Questions and Answers about
Gestalt Theory and Psychosis:

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Latest update of this page: 23.05.2004

QUESTION (by Marc R., Geneve):

I am looking for Gestalt theoretical sources on psychosis. I don't know if the Gestalt theorists ever wrote about these problems. Could you please give me a hint? Thank you in advance for any advice you can give me for my search.

ANSWER (by Gerhard Stemberger):

Gestalt psychologists have indeed done theoretical and practical work on theory and treatment of psychosis and other mental disorders.

Max WERTHEIMER, the founder of Gestalt theory, was interested in psychopathology from the very beginning of his studies and research work. He had worked in neurology and psychiatry institutes in Prague and Vienna before he came to Frankfurt and then Berlin where Gestalt theory finally was born. Max WERTHEIMER himself has not published in this field, but he has stimulated and influenced most of the early Gestalt psychologists' work in this field and he continued to discuss related matters during his time at the New School for Social Research in New York (you can read about this in the excellent volumes by A.S. and E.H. LUCHINS, Wertheimer's Seminars Revisited - see one of these seminar's transcripts on Understanding Psychotic's Speech in the Gestalt Archive).

To point out some of the Gestalt theoretical work done in this field, from both a historical and a present-day perspective I would like to start with an article of the German psychiatrist Heinrich SCHULTE (1898-1983): "A Gestalt Theory of Paranoia". This article was first published in German in 1924 (Psychologische Forschung, 4, pp 1-23) and is said to be composed in fact by Max WERTHEIMER for the most part. In 1938 a summarized English version of this article was included in Willis D. ELLIS' Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, New York: Harcourt & Brace, pp 362-369 (for a reprint of ELLIS' Source Book see: Special Offer of The Gestalt Journal). In 1986 the full version of the SCHULTE-article was translated into English and commented by Erwin LEVY (1907-1991), a former assistant of Max WERTHEIMER and Gestalt theoretically oriented psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the United States. His translation of and comments on the SCHULTE-article were published in Gestalt Theory, 8 (1986), pp 230-255.

This SCHULTE/WERTHEIMER-Article on paranoia provides a Gestalt theoretical approach to a new understanding of paranoic (and other severe psychotic) disorders in their actual genesis (providing hints on how to deal with them). At the 9th Scientific Convention of the GTA (1995 in Osnabrück, Germany) Michael RUH - Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapist in a German psychiatric hospital - elaborated on the SCHULTE/WERTHEIMER-theses and tried to show how they could provide a basis for Gestalt theory based psychotherapy with psychotic patients (his lecture "Phänomenale Ordnung bei psychischen Störungen" was published in Gestalt Theory, 18, 1/1996, pp 68-80).

From there an interesting debate developed within the Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy community on various aspects of the SCHULTE/ WERTHEIMER-theses and RUHs proposal. Comments of Paul THOLEY (Frankfurt), Marianne SOFF (Heppenheim), Peter VITECEK (Vienna) and myself have been published in ÖAGP-Informationen. Just recently the American Gestalt psychologist and clinician Abraham S. LUCHINS (Prof. emer. of the State University of New York) contributed some very interesting comments and historical remarks on this debate ("On Schulte, Wertheimer, and Paranoia"), and so did his son, Daniel S. LUCHINS (University of Chicago) from a biologically oriented perspective (both contributions to the debate were published in German translation in ÖAGP-Informationen, 6, 1/1997, and were published in English in Gestalt Theory -> now in the GESTALT ARCHIVE!) .

This discussion was continued at the 10th Scientific Convention of the GTA in Vienna in March 1997 and is still going on.

In the USA it is mainly the work of the American Gestalt psychologist Abraham S. LUCHINS which comes to my mind in this context. He has worked for several years as a clinician in mental hospitals and other institutions with psychotic war veterans and other psychiatric patients and has published several important papers and books on group psychotherapy, the treatment of severe psychic disorders and training in clinical psychology. With his wife Edith H. LUCHINS he has published (in several volumes) Wertheimer's Seminars Revisited (State University of New York at Albany), including a seminar in which WERTHEIMER presented and discussed the case of the Tartar on which part of SCHULTEs article is focussed.

Of specific interest and importance in the field of Gestalt theory and psychosis is the work of one of WERTHEIMERs former assistants, the above mentioned Erwin LEVY. In 1936 he published an article about a case of mania, in 1943 an article about the formal disturbance of thought in schizophrenia. Both articles show the influence of Max WERTHEIMER, who referred to these articles in his famous book 'Productive Thinking' and in his seminars at the New School of Social Research. Below you find links to the full text online versions of these articles.

KÖHLER, KOFFKA, Max WERTHEIMER and Kurt LEWIN have discussed aspects of psychotic disorders in their works though this was not their main field of publishing. Some of LEWINs students and associates have worked and published in this field, e.g. Junius F. BROWN. And of course the work of Kurt GOLDSTEIN and his associates has to be mentioned in this context.

Unfortunately there are no English translations of the important work Gestalt psychologists in the German speaking countries (like Kurt GOTTSCHALDT and Wolfgang METZGER) have contributed to the understanding of mental disorders over the last decades. So the following references are restricted to some sources on this topic in English.

For further information see the short abstract of my lecture on Gestalt Theory and Psychopathology (1999). The full text of this lecture has been published in Gestalt Theory, 22 (1/2000), pp 27-46 ("Gestalttheoretische Beiträge zur Psychopathologie") and in the new book on this topic in German language:


Gerhard Stemberger (Hrsg.):

Psychische Störungen im Ich-Welt-Verhältnis

Gestalttheorie und psychotherapeutische Krankheitslehre

Wien 2002: Verlag Wolfgang Krammer
184 Seiten, Preis € 21,80 zuzügl. Versandkosten

Dieser Sammelband enthält einige frühe gestaltpsychologische Arbeiten zur Psychopathologie (Schulte/Wertheimer zur Paranoia 1924, Erwin Levy zur Manie 1936 und zur Schizophrenie 1943), z.T. erstmals in deutscher Übersetzung, und neue Diskussions- und Übersichtsbeiträge deutscher, österreichischer und amerikanischer PsychotherapeutInnen und Psychiater zur Aktualität dieser Ansätze für eine psychotherapeutische Krankheitslehre.

Nähere Informationen zu diesem Buch

Anfrage bzw. Bestellung per Email an Buchhandlung Krammer

Some references:

Heinrich SCHULTE, An Approach to a Gestalt Theory of Paranoia. In: Willis D. ELLIS, A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, New York: Harcourt/Brace, 1938, pp 362-369.

Erwin LEVY, A Gestalt Theory of Paranoia. Introduction, comment and translation of 'Heinrich Schulte'. Gestalt Theory, 8 (4/1986), pp 230-255.

Erwin LEVY, Some Aspects of the Schizophrenic Formal Disturbance of Thought. Psychiatry, 6 (1943), pp 55-69 (German translation by Gerhard Stemberger: Einige Aspekte der schizophrenen formalen Denkstörung, Gestalt Theory, 19, 1/1997, S. 27-50). Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

Max WERTHEIMER (Seminar Transcript), Understanding Psychotic's Speech. Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

Erwin LEVY, A Case of Mania with Its Social Implications. Social Research, 3 (1936), pp 488-493 (German translation by Gerhard Stemberger: Ein Fall von Manie und seine sozialen Implikationen, Gestalt Theory, 22, 1/2000, S. 20-26). Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, Experiences with closed ward group psychotherapy.American Orthopsychiat., 17 (1947), pp 511-520.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, The Role of the Social Field in Psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting Psychology (1948a), Vol. XII, pp 417-425. Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, Specialized audio-aids in a group psychotherapy program for psychotics. Journal of Consulting Psychology (1948b), Vol. XII, pp 313-320.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, Restructuring Social Perceptions - A Group Psychotherapy Technique. Journal of Consulting Psychology (1950), Vol. XIV, pp 446-451.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, On Training Clinical Psychologists in Psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 5 (1949), pp 132-137.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, Group Psychotherapy - A Guide. New York : Random House, 1964.

Abraham S. LUCHINS, On Schulte, Wertheimer, and Paranoia. Gestalt Theory, 20 , 2/1998, pp. 173-177. Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

Matthew MAIBAUM, A Lewinian Taxonomy of Psychiatric Disorders. Presented at the 5th International Lewin Conference, 1992, University of Pennsylvania. Published in Gestalt Theory, 23 (3/2001), pp. 196-215. Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

, The Organism. A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Psychological Data in Man. New edition with a foreword by Oliver SACKS: New York: Zone Books 1998.
Order this book now from Amazon! | Order from IBS (UK) | Search ABE for a used copy

Kurt GOLDSTEIN, Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology. New York: Schocken Books 1963.

Junius F. BROWN, The Psychodynamics of Abnormal Behavior. New York/London: McGraw-Hill, 1940.

Junius F. BROWN, Psychoanalysis, Topological Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology. Psychoanal. Quarterly, 6, (1937), pp. 227-237. Now full text in the GESTALT ARCHIVE.

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