The Gestalt theory was pioneered by Max Wertheimer and it emphasizes on a higher-order mix of both the cognitive process and behaviorism. Gestalt theory was instituted in contrast with other psychological theories of the time including molecularism. Nevertheless, Gestalt psychology borrows elements of other pioneering psychologists and philosophers including Ernst Mach, Oswald Kulpe, and Christian von Ehrenfels.
The central principle in Wertheimer’s theory is that “the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies” (Ellis, 1938). Gestalt theory perceives the human understanding as a system that works in tandem with parallelism and pre-perceptions. Other “psychologists who worked on the formulation of gestalt theory include Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler” (Ellis, 1938).
Wertheimer’s school of thought is often broken down into one phrase; “the whole is other than the sum of parts” (American Psychological Association, 2009). This paper is a study of gestalt theory and its founder Max Wertheimer.
Max Wertheimer- The Theorist
Max Wertheimer was born in Austria, Hungary as the second born child of Rosa and Wilhelm Wertheimer in 1880. Wertheimer’s father worked as a teacher and financier while his mother was a woman who had received an enviable level of education. Consequently, Max Wertheimer grew up in a home where high levels of intellect were valued. In addition, the Wertheimers were devoted religious adherents who actively participated in their Jewish community affairs.
As a child, Wertheimer would routinely engage in academic discussions courtesy of his parents. Max’s parents also introduced him to musical instruments such as the violin and the piano. The theorist’s initial interest in philosophy was sparked when his parents gave him a book by Baruch Spinoza. Wertheimer immediately developed a connection with Spinoza’s philosophy and hence his scholarly journey began (American Psychological Association, 2009).
Max’s was introduced to formal schooling when he was five years old after he enrolled in a Catholic Elementary school although he was Jewish. Max continued with formal education at the ‘Royal Imperial New City German State School’ where he hoped to gain enough academic credentials to grant him admission to a good university. Max was first enrolled at Charles University where he sought to study law.
Later on, Max changed schools and enrolled at the University of Berlin where he began his studies on philosophy and had the chance to collaborate with other notable scholars of the time including Erich Hornbostel, Carl Stumpf, and Georg Muller. As a PhD candidate, Max completed his research on the lie detector at the University of Wurzburg.
The theorist got married in 1923 to “Ann Caro, a physician’s daughter with whom he had four children” (American Psychological Association, 2009). After completing his formal studies in 1903, Max started his journey as a scholar and educator.
Max’s first job as an academic tutor was at the University of Frankfurt although he took a thirteen-year break to render his services to the Berlin Psychological Institute. In 1929, Max became a full-fledged professor at the Frankfurt University. During the World War I, Max served as a German Captain. After the war came to an end, Wertheimer returned to Germany where he began giving lectures on perception theories. Max’s research on the gestalt theory was in full gear by the year 1933.
When Adolf Hitler became Germany’s leader, Max saw the danger of staying in the country. Consequently, Max and his family moved to the United States. Max was able to become a United States’ citizen and he subsequently settled in the city of New York.
Max’s work on gestalt theory was greatly interrupted by the World War I because his two other research partners were located in different areas as the war continued (King, Keller & Crochetiere, 2008). Furthermore, after Hitler assumed power in Germany, it became almost impossible for the three gestalt researchers to continue with their work because of Max’s immigration to the United States.
Max was fifty-three years old when he accepted a teaching job in New York. Max taught a number of courses at the New School for Social Research while the institution was being established as a full-fledged academic centre. However, Max was able to maintain his collaboration with fellow European scholars some of whom had moved to America. During his tenure in the United States, Max began experiencing ill health but he was still able to continue with his research on gestalt theories.
Initially, the work on gestalt theory was known as productive thinking and it was contained in Max’s only book by the same title. Max “died in September 1943 after suffering a heart attack at his New York residence” (American Psychological Association, 2009). The scholar’s son, Michael Wertheimer was later to become a successful psychologist.
Gestalt Theory and Research
Wertheimer’s theory is “based on the simple premise that human beings have the ability to sense things that are not part of their basic sensations” (Wertheimer, 1959). The theorist conceived this idea after he realized that human beings often perceive motion even where individual occurrences are presented in a quick succession.
This is the same principle that is used in motion pictures where individual camera shots are presented in quick succession. Max first saw his theory “in the toy stroboscope he bought at the Frankfurt train station, and later on in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession” (Ellis, 1938). Therefore, the underlying principle in the gestalt theory is ‘apparent motion’.
Wertheimer’s main question during his research on the gestalt theory was if “human beings can see something that is not actually there, what is it that they are seeing” (Wertheimer, 1959). The theorist’s deduction was that what we see is a manifestation of a whole occurrence that is not equal to the various parts that make up the entire occurrence. The relationships between the entire set of lights enables us to see them as a string and not as separate glows.
Gestalt psychology concludes that during perception, a set of laws that is known as ‘gestalt laws’ governs how human beings organize their learning. The gestalt laws contain simple principles of perception such as regularity, symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity (Wertheimer, 1959).
For instance, the law of closure claims that if a particular arrangement has missing elements, a person is likely to add the omitted essentials in the course of his/her perception. An example of this gestalt manifestation is in a scenario where a person is presented with a figure of a circle that has a small part of its outline missing. The person who is interpreting the circle will tend to add the missing outline and consider the figure to be a ‘complete circle’.
Critical Review of Gestalt Theory
Although the gestalt theory was formulated several decades ago, it has managed to remain relevant in the course of these years. For instance, “the gestalt theory has found relevance in modern times through the design of user interfaces” (American Psychological Association, 2009). Today, most information-technology gadgets employ the gestalt principles in their user interfaces. For example, most smart phones use neatly arranged buttons and patterns to facilitate easy usage.
Another positive aspect of the gestalt theory is its complimentary nature to the relevant theory of quantum physics. Quantum mechanics is one of the most progressive concepts in both psychology and philosophy. The gestalt theory compliments quantum mechanics by advocating the use of mathematical concepts in philosophy and psychology. Consequently, the gestalt theory finds relevance among other major psychology theories.
The major shortcoming in the gestalt theory is its lack of solid explanations for its hypotheses. The gestalt theory is arguably a descriptive concept. Therefore, Wertheimer spends a lot of time describing scenarios that prove his theory but he is unable to offer explanations about why things ‘appear the way that they do’. For example, Wertheimer describes how human beings see a series of lights as a singular light.
However, Wertheimer does not sufficiently explain why the series of lights appear as a single occurrence. Consequently, it is easy for scholars to prove the redundancy of the gestalt theory. Another weakness in the gestalt theory is that its validity as a psychological theory has vanished along the way.
The psychological theorists who came after Wertheimer failed to add on to his original research (Humphrey, 2004). Therefore, the original descriptive elements of the gestalt theory have mostly been incorporated into other learning theories. Gestalt theory’s lack of subsequent backing has led the theory to lose its place as a psychology theory of repute.
American Psychological Association. (2009). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. New York: APA and Ehrlbaum.
Ellis, W. D. (1938). A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Humphrey, G. (2004). The psychology of the gestalt. Journal of Educational Psychology, 15(7), 401–412.
King, D. B., Keller, H., & Crochetiere, K. (2008). The legacy of Max Wertheimer and Gestalt psychology. Social research, 5(4), 907-935.
Wertheimer, M. (1959). Productive Thinking. New York: Harper & Row.