How’s your Gestalt?

The Task of Gestalt Psyhology

by Wolfgang Köhler, with an Introduction by Carroll C. Pratt
Princeton University Press, 172 pp., $6.50

Even now when people speak of “psychology” in its bearing on human life and civilized interests they mean, nine times out of ten, psychoanalysis. For two generations of educated non-specialists this has been the psychology that counts. Over against it are the vaguely pictured ranks of behaviorists, preoccupied with rats and statistics, hostile to psychoanalysis, impinging on practical affairs only through programmed instruction, the exorcism of symptoms by behavior therapy, and the conditioning of dolphins for military exploits. Caricature though it is, this picture has served well enough while the implications of psychoanalysis were being assimilated into general thinking. Time was needed to adjust our sight to the light thrown by analysis on the deviousness of motive and the mechanisms by which the civilized masquerade is worked. Lust, anger, pride, envy, avarice, sloth, and gluttony—under other names—have been illuminated as never before, and their continuity with the bases of biological existence laid bare in a way that makes us ask whether avoiding the seven deadly sins may not be as sinful as committing them. The analysand threads his slow way through the labyrinth to find that the minotaur is himself and they had better come to terms.

Yet although psychoanalysis has given general culture so much to assimilate, it has said very little, at least in its classical form, about great areas of ordinary daily activity; and we begin to look for a psychology that will extend our understanding of behavior and experience as they are, without always approaching them underground and transforming them into something else. However dramatic at first, the psychoanalytic reinterpretation of all we do comes to seem repetitive and to reduce the interest of any particular activity by viewing it as just one out of many possible equivalent expressions of hidden forces.

One indication of this gradual shift of interest has been the growing attention given by psychotherapists (including many who affirm their loyalty to Freudian tenets) to ego psychology and relatively “conflict-free” areas of normal development. But another, among general readers, especially those with interests in the arts, has been a growing awareness of Gestalt psychology and an impression, often a bit vague, that it has something to say to us and ought not to be ignored.

Developing from a background of German and Austrian psychology, the Gestalt school began decisively in 1912 when Wertheimer elaborated the implications of the apparent movement brought about if two points of light, each static, occur in rapid succession, with one a little distance from the other—the fundamental principle of the movie film. The sense of movement is not to be found in the elements that contribute to it and is nothing like the mere succession of sensations that occurs if the interval between them is a little longer. Köhler and Koffka had taken part in Wertheimer’s experiments, and the three men, reinforced by the work that Rubin of Copenhagen carried out on perception, began a systematic attack on the inadequacies of atomistic, associationist explanations …

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