The German psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) was the originator of Gestalt psychology, which had a profound influence on the whole science of psychology.
Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15, 1880. At the University in Prague he first studied law and then philosophy; he continued his studies in Berlin and then in Würzburg, where he received the doctorate in 1904. During the following years his work included research on the psychology of testimony, deriving no doubt from his early interest in law and his abiding interest in the nature of truth; he also carried on research in music, another lifelong interest.
In 1910 Wertheimer performed his now famous experiments on apparent movement, that movement which we see when, under certain conditions, two stationary objects are presented in succession at different places (a phenomenon familiar in moving pictures). This was the beginning of Gestalt psychology—a major revolution in psychological thinking.
The phenomena which Wertheimer was investigating could not be explained by the then-prevailing psychology. Psychology was, in 1910, characteristically analytical: in naive imitation of the natural sciences, it attempted to reduce every complex phenomenon to simpler ones, the elements which were supposed to make up the whole.
But it was already clear that this analytical procedure could not account for many well-known psychological facts. Some advocates of the older psychology tried to patch it up by adding assumptions to take care of troublesome findings, while leaving the old framework intact. Other scholars, seeing the inadequacy of the customary approach, denied that the problems of psychology could be treated scientifically.
For Wertheimer, neither line of criticism went to the core of the problem. The difficulties of the older psychology went far beyond its failure to explain special laboratory findings. Everything that was vital, meaningful, and essential seemed to be lost in the traditional approach. The trouble, he held, was not in the scientific method itself but rather in an assumption generally made about that method—that it must be atomistic.
But science need not only be analytical in this sense. The viewing of complex wholes as "and-sums, " to be reduced to accidentally and arbitrarily associated elements, Wertheimer described as an approach "from below, " whereas many situations need to be approached "from above." In these cases what happens in the whole cannot be understood from a knowledge of its components considered piecemeal; rather the behavior of the parts themselves depends on their place in the structured whole, in the context in which they exist.
These are precisely the situations which are most important for psychology, those in which we find meaning, value, order. Thus, apparent movement cannot be understood if one knows only the "stills" by which it is produced; nor can the form of a circle, the peacefulness of a landscape, the sternness of a command, the inevitability of a conclusion be understood from a knowledge of independent elements. Here whole properties are primary, and the characteristics of parts are derived from the dynamics of their wholes.
Wertheimer became a lecturer in Frankfurt in 1912. Later he went to Berlin and in 1929 returned to Frankfurt as professor. All this time he was developing his ideas and influencing students who themselves became distinguished psychologists. Although he preferred the spoken to the written word as a vehicle for communication, he wrote some notable articles applying the new approach "from above" to the organization of the perceptual field and to the nature of thinking.
Just before the German elections in 1933, Wertheimer heard a speech by Hitler over a neighbor's radio. He decided that he did not want his family to live in a country where such a man could run, with likelihood of success, for the highest office in the land; and the next day the family moved to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. Soon Wertheimer realized that Hitler was not a passing phenomenon, and he accepted an invitation from the New School for Social Research in New York City to join its University in Exile (later the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science). He resumed his studies of thinking, completing his major work, Productive Thinking, a highly original and penetrating examination of the processes that occur in thinking at its best. In a series of articles he showed the application of Gestalt thinking to problems of truth, ethics, freedom, and democracy. Unfortunately he did not live to write his projected Gestalt logic.
Wolfgang Köhler, The Task of Gestalt Psychology (1969), is an overview of Gestalt psychology by one of its founders and shows Wertheimer's role in its development.