Christian von Ehrenfels: “On ‘Gestalt Qualities”’

Fig. 1. Unknown photographer, portrait of Christian von Ehrenfels.

Roy R. Behrens’ ‘Art, Design and Gestalt Theory’ has been useful for me to trace some profound theorists and practitioners, who are actively engaged in the field of Gestalt psychology. During the progress of research, I learned Christian von Ehrenfels’ “On ‘Gestalt Qualities”’ a vital literature since it was regarded as the inspiration led to the whole Gestalt movement. Austrian philosopher Ehrenfels (FIg. 1) not only is the first to brought up the term ‘Gestalt’ on 1890, but also is the pioneer to introduce the notion of Gestalt theory. Behrens mentions Max Wertheimer had studied with Enrenfels in Prague. This probably induce him to read Enrenfels’s paper at that time.

“Have you ever experienced to recall a melody despite playing in the different keys?” This is the question led Ehrenfels to the discoveries of Gestalt qualities. In the chapter two of “On ‘Gestalt Qualities”’, Enrenfels (1890, p. 84) points out that a melody would still remains recognizable despite the notes has been changed. He argues that
the Gestalt qualities stay unchanged even if our sensation stimuli changes. Likewise, the Gestalt qualities are more than the sum of the separately presentable units. In ‘Gestalt Theory’, Wertheimer (1924, p. 2) further elaborates this “relationship-between-element” either regarded as a extra component of the combination, or we could see it as a process “which operates upon the given material to ‘produce’ unity.”

Enrenfels gives more in-depth proof of the existence of Gestalt qualities. He mainly uses the melody to explain the perceptual progress, and notionally asserts that “Gestalt is something other than the sum of the individual tones on the basis of which it is constituted.” (Enrenfels, 1890, p. 84)Both tones and intervals are perceived as parts of the organization. Therefore, several of recognizable melodies could be reconstructed by arranging the tones and intervals. The evidences are profoundly found in both visual and aural presentations.

In chapter five, Enrenfels (1890, p. 93) suggests that there are two types of Gestalt qualities — temporal and non-temporal. The temporal Gestalt qualities consist of the qualities whose elements are distinctly located in time whereas the non-temporal qualities are the perceptually require no time. He refers temporal qualities “at most one element can be given in perceptual presentation, the remainder being present via memory-images;” (Enrenfels, 1890, p. 93) Non-temporal Gestalt qualities “can be given completely in perceptual presentation (called by many ‘sensation’).” (Enrenfels, 1890, p. 93) The relationship of non-temporal Gestalt qualities and temporal Gestalt qualities could be extended into the context of visual experimentation, so to say, to interact with audience’s visual perception.

In general, Gestalt qualities could be determined through senses of touch, sensation, aural, taste, temperature, etc. In addition, the qualities could even be extended to ‘Gestalt qualities of higher order’ (Enrenfels, 1890, p. 105), i.e. moral, rivalry, marriage, theft, robbery, war, etc. The qualities of unified elements remain the unchanged despite of certain changes of phenomenon occur.

Overall, this remarkable text led to the formation of Gestalt philosophy and also being the inspiration for visual experimentation.

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

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


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