Gestalt Psychology Today

Wolfgang Köhler (1959)

Address of the President at the sixty-seventh Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association,
Cincinnati, Ohio, September 6, 1959

First published in American Psychologist, 14, 727-734

Abridged from
Classics in the History of Psychology
An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario


I should like to begin with a few remarks about the history of Gestalt psychology -- because not all chapters of this history are generally known. In the eighties of the past century, psychologists in Europe were greatly disturbed by von Ehrenfels' claim that thousands of percepts have characteristics which cannot be derived from the characteristics of their ultimate components, the so-called sensations. Chords and melodies in hearing, the shape characteristics of visual objects, the roughness or the smoothness of tactual impressions, and so forth were used as examples. All these "Gestalt qualities" have one thing in common. When the physical stimuli in question are considerably changed, while their relations are kept constant, the Gestalt qualities remain about the same. But, At the time, it was generally assumed that the sensations involved are individually determined by their individual stimuli and must therefore change when these are greatly changed. How, then, could any characteristics of the perceptual situation remain constant under these conditions? Where did the Gestalt qualities come from? Ehrenfels' qualities are not fancy ingredients of this or that particular situation which we might safely ignore. Both positive and negative esthetic characteristics of the world around us, not only of ornaments, paintings, sculptures, tunes, and so forth, but also of trees, landscapes, houses, cars -- and other persons -- belong to this class. That relations between the sexes largely depend on specimens of the same class need hardly be emphasized. It is, therefore, not safe to deal with problems of psychology as though there were no such qualities. And yet, beginning with Ehrenfels himself, psychologists have not been able to explain their nature.

This holds also for the men who were later called Gestalt psychologists, including the present speaker. Wertheimer's ideas and investigations developed in a different direction. His thinking was also more radical than that of Ehrenfels. He did not ask: How are Gestalt qualities possible when, basically, the perceptual scene consists of separate elements? Rather, he objected to this premise, the thesis that the psychologist's thinking must begin with a consideration of such elements. From a subjective. point of view, he felt, it may be tempting to assume that all perceptual situations consist of independent, very small components. For, on this assumption, we obtain a maximally clear picture of what lies behind the observed facts. But, how do we know that a subjective clarity of this kind agrees with the nature of what we have before us? Perhaps we pay for the subjective clearness of the customary picture by ignoring all processes, all functional interrelations, which may have operated before there is a perceptual scene and which thus influence the characteristics of this scene. Are we allowed to impose on perception an extreme simplicity which, objectively, it may not possess?

Wertheimer, we remember, began to reason in this fashion when experimenting not with perceptual situations which were stationary, and therefore comparatively silent, but with visual objects in motion when corresponding stimuli did not move. Such "apparent movements," we would now say, occur when several visual objects appear or disappear in certain temporal relations. Again in our present language, under these circumstances an interaction takes place which, for instance, makes a second object appear too near, or coincident with, a first object which is just disappearing, so that only when the first object, and therefore the interaction, really fades, the second object can move toward its normal position. If this is interaction, it does not, as such, occur on the perceptual scene. On this scene, we merely observe a movement. That movements of this kind do not correspond to real movements of the stimulus objects and must therefore be brought about by the sequence of the two objects, we can discover only by examining the physical situation. It follows that, if the seen movement is the perceptual result of an interaction, this interaction itself takes place outside the perceptual field. Thus, the apparent movement confirmed Wertheimer's more general suspicion: we cannot assume that the perceptual scene is an aggregate of unrelated elements because underlying processes are already functionally interrelated when that scene emerges, and now exhibits corresponding effects.

Wertheimer did not offer a more specific physiological explanation. At the time, this would have been impossible. He next turned to the problem of whether the characteristics of stationary perceptual fields are also influenced by interactions. I need not repeat how he investigated the formation of molar perceptual units, and more particularly of groups of such objects. Patterns which he used for this purpose are now reproduced in many textbooks. They clearly demonstrate that it is relations among visual objects which decide what objects become group members, and what others do not, and where, therefore, one group separates itself from another. This fact strongly suggests that perceptual groups are established by interactions; and, since a naive observer is merely aware of the result, the perceived groups, but not of their dependence upon particular relations, such interactions would again occur among the underlying processes rather than within the perceptual field.

Let me add a further remark about this early stage of the development. Surely, in those years, Gestalt psychologists were not satisfied with a quiet consideration of available facts. It seems that no major new trend in a science ever is. We were excited by what we found, and even more by the prospect of finding further revealing facts. Moreover, it was not only the stimulating newness of our enterprise which inspired us. There was also a great wave of relief -- as though we were escaping, from a prison. The prison was psychology as taught at the universities when we still were students. At the time, we had been shocked by the thesis that all psychological facts (not only those in perception) consist of unrelated inert atoms and that almost the only factors which combine these atoms and thus introduce action are associations formed under the influence of mere contiguity. What had disturbed us was the utter senselessness of this picture, and the implication that human life, apparently so colorful and so intensely dynamic, is actually a frightful bore. This was not true of our new picture, and we felt that further discoveries were bound to destroy, what was left of the old picture.

Soon further investigations, not all of them done by Gestalt psychologists, reinforced the new trend. Rubin called attention to the difference between figure and ground. David Katz found ample evidence for the role of Gestalt factors in the field of touch as well as in color vision, and so forth. Why so much interest just in perception? Simply because in no other part of psychology are facts so readily accessible to observation. It was the hope of everybody that, once some major functional principles had been revealed in this part of psychology, similar principles would prove to be relevant to other parts, such as memory, learning, thinking, and motivation. In fact, Wertheimer and I undertook our early studies of intellectual processes precisely from this point of view; somewhat later, Kurt Lewin began his investigations of motivation which, in part , followed the same line; and we also applied the concept of Gestaltung or ,organization to memory, to learning, and to recall. With developments in America, Wertheimer's further analysis of thinking, Asch's and Heider's investigations in social psychology, our work on figural aftereffects, and eventually on currents Of the brain, we are probably all familiar.


But I intended to discuss some trends in American psychology. May I confess that I do not fully approve of all these trends?

First, I doubt whether it is advisable to regard caution and a critical spirit as the virtues of a scientist, as though little else counted. They are necessary in research, just as the brakes in our cars must be kept in order and their windshields clean. But it is not because of the brakes or of the windshields that we drive. Similarly, caution and a critical spirit are like tools. They ought to be kept ready during a scientific enterprise; however, the main business of a science is gaining more and more new knowledge. I wonder why great men in physics do not call caution and a critical spirit the most important characteristics of their behavior. They seem to regard the testing of brakes and the cleaning of windshields as mere precautions, but to look forward to the next trip as the business for which they have cars. Why is it only in psychology that we hear the slightly discouraging, story of mere caution over and over again? Why are just psychologists so inclined to greet the announcement of a new fact (or a new working hypothesis) almost with scorn? This is caution that has gone sour and has almost become negativism -- which, of course, is no less an emotional attitude than is enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of the early Gestalt psychologists was a virtue, because it led to new observations. But virtues, it has been said, tend to breed little accompanying vices. In their enthusiasm, the Gestalt psychologists were not always sufficiently careful.

In American psychology, it is rightly regarded as a virtue if a man feels great respect for method and for caution. But, if this virtue becomes too strong, it may bring forth a spirit of skepticism and thus prevent new work. Too many young psychologists, it seems to me, either work only against something done by others or merely vary slightly what others have done before; in other words, preoccupation with method may tend to limit the range of our research. We are, of course, after clear evidence. But not in all parts of psychology can evidence immediately be clear. In some, we cannot yet use our most exact methods. Where this happens, we hesitate to proceed. Experimentalists in particular tend to avoid work on new materials resistant to approved methods and to the immediate application of perfectly clear concepts. But concepts in a new field can only be clarified by work in this field. Should we limit our studies to areas already familiar from previous research? Obviously, would mean a kind of conservatism in psychology. When I was his student, Max Planck repeated this warning over and over again in his lectures.

Our wish to use only perfect methods and clear concepts has led to Methodological Behaviorism. Human experience in the phenomenological sense cannot yet be treated with our most reliable methods; and, when dealing with it, we may be forced to form new concepts which, at first, will often be a bit vague. Most experimentalists, therefore, refrain from observing, or even from referring to, the phenomenal scene. And yet, this is the scene on which, so far as the actors are concerned, the drama of ordinary human living is being played all the time. If we never study this scene, but insist on methods and concepts developed in research "from the outside," our results are likely to look strange to those who intensely live "'inside."

To be sure, in many respects, the graphs and tables obtained "from the outside" constitute a most satisfactory material; and, in animal psychology, we have no other material. But this material as such contains no direct evidence as to the processes by which it is brought about. In this respect it is a slightly defective, I am tempted to say, a meager, material. For it owes its particular clearness to the fact that the data from which the graphs and tables are derived are severely selected data. When subjects are told to say no more than "louder," "'softer," and perhaps "equal" in certain experiments, or when we merely count how many items they recall in others, then we can surely apply it precise statistical techniques to what they do. But, as a less attractive consequence, we never hear under these circumstances how they do the comparing in the first case and what happens when they try to recall in the second case.

Are such questions now to be ignored? After all, not all phenomenal experiences are entirely vague; this Scheerer has rightly emphasized. And, if many are not yet accessible to quantitative procedures, what of it? One of the most fascinating disciplines, developmental physiology, the science investigating the growth of an organism from one cell, seldom uses quantitative techniques. And yet, nobody can deny that its merely qualitative description of morphogenesis has extraordinary scientific value. In new fields, not only quantitative data are relevant. As to the initial vagueness of Concepts in a new field, I should like to add an historical remark. When the concept of energy was first introduced in physics, it was far from king a clear concept. For decades, its meaning could not be sharply distinguished from that of the term "force." And what did the physicists do? They worked and worked on it, until at last it did become perfectly clear. There is no other way of dealing with new, and therefore not yet perfect, concepts. Hence, if we refuse to study the phenomenal scene, because, here, few concepts are so far entirely clear, we thereby decide that this scene will never be investigated -- at least not by us, the psychologists.


You will ask me whether my suggestions lead to any consequences in actual research. Most surely, they do. But, since I have lived so long in America, and have therefore gradually become a most cautious scientist, I am now preparing myself for the study of motivation by investigating, first of all, the action of dynamic vectors in simpler fields, such as cognition and perception. It is a most interesting occupation to compare motivational action with dynamic events in those other parts of psychology. When you do so, everything looks different, not only in perception but also in certain forms of learning. Specific work? There is, and will be more of it than I alone can possibly manage. Consequently, I need help. And where do I expect to find this help? I will tell you where.

The Behaviorist's premises, we remember, lead to certain expectations and experiments. What I have just said invites us to proceed in another direction. I suggest that, in this situation, we forget about schools. The Behaviorist is convinced that his functional concepts are those which we all ought to use. The Gestalt psychologist, who deals with a greater variety of both phenomenal and physical concepts, expects more from work based on such premises. Both parties feel that their procedures are scientifically sound. Why should we fight? Many experiments done by Behaviorists seem to me to be very good experiments. May I now ask the Behaviorists to regard the use of some phenomenal facts, and also of field physics, as perfectly permissible? If we were to agree on these points, we could, I am sure, do excellent work together. It would be an extraordinary experience -- and good for psychology.