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gestalt psychology[ge′shtält sī′käl·ə·jē]
one of the most important schools of psychology outside of the USSR in the first half of the 20th century, whose central thesis is the necessity of applying the principle of comprehending the whole in analyzing complex psychological phenomena. The appearance of Gestalt psychology is connected with the general crisis of the mechanistic view of the world in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as of associative psychology as the specific form of that world view in psychological science. The term “gestalt” (derived from the German word meaning form, configuration, pattern) refers to the concept proposed by C. von Ehrenfels in 1890 of a special “form quality” introduced by consciousness into the perception of elements of an object having a complex spatial form. The most important philosophical influence on the representatives of Gestalt psychology were the systems of F. Brentano and E. Husserl, especially the thesis, developed in these systems, of intentionality of consciousness as an expression of its wholeness and internally active character.
The foundation of Gestalt psychology was laid by M. Wertheimer (Germany, 1912) in his study of so-called stroboscopic motion. Together with the German psychologists W. Köhler and K. Koffka, Wertheimer in 1921 founded the journal Psychologische Forschung (Psychological Research)—the organ of the Gestalt school of psychology— in which the school’s theoretical manifesto was published that same year.
The first experimental studies of Gestalt psychology were devoted to analyzing perception, and these studies made it possible to identify a number of new phenomena in this area, for example, the interrelation between an object figure and its background. The principles worked out by studying perception were applied to the study of thinking, which was believed to be a process in which various “perceptual” structures (gestalts) are applied consecutively to the structure of the problem situation that gave rise to a particular task. According to Gestalt psychology, in the event that the structure of the problem situation coincides with the perceptual structure the moment of insight, or revelation, occurs and the task proves to be solved.
In order to explain the mechanisms that ensure the structures’ identity, it was postulated that not only do gestalts exist in thinking and perception but that corresponding physiological and physical gestalts likewise exist (Köhler, 1931). However, these concepts remained unsubstantiated and have not been further developed.
In later experimental research on the thinking process, which was extremely skillful in its methodology (K. Duncker in Germany, N. Meier in the United States), it was shown that thought processes depend on the means employed, which are sociohistorical in nature. The explanation for this dependence went beyond the initial principles of Gestalt psychology and sharply underlined the concept’s limitations, leading to its decline in the prewar years.
Another trend in Gestalt psychology was the study of personality. It was associated with the work of K. Lewin (in Germany and later in the United States) and his colleagues. Here the central concept is that of the individual universe of psychological events, of the wholeness of its structure, and of the processes by which this universe becomes reorganized.
As an integral psychological concept Gestalt psychology has not withstood the test of time. Its weak points include an ahistorical conception of the psyche, an exaggeration of the role of form in psychological activity, and the related idealist elements in its philosophical foundations. However, the real achievements of Gestalt psychology— both in its study of perception, thought, and personality and in its general antimechanistic psychological orientation—influenced the subsequent development of psychology.
REFERENCESKöhler, W. Issledovanie intellekta chelovekopodobnykh obez’ian. Moscow, 1930. (Translated from English.)
Koffka, K. Osnovy psikhicheskogo razvitia. Moscow-Leningrad 1934. (Translated from German.)
Antsyferova, L. I. “Geshtal’tpsikologiia.” In Sovremennaia psikhologiia v kapitalisticheskikh stranakh. Moscow, 1963.
Psikhologiia myshleniia. Moscow, 1965.
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriia psikhologii. Moscow, 1966. Chapter 12.
Wertheimer, M. “Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegungen.” Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologic der Sinnesorgane, 1910-11, vol. 61, no. 1.
Wertheimer, M. Productive Thinking. New York-London, 1945.
Köhler W. Gestalt Psychology. New York, 1929.
Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York, 1935.
N. G. ALEKSEEV