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Zeitgeist Influences on the Birth of Gestalt Psychology Essay

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Updated: Sep 13th, 2021


The “magic” term Zeitgeist means the climate of opinion at a particular point in time as it affects thinking, yet it is also more than that, for the Zeitgeist is forever being altered. The Zeitgeist can be regarded simply as the sum total of social interaction as it is common to a particular period and a particular locale. In this context, it can be seen that Thesis: Gestalt psychology as a discipline has to be viewed as the product of the “Zeitgeist” of a large chunk of the Twentieth Century that was impacted by many movements and schools of thought such as psychoanalysis, holism, the dynamic field theory in physics, the Austrian Gestalt school and the Berlin Gestalt School.

Gestalt was created as a sort of aggressive reaction towards the shortcomings of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic method and due to its rigid adherence to Freudian theories. From the holistic writings of Jan Smuts, Gestalt incorporated the concepts of homeostasis and organismic self-regulation (GIT, 2004). The term “Gestalt” was originally coined by the Viennese Graf Christian von Ehrenfels. For Ehrenfels, a Gestalt was a psychical whole formed by the structuring of the perceptual field. This concept proved to be revolutionary under the light of scientific thinking because it held that analysis of underlying elements is important to gain knowledge (Wulf, 2006).

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The year 1912 is a significant date in the history of psychology. This was the date of Watson’s first promulgation of behaviorism and it was the time when the debate between structuralists and functionalists had perhaps begun to die down a little. The modern associationism of Thorndike and of Pavlov had made its appearance a decade earlier and was still very popular. Thorndike made the full statement of his views in 1911 and 1913. It was during this period that the psychological significance of Pavlov’s conditioned reflex was beginning to be appreciated (Woodworth, 1948). Psychoanalysis was already a decade and more old, but the year 1912 was a turning point in its history, for it was just about then that there was a distinct separation between Freud and two of his early adherents, Adler and Jung. Freud began to revise his earlier views and shifted to a whole new theory. McDougall’s purposive, which was postulated in 1908, received its full formulation in 1912; Adolf Meyer’s organismic psychology had already been announced, and the name psychobiology was proposed a few years later, and Mary Calkins was just putting the finishing touches on herself psychology. Finally, the year 1912 saw the first announcement of the important school of Gestalt psychology (Woodworth, 1948).

In 1912 it happened that three young German psychologists, who were also colleagues at the University of Berlin, were located in and near the city of Frankfurt. These three men were Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), and Wolfgang Köhler (born 1887) – all of whom were credited with some psychological work of distinction. Wertheimer had shown how the free association test could be used for the detection of an individual’s hidden knowledge and can be used in criminal investigations. Koffka had done important work on imagery and thought. Köhler had specialized effectively on problems of hearing. These three friends were united in their discontent towards the dominant psychology represented by Wundt, the “brick-and-mortar psychology” as they called it. In Wundt’s theory, the bricks were the sensory elements and the mortar was just associated by contiguity. These three men did not agree that such a collection of elements deprived of meaning and plastered together by meaningless associations can express the meaningful experience of human beings. They believed that all conscious experiences were both complex and meaningful. They held that excellent psychological data could be gained from “direct experience” and that the dynamics of behavior were more clearly revealed in direct experience than in external observation. According to them, the analysis should not destroy the meaning and value of the experience of behavior. They felt that the scientific approach to life was reducing the values of human life to mere illusions and this was because of the scientist’s infatuation with “elements” and in his effort always to work “from below upward” and never “from above downward,” from the meaningful whole down to parts (Woodworth, 1948).

If a cause and its effect are taken as separate events, Hume was right in asserting that no necessary connection between them can be seen, but if the entire happening, cause, and effect included, is viewed as a whole, it makes sense and provides meaning. Here, cause and effect are meaningful parts of the whole. Wertheimer and his two younger associates were convinced that they had the germ of a new and revolutionary method of attacking all the problems of psychology (Lowry, 1982).

In the Frankfurt laboratory in 1911 and 1912, Wertheimer was conducting experiments on the seeing of motion, and Koffka and Köhler were serving as subjects. The problem was to account for the motion we see in looking at a motion picture. The motion picture camera takes a rapid series of snapshots which are “stills”. There is no movement in anyone still. However, during projection, retinal lag bridges the time gap between the still views, and hence movement is perceived on the screen. Wertheimer was fascinated by the factor that bridges the space gaps and enables the viewer to see an object in the picture moving smoothly because the whole experience of seeing an object move in the picture evidently had an important and meaningful property which was not to be found in the separate still views. He studied the problem using a simple vertical line and varied the length of the blank time interval during projection. He observed that at one-fifteenth of a second the motion was very clear, a single line appearing to move across from one end position to the other. With shorter time intervals the motion became less clear, and at one-thirtieth of a second no apparent motion remained but the two presented lines seemed to stand side by side. He modified the experiment and studied it in many ways. Wertheimer concluded that when the interval was right, the brain response to the first position merged by a continuous process into the response to the second position so that there was actual motion in the brain. This was a clear case of a whole which was not a mere sum of parts. The movement was perceived as a dynamic whole.

The concept of making meaning by taking a holistic view was evident early in the 19th century when Thomas Brown emphasized the seeing of relations. He held that relations are akin to shapes; when we see the front of a church as taller than the rear, we are seeing a relation and we are seeing a shape. It was Christian von Ehrenfels (1859- 1932), an Austrian philosopher-psychologist, who in 1890 brought the problem of shape out into the open. What he called a Gestalt quality, or form quality, is present in a whole but not present in any of the parts making up the whole. He gave the example of music. The tune cannot be experienced by hearing separate notes. The tune has a quality of its own, a form quality. In general, composite elements such as tunes and shapes can be seen, heard, recognized, and appreciated (Lowry, 1982). They are psychological as real as the elementary tones and colors. From 1890 on the psychological theorists were forced to admit the reality of shapes and patterns along with sensory elements. This led to the origin of the Austrian Gestalt School which adopted the second alternative. In this view tones and colors and other elementary sensations are raw materials provided by the senses, while the patterns are constructed by the observer. The composer constructs a tune by putting notes together in a certain arrangement, and the listener also has to exercise some constructive ability in order to hear a tune rather than a mere jumble of notes. This theory of the Austrian Gestalt School was rejected by the Berlin Gestalt school, the school which was founded in Frankfurt in 1912 by psychologists who both before and after that date were closely associated with the University of Berlin. This is the group which is known today as the Gestalt school, without qualification (Lowry, 1982).

The Berlin Gestalt School-based their work on the concept of “field”. The work of Faraday and Maxwell shows that the magnetic and electric fields are dynamic. When a current of electricity is lead through a circuit of copper wire, an electric field surrounds the wire and extends out some distance as shown by the fact that a current is induced in a neighboring circuit and this field of current varies with the intensity of the current. The Gestalt psychologists attempt to apply this physical concept of a dynamic field not only figuratively but literally to the visual field, to the organism, and especially to the cerebral cortex. Applying the field theory, the gestalt psychologists held that our brains contain fields of electrochemical forces that modify sensory data. These forces exist prior to sensory stimulation and give the sensations properties they otherwise would not possess. The whole exists prior to the parts and it is the whole that gives the parts their identity or meaning (Jackson, 1996). This implies that the brain is not passive or mechanical; it is rather dynamic and active.

The psychologists of the Berlin Gestalt School argued that sensations are not raw materials. The stimuli reaching the sense organs are raw materials, unorganized, uncombined. But the nerve impulses from the sense organs on reaching the brain immediately interact, attracting and repelling each other and so organizing themselves into patterns. According to this theory, there is no need for a higher mental process of combining and constructing to see or hear patterns. They held that sensations are self-organizing and when figures are named or objects recognized, a higher level of the organization takes place which makes use of past experience. The Gestalt psychologists also postulated that things separate as naturally as they combine, according to factors like distance and dissimilarity (Woodword, 1948).

Earlier, William James in a famous passage (1890, I, 488) had vividly insisted on the combination but he had not regarded separation as equally primitive. He said, “The law is that all things fuse that can fuse and nothing separate except what must…. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails all at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion” (Lowry, 1982).

Wertheimer’s paper of 1912 has usually been portrayed as the proximal event by which the Gestalt movement was brought into existence. The basic working hypothesis of the Gestalt movement was embedded in Wertheimer’s paper. Two decades earlier, Ehrenfels had put forward the hypothesis that the form-quality of perception is a function of the configurational properties of the stimulus. These findings paved the way for the hypothesis that perception as a whole (including both its form-qualities and its “sensory elements”) is a function of Gestaltfaktoren. It was with the emergence of this hypothesis into explicitness that Gestalt psychology was born. Thus, as early as 1913, Wolfgang Köhler published an important theoretical paper in which he took to task the orthodox doctrines of “sensory elements” and “unconscious inference.” By the time Köhler published his physician Gestalten around 1920, it may be said that the Gestalt movement was truly born.

One of the reasons the Gestalt movement gathered momentum so rapidly was that its major hypothesis proved to be immediately applicable to a great number and variety of perceptual phenomena with which psychologists were already familiar. Students of perception had known for years about various geometrical illusions. None, though, had ever been able to arrive at a satisfactory explanation of them. The Gestalt psychologists, on the other hand, were able to explain them easily, convincingly, and almost without exception in terms of “configuration.” Indeed, virtually all perceptual “illusions” — geometrical and otherwise, and including the various perceptual “constancies” — submitted in some degree to a configurational interpretation. Gestalt psychologists could also explain other more recently discovered perceptual phenomena such as that of color perception (Lowry, 1982).

During this period there was the doctrine of sensations that held the excitation of a given color receptor gives rise to a given color sensation, and further, that the excitation of the same receptor on another occasion gives rise to the same sensation. The Modes of Appearance of Colors, published by David Katz in 1911 brought to light a number of color-perception phenomena which were clearly incompatible with the orthodox doctrine of sensations. He pointed out, for example, that any given hue can appear in any of three quite distinct “phenomenal modes.” Thus, a given shade and intensity of blue can have quite a different appearance depending upon whether it is the color of an opaque object, a translucent object, or of the sky. In the first instance it is a “surface color” (two-dimensional and definitely localized), in the second a “volumic color” (three-dimensional), and in the third a “film color” (two-dimensional and indefinitely localized, such as in most color afterimages and in the hues, one sees when the eyes are illuminated by colored light through closed lids). Here, then, was a case in which the same individual color receptors were being excited by the same individual color stimuli, but yet in which the resulting overall perceptions were quite different. Moreover, the difference was clearly the result of configurational factors. Katz observed that if one view a “surface color” out of context as through a reduction screen, it immediately becomes a “film color”; in so doing, it loses both its definite spatial localization and its tendency to appear as the same hue under varying conditions of illumination. This was explained by the gestalt psychologists in the following way: “Perception does not always correspond exactly to its external stimulus. On the contrary, there is often discrepancy between the two; and this, it was held, is in every instance a product of configurational factors” (Woodworth, 1948).


The Gestalt psychologists learned their “principles of organization” from the study of sensory experience, but they soon applied these principles to behavior in the broadest sense. Koffka (1935) made a valiant attempt to work out a comprehensive Gestalt theory covering learning, memory, emotion, voluntary and involuntary action, and personality. However, when one considers the origin of Gestalt psychology, the zeitgeist influences include psychoanalysis, holism, and the dynamic field theory in physics, the Austrian Gestalt School, and the Berlin Gestalt School.


  1. Woodworth, S. Robert (1948). Contemporary Schools of Psychology. Ronald Press. New York. 1948. Page Number: 120+
  2. Lowry, Richard (1982). The Evolution of Psychological Theory: A Critical History of Concepts and Presuppositions. Aldine de Gruyter. New York. 1982. Page Number: 177+
  3. GIT (2004). Influences on Gestalt.
  4. (2006), Rosemarie. The Historical Roots of Gestalt Therapy Theory. Web.
  5. Jackson, W. Jay (1996). Gestalt Psychology.
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