GESTALT THEORY

by Max Wertheimer (1924)

(2nd part)

-> go to 1st part


Über Gestalttheorie [an address before the Kant Society, Berlin, '7th December, 1924], Erlangen, 1925.
In the translation by Willis D. Ellis published in his "Source Book of Gestalt Psychology,"
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938.
Reprinted by the Gestalt Journal Press, New York 1997.


Further discussion of this point would carry us into the work of social and cultural science which cannot be followed here. Instead let us consider certain other illustrations. What was said above of stimulus and sensation is applicable to physiology and the biological sciences no less than to psychology. It has been tried, for example, by postulating sums of more and more special apparatus, to account for meaningful or, as it is often called, purposive behaviour. Once more we find meaninglessly combined reflexes taken for granted although it is probable that even with minute organisms it is not true that a piece-stimulus automatically bring about its corresponding piece-effect.

Opposing this view is vitalism which, however, as it appears to Gestalt theory, also errs in its efforts to solve the problem, for it, too, begins with the assumption that natural occurrences are themselves essentially blind and haphazard - and adds a mystical something over and above them which imposes order. Vitalism fails to inquire of physical events whether a genuine order might not already prevail amongst them. And yet nature does exhibit numerous instances of physical wholes in which part events are determined by the inner structure of the whole. [5]

These brief references to biology will suffice to remind us that whole-phenomena are not "merely" psychological, but appear in other sciences as well. Obviously, therefore, the problem is not solved by separating off various provinces of science and classifying whole-phenomena as something peculiar to psychology.

The fundamental question can be very simply stated: Are the parts of a given whole determined by the inner structure of that whole, or are the events such that, as independent, piecemeal, fortuitous and blind the total activity is a sum of the part-activities? Human beings can, of course, devise a kind of physics of their own - e.g. a sequence of machines - exemplifying the latter half of our question, but this does not signify that all natural phenomena are of this type. Here is a place where Gestalt theory is least easily understood and this because of the great number of prejudices about nature which have accumulated during the centuries. Nature is thought of as something essentially blind in its laws, where whatever takes place in the whole is purely a sum of individual occurrences. This view was the natural result of the struggle which physics has always had to purge itself of teleology. To-day it can be seen that we are obliged to traverse other routes than those suggested by this kind of purposivism.

Let us proceed another step and ask: How does all this stand with regard to the problem of body and mind? What does my knowledge of another's mental experiences amount to and how do I obtain it? There are, of course, old and established dogmas on these points: The mental and physical are wholly heterogeneous: There obtains between them an absolute dichotomy. (From this point of departure philosophers have drawn an array of metaphysical deductions so as to attribute all the good qualities to mind while reserving for nature the odious.) As regards the second question, my discerning mental phenomena in others is traditionally explained as inference by analogy. Strictly interpreted the principle here is that something mental is meaninglessly coupled with something physical. I observe the physical and infer the mental from it more or less according to the following scheme: I see someone press a button on the wall and infer that he wants the light to go on. There may be couplings of this sort. However, many scientists have been disturbed by this dualism.and have tried to save themselves by recourse to very curious hypotheses. Indeed, the ordinary person would violently refuse to believe that when he sees his companion startled, frightened, or angry he is seeing only certain physical occurrences which themselves have nothing to do (in their inner nature) with the mental, being only superficially coupled with it: you have frequently seen this and this combined ... etc. There have been many attempts to surmount this problem. One speaks, for example, of intuition and says there can be no other possibility, for I see my companion's fear. It is not true, argue the intuitionists, that I see only the bare bodily activities meaninglessly coupled with other and invisible activities. However inadmissible it may otherwise be, an intuition theory does have at least this in its favour, it shows a suspicion that the traditional procedure might be successfully reversed. But the word intuition is at best only a naming of that which we must strive to lay hold of.

This and other hypotheses, apprehended as they now are, will not advance scientific pursuit, for science demands fruitful penetration, not mere cataloguing and systematization. But the question is, How does the matter really stand? Looking more closely we find a I third assumption, namely that a process such as fear is a matter of consciousness. Is this true? Suppose you see a person who is kindly or benevolent. Does anyone suppose that this person is feeling mawkish? No one could possibly believe that. The characteristic feature of such behaviour has very little to do with consciousness. It has been one of the easiest contrivances of philosophy to identify a man's real behaviour and the direction of his mind with his consciousness. Parenthetically, in the opinion of many people the distinction between idealism and materialism implies that between the noble and the ignoble. Yet does one really mean by this to contrast consciousness with the blithesome budding of trees? Indeed, what is there so repugnant about the materialistic and mechanical? What is so attractive about the idealistic? Does it come from the material qualities of the connected pieces? Broadly speaking most psychological theories and textbooks, despite their continued emphasis upon consciousness, are far more "materialistic", arid, and spiritless than a living tree - which probably has no consciousness at all. The point is not what the material pieces are, but what kind of whole it is. Proceeding in terms of specific problems one soon realizes how many bodily activities there are which give no hint of a separation between body and mind. Imagine a dance, a dance full of grace and joy. What is the situation in such a dance? Do we have a summation of physical limb movements and a psychical consciousness? No. Obviously this answer does not solve the problem; we have to start anew - and it seems to me that a proper and fruitful point of attack has been discovered. [6] One finds many processes which, in their dynamical form, are identical regardless of variations in the material character of their elements. When a man is timid, afraid or energetic, happy or sad, it can often be shown that the course of his physical processes is Gestalt-identical with the course pursued by the mental processes.

Again In I can only indicate the direction of thought. I have touched on the question of body and mind merely to show that the problem we are discussing also has its philosophic aspects. To strengthen the import of the foregoing suggestions let us consider the fields of epistemology and logic. For centuries the assumption has prevailed that our world is essentially a summation of elements. For Hume and largely also for Kant the world is like a bundle of fragments, and the dogma of meaningless summations continues to play its part. As for logic, it supplies: concepts, which when rigorously viewed are but sums of properties; classes, which upon closer inspection prove to be mere catchalls ; syllogisms, devised by arbitrarily lumping together any two propositions having the character that ... etc. When one considers what a concept is in living thought, what it really means to grasp a conclusion; when one considers what the crucial thing is about a mathematical proof and the concrete interrelationships it involves, one sees that the categories of traditional logic have accomplished nothing in this direction. [7]

It is our task to inquire, whether a logic is possible which is not piecemeal. Indeed the same question arises in mathematics also. Is it necessary that all mathematics be established upon a piecewise basis? What sort of mathematical system would it be in which this were not the case? There have been attempts to answer the latter question but almost always they have fallen back in the end upon the old procedures. This fate has overtaken many, for the result of training in piecewise thinking is extraordinarily tenacious. It is not enough and certainly does not constitute a solution of the, principal problem if one shows that the atoms a of mathematics are both piecemeal and t the same time evince something of the opposite character. The problem has been scientifically grasped only when an attack specifically designed to yield positive results has been launched. Just how this attack is to be made seems to many mathematicians a colossal problem, but perhaps the quantum theory will force the mathematicians to attack it.

This brings us to the close of an attempt to present a view of the problem as illustrated by its specific appearances in various fields. In concluding I may suggest a certain unification of these illustrations somewhat as follows. I consider the situation from the point of view of a theory of aggregates and say: How should a world be where science, concepts, inquiry, investigation, and comprehension of inner unities were impossible? The answer is obvious. This world would be a manifold of disparate pieces. Secondly, what kind of world would there have to be in which a piecewise science would apply? The answer is again quite simple, for here one needs only a system of recurrent couplings that are blind and piecewise in character, whereupon everything is available for a pursuit of the traditional piecewise methods of logic, mathematics, and science generally in so far as these presuppose this kind of world. But there is a third kind of aggregate which has been but cursorily investigated. These are the aggregates in which a manifold is not compounded from adjacently situated pieces but rather such that a term at its place in that aggregate is determined by the whole-laws of the aggregate itself.

Pictorially: suppose the world were a vast plateau upon which were many musicians. I walk about listening and watching the players. First suppose that the world is a meaningless plurality. Everyone does as he will, each for himself. What happens together when I hear ten players might be the basis for my guessing as to what they all are doing, but this is merely a matter of chance and probability much as in the kinetics of gas molecules. - A second possibility would be that each time one musician played c, another played f so and so many seconds later. I work out a theory of blind couplings but the playing as a whole remains meaningless. This is what many people think physics does, but the real work of physics belies this. - The third possibility is, say, a Beethoven symphony where it would be possible for one to select one part of the whole and work from that towards an idea of the structural principle motivating and determining the whole. Here the fundamental laws are not those of fortuitous pieces, but concern the very character of the event.

1st Part


Footnotes:

[5] See KÖHLER, W. (1938). Physical Gestalten. In: W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, 17-54. Reprint (1997): New York: The Gestalt Journal Press. [-> back to text]

[6] Compare HORNBOSTEL; E. M. v. (1938). The Unity of the Senses. In: W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, 210-216. Reprint (1997): New York: The Gestalt Journal Press. [-> back to text]

[7] Compare in this connection WERTHEIMER, M. (1938). The Syllogism and Productive Thinking. In: W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, 274-282. Reprint (1997): New York: The Gestalt Journal Press. [-> back to text]


This paper was first published in German: Über Gestalttheorie
[an address before the Kant Society, Berlin, '7th December, 1924], Erlangen, 1925.
The English translation by Willis D. Ellis was first published in his
"Source Book of Gestalt Psychology,"
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938.
The Source Book was reprinted in 1997 by the Gestalt Journal Press, New York.


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