Wolfgang Köhler: ‘Gestalt Psychology Today’

Fig. 1. Unknown photographer, portrait of Wolfgang Köhler. Swarthmore College

This is one of the journals adopted in my annotation and it does provide me an insight for studying the theme ‘negative space’. Wolfgang Köhler (Fig. 1), who is one of the key founders in Gestalt psychology beside Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, published this journal ‘Gestalt Psychology Today’ in 1959. According to one of my secondary source Roy R. Behrens’ ‘Art, Design and Gestalt Theory’, Köhler and Koffka were recruited by Wertheimer for conducting research. Three of them were separated by World War I and reunited in 1920. Köhler was forced to immigrate to United State in 1935 due to the repression under the Nazis. This journal believed was written after his emigration to United State.

Köhler begins this journal with summarizing few remarkable events happened in Gestalt history. Through Christian von Ehrenfels’ discovery on melody incident, ‘On Gestalt Qualities’ suggests that “when the physical stimuli in question are considerably changed, while their relations are kept constant, the Gestalt qualities remain about the same.” This somehow led to the development of Gestalt psychology. So the question is “how does the characteristics of the perceptual situation remain constant under these conditions?” Instead of focusing on the question, rather, the foundering gestaltist Wertheimer analyses this phenomenon from another perspective. By assuming the small elements are parts of the perceptual situation, it is significant to perceive the behavior of whole organization rather than structuralist view. It’s important to know that Wertheimer first experimented this perception analysis with visual objects in motion when correspond stimuli remain unchanged. It follows one point — “if the seen movement is the perceptual result of an interaction, this interaction itself takes place outside the perceptual field.” Wertheimer carries on his investigation on the characteristics of stationary perceptual fields. Through my research, his ‘Laws Of Organization In Perceptual Form’ has asserted the multiple grouping principles in perceptual progress. Köhler emphasizes one important point:

“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.”

Köhler also mentions some other major developments happened in Gestalt history, including the contributions from Edgar Rubin, David Katz, Max Planck, Kurt Lewin, etc. He affirms that “Wertheimer’s ideas and investigations developed in a different direction” when compared with Ehrenfels’ idea.

In response to the issue of some Gestalt findings might be unreliable under some circumstances. Köhler defends that American psychology has been paying attention to the questions of method and evidence over the years, and also sometimes might due to the misjudgment from certain gestaltist. However, opposing to the attitude of being over caution and carrying a critical spirit, he encourages American psychologist to be more ‘adventurous’ in term of enthusiasm.

Besides, Köhler disagrees with the cognitive experience refers to “learned drive” that proposed by behaviorist. He argues how gestaltist would resolve these motivations by giving few psychological facts. He links the motivations with “the behavior of force in nature” from the perspective of physics. The cognitive experience mentioned by Köhler is very useful for my practice because it could be ‘translated’ into an art form experimentation. As such, the ‘obstacles’ arranged in the story of picture book might affect the reader’s perceptual progress.


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