Max Wertheimer: ‘Gestalt Theory’


Currently I’m reading on Willis Ellis’s A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology and extracting one of the chapters — Max Wertheimer’s ‘Gestalt Theory’ as one of my book list. ‘Gestalt Theory’ is known as one of the most important journal contributed by Wertheimer in the history of Gestalt psychology, besides his ‘Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement’ and ‘Laws of Organization in Perceptual Form’. The theory offered is undoubtedly groundbreaking and responsive at that time.

We probably need to understand the background when Wertheimer first published his journal. The world science in early 20th century offered a mechanistic, and structuralist interpretation to answer the essential questions. However, Wertheimer (1924, p. 2) challenges this scientific logic is the only option to penetrate our critical problems. He argues that Gestalt theory is resolved to comprehend our problem by reviewing scientific assumption through a different perspective.

Wertheimer, known as the chief founder of Gestalt psychology, defines Gestalt theory as “the outcome of concrete investigation in psychology, logic, and epistemology”. (Wertheimer, 1924, p. 1) He suggests a new alternative solution that we should perceive the objects as component parts of organization and examine the organization’s integrated or unified behavior as a whole. In fact, the term Gestalt was first introduced in Christian von Ehrenfels’ “On Gestalt ‘Qualities’” in which he points out that a melody would still be recognizable despite the change of the tone (Ehrenfels, 1890, p. 83).

Wertheimer (1924, p. 3) asserts that Gestalt theory is “a means toward further discoveries” studies it offers a more explicit understanding to our fundamental questions in various fields, i.e. auditory, vision, sensation, science, psychology, etc. He gave an immeasurable insight at his conclusion:

“A Beethoven symphony where it would be possible for one to select one part of the whole and work from that towards an idea of the structural principle motivating and determining the whole. Here the fundamental laws are not those of fortuitous pieces but concern the very character of the event.”

Not merely establishing a psychology theory from a new perspective, he has a clear vision that Gestalt theory would redefine a distinctive approach to contrast with traditional scientific methods in future (Wertheimer, 1924, p. 3). In addition, he further elaborated the theory and established a series of Gestalt laws to formulate perceptual regularities, like the factor of proximity, the factor of similarity, the factor of closure, etc. (Wertheimer, 1923, p. 301) The influences that brought by Gestalt theory have been far-reaching and immeasurable.

Ehrenfels, Christian (1890) ‘On “Gestalt Qualities”’, Foundation of Gestalt Theory, 82-117. Available at: (accessed 14 October 2013)

Wertheimer, Max (1950) ‘Gestalt Theory’, in Ellis, Willis (ed.) A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: The Humanities Press

Wertheimer, Max (1923) ‘Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms’, Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt 2 (4), 301-350, (visited 15/10/13)


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