Wertheimer, Max

Wertheimer, Max

(mäks vĕrt`hīmər), 1880–1943, German psychologist, b. Prague. He studied at the universities of Prague, Berlin, and Würzburg (Ph.D., 1904). His original researches, while he was a professor at Frankfurt and Berlin, placed him in the forefront of contemporary psychology. Wertheimer came to the United States in 1933, shortly before the Nazis seized power in Germany. He immediately joined the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research (1933–43). Wertheimer's discovery (1910–12) of the phi phenomenon (concerning the illusion of motion) gave rise to the influential school of GestaltGestalt
[Ger.,=form], school of psychology that interprets phenomena as organized wholes rather than as aggregates of distinct parts, maintaining that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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 psychology. His early experiments, in collaboration with Wolfgang KöhlerKöhler, Wolfgang
, 1887–1967, American psychologist, b. Estonia, Ph.D. Univ. of Berlin, 1909. From 1913 to 1920 he was director of a research station on Tenerife, Canary Islands.
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 and Kurt KoffkaKoffka, Kurt
, 1886–1941, American psychologist, b. Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Berlin, 1908. Before settling permanently in the United States in 1928 as a professor at Smith, he taught at Cornell and at the Univ. of Wisconsin.
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, introduced a new approach (macroscopic as opposed to microscopic) to the study of psychological problems. In the latter part of his life he directed much of his attention to the problem of learning; this research resulted in a book, posthumously published, called Productive Thinking (1945, repr. 1978).
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Wertheimer, Max


WERTHEIMER, MAX. Born Apr. 15, 1880, in Prague; died Oct. 12, 1943, in New York. German psychologist; one of the founders and principal theoretician of Gestalt psychology. Professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main (from 1929) and, after his emigration, at the New School for Social Research in New York (from 1933).

In 1921, together with the German psychologists K. Koffka and W. Köhler, Wertheimer founded the journal Psychologische Forschungen, in which works of Gestalt psychologists were published. In his first experimental work, which was devoted to a study of the perception of movement (1912), Wertheimer established that the characteristics of the structure of perception observed by the researcher cannot be explained by the character of the separate elements of the situation perceived but rather require consideration of the connection between these elements and the entirety of the situation. Indeed, the direction of research toward the entire structure (gestalt) of the perceived image constituted the basic principle of Gestalt psychology.

Wertheimer extended the principles of Gestalt psychology from the field of perception to other psychological processes, in particular to thinking, which he understood as a process of successive alteration of gestalts—various ways of viewing a situation—under the influence of naturally arising or specially assigned problems. According to Wertheimer, the resolution of a problem occurs when the structure of the perception of a situation coincides with the objective structure of the situation itself. In accordance with this, Wert-heimer perceived the mechanisms of thinking in actions of structuring and restructuring the image of the situation in accordance with the problem to be solved rather than in associations. These notions of Wertheimer, more fully set forth in Productive Thinking, which is considered a classic, marked an epoch in the psychological investigation of thought. The subsequent development of psychology demonstrated that one of the most vulnerable spots in Wertheimer’s conception was the fact that the explanation of the mechanisms of thought was given without regard to the social-historical nature of thought activity.


“Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung.” Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 1910/11, vol. 61, fasc. 3/4.
“Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt.” Psychologische Forschung, 1921, vol. 1; 1923, vol. 4.
Productive Thinking. New York, 1945.


Antsyferova, L. I. “Geshtal’t-psikhologiia.” In Sovremennaia psikhologiia v kapitalisticheskikh stranakh. Moscow, 1963.
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriia psikhologii. Moscow, 1966. Chapter 12.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Wertheimer, Max

(1880–1943) psychologist; born in Prague. In 1912, he published the results of a two-year study on the perception of movement, undertaken with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler, which marked the beginning of the Gestalt psychology movement. He emigrated to the United States in 1933. During his ten years in the United States, he played an active role in the development of the New School for Social Research.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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