Gestalt psychology

theory of mind examining human perception, structures and organizing principles in sensory impressions
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Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt [ɡəˈʃtalt] "shape, form") is a philosophy of mind of the Berlin School of experimental psychology. Gestalt psychology is an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world. The central principle of gestalt psychology is that the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies.



19th century

  • Is it not conceivable, that each tone is the fusion of a sum of still more primitive elements with the Gestalt qualities bound up therewith?... No conclusive argument can be brought forward even against the possibility that we may not, penetrating ever more deeply in this manner, finally arrive at a single proto-quality, or at least at a single quality-continuum, from out of which distinct contents (colours, tones, Y) are generated by the fusion of distinct combinations with the Gestalt qualities bound up therewith, [so that] one can no longer shrink from the idea that tones and colours might be exhibited as the products of a much higher degree of complication of proto-elements as yet unknown.

20th century, first half

  • The basic thesis of gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely; what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.
    • Max Wertheimer (1920/1945), Productive thinking. Harper & Row Publishers. p. 84
  • Wholeness [Ganzheit], Gestalt, is the primary attribute of life.
    • Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1928) Kritische Theorie der Formbildung. Gebrüder Borntraeger. Translated by J H Woodger as Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology. Oxford (UK): Clarendon Press, 1933. p. 225
  • Even these humble objects reveal that our reality is not a mere collocation of elemental facts, but consists of units in which no part exists by itself, where each part points beyond itself and implies a larger whole. Facts and significance cease to be two concepts belonging to different realms, since a fact is always a fact in an intrinsically coherent whole. We could solve no problem of organization by solving it for each point separately, one after the other; the solution had to come for the whole. Thus we see how the problem of significance is closely bound up with the problem of the relation between the whole and its parts. It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.
    • Kurt Koffka. Principles of Gestalt Psychology, 1935. p. 176
  • Theoretical psychology in its present state must try to develop a system of concepts which shows all the characteristics of a Gestalt, in which any part depends upon every other part. As we do not yet have the knowledge of facts which really suffices to determine this system of concepts and as, on the other hand, this knowledge of "facts" cannot be acquired without developing this system of concepts, there seems to be only one way open: to proceed slowly by tentative steps, to make decisions rather reluctantly, to keep in view always the whole field of psychology, and to stay in closest contact with the actual work of psychological research.
    • Kurt Lewin (1936) Principles of Topological Psychology. Transl. Fritz Heider & Grace M. Heider. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. viii.
  • [Gestalt is] a system whose parts are dynamically connected in such a way that a change of one part results in a change of all other parts.
    • Kurt Lewin (1936) Principles of Topological Psychology. Transl. Fritz Heider & Grace M. Heider. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 218

20th century, second half

  • One might say psychological processes such as motives, intentions, sentiments, etc., are the core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior and expression in many variable ways.
    • Fritz Heider (1958), The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley p. 34
The subject of a gestalt demonstration knows that his perception has shifted because he can make it shift back and forth repeatedly while he holds the same book or piece of paper in his hands...
  • The subject of a gestalt demonstration knows that his perception has shifted because he can make it shift back and forth repeatedly while he holds the same book or piece of paper in his hands. Aware that nothing in his environment has changed, he directs his attention increasingly not to the figure (duck or rabbit) but to the lines of the paper he is looking at. Ultimately he may even learn to see those lines without seeing either of the figures, and he may then say (what he could not legitimately have said earlier) that it is these lines that he really sees but that he sees them alternately as a duck and as a rabbit. ...As in all similar psychological experiments, the effectiveness of the demonstration depends upon its being analyzable in this way. Unless there were an external standard with respect to which a switch of vision could be demonstrated, no conclusion about alternate perceptual possibilities could be drawn.
    • Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962; p. 114 (3rd edn.)
  • In the Germany of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, both orga­nismic biology and Gestalt psychology were part of a larger intellectual trend that saw itself as a protest movement against the increasing fragmentation and alienation of human nature. The entire Weimar culture was characterized by an antimechanistic outlook, a "hunger for wholeness". Organismic biology, Gestalt psychology, ecology, and, later on, general systems theory all grew out of this holistic zeitgeist.
  • Questions about arts, traits, and styles of life are actually quite technical. They ask us to explain what happens among the agents of our minds. But this is a subject about which we have never learned very much... Such questions will be answered in time. But it will just prolong the wait if we keep using pseudo-explanation words like "holistic" and "gestalt." … It's harmful, when naming leads the mind to think that names alone bring meaning close.

21st century

  • The new historiography on Logical Empiricism sets in with the rediscovery of Ernst Mach (1838-1916) as a precursor of Gestalt theory, evolutionary epistemology, (possibly radical) constructivism and the modern historically oriented philosophy of science.
    • Friedrich Stadler "What is the Vienna Circle?" in: Friedrich Stadler (ed.) The Vienna Circle and Logical Empiricism: Re-evaluation and Future Perspectives. Springer Science & Business Media, 2006. p. xiii
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