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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 of experience.

During the 1914 war, Köhler (interned in Teneriffe) completed his studies of animal problem-solving, later reported in The Mentality of Apes, one of the few classic works in psychology. There he demonstrated the solution of problems by that sudden restructuring of the whole situation which he called “insight.” In 1921 he was appointed Director of the Institute of Psychology in the University of Berlin, and this became the main center for Gestalt psychology during the inter-war years, producing an abundance of experimental research on perception and memory.

For the non-specialist, what has emerged over the years is the impression of a psychology that not only emphasizes the quality of “wholeness” in experience and distrusts an atomizing approach, but also avoids the brashness of behaviorism and has a civilized quality, not inimical to the respect for subtlety and complexity which develops in a culture where the arts mean something. Professor Carroll Pratt of Princeton, himself one of the highly civilized American psychologists, remarks in his Introduction to this posthumous book by Köhler that the influence of Gestalt psychology on aesthetics

should be taken into account in any effort to understand the wide influence Köhler’s writings have had. His ideas were making their way at a time when the rapid and astonishing growth of interest in art of all kinds in this country brought with it a new and lively concern for aesthetics, art history, musicology, criticism, and other scholarly by-products of that interest.

Köhler himself finally resigned his Berlin appointment (where he had been a thorn in the side of the Nazi educational bureaucracy) in 1935, but Wertheimer and Koffka had preceded him to America, and the school of psychology that had originated in Germany continued to develop and hold its own among the antagonistic systems of academic psychology then dominant.

Pratt points out that both behaviorism and the earlier orthodoxy it ousted (associated largely with Titchener) contrasted with Gestalt psychology in assuming that a scientific account of behavior and experience must be atomistic and must analyze what seems complex into component parts, whether sensations or movements. Against this assumption the Gestaltists insisted that at least in perception (and they extended the same broad principles to memory and learning) a whole “figure” distinguished from its “ground” was a unitary and immediate experience. The lines defining such a figure as a small rectangle on a piece of paper “belong to” the rectangle; they are, says Köhler, “The edges of this enclosed area, but are not in the same manner edges of the indifferent ground outside….” A more dramatic demonstration of the immediacy of the figure-ground experience comes from the familiar ambiguous drawings in which figure and ground are reversible, such as Rubin’s vase which is suddenly seen as the space (or ground) between two profiles face to face. The immediate shift from one whole pattern to another, without any piecemeal fumbling, is similar to the suddenness of “insight” in problem solving.

The whole, the Gestaltists insist, is not analyzable into an assembly of its parts, and is not to be accurately described even as an assembly of parts in relation with each other, since the component parts may be altered by the whole to which they contribute. Pratt offers an example from music: two tones with the ratio 2/3, say c and g, if sounded together produce a quality called the Fifth, and that quality is in neither note. The mutual influence of one part on another within the whole is basic to this view, as Köhler makes clear when he contrasts a simple summation of parts:

An aggregate of “parts” or “pieces” is a genuine “sum” only when its constituents can be added together one after another without thereby causing any alteration in any of them…a sort of grouping or “togetherness” from which any one or more units may be removed without any effect on the ones remaining or on the ones removed.

An example of a sum of parts might be a burst of machine-gun fire, with the successive detonations not altered by shortening or lengthening the burst a little; in contrast a rhythmical or metrical unit is a whole configuration or Gestalt and the removal of the first or last sound would alter all the rest, depriving them of their qualities of salience or subordination.

It is this general attitude to the quality of complex human phenomena that has given Gestalt psychology an influence going far beyond the detailed studies of perception and memory which have mainly engaged experimentalists of the school. Without being specifically acknowledged it lends support to those who doubt the adequacy of atomistic analysis in quite other directions. In the description and assessment of personality, for instance, objections to reliance on the measurement of separate traits and the assembly of the scores into a profile are in the spirit of Gestalt. In psychotherapy Erik Erikson, applying his ego-psychology to problems of feminine development, criticizes the orthodox psychoanalytic emphasis on particular experiences such as realizing the lack of a penis and on particular traits such as a passive-masochistic orientation. He attributes this kind of thinking not only to the psychiatric beginnings of psychoanalysis “but also to the original analytic-atomistic method employed by it,” and he goes on

when we apply atomistic thinking to man, we break him down into isolated fragments rather than into constituent elements. In fact, when we look at man in the state of pathology, he is already fragmented, so that in psychiatry an atomizing mind may meet a phenomenon of fragmentation and mistake the fragments for atoms.

In educational psychology, too, Gestalt psychology in the variant form developed by Karl Bühler not only provided the theoretical background for the Austrian educational system of the 1920s, said to be the most progressive of its time, but surprisingly through that same educational movement influenced the development of Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. This unexpected line of influence is traced by W. W. Bartley of the University of Pittsburgh in a paper read to philosophical conferences last year as the basis of a forthcoming book. “Everybody knows,” he writes,

that Popper’s main formal background was in physics and mathematics. It so happens, however, that what everybody knows is false. In fact, Popper is an amateur physicist and mathematician, his formal training having been in education and in Gestalt psychology, under the supervision of Karl Bühler…. That Popper’s thought was decisively moulded by that of Bühler, Külpe and the Gestalt psychologists is beyond dispute.

And though so direct an influence on Wittgenstein cannot be claimed, Mr. Bartley argues that Wittgenstein’s participation in the school reform movement during his six years as a village schoolteacher in Austria and his association with the Bühlers help to account for many similarities that he traces in the thinking of Popper, Wittgenstein, and Bühler, the foremost being “the common opposition found in these three ways of thinking to psychological and logical atomism.”

Such broad similarities and the claim of Gestalt psychology to very general influence of this kind would have meant little to Köhler in his later years. The Task of Gestalt Psychology reprints the four lectures he gave at Princeton in 1966, at the age of nearly eighty and not many months before his death. From these remarkably lucid expositions, skillfully selective and focusing central topics with just enough detail of experimental findings and demonstration to carry conviction without creating confusion, it is clear that he viewed the insistence on a non-atomistic approach as only a small part of the task. Perceived “wholes” were initial data and it was only a first step to show that the traditional associationist explanation of them was unsatisfactory; the positive task was to find a better explanation. What the Gestaltists offered was the view that perceptual structures are as they are because brain processes have in a quite literal sense the same structural properties: as Köhler puts it,

Psychological facts and the underlying events in the brain resemble each other in all their structural characteristics.

This hypothesis of “psychophysical isomorphism,” regarded by many psychologists as the least satisfactory feature of Gestalt theory, was central for Köhler; without it, he thought, the system would have been merely descriptive.

Of the processes known to be possible in brain tissue, Köhler argued, only one, that of “Electric currents which originate and spread in the brain tissue as a continuous or volume conductor,” has the characteristics that would account for the observed perceptual facts. Toward the end of Köhler’s life much of the technical controversy provoked by this hypothesis revolved around the so-called “figural after-effects.” These follow fairly prolonged stimulation of the same sensory area, usually visual (though similar tactile and kinesthetic effects occur too): figures looked at afterward that should fall within that same area appear to be displaced from it, as if pushed aside by the results of the previous stimulation. Köhler held that the corresponding electrical activity has been literally pushed aside in the brain tissue because of the impedance created by the preceding flow of current (assumed to be direct current) during the earlier stimulation.

Still highly controversial, the hypothesis is important for the kind of effort it makes to relate psychology with neurophysiology. In the early days when the Gestaltists were insisting that the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts they were suspected of some mystic attitude to psychological processes—and Köhler describes Lashley’s voicing the suspicion “that you have religion up your sleeves.” Up Köhler’s sleeve, instead, were the electrical properties of brain tissue. When that became evident a great many psychologists regarded it—and still do—as premature speculation. To them the task of psychology is to go on amassing and clarifying the data of behavior and experience for which at some distant date the neurophysiologists and biochemists will have established corresponding facts about processes in the nervous system.

But in Dynamics in Psychology* Köhler vigorously defended his undertaking against views like this, claiming that psychology must have a theoretical framework to stimulate and guide its further research, and that biologists are quite unlikely to provide it since they know little about the psychological data which make the need for a coherent hypothesis urgent. Most of us would see neurophysiology and psychology working toward each other from opposite edges of the same gigantic jigsaw puzzle (with the psychoanalysts convinced that half the pieces have fallen under the table), but Köhler believed that they had come closer than they knew and that he held a piece that would tie the two sides together. No one can yet be sure whether it fits.

What are the implications of this beyond the field of psychology? What, for instance, does Mr. Pratt mean by saying in his Introduction that it has not been difficult for some philosophers and psychologists “to give a new direction to aesthetic theory on the basis of Gestalt psychology”? The acceptance of complex qualities of form, rather than sensory elements, as basic facts is the first point he stresses:

The important and salient characteristics of perception are tridimensionality, curvatures, movements, slants, groupings, shapes of all kinds, contours, the various constancies, chords, melodies, speech rhythms, diminuendos and crescendos, etc.

For an understanding of these “formal” aspects of the arts Gestalt psychology has already provided a background for writers on aesthetics; it gave Gombrich, for instance, the main theoretical framework for the insights and ingenuities of Art and Illusion. It throws light on the fact that perceptual challenge has an appeal, the challenge to grasp as a coherent whole what is on the verge of being too diversified, too complex, or too far removed from such simple principles of organization as symmetry or metrical regularity. Very much remains to be investigated, including the appeal of the seeming “simplicity” that may come (most obviously in painting and sculpture) as a step beyond the familiar complexities. The whole idea of complexity and simplicity needs rethinking in experimental aesthetics, and Mr. Bartley usefully draws attention to Wittgenstein’s argument that the terms are not intelligible apart from their context. This approach might help us to say whether a Henry Moore sculpture is simpler or more complex than a funerary angel on a gravestone.

Beyond these formal aspects of art and the problems they generate there occur the puzzling features of an object, or of our response, that lead us to attribute some animate quality to it, usually a mood or attitude, so that a room for instance looks inhospitable or the sea seems furious. These Mr. Pratt calls the tertiary qualities:

The friendliness of a face is more likely to be remembered than the width of the nose, the distance between the eyes, the part in the hair, the shape of the lips, the size of the ears, or even the color of the eyes.

These tertiary qualities, he believes, may be the very essence of the appeal that art has always had, and he instances the “power” and the “tenderness” of Beethoven and Michelangelo, the “melancholy” of Mozart beneath his surface “gaiety.” Some at least of these qualities seem not to be explained by association, nor to be simply projections of our own momentary feelings, since they arouse much the same feelings in most people and on most occasions.

From this point we can go in either of two directions. One, which Mr. Pratt explicitly recommends, is experimental investigation:

If the greatness of a work of art is contained within its own formal structure, as the doctrine of tertiary qualities proclaims to be the case, it is the task of global psychophysics to find out what the stimulus conditions are that produce those qualities, and what it is the artist does with his tones and colors to give them the sound of gaiety or the look of serenity.

The other direction, in which he implicitly invites us by his examples, and which has irresistible allure for critics of art and literature, is to elaborate subjective convictions about the emotional effects of the formal features of works of art. In literature we can easily convince ourselves of the emotional significance even of particular consonants and vowel sounds (as Alicia Ostriker does as recently as 1965 in her Vision and Verse in William Blake), and still more easily of the effects of rhythms. Always the difficulty is to discover how far the sounds and rhythms alone, without the sense of the words they go with, are responsible for the emotional effects; they provide projective material in which the willing are tempted to hear expressive qualities that have quite other sources. But skepticism is not enough: the expressive qualities almost certainly exist in some degree and need investigating.

On the one hand they fuse with the sensory and perceptual patterns of a work of art, and the further study of this side of art will always draw largely on the spirit and principles of Gestalt psychology. But on the other hand the expressive qualities fuse equally with whatever representative, referential significance the work may have. Once we have entered this vast area—of symbolism, association, and above all language and its meanings—Gestalt psychology is left behind and its place taken by psychologies concerned with motives, social relations, and personality. Since those psychologies remain shallow if they fail to recognize the depths that psychoanalysis has explored we are back at our starting point—but only after traversing aesthetic regions where Gestalt principles provide our most promising guidance.

  1. *

    1940, reprinted as a paperback 1965, Washington Square Press, $.90.

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