fundamental explanatory
principles be the same in all.
The dilemma of psychology, then, was this: on the one hand it was in possession
of explanatory principles in the scientific sense, but these principles did not
solve the most important problems of psychology, which therefore remained outside
its scope; on the other hand, it dealt with these very problems, but without scientific
explanatory principles; to understand took the place of to explain.
This dilemma must have been prominent in Wertheimer's mind even when he was a
student. Perceiving the merits and faults of both sides, be could not join either,
but he had to try to find a solution of this acute crisis. In this solution two
principles could not be sacrificed: the principles of science and of meaning. And
yet these very two were the origin of the whole difficulty. Scientific progress
occurs very often by a re-examination of the fundamental scientific concepts. And
to such a re-examination Wertheimer devoted his efforts. And his conclusions can
be stated in a few simple words, although they demand a radical change of our habits
of thought, a change in our most ultimate philosophy. To explain and to understand
are not different forms of dealing with knowledge but fundamentally identical. And
that means: a causal connection is not a mere factual sequence to be memorised like
the connection between a name and a telephone number, but is intelligible. I shall
borrow a simile from Wertheimer (1925) - Suppose we entered Heaven with all our
scientific curiosity and found myriads of angels engaged in making music, each playing
on his own instrument. Our scientific training would tempt us to discover
some law in this celestial din. We might then set out to look for regularities of
such a kind that, when .angel A has played do, angel C would play re,
then angel M fa, and so on. And if we were persistent enough and had
sufficient time at our disposal, we might discover a formula which would make it
possible for us to determine the note played by each angel at each moment of time.
Many philosophers and scientists would say that then we had explained the music
of the heavens, that we had discovered its law. This law, however, would be nothing
more than a factual statement; it would be practical, making prediction possible,
but it would be without meaning. On the other hand, we might try to hear
the music as one great symphony; then if we had mastered one part, we should
know a great deal about 'he whole, even if the part which we had mastered never
recurred again in the symphony; and if eventually we knew the whole we should also
be able to solve the problem which was resolved by our first attempt. But then it
would be of minor significance and derivative. Provided, now, that the angels really
played a symphony, our second mode of approach would be the more adequate one; it
would not only tell us what each angel did at any particular moment but why
he did it. The whole performance would be meaningful and so would be our knowledge
Substitute the universe for Heaven and the occurrences in the universe for the
playing of the angels and you have the application to our problem.
The positivistic interpretation of the world and our knowledge of it is but one
possibility; there is another one. The question is: Which is really true? Meaning,
significance, value, as data of our total experience give us a hint that the latter
has at least as good a chance of being the true one as the former. And that means:
far from being compelled to banish concepts like meaning and value from psychology
and science in general, we must use these concepts for a full understanding of the
mind and the world, which is at the same time a full explanation.
We have discussed quantity, order and meaning with regard to their contributions
to science in general and to psychology in particular. We extracted each of our
categories from a different science, but we claimed that despite their different
origins, they are all universally applicable. And as a matter of fact, in our treatment
of the issues involved in each of our three categories - we have found the same
general principle: to integrate quantity and quality, mechanism and vitalism, explanation
and comprehension or understanding, we had to abandon the treatment of a number
of separate facts for the consideration of a group of facts in their specific form
of connection. Only thus could quantity be qualitative, and order and meaning be
saved from being either introduced into the system of science as new entities, the
privileges of life and mind, or discarded as mere figments.
Do we then claim that all facts are contained in such interconnected groups or
units that each quantification is a description of true quality, each complex and
sequence of events orderly and meaningful? In short, do we claim that the universe
and all events in it form one big Gestalt?
If we did we should be as dogmatic as the positivists who claim that no event
is orderly or meaningful, and as those who assert that quality is essentially different
from quantity. But just as the category of causality does not mean that any event
is causally connected with any other, so the Gestalt category does not mean that
any two states or events belong together in one Gestalt. "To apply the category
of cause and effect means to find out which parts of nature stand in this relation.
Similarly, to apply the Gestalt category means to find out which parts of nature
belong as parts to functional wholes, to discover their position in these wholes,
their degree of relative independence, and the articulation of larger wholes into
sub-wholes." (Koffka, 1931.)
Science will find Gestalten of different rank in different realms, but we claim
that every Gestalt has order and meaning, of however low or high a degree, and that
for a Gestalt quantity and quality are the same. Now nobody would deny that of all
Gestalten which we know those of the human mind are the richest; therefore it is
most difficult, and in most cases still impossible, to express its quality in quantitative
terms, but at the same time the aspect of meaning becomes more manifest here than
in any other part of the universe.
Psychology is a very unsatisfactory science. Comparing the vast body of systematised
and recognised facts in physics with those in psychology one will doubt the advisability
of teaching the latter to anybody who does not intend to become a professional psychologist,
one might even doubt the advisability of training professional psychologists. But
when one considers the potential contribution which psychology can make to our understanding
of the universe, one's attitude may be changed. Science becomes easily divorced
from life. The mathematician needs an escape from the thin air of his abstractions,
beautiful as they are; the physicist wants to revel in sounds that are soft, mellow,
and melodious, that seem to reveal mysteries which are hidden under the curtain
of waves and atoms and mathematical equations; and even the biologist likes to enjoy
the antics of his dog on Sundays unhampered by his weekday conviction that in reality
they - are but chains of machine-like reflexes. Life becomes a flight from science,
science a game. And thus science abandons its purpose of treating the whole of existence.
if psychology can point the way where science and life will meet, if it can lay
the foundations of a system of knowledge that will contain the behaviour of a single
atom as well as that of an amoeba, a white rat, a chimpanzee, and a human being,
with all the latter's curious activities which we call social conduct, music and
art, literature and drama, then an acquaintance with such a psychology should be
worth while and repay the time and effort spent in its acquisition.
to 1st part
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