Max Wertheimer (April 15, 1880 – October 12, 1943) was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. Born in Prague, he began his research in Germany, relocating to the United States with the rise of Nazism. Although Wertheimer published only one book, and that posthumously by his son Michael Wertheimer a psychologist in his own right, his work laid the foundation for one of the great revolutions of psychological theory.
Starting with the observation of apparent movement, the phi phenomenon, Wertheimer and his colleagues devised numerous experiments on visual perception, addressing not just the physiological capabilities of human eyes and brain, but the complexity of our interpretation of sensory input. For Wertheimer, our thinking is not based just on learning by association, but rather is a productive process whereby the entire structure of the perceptual field, and our experiences, affect our perception of any part. Wertheimer believed that there was much more to discover using this approach. Even though it has generated much research since his death, and in many ways has been superseded by new approaches in developmental psychology, cognition, and artificial intelligence, Wertheimer's ideas remain innovative and challenging to all who seek to understand the complexity of the human mind.
Max Wertheimer was born on April 15, 1880, in Prague, then Austria-Hungary, later Czechoslovakia. His father was the founder of a highly successful and innovative business school called Handelsschule Wertheimer. His mother was well-educated in culture, literature, and the arts, and was also an accomplished violinist.
At age 18, having passed his comprehensive exams at the Prague Gymnasium, Wertheimer entered the University of Prague, with the intent of going into law. However, he was drawn to other subjects as well, including history, music, art, physiology, and ethnology. In 1901, he formally switched his curricular plan from law to philosophy (of which psychology was a branch). Continuing his studies at the University of Berlin under Carl Stumpf, then at the University of Wurzburg, he was granted a Ph.D (summa cum laude) from Wurzburg in 1904, for a dissertation that pertained to certain psychological aspects of law involving the use of word association techniques.
While at the University of Prague, Wertheimer became interested in the lectures of Christian von Ehrenfels, an Austrian philosopher who, in 1890, published what is often said to be the first paper on holistic form qualities or (as Ehrenfels called them) "Gestalt qualities." By more than twenty years, this paper anticipated some of the findings of Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler, in what is now commonly known as Gestalt psychology.
In 1910 he worked at the Psychological Institute of Frankfurt University. There he became interested in perception. Together with two younger assistants, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, he studied the effect of moving pictures a tachistoscope generates. In 1912 he published his seminal paper on "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement," and was offered a lectureship.
He moved to Berlin in 1916, and became assistant professor there from 1922 onwards. In 1923, Wertheimer married Anna (called Anni) Caro, a physician’s daughter, with whom he had four children: Rudolf (who died in infancy), Valentin, Michael, and Lise. They divorced in 1942.
From 1929 to 1933, Wertheimer was a professor at the University of Frankfurt. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, it became apparent to Wertheimer (and to countless other Jewish intellectuals) that he must leave Germany. In the end, he accepted an offer to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The Wertheimers’ emigration was arranged through the U.S. consulate in Prague, and he and his wife and their children arrived in New York harbor on September 13, 1933.
For the remaining decade of his life, Wertheimer continued to teach at the New School, while remaining in touch with his European colleagues, many of whom had also emigrated to the U.S. Koffka was teaching at Smith College, Kohler at Swarthmore College, and Kurt Lewin at Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Although in declining health, he continued to work on his research of problem-solving, or what he preferred to call “productive thinking.” He completed his book (his only book) on the subject (with that phrase as its title) in late September 1943, and died just three weeks later of a heart attack. The book was published posthumously in 1945 by his son, Michael Wertheimer, a successful psychologist in his own right. Max Wertheimer was buried in Beechwood Cemetery in New Rochelle, New York.
Max Wertheimer is seen as one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. In particularly, he established the Gestalt school of psychology which forever changed the way psychologists and the general public understands perception and cognition.
No one is certain quite how Gestalt psychology came about. The same story is always told, but it may be apocryphal. It is said that Wertheimer was traveling by train on vacation in 1910 when he saw the blinking lights at a railroad crossing, like the lights that appear on a theater sign. Sensing the significance of this ubiquitous phenomenon, he got off the train at Frankfurt am Main and bought a motion picture toy (called a zoetrope) with which to experiment. He ended up staying in Frankfurt until 1915, teaching philosophy and psychology at the Psychological Institute from 1912-14, while continuing his research of "apparent movement" (or the phi phenomenon).
In his research on this illusion, rather than using a zoetrope, Wertheimer relied on a scientific instrument called a tachistoscope, by which he was able to flash shapes onto a screen, successively, for exact lengths of time. The people who served as his experimental subjects in this were two younger colleagues at Frankfurt, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler. In 1912, Wertheimer published a seminal paper on Experimentelle studien über das Sehen von Bewegung (Experimental Studies in the Perception of Movement), which his students referred to informally as his Punkerbeit or “dot paper” because its illustrations were abstract patterns made of dots. The three psychologists began to collaborate, to publish papers, and, in time, they became world-famous as the originators of Gestalt theory.
Gestalt theory depends on the concept of a "Gestalt," which can be defined as "an articulated whole, a system, within which the constituent parts in dynamic interrelation with one another and with the whole, in integrated totality within which each part and subpart has the place, role, and function required for it by the nature of the whole" (Wertheimer 1991). It is not like the sum or collection of parts, which just happen to be connected. In a Gestalt, the nature of the whole and its constituent parts are essentially connected, such that a change in any one affects all the others and the whole; the parts and the whole are mutually interdependent.
The collaborative work of the three Gestalt psychologists was interrupted by World War I. Both Wertheimer and Koffka were assigned to war-related research, while Kohler was appointed the director of an anthropoid research station on Teneriffe, in the Canary Islands. The three men reunited after the war ended and continued further research on the experiments.
After the war, Koffka returned to Frankfurt, while Kohler became the director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, where Wertheimer was already on the faculty. Using the abandoned rooms of the Imperial Palace, they established a now-famous graduate school, in tandem with a journal called Psychologische Forschung (Psychological Research: Journal of Psychology and its Neighboring Fields), in which their students’ and their own research was initially published.
After his move to the United States following the rise of Adolf Hitler, Wertheimer pursued research on problem solving, or as he preferred to call it, "productive thinking." He maintained contact with Koffka and Kohler, whose earlier work with chimpanzees on insight was along similar lines. Wertheimer took the investigation further into the realm of human thinking. A typical example of this productive thinking involves a child attempting to solve a geometry problem—the area of a parallelogram. Suddenly the child takes a pair of scissors and cuts a triangle from one end of the figure, turns it, and attaches it to the other side forming a rectangle—the problem of the area can now be solved.
Wertheimer referred to this type of learning as "productive" to distinguish it from "reproductive" thinking, the simple associative or trial and error learning that involved no insight. He regarded true human understanding as going from a situation which is meaningless or incomprehensible to one in which the meaning is clear. Such a transition is more than just making new connections, it involves structuring the information in a new way, forming a new Gestalt.
Gestalt psychology was a radical change from the psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, who sought to understand the human mind by identifying the constituent parts of human consciousness in the same way that a chemical compound is broken into various elements. It also rivaled the Behaviorism of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner, providing an experimental, (scientific) way to approach the study of human perception and cognition which maintained the level of complexity many recognize as intrinsic to these processes. It also offered an alternative to the approach of Sigmund Freud, which was certainly complex, yet fraught with the complications of psychopathology. Wertheimer was not interested in mental illness; he sought to understand the processes of the healthy human mind, and in a scientific yet holistic fashion.
The success of Wertheimer and his colleagues' efforts is evidenced by the familiarity of the names of their students in the literature of psychology, among them Kurt Lewin, Rudolf Arnheim, Wolfgang Metzger, Bluma Zeigarnik, Karl Duncker, Herta Kopfermann, and Kurt Gottschaldt.
In the reissued version of Wertheimer's Productive Thinking (1982), the editors suggest that this work "was seminal for the period in which it was written, generated much research during the intervening decades, and continues to present relevant challenges to the cognitive psychologist." From Wertheimer's perspective, cognitive psychology in all its forms, including studies of artificial intelligence, has yet much to learn from the Gestalt viewpoint of productive thinking. The incredible complexities of human thought involve something that is more than the sum of its parts, something in which the parts and the whole are integrally connected.
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