Questions and Answers about
Gestalt Theory and Edward C. Tolman:


If YOU have a question please send your e-mail to the GTA: ; if question and answer seem to be of a more general interest we shall put them up in this section.

Latest update of this page: 23.05.2004


QUESTION (by Sergio C.):

I am writing a paper on the psychologist Tolman, for a theories of learning class in my college. I was wondering if you can help me find some information or resources that relate to Tolman and his ideas about gestalt.


ANSWER (by Michael Ruh and Gerhard Stemberger):

Although Edward C. TOLMAN has been a behaviorist, there are a lot of connections between Tolman and the founders of Gestalt psychology. There have been personal meetings and there have been several discussions about specific psychological questions.

Michael M. SOKAL ('Gestalt Psychology in America in the 1920s and 1930s'; in: St. Poggi (ed.), Gestalt Psychology - Its Origins, Foundations and Influence, Firenze: Olschki) writes:

"In 1912, Langfeld (then at Harvard) sent one of his students, Edward C. Tolman, to Giessen, where Koffka taught as a Privatdozent, and the American served as a subject in some early Gestalt experiments. After the war, when the opportunity next presented itself, Tolman returned to Giessen and Koffka for a few months.
By 1919, Tolman had 'conceived that a rat running in a maze must be learning a lay-out pattern,' and thus reinterpreted a standard behaviorist experiment in Gestalt terms.
In addition, at the International Congress of Psychology held during the summer of 1923 in Oxford, both Langfeld and Tolman 'had a private meeting' with Koffka and Köhler to discuss Gestalt psychology, and many other British (and visiting) psychologists also met and became impressed with the two Germans at the congress. Most importantly, Tolman kept in continual contact with Koffka for the two decades after the Congress, and his 'purposive behaviorism,' which stressed 'cognitive maps' quite like the Gestalt perceptual fields, was one of the
leading approaches to psychology in the 1930s"
(p. 92).

David J. MURRAY (Gestalt Psychology and the Cognitive Revolution, New York: Harvester, 1995) as well mentions, that TOLMAN at one time worked with KOFFKA in Germany (in the early 1920s), and draws the conclusion from this and other facts that "the reasons for the clash between the behaviorists and the Gestaltists concerning the need for 'goals' to be irreducible entities in a systematic psychological science include a historical factor" (p. 173; see also pp 19-20).

In 1932 TOLMAN published an article about 'Lewin's Concept of Vectors' (Journal of General Psychology, 7, pp 3-15), in 1933 an article about 'Gestalt and Sign-Gestalt' (Psychological Review, 40, pp 391-411), analyzing rat behavior in terms of associations called 'sign-gestalts'.

Kurt KOFFKA reviewed TOLMANs book 'Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men' in 1933 in the Psychological Bulletin, 30, pp 440-451. TOLMAN and J. A. HOROWITZ wrote 'A Reply to Mr. Koffka' in the Psychological Bulletin, 30, pp 459-465, admitting that evidence was piling up that the physiology of the brain was molaristic or organized in a Gestalt-like way (p. 464), but maintaining that neurological and perceptual structures were related functionally, that they were not necessarily isomorphic.

In 'Principles of Gestalt Psychology' (1935, Harcourt Brace, New York) KOFFKA argues strictly against the behavioristic point of view of man. He refers to TOLMANs 'Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men' to argue from the Gestalt point of view. In the chapter titled 'The task of psychology' (p. 55-56) he refers to TOLMANs distinction between molecular and molar behavior, to demonstrate that they are totally different. He cites TOLMAN (1932): "It will be contended by us ... that 'behavior acts', though in no doubt in complete one-to-one correspondence with the underlying molecular facts of physics and physiology, have as 'molar' wholes, certain emergent properties of their own." From KOFFKAs and the Gestalt point of view this means, that (molar) behavior is fundamentally different from the underlying physiological process.

In the chapter titled 'Action' KOFFKA refers to TOLMANs theory of physiognomic characters and the actions corresponding to them (p 364-366). KOFFKA argues that TOLMANs explanation of preferred action is "too narrow, that the complexity of behavior is dynamically far greater than his Tolman's system allows. ... The case in which a condition of dynamic stress has only one way of relief, the problem only one way of solution, is extremely rare in mental and organic life. ... In short, it seems not an adequate explanation to derive flight in all cases from a pre-existing state of timidity, fight from one of pugnaciousness" (p. 366).

In the chapter titled 'Learning and other memory functions' KOFFKA discusses the Law of Frequency, formulated by TOLMAN (p. 538-541) and the TOLMAN maze experiments which led him to the concept of 'Latent learning'. KOFFKA argues that these latent learning experiments show that the theory of association in learning is too narrow to explain human behavior (p. 585-589).

KOFFKA (p. 391) also refers to TOLMANs concept of 'sign-gestalt' and acknowledges the description of TOLMAN, "although in my opinion this author oversimplifies the picture of the sign-gestalt, by which he attributes primary importance to signs, whereas they seem to me but one among many different kinds of dynamic objects."

Kurt LEWIN frequently referred to TOLMANs work. In 'Formalization and Progress in Psychology', in 'Defining the Field at a given time', in 'Field Theory and Learning' (all articles re-published in the collection 'Field Theory in Social Science', just recently re-issued by the American Psychological Association, Washington, 1997).

There has been a scientific discussion between TOLMAN and LEWIN on the concept of vectors. It started when LEWIN published "Environmental Forces in Child Behavior and Development" (In: Handbook of Child Psychology, 1931, Ed. Murchison, Clark University Press, Worcester). TOLMAN read this essay and published critical remarks on LEWIN in his article 'Lewin's Concept of Vectors' (Journal of General Psychology, 7, 1932, pp 3-15; see above). LEWIN answered to this criticism by publishing 'Vectors, cognitive processes, and Mr. Tolman's criticism' in Journal of General Psychology, 8, 1933, pp 318-345. These historical remarks were published by C. F. GRAUMANN in Kurt Lewin, Werkausgabe, Bd. 4, Feldtheorie, p. 126-127. GRAUMANN also points out that TOLMAN concedes the strong influence of LEWINs former work on his own, especially on 'Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men'). LEWIN summarizes that the theory of TOLMAN and his own field theory - beside the differences in detail - have have a great deal in common. He rejects the criticism of TOLMAN that Gestalt Psychology 'has a tendency not to go in too much for analysis' and argues that his field theory is more general than TOLMANs theory, and the mathematical analysis in field theory is more far-reaching than TOLMANs theory.

Wolfgang KÖHLER refers to TOLMANs book 'Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men', saying: "Actually it was a behaviorist, Professor Tolman of California, who first admitted that purpose must be given a central position among the concepts of psychology. He also convinced other behaviorists by showing that purpose can be subjected to exact experimental investigations" ('The Scientists from Europe', in: The Selected Papers of Wolfgang Köhler, edited by Mary Henle, New York: Liveright, 1971, p. 428). And: "Awareness of vectors in similar cases has, I believe, caused Professor Tolman to include purpose among his Behavioristic categories" (The Place of Value in a World of Facts, New York: Liveright, 1976, p. 82).

More information about this personal and professional relationship between TOLMAN and the Gestalt psychologists can be found in E.C. TOLMANs "Autobiography", published in: A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 4, E.G. Boring et al. (Eds.), Worcester (MA), Clark University Press, 1952, pp 327-329.

We hope these remarks on 'Tolman & Gestalt' will help you.

Michael Ruh, Rosenthal, Germany.
Gerhard Stemberger, Purkersdorf/Vienna, Austria.


Back to main index of Questions and Answers


Home GTA International
GESTALT INFOSPACE - Gestalt Resources | GESTALT ARCHIVE | Journal GESTALT THEORY
Gestalt People | Gestalt Publications | Gestalt Conferences | Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy
About Gestalt Theory and the GTA
GTA Home page Deutsch |GTA Home page Italiano |GTA Home page Français