Some Aspects of the Schizophrenic Formal Disturbance of Thought

by Erwin Levy

[first published in: Psychiatry, 6 (1943), pp 55-69;
German translation 1997 by Gerhard Stemberger in Gestalt Theory, 19 (1), S. 27-50:
"Einige Aspekte der schizophrenen formalen Denkstörung"]

(3rd part)

Investigators of the formal disturbance of thought have usually undertaken the analysis of their patients' productions by working with the statements piecemeal, in isolation, without regard to the surrounding and determining field constellation. BLEULER [11] did this when he gave the classic theory of schizophrenic thinking on the basis of associationism. [12] More recent investigators of the disturbance of concept formation have used various experimental methods with the same limitations. [13]

Usually the authors did not seriously take into account the fact that even the formal features of thinking are a phase of living, a part-function largely determined by the subject's functional position in, and relation to, his world.

It might be claimed that this piecemeal approach can in some instances be justified. lt can be argued that the normal human being must be able to do, and often does, some straight thinking on an objective problem, quite independent of his own personal situation in the world. In such cases the thinking is determined by only the objective structure and requirements of the problem. In all scientific thinking this is a primary requisite, and many concrete life situations need the same open-minded objective approach. In studying the inner structure and dynamics of such a thought process it is often unnecessary to know anything about the man who did the thinking. In order to understand the solution of a problem in physics or history and to judge its merits one need not know the writer.

There seems to be no reason why this method should not be applied to the analysis of diseased thinking in similar seemingly closed and independent productions. There are, however, two objections to the transfer of this normal method to pathological cases. Even in its application to normal thinking it implies two tacit presuppositions which must be elucidated and which are not necessarily valid for diseased thinking. The first presupposition may be formulated in the following way:

There is given a factual object or problern, P, which is identical for anyone who may study it. P=P for thinker A, B, C . . . N. Therefore, their thinking on P should lead to results which are essentially identical -if not immediately, then after thorough study.

This formulation is questioned by Gestalt psychology which assumes that P itself is psychologically not an isolated fact, but is experienced in the functional role, in the situational meaning [14] which it assumes as part of the respective worlds of A, B, C . . . N. [15]

Instead of P=P for A, B, C, ..... N, one must write: P=fp(SA); P=fp(SB); P=fp(SC); . . . P=fp(SN).

P = P implies that the behavioral worlds of A, B, C, .... N are tacitly assumed to be structurally identical at least in that sector of which P is a part; in other words that with respect to P, A, B, C , ... N live in the same common world: SA=SB=SC ... =SN. There is no doubt that this assumption can be made safely with respect to a large variety of problems and objects. lf two men study some scientific problem such as the phenomenon of elasticity it can generally be assumed that the world of physics of which this problem is a part is very much the same to both, evoking the same clear view of the phenomenon and the same scientific sight of it. The same is true for problems in logic and for a large variety of problems in everyday life. However, everyday life also presents perfectly normal situations where the assumption does not hold true in the sense in which it mostly does in the sciences. The following example may serve to illustrate this:

A is a business man, cool, sober, experienced. B is his daughter, protected, young, romantic, somewhat idealistic and inexperienced. P is a brilliant, successful young lawyer, known to A socially, and also through business transactions, and by reputation in the business world. The girl knows him socially only, and has no knowledge of his professional activities. She has fallen in love with him and is thinking of marrying him. She thinks: 'P is wonderful, very clever, a brilliant conversationalist. His mind works like a trigger. I hear he is marvellous at his work, witty, unbiased, unconventional. I love the way he looks.....' She speaks to her father who presents his view of P: 'Yes, he is handsome, a good conversationalist, clever - and he knows how to sell himself to inexperienced people. But in terms of the business world he is a crook. His legal methods are smart, but dubious. Nobody can prove anything against him - he is too smart for that - but everybody in business knows that he is unscrupulous and tricky. I most certainly object to your marrying him.'

In this case, the presupposed identity of P for A and B, and, to some extent, the tacitly assumed identity of their worlds, are psychologically not valid. fp(SA) is a clever brilliant crook; fp(SB) an intelligent cultured young man. It is clear that in this case fp(SA) is unequal to fp(SB). The inequality of the two is due to the fact that in her world, SB, the girl does not experience P as a part of, and in his role, in A's larger world. She experiences him in her smaller social world where he is a shining star. She does not know the business world - it is not hers. To this extent SA is unequal to SB. [16]

In themselves, both the father's and the daughter's ways of thinking are clear, consistent, and flawless - they are cases of normal thinking. This is a comparatively simple illustration of how much such thinking is normally deterrnined by the field situation in which it occurs, and by the relation of the thinking person to his situation and the particular object in it.

The girl's view is clearly wrong, not because the lawyer has not the qualities she attributes to him, but because in her world, only this part of the man is visble, and seems to be th whole man: to the rest she is blind. She does not see that these qualities are only part of a larger and more complex whole. The father knows that they really constitute a part of the lawyer's endowment for cunning and success at any price, and sees them in functional togetherness with all the other information he has about him. Centered around a ruthless drive for success these qualities now appear as useful but decidedly questionable tools.

Fig. 5.

Figure 5 may roughly illustrate what is meant. The large rectangle SA may indicate the father's world; the small one, SB, that of the girl. The triangle XYZ indicates the lawyer as he appears in her world; it may represent his social qualities. The girl sees only the triangle limited by the sides XY, YZ, ZX. The father in his larger horizon sees that this is no triangle but a very different figure, WXY. XY is its short side; YZ constitutes an arbitrarily cut-off piece of the arc YW. The functional meaning of these parts is entirely different if they are seen as parts of the whole, XYZ, or of the whole, WXY; and despite the piecemeal identity of the parts the two wholes are radically different in both cases. Correspondingly, the father admits that the lawyer has the features observed by the daughter, but, if seen as parts of the larger whole their functional meaning is different from that which they have within the smaller whole. Accordingly, there is a radical difference in his view of the personality as a whole.

This is a very simple case. The essential difference of SA and SB is only one of more or less: the former is larger than the latter. In many other cases, and also in this one if one considers the girl's love as a factor, the difference between the two worlds is not only a difference of size, but of structural quality, of whole-dynamics and atmosphere. The example was chosen to show in a simple way what role differences of structural view may play even if they are only based on a more or less of knowledge.

Such cases are frequent and often occur in normal life. If the analysis of normal thinking would take them into account it would have to allow for the differences of the subjects' behavioral world as decisive for the differences in their thinking.Thinking is not an isolated piecemeal event. It is determined by the behavioral field in which it occurs, by the thinker's relation to life, his view of the world and its parts. In certain issues this may be of crucial importance. Not all people have the same world.

The second of the two tacit assumptions referred to above is the following. Within the common world presupposed in the first assumption there is assumed to exist a very special relationship between the thinking subject and his object or problem. It is assumed that he will approach his problem in an objective manner, focussing on it and not on his own troubles. If he does not do so the result will be poor thinking and mistakes in logic. He is supposed to look at his object with open eyes, without prejudices, and his self is not to intrude. The subject-relationship is to be centered on the object, the structure of the thinking process is thought to be determined by the structural requirements of the object itself.

This is an ideal situation. Fortunately there are people who do approach some problems in life and science in this way. But it cannot be taken for granted that this subject-object relationship prevails in all instances of normal, let alone pathological, thinking. Very often thinking is not only centered on the structural requirements of the objective situation but on field conditions involving the subject which may be of so serious a character as to make him incapable of dealing with a present problem as an independent whole, on its merits alone, in sharp separation from what is important and urgent to himself. Here belong not only the more trivial cases of so-called wishful thinking. Here belong the sometimes tragic cases in which the serious and vital structural qualities and requirements of the subject's relationship to his world, influence and mislead him in his thinking and make him unable to focus objectively on a present question which, to others, may seem simple enough. He may not be able to grasp its simple objective features, as they 'cannot be the whole truth.' An example is furnished by those who after violent revolutionary changes in their country just cannot accept these changes as reality.

A sixty-six year old, well-to-do Jewish merchant of honest, rugged stock, came from a family which had lived in Bavaria for generations, and which had acquired honor and leadership in the community. All his life he had been deeply rooted in the land, the culture, the customs and dialect of his corner of the country. With the advent of Hitlerism he was suddenly informed that he was a foreigner who did not belong and should leave. This could not really become part of his thinking. In his view Hitlerism itself was the foreign thing that did not belong to his mountains, to the country of Durer, to his honest, straight-thinking neighbours and friends. He could not grasp its seriousness and reality. It could not possibly be part of this field; it would surely pass. He doggedly refused to leave, until in 1938 he was sent to a concentration camp. There Hitlerism became real for him. He finally managed to emigrate, a confused broken old man.

In such cases the result of the thought process is not simply determined by the object alone, and cannot be understood unless something is known of the subject, of his relation to life and to his behavioral world. The place and role which the object assumes in these contexts must be known.

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[11] BLEULER, Eugen, Dementia Praecox oder Gruppe der Schizophrenien. Handbuch der Psychiatrie [ed. Aschaffenburg, spezieller Teil. 4. Abteilung, 1.Hälfte.]; Leipzig and Vienna, Franz Deuticke, 1911 (xii and 420 pp.) - in particular, pp. 10-11. [-> back to text]

[12] BLEULER, Eugen, Text Book of Psychiatry; New York. Macmillan, 1934 (xviii and 635 pp.) - in particular, pp. 77-82. [-> back to text]

[13] VIGOTZKI, L. S. [translated by Jacob KASANIN), Thought In Schizophrenia. Arch. Neurot. and Psychiat. (1934) 31:1063-1077.
HANFMANN, Eugenia. Analysis of the Thinking Disorder In a Case of Schizophrenia. Arch. Neurol. and Psychiat. (1939) 41:568-579.
HANFMANN, Eugenia, and KASANIN, Jacob. Conceptual Thinking in Schizophrenia; New York. Nervous and Mental Disease Monographs, 1942 (vii and 115 pp.).
HANFMANN, Eugenia, and KASANIN, Jacob, An Experimental Study of Concept Formation in Schizophrenia. Amer. J. Psychiatry (1938) 95:35-48. [-> back to text]

[14] DUNCKER, Karl, Ethical Relativity? An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. Mind (1939) 48:39-57. [-> back to text]

[15] Reference footnote 5 [item 2]; p. 27 - Kurt KOFFKA introduced the distinction of "geographical" and "behavioral" environment. This dlscussion is, of course, concerned only with the latter, and with the role P plays as its part. [-> back to text]

[16] She may also be so deeply in love that she becomes unable to organize her picture of him in the direction of fp(SA); the strong forces of her infatuation prevent it. [-> back to text]

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