Phenomenological psychology is not really a system, it is an apporoach to understanding the world; it is a research orientation; an emphasis upon perception. Its primary premise is that reality is in the eye of the beholder, not in some external reality. one understands others by looking at their perceptions, not their surrounding stimulus world. Phenomenologists are centralists, not peripheralists, and they value wholes rather than parts; Gestalt means whole, pattern, configuration. Most humanists and existentialists (and some experimentalitsts) are also phenomenologists.


Classical phenomenology
Methods of knowing
Social and Physical Sciences
Anti Rationalism
Gestalt Psychology
The Gestaltists: Berlin group


1. What are phenomenological methods and how are they different from other scientific methods?
2. How do the social sciences differ from the natural sciences?
3. What is meant by anti-rationalism, and why is this point of view introduced?
4. What is meant by the word "Gestalt?" Who were the Gestaltists?
5. What is the phi phenomenon? Can physical stimuli explain it?
6. What are the meanings of some of the Gestalt principles -- transposition, Pragnanz, figure-ground reversals?
7. How does the work of Lewin, Kelly, and Lashley relate to phenomenological psychology?


Most phenomenological systems emphasize the particular rather than the general. Dilthey made this point in 1883 when he differentiated among the sciences. He maintained that the social sciences study uniqueness and individuality while the natural sciences seek generalizations. Later, Windelband called the social sciences idiographic and the natural sciences nomothetic. Allport, the Harvard psychologist, elaborated upon these ideas in his book on personality in 1937 (Bonner, 1961, p. 17).

But phenomenology goes back much further. There has long been the attempt to differentiate sensation from perception. The individual's attention on the stimulus is sensation; attention on the meaningful object is perception. Wundt and Titchener expected, in their early laboratory work, that a well trained observer could successfully report, through introspection, the sensation produced by the stimulus. To report, instead, a judgement or an interpretation, based upon the awareness of a meaningful object, was to report an error. For example, in making a report about the weight of the box, ". . . the stimulus is the pull of the weight upon the hand, the bending of joints, the pressure on the skin (Woodworth, 1938, p. 450)." Here, the perception was reduced to the unique phenomenon, not some general idea such as "box." The untrained subject makes a judgment about the box. This became known as the "stimulus error," or what Titchener originally had called the "object error." The importance placed on raw sensations, rather than interpretations from sensations, was also found in the work of the Gestalt psychologists. Koffka (1922) identified three parts to a science of psychology -- sensation, i images, and association. The phenomenologists emphasized sensation. Images, on the other hand, emerged from abstractions, which had value judgements. The emphasis upon sensation was not the same as saying the mind comes from sensation, as the British empiricists would say. The Gestaltists believed mind and sensation were the same thing.

Methods of Knowing The phenomenological methods for obtaining knowledge, according to Husserl (1859-1938), are two -- pure description and phenomenological reduction (Turner, 1967, p. 62). Pure description is a process of intuiting or getting to the core and the uniqueness of an event. All generalizations, comparisons, or classifications of an event are stripped away. The event is considered as "not A; not B; not C," and "not all other categories" that come to mind. The phenomenon, then, is the residue. It is the pure unique quality that defies categorization and classification.

Phenomenologial reduction, the second method of knowledge proposed by Husserl, is the process which permits the "I" to be experienced! One not only knows an object but he knows that he knows. The person can stand back and become aware of his sensing. There is some "I" behind the I, or an "I myself" at a deeper layer, behind the perceiving I. There are really two actors -- one that is perceiving and one that observes the perceiver. So "I" is both subject and object. The "I" observes, as the subject (i.e., the book, the man, the I); it is also the thing observed, the object of the perceiving I, i.e., myself. This phenomenological reductionism is simply an "awareness" on the part of the person that the ego participates in the act of knowing.

The notion of descriptive knowledge emphasizes three points -- particulars, sensation, and naivete.

Particulars. The data of the social sciences are individual phenomena; and are, by definition, unique. No generalization or abstraction can emerge from the observation of a large number of unique events. There is only one generalization possible; namely, that unique collection of events exists. Phenomenologists, therefore, reject the pursuit of generalizations as a goal of science. They further claim that all abstractions are unwise. They might agree with Blake, who said: To generalize is to be an idiot. To partiularize is the lone distinction of merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess (Bartlett). From elsewhere, by Blake: He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer, for art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars. Further, Blake claims that Chaucer's characters . . . live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one or other of these characters. . .Chaucer's characters are a description of the eternal principles that exist in all ages (Blake in Erdman, Poetry and. . . 1965, p. 527).

Sensations. This emphasis upon sensation, strangely enough, was quite similar to that position held by the logical positivists. The phenomenologists sound almost like positivists. The difference, however, is that the positivists turn sensations into generalizations or abstractions which are the end products. Mach, the founder of logical positivism, held the following principles (Joergensen, 1951, p. 7-8): a priori truth doesn't exist; all generalizations are subject to control by experience; and all scientific statements should be reduced to statements of sensation (Joergensen, 1951, p. 10). The phenomenologists and the logical positivists, then, both agree -- that sensation is the only valid knowledge. The difference, apparently, is that logical positivists start out and come back at the same point, creating abstractions in between. They begin by assuming that there is something real about physical stimuli and that these create sensations which are the same for all persons. These sensations in turn are combined and abstracted to create concepts or mental contents. Such was the position of the British empiricists. The phenomenologists, on the other hand, start out with sensations and stay there.

The phenomenologists begin and end with sensations -- that which becomes the basis for knowledge and the only knowledge. They believe that phenomena are the only reality. They do not make interpretations about what is sensed. One can only sense. Such emphasis upon sensations is characteristic of most poets. Keats valued sensation over ideas when he said: O for a life of sensations rather than thoughts (Evans, p. 619). This was partly out of fear that the rational world can control the senses, as Leonardo da Vinci believed when he said, intellectual passion drives out sensuality (Bartlett.

Naivete. Nietzsche advocated a naive approach to life because "Understanding kills action, for in order to at we require the veil of illusion. . .(Nietzsche, 1956, p. 51)." Recognition of the absurdity of life creates a feeling of futility which leads to inaction. Such hopelessness may account for why many individuals today prefer not to understand; why activists rely on rhetoric rather than reason. If you can create an illusion, then you can execute action. Is it possible that activists on college campuses frequently come from the disciplines of English and psychology, where illusions are created or maintained, if not understood?

Social and Physical Sciences

The phenomenological impact upon the philosophy of science was made primarily through the efforts of one individual, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Dilthey, the son of a pastor in the Reformed Church, attended the University of Berlin, became a private docent there in 1865, and then took over the chair vacated by Lotze when the latter died in 1882. Dilthey competed intellectually with Windelband and Rickert (Hodges, 1952). He believed that history was a great educator of man. "What man is, he learns not by rummaging about in himself, not yet by psychological experiments, but by means of History (Hodges, 1952, p. 207)."

One major proposal of Dilthey was that a distinction be made between the social sciences and the natural sciences that the former were seen as descriptive while the latter are explanatory. Dilthey thought that psychology should become descriptive and relinquish its search for explanatory statements, that it should become independent from the natural sciences. One criticism Dilthey made about the natural sciences is that there seems to be a continual "war of hypotheses." The natural sciences, as nomothetic, can only obtain their ends by combining hypotheses. They continually manipulate and attack hypotheses.

The major difference between the natural sciences and psychology, Dilthey believed, was expressed in the approach Hume made to the nature of knowledge. Here the mind was explained as an imitation of physics via "atom" ideas. But since an atom is a theoretical construct which you can't observe, one cannot, therefore, observe sensation. In addition, Dilthey claimed that perception possesses a coherence not found in the world of physics. Therefore, the method psychology uses needs to recognize this wholeness of perception.

The methods used by psychology should permit a study of the whole man. Laboratory experiments, since they aim to produce generalizations, should be eliminated. More appropriate methods would be the use of lyric poetry, or sources of character portrayal -- autobiographies and religious meditations such as found in Senecca, St. Augustine, and Montaigne (Hodges, 1952, p. 201). Dilthey said that descriptive theory in a science was popular in 18801900 and had roots in Berkeley.

Dilthey adamantly argued against the existence of a priori principles. All knowledge comes from experience, or a posteriori principles. No timeless world of meanings or essences existed. There was no rational or irrational, no distinction between spirit and psyche. In summary, Dilthey, as a monist and an empiricist, believed that experience is the key to whatever reality may exist. Without experience there is no reality.

Experience is the only evidence we have that anything exists. Reality is what we're aware of (Hodges, 1952, p. xix). How like this is of Berkeley's dictum esse is percipi -- to be is to be perceived. The external world of objects and the internal world of feelings and thoughts are both entwined. The two are inseparable. In one whole perception I see from my house to a house across the street. I am aware of whiteness, of glass, and of wood which I call a house. It is at the same time a sensation -- involving as it does a little squinting as I stare at the white painted wood. What do I experience -- the painted wood or the sensation?

The mind, thus, grows and develops. It changes as a function of the experiences of the past. One finds this theme of man in Wilhelm Meister and in Faust. This conception of man as found in Dilthey is where the positivist and the romanticist meet (Hodges, 1952, p. 202).


Phenomenology and description, as methods in science, are anti-rationalistic. Description reflects reality; the rational, on the other hand, abstracts from reality and creates abstractions. The descriptive is a sign; the rational is a symbol. In the history of thought, description emerged first; rational approaches came later.

Greco-Christian culture had been the basis for the development of rational thought. Classical Greek philosophy, especially represented by Platonic philosophy, elevated reason, abstraction, and ideas above the singular, specific, and concrete. Ideas were the highest form of reality. Later, Christian dogma supported Greek thought when it maintained that in the beginning Was the word and the word was God. In Platonic philosophy the primary reality was the idea; in Christian philosophy it was the word. There was little difference between the two.

Phenomenology, on the other hand, accepts the world as irrational, or at least as non-cognitive. This has led to a certain anti-intellectualism. Ideas and abstractions are not as important or as real as the sensations and feelings. In this regard, phenomenological traditions seem to support anti-intellectual movements. Or, perhaps, anti-intellectuals support phenomenological theories. This marriage between description and anti-intellectualism is sometimes evident among university faculties that stress phenomenological approaches. In such cases, the faculties tend to be heavily represented in activist movements. One might predict that the upsurgence in phenomenological theory (whether found in psychology, counseling, literature, drama, or art), will parallel corresponding increases in action. Such academic programs are designed to resist rational institutions and favor instead the bolstering of those activities which are special, restricted, and concrete.

Criticism. Many criticisms have been leveled at phenomenology. Boring reports that in the fall of 1917, Titchenor told his students ". . . that he had spent one day less than a year in understanding Husserl, that he now understood him, and that there is nothing in him (Boring, 1950, p. 420)." In assessing Husserl and intuition, Turner, in his Philosophy and the Science of Behavior says:

. . . Husserl's promise of new horizons of empiricism has not been realized. Nor has the invitation to develop the new science been seized upon. Rather, his influence has been felt among the contemporary existentialists, whom Abraham Kaplan (1961) sympathetically describes as amateur literary psychologists. . . What one discovers, if it may be called discovery, is a volatile ego, an I that evaporates upon inspection . . . There is no reason to believe that intuition has proved any more exemplary for man than has science (Turner, 1967, p. 63-64).

Phenomenology is represented by many diverse individuals. Although they do not completely agree on a comprehensive set of propositions, there is, however, much agreement on a few specific principles -- that description is more important than explanation, and that raw sensation of unique events is more important than interpretation of numerous instances.


There have been many variations of phenomenological psychology. Only one, however, has attained the status of what might be called a "school," with its own leaders, methodology, program of research, and theoretical structure. That school is Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology should not be confused with "gestalt psychotherapy," as popularized by Perls. The two are quite different. Gestalt psychology is a theoretical system based upon experimental psychology and laboratory research. It is identified essentially with three German psychologists (Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler). Their work on perception demonstrated that the perceived world is not always the same for each person; and that the same stimulus is not always the same when in different contexts. These principles of perception have been incorporated into the mainstream of experimental psychology. Perls' gestalt psychotherapy, discussed in another place, is a therapeutic technique. It is linked to gestalt psychology only tenuously by the common notion that phenomena can be understood only when seen as wholes rather than as parts.

A classical paper by Koffka reviews the history of Gestalt psychology

There is no adequate translation for the German word Gestalt. The closest approximation includes such concepts as integrated pattern, configuration, structure, or whole. The basic premise of Gestalt psychology is that the whole has unit, which is not analyzable. A melody, for example, cannot be understood by simply identifying the various notes which go to make it up. If the individual notes are changed, as when the music is transposed into another key, the melody is still recognizable. In fact, the transposition appears to be the same to the untrained ear. The melody is real and has existence independent of what parts make it up.


The beginnings of Gestalt psychology can be traced to the work of Ehrenfels and Meinong to whose work we will divert our attention before continuing. Von Ehrenfels, born in Vienna and representing what Boring calls the Southern German tradition, steeped more in philosophy than in experimental psychology. Ehrenfels claimed that, in addition to those elements which Wundt and his school proposed, there were other elements such as form, figure, and shape. For these he coined the term Gestaltqualitat.

Born in the same year that Darwin published his Origin of Species, Ehrenfels lived until the rise of Hitler's Nazi Germany. He was a student when Wundt had already formed his laboratory and published his Grunderage. Ehrenfels took his Ph.D. degree with Meinong in 1884, the same year that Mach published his Analysis of Sensation and Ebbinghaus his Memory. That was the same year that Freud went to Paris to spend his few months with Charcot. During his early days at the University of Vienna, Ehrenfels was a friend of Freud. Both of them had taken their work with Brucke who advocated the Helmholtzian idea about putting everything in physical-chemical explanations along with a touch of dynamic theory. But it is difficult to locate evidence that there was much of a relationship between the two. Jones, in his classic biography of Freud, mentions Ehrenfels only twice, and this in connection with, first, a suggestion that Ehrenfels considered Freud a Christian, and then again a reference to the fact that Ehrenfels had written a paper on sexuality.

Be that as it may, Ehrensfels was a passionate devotee of the then popular Wagner in the Germany of that time, and apparently was led to wonder about the nature of musical relations. Listening to Wagnerian operas he must have wondered why one could always identify the melodies regardless of the key in which they were played. Surely there must be another element, Gestaltqualitat, in addition to those constituting the musical score. In 1890 he wrote his now famous paper on Gestalt quality, in which he dealt with the transposibility of melody.

It was to Graz where Ehrenfels must have gone and to Meinong under whom he took his Ph.D. Meinong, a private docent in Vienna in 1878, was appointed to Graz in 1882. He had been a disciple of both Brentano and Husserl and was one of the members of what became known as the Graz school. Graz was the capitol of Styria, a province of Austria, and was located in mountainous country in Southeast Austria and noted for its iron mines, railroad centers, and its scientific and optical instruments; it was only 84 miles from Vienna and but a few miles from the Hungarian border.

Meinong elaborated upon von Ehrenfels' Gestaltqualitat by suggesting not only that certain phenomena have separate existences (a square exists independently or as an immediate perception beyond just four straight lines), but that everything, the subject of any proposition, has separate existence. In 1904 he wrote his paper "Investigations into the theory of objects" and preserved the existence of all kinds of things. This elicited from Bertrand Russell a sharp criticism in a paper entitled "On Denoting," published in Mind in 190, which became his famous theory of description.

Meinong's "object theory" proposed that the object was anything that one's thinking was about. Every subject of a sentence has an existence. If one can think about square circles then they exist. The psychological world of an individual is an object and has existence. Kurt Lewin in his notion of"life space" was talking about the same thing. Objects in the life space existed and had a reality.

But Meinong, in another contribution, which is more relevant to our discussion of Gestalt psychology, attempted to deal with Ehrenfels' two elements-- sensation and Gestalt. Meinong attempted to account for these two elements by suggesting that two processes were involved. l) What happens when he have sensations? They emerge from stimuli; there are external factors which make the stimuli turn into sensations. 2) What happens when a figure or Gestalt is experienced? There are internal factors which turn sensation to Gestalt. So stimuli turn into sensations and sensations turn into Gestalt qualitats. The latter occurred by what he called the act of production,the act whereby something new is produced. This became known as the theory of Gestalt production, an internal process.

This was all very well, but one still had to explain how the act of production came about and the whole thing smacked too much of vitalism -- or some inner force which accounted for this act of production. Ehrenfels, later, in defending his old master, almost made a religion out of the act of production. He claimed that order could not come out of chaos, it could only come out of other order; and what order is there in the universe, but God.

Meinong died in 1921. Little else happened at the Graz school. Within the field itself, however, those psychologists at the University of Berlin, called the Berliners, who had criticized the Graz school continued to prosper. They had two objections to the Graz school. First, they disliked the vitalism implied in the "act of production." Second, they objected to the dualism involved in the postulation of two steps to account for Gestalt form.

The Gestaltists: The Berlin Group.

Let us return now to the main thread of our story. The Berlin school (Wertheimer, Koffka, Kohler and later Lewin) became what is known today as the Gestalt psychologists. They were Gestaltists because they thought Meinong was wrong by stipulating two processes -- creating an additional element and an additional process. The Berliners maintained that the "Gestalt" was immediate, naive-, phenomenological. They not only denied additional elements, they denied all elements, unless each Gestalt is considered an element, an entity. There were entities or objects (of consciousness), but there were no discrete bits to be put together to make meaningful wholes.

Before the Berlin Gestaltists actually began conducting experiments on gestalts, one of the Graz men conducted the first experiment. Benussi (1878-1927), a student of Meinong and one of the most respected men in Austrian psychology, had established the laboratory at Graz and proceeded to experimentally test the second step claimed by Meinong. In the process, he stumbled on to the experimental verification for "Gestalt ambiguity" where the perception (figure) varies even though the external stimulus is constant. Although his work was attacked on theoretical grounds, he was respected most by the Berliners because he stood midway between Graz and Berlin.

Three kinds of phenomena emerged from the Gestalt school. First, it had demonstrated that different sensations (or stimuli or fundamente) could produce the same perception. This had been demonstrated by the transposibility of music. Change the notes from one scale to another and you still have the same melody. The elements are, of course, the basis for the gestalt qualitat; but the relation has a reality in itself. Relation was another element, separate from the characteristics of sensations (which were quality, intensity, and even duration and space).

The second kind of phenomenon was the converse of the first. A single stimulus (sensation or fundamente) could produce different or changing perceptions -- a reversal or shift. This phenomenon was Gestalt ambiguity, discovered by Benussi. Some phenomena can create several different visual perceptions, like the puzzle pictures -- Rubin's goblets, Boring's "wife and mother-in-law" picture, the Necker Cube, or the reversible staircase. These picture puzzles resulted from investigations of figure-ground relationships and the way in which figure and ground switch, as Rubin discovered. (These picture puzzles can be seen by going to Google or perhaps the following link: Reversible figures)

The third kind of phenomenon was really unlike the other two. In the preceding cases, the relationship between sensation and perception was that one remained constant while the other changed, or vise versa. Either sensation stayed the same and the phenomenon changed or the sensation changed and the phenomenon remained the same. But in this third phenomenon, best illustrated by that of apparent motion, what Wertheimer called the phi phenomenon, there was one sensation totally unlike the stimuli. This phenomenon is the basis for moving neon signs or moving pictures. Wertheimer discovered that if two stationary lights are alternatingly turned on and off at just the right interval of time, one would see a moving light rather than two separate lights, A and B, flashing on and off.

Gestalt psychology,then, began with the work of Max Wertheimer at the University of Frankfurt. His work led to his 1912 paper on the phi phenomenon. The phi phenomenon, an experience of apparent movement, occurs when two different lights, separated by a few inches, flash on and off at just the right interval of time. If the lights flash on and off quickly, one will see two lights on; if the time interval is slow, one will see one light and then another go on and off. If the interval is just right, one sees only one light moving back and forth across the field, rather than two lights turning on and off. Many neon signs create this illusion. But the movement is only apparent, not real. It is a phenomenal experience. The appearance of light in the vacant field between the two lights is a psychological phenomenon which cannot be explained as the combination of certain sensations. It is a whole quality, not dependent upon parts.

Wertheimer used the Greek letter Phi to refer to this psychological phenomenon of a sensation occuring between the two stimuli -- where there was no objective stimulus to create the sensation. Here is a purely psychological phenomenon with no objective referent. It occurs only when a peculiar kind of objective stimulus situation is presented in a particular way. It is really a new phenomenon. It is neither the relationship between elements (as in von Ehrenfels' "Gestalt qualitaten") nor a shift in interpretation or perception or perception or point of view as in the picture puzzles. It is a purely new and mental phenomenon. Wertheimer believed that this obfuscated some of the problems inherent in the Graz school, where Gestalt got "generated" or relations "emerged."

Thus, Wertheimer claimed that Phi showed a whole quality. Some experiences simply don't contain the stimulus elements of Ehrenfels' Gestalt qualitaten. Ehrenfels had explained the transposibility of music as the "feeling of relation." There were elements and there was a sensed relation or pattern among the elements. But in the phi phenomenon there were no apparent elements. One then sensed what Wertheimer called the "unified whole." Thus, there were relations in the first case and wholes in the second case; and this differentiated the Graz school from the Berlin school quite simply.

Oh, if you asked how the whole got there or what you did to produce the whole, you could analyze it and describe the elements which went to make it up. But that did not describe or define or explain the whole. As a matter of fact, an analysis, while possible, destroys the whole. And putting the parts together does not explain the whole. An analysis, therefore, did not produce better understanding, and a synthesis of the whole from the parts is impossible. An observer coming to it naively seems movement, and that is all he sees. He does not see two lights going on and off. He sees only one thing. And that immediate perception of movement is a phenomenon.

Let us digress briefly to mention that much of the phenomena discussed in Gestalt psychology were either visual or auditory. Auditory examples were common because of an interest in the field of music on the part of a number of psychologists. Stumpf, who was the mentor for both Koffka and Kohler was, of course, torn between a study of music and a study of philosophy. He probably contributed more to the psychology of music than did any other psychologist. Although Stumpf's influence no doubt was indirect, the two new Gestalt psychologists were exposed to his thinking. Koffka, at least, took his degree with Stumpf, writing a thesis on rhythm. Both Koffka and Kohler got, however, their Gestalt psychology at Frankfurt, not at Berlin. It was at Frankfurt, around 1910, that Wertheimer conducted his research on seen movement and used these two students as subjects. Later, it was Berlin which became the center for Gestalt psychology. That was when both Wertheimer and Kohler were there, Kohler having gone there upon the death of Stumpf, to replace him.

Wertheimer generated interest. But he did so not because of his publications, which were meagre, but because of his ideas and insights. In contrast to Kohler, who published widely as an interpreter of Gestalt psychology, Wertheimer published very little in the way of an explication of Gestalt psychology. It was Wertheimer's interest in "relational determination" which formed the common basis of interest between himself and Albert Einstein. After Wertheimer had come to the United States and was teaching at the New School for Social Research, the two of them frequently met socially. Both were devoted to music and were competent performers. Max would play the viola, Mrs. Wertheimer the cello, and Albert the violin.

The other Gestaltists also came to the United States; in fact, the whole Gestalt movement migrated from Germany to America. This was one of Hitler's great contributions to American psychology. Both Gestalt psychology and psychoanalytic theory profited from political migration at that time. All these psychologists were Jews and all realized quite early that leaving Germany sooner or later was to be a necessity. Koffka came first, in 1924 to Cornell to lecture for one year, and then returned in 1927 when appointed to Smith College. Kohler was invited to Cornell in 1926 and again in 1928. He then went to Swarthmore in 1935 (Freeman, 1977). Wertheimer came in 1933.

Koffka (1886-1941) was the more erudite and the more prolific writer of the three. His Principles of Gestalt Psychology was a scholarly book. It was filled with carefully reasoned arguments from a Gestalt point of view encompassing all fields of psychology. Supported by experimental work at every turn, he incorporated everything from sensation and perception to emotion and personality organization into a comprehensive system of psychology. Koffka's other main contribution was his landmark book on child development. And his 1922 paper on Gestalt psychology in the Psychological Bulletin was what introduced Gestalt psychology to the American reader.

The third member of this Gestalt triumvirate was Wolfgang Kohler, the youngest and longest lived. Along with Koffka he served as a subject in Wertheimer's experiments at Frankfurt. In 1912 he studied chimpanzees on the Teneriffe Islands. In 1920 he returned to Germany to take the chair vacated by Stumpf. Later, he accepted a permanent appointment at Swarthmore College in the United States. In 1958 he was honored by being elected president of the American Psychological Association. He investigated Gestalt principles by working with animals as well as humans. The experiments he conducted on chimps became classical studies in psychology. They demonstrated that even apes will approach new tasks not from a simple mechanical, stimulus-response point of view, but from a problem solving perspective.

The Gestaltists studied a large array of psychological phenomena, but they concentrated on a study of illusions, for which they attempted to establish explanatory laws or principles. Their primary argument was that stimuli do not exist in a vacuum, isolated from other stimuli; any one element is related to all other parts of the visual field. One needs, therefore, to consider the whole field or total environment if one is to understand an isolated part. A particular color or line or form or shape takes on a different color or pattern or dimension if placed in a new and different context. The principles of similarity, contrast, nearness and closure, now familiar to all introductory psychology students, explained how specific stimuli are related to other stimuli.

Kohler made a distinction between the introspection of the structuralists and the introspection of the Gestaltists. The introspection of the structuralists, as in the case of Wundt, was a method of eliminating experience and permitting a pure sensation to be perceived. Thus, in viewing an object moving closer to one, size constancy had to be rejected and the object (e.g. a man) had to be viewed as it appeared in the retinal image, as the local stimulation alone, that is, as growing larger as it advanced.

In the introspection of Gestalt psychology, however, Kohler states that sensation is local stimulation plus the environment (1947, p. 93). The local stimulation means different things in different environments and therefore is perceived differently depending upon its contexts. This did not mean that the influence of the environment was necessarily learned. Nor did it mean that these perceptions were necessarily innate. Either or both may be involved.

As a matter of fact, Mary Henle (1977) makes that point when stating that Gestaltists did not think in heredity-environmental dichotomies; rather, that perceptions were dynamic events, understood only as natural phenomena.


The formulation of Gestalt theory includes a number of basic principles or laws, some of which follow:

1. Law of transposition or relativity. This was one of the first principles or laws, suggested by von Ehrenfels' transposition of melodies. Kohler extended this when he demonstrated in his work with chicks and children, that "relations," rather than absolutes, are perceived.

2. Form. A second principle was the Law of Form. In some cases, the form may change even though the stimuli remain constant, as shown in the puzzle pictures or ambiguous figures. Here, the perception or form changes as one shifts his focus, attention, interest, or set on different aspects of the figure. There may even be a fluctuation of figure and ground, as in Rubin's goblet or "claw and fingers." In other cases, a change in focus produces a reversal, as in "wife-mother-in-law" or Necker's cube.

Another principle of form is the "law of Pragnanz," which states that psychological or perceptual organization tends in the direction of becoming "good" -- that is, regular, symmetrical or simple. Since we tend to perceive in wholes, our perception moves in the direction of making that whole more regular and symmetrical and thus obliterating details or variations. This leveling in perception in noticeably present when the subject is asked, at a later period of time, to reproduce from memory a figure previously seen. The subject might draw or select from presented alternatives what he recalls to be the original figure. In such recalls, shapes with rough edges become, in time, more like the ideal shape or form which it resembles. The end product tends to be more simple -- elaborations are eliminated, embellishments disappear, and more classical patterns emerge.

A third characteristic of form is closure. Figures bounded by broken lines tend to be seen as closed, rather than open. Other principles of form are: symmetry, adjacent units, similarity, and object constancy. At one point, there were considered to be 114 laws of Gestalten (Boring, p. 611).

3. Insight. Closely related to the principle of relations and transposition is the notion of what the Gestaltists call insight (intelligence) -- the capacity to see relations. Kohler, especially, in his studies of animal behavior, discussed learning, problem solving, and intelligence as the educing of relations among various discrepant parts of the field.

On the Teneriffe Island, Kohler presented a variety of problem situations to his chimps. Kohler observed the animals using indirect methods of obtaining food. When a direct approach to food was blocked, animals appeared to relate together different parts of the environment and thus discover indirect solutions which could be used as alternatives. For example, the animals ran around rather into the cage. They swung a basket in an increasingly wider arc to bring it closer to them. In order to obtain food, they were able to push forward first and then backward. Even though pushing away was contrary to the natural inclination, they pushed with a stick because the end result placed the food outside the cage. Even though it landed on the opposite side from where they were, they seemed to cognize that there was an opening at that far end of a cage through which they could obtain the food.

These and many other examples supported the idea that problem solving was cognitive rather than mechanical, that learning was qualitative change rather than quantitative, that learning was discrete and discontinuous rather than the continuous and gradual elimination of errors through trial and error. Such insight theories of learning suggest that there is always an "ah ha" effect. The net result of this is a dramatic and immediate increase in performance, giving the impression that the problem is solved or the task is learned all of a sudden. Such an approach is contrary to the evidence presented by Ebbinghaus, Thorndike, and the behaviorists who argue that learning is gradual and involves a continuous modification or accretion of skills. From the Gestaltists there was just one more step to the purposive learning theory of Tolman, who showed that cognitive explanations of problem solving were not limited to humans, but were evident in rats as well.

Gestalt psychology and Behaviorism were both negative reactions to Wundtian structural psychology. Wundt defined psychology as the study of the generalized conscious mind. Introspection was the method he used to discover the elements of that mind. Gestalt psychology had no quarrel with his method; they agreed that subjective introspections about the nature of the mind were not only acceptable but necessary. But they did object to the structuralists' elementaristic approach-- explaining mental processes by analyzing the mind into simple elements. Thus, the Gestaltists rejected elementaristic and associationistic assumptions of British empiricism which underlie structural psychology, but they did side with John Stuart Mill and his notion of mental chemistry.

The Behaviorists, on the other hand, comfortably assimilated the elementaristic approach, easily translating elements of the mind into elements of behavior. But they vigorously opposed the notion that scientific data could come from subjective introspective reports. Behaviorism emerged as a reaction against the method of structuralism, but accepted the assumption that wholes could be understood by reducing them to their elemental parts. In summary, Gestalt psychology accepted the method of Wundtian introspection while rejecting its reductionism. Behaviorism accepted the reductionism but rejected introspection.


There have been numerous applications of phenomenological principles to various fields of psychology. The applications to social psychology have been most notably by Kurt Lewin, to education by Snygg and Combs, to clinical psychology by George Kelly, and to physiology through the work of Lashley. We will look at two of these, Lewin and Lashley.

Lewin and social psychology. Most of the experimental studies by the Gestalt psychologists focused on the topics of perception and cognitive processes. Application of these principles to the field of social psychology was made by Kurt Lewin. He studied at the University of Berlin, where the others had gone. Prompted by the rising tide of Nazi Germany, he migrated to the United States in 1933 along with other Gestalt psychologists. He was at Berlin when Gestalt psychology was becoming formulated and formalized, in the 1920's; and he was in the United States when the first wave of Gestalt psychology began to have an impact on the heavily weighted behaviorism of American psychology in the 1930's. Lewin, probably more than any other man, helped Gestalt theory become a part of the American thinking as well as become a way of dealing with practical and applied problems to which the Americans have always been attracted.

Kurt Lewin was born in 1890, the year that James' Principles was published. After public school education, he briefly attended numerous German universities -- Freiburg, Munich, and finally Berlin, where he took his doctorate under Stumpf in 1910, just a year after Koffka and Kohler had done so. During the war he served as an Army volunteer, then returned in 1921 to the University of Berlin as a private docent. His war marriage lasted but six years. He divorced and remarried again in 1929.

Shortly before Lewin came to the United States, he was discovered by Americans who traveled to Berlin to study with him. The early disciples were J. F. Brown, Karl Zener, Donald Adams, Don MacKinnon, and Jerome Frank. It was J.F. Brown, the first to go to Lewin in 1927, and his paper, "The Methods of Kurt Lewin," published in the Psychological Review in 1929, that was primarily responsible for making Lewin eminent. Brown's paper was published shortly before the International Congress of Psychology met at Yale that same year. Lewin attended this conference and gave an invited paper which included the showing of a film that became something of a classic. The film depicted a little girl named Hannah trying to sit on a stone. She would back her self up to the stone time after time in attempts to make the correct "landing." It was an amusing film and it clearly brought home the point Lewin was trying to make -- that behavior, since purposive, is not understood solely from knowing the physical stimuli alone.

In 1932, Lewin came to the United States as visiting professor at Stanford University. He then made a quick return trip to Germany as a last chance to remove his remaining possessions. He went to Cornell University in 1933, to the University of Iowa in 1935, and then to M.I.T. in 1944, shortly before his death. He was perhaps best known for his work at Iowa. It was there that he became famous as director of the Institute for Child Development. There he also made contributions to war research with his studies of attitude formation and leadership characteristics, both of which had direct application to pressing social problems.

Lewin extended his work beyond psychology into sociology and political science -- work which became known as group dynamics. Studies of the roles and expectations of individuals in a group, the influence of leaders, or different kinds of followers gained tremendous popular appeal for and were of intrinsic interest to a younger group of psychological investigators, especially during a time when democratic vs. autocratic forms of government were being called into question with the appearance of Roosevelt, Hitler and McCarthy. Later, at M.I.T. and at Michigan, he became the avowed leader of the new social psychology, where he headed work on group dynamics -- stimulus for current work on encounter groups, sensitivity training, and organizational psychology. Those most interested in the practical implications of group dynamics instituted what became known as training centers in Bethel, Maine, for the express purpose of exposing and sensitizing potential leaders to the processes of group dynamics. Out of this work emerged sensitivity training. At the University of Michigan others applied experimental techniques to group dynamics and small group research. Both approaches led to today's organizational psychology. How group pressure changes an individual's perception or a group's actions may not be vital for today's sensitivity groups, but in the climate of Nazi Germany, understanding that phenomenon was a life and death matter. In another vein, the University of Michigan was the center, during the 1960's for organizational efforts on behavl of the development of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). that group, led by Tom Hayden, editor of the student newspaper writing a thesis on C. W. Mills.**

Because of Lewin's pregnant contributions, American psychology would probably never be the same. His works were read by large numbers of the new crop of psychology students emerging during the boom years after the 1940's. He was a man who was loved by many and respected by all.

Karl S. Lashley (1890-1958). In the physiological arena, there were parallels to third force psychology. Karl Lashley, a physiological psychologist who had worked at the University of Minnesota and then at the University of Chicago, provided evidence to suggest that the brain operates more as a whole rather than as a collection of parts. Prior to Lashley, the brain was viewed as if it were a switchboard, with all the minute neurons connected to each other through a series of synapses. Such a notion was consistent with the prevailing psychological idea about how a collection of simple ideas get associated together to form complex ideas.

Lashley's research on brain extirpation involved the surgical removal of different parts of the brain; the resultant effects on the organism's learning ability were then observed. Through these researches he discovered and reported in his book, Brain Mechanisms and Intelligence (1929), that there was less localization in the cortex than previously thought. Further, he showed that the efficiency of the brain is related to the amount of tissue remaining. For these two concepts, he coined the terms equipotentiality and mass action. Equipotentiality denoted that when certain tissues were removed, healthy brain tissue assumed the control of any lost function. Mass action referred to the fact that areas of the brain work as wholes; diminishment of the whole results in a corresponding decrease in the efficiency of the brain's operation.

Lashley's work thus made more scientifically respectable the work of those Gestalt oriented psychologists frequently criticized for fuzzy talk about "mind" and "consciousness."


Many individuals contributed to the development of phenomenology. Brentano was one of the fathers of the movement. Stumpf, Meinong and Husserl were his students. Stumpf worked with the new group of Gestalt psychologists before they were Gestaltists. Meinong, a kind of Gestaltist, proposed a "theory of objects," with a notion of the "intending of objects," which attempted to give a reality to things which were perceived. May (1969) provides a review of the history of "intentionality" which includes Brentano's claim that consciousness is known because it intends something and Husserl's claim that all intentions have two things -- meaning and movement. That is, cognitions and conations go together; the meaning and the act go hand in hand.

Among more contemporary psychologists, Kelly (1955) has suggested that early phenomenology, the brand advanced by Husserl and Stumpf, became swallowed up by both Gestalt psychology and field theory. Later, Snygg and Combs began a renaissance of neo-phenomenology; still later, Raimy and Bugental began self concept theory, not too dissimilar from Lecky's "self consistency" theory. Kelly attempted, through his psychology of personal constructs, to combine phenomenology with conventional methods in psychology. Other Americans, Rogers, Maslow and May and a host of lesser psychologists formulated variations on the same theme. In France, Merleau Ponty, who wrote Phenomenology of Perception (1962) was widely read.

Carl Rogers, more than any other person, symbolizes contemporary third force psychology by providing a bridge between phenomenology and humanistic psychology. Two fields within phenomenology exist today. There is perceptual psychology and there is clinical psychology. Most of phenomenology is clinical psychology and much of clinical psychology is phenomenology. Since numerous persons are associated with this movement, the principles underlying and the forces propelling the movement, as in many movements, are not always clear.

And so we have it -- phenomenology means a concern with particulars, with naive and intuitively given sensations, as opposed to classification, interpretation and meaning. Phenomenology negates abstractions. The object is described as "not-A; not-B, etc." Meinong and one group of phenoenologists, who presumed that the individual was aware of the subject, discarded the subject-object cleavage. The subject was part of the object.

Franz Brentano Arthur Combs (and Donald Snygg)
Kurt Goldstein
William James
David Katz
George Kelley
Wolfgang Kohler
Robbie MacLeod
Carl Rogers
Carl Stumpf
Von Ehrensfels
Heinz Werner
Max Wertheimer


Mark the following items as T or F, and then score yourself from the key blow. When you have finished, go back and change the false statements to make them true.

NOTE: Page numbers need to be revised, they are only approximate.
1. Phenomenology stresses the nomothetic rather than the idiographic (40).

2. Pure description is the process of getting to the uniquness of an event (40).

3. Phenomenological reductionism is the experience of experiencing oneself (40).

4. To generalize about a large body of data is to understand (41).

5. Nietzsche advocated that one should approach the world naively and accept illusions as reality (41).

6. Dilthey thought that the physical sciences were descriptive while the social sciences were explanatory (42).

7. Dilthey believed that without experience there is no reality (42).

8. Objects exist in the external world independent of any observer (42) .

9. Greek Platonic thought and Christian thought both support phenomenology (43 ).

10. The major phenomenological school in psychology is existentialism (44).

11. Gestalt psychology emerged from therapeutic techniques (44).

12. Gestalt is best translated as meaning "whole, pattern, structure, configuration." (44)

13. The gestaltists believed that Gestalt required time, contemplation and, above all, analysis (46).

14. Those known as Gestalt psychologists were Meinong, Ehrenfels, and Wertheimer (46).

15. Transposibility refers to the fact that the elements of a pattern retain their identity even though the elements may be changed (46).

16. The phi phenomenon refers the perception of a static figure, even though the elements are moving (47).

17. Koffka adapted Gestalt principles to child psychology (48) .

18. Kohler's writings were the most scholarly and difficult to understand (48).

19. Closure is a Gestalt principle which refers to the tendency of certain people to close off new ideas.

20. The principle of insight implies that learning occurs in a gradually:developing fashion (50).

21. Applications of Gestalt principles to other fields have been made by Lewin, Snygg and Combs, and George Kelly (51).

22. The classical studies on different styles of leadership were made by Karl Lashley (52) .

23. Gestalt principles were demonstrated in neurological studies that showed that there was localization of function, much like the faculty psychologists had suggested (53).

24. Equipotentiality referred to the fact that one part of the brain would assume the function of a damaged part of the brain (53).




1. Phenomenology is one method of studying nature.

2. Existentialism is a philosophical point of view about the nature of reality.

3. Humanism advocates a ay by which man relates to the universe.

4. Third force psychology is so named because there are three major fields involved -- phenomenology, existentialism, and humanism.

5. Maslow believes that the dominant theories in American psychology are materialistic and mechanistic.

6. The third force psychologies all have a common background.

7. Most of the third force psychologies reject any emphasis on particulars and specifics

8. Abstraction is a mere copy of life and therefore is removed from action and not to be valued, say the third force psychologists.

9. Logical positivists also emphasize sensation by saying that all scientific statements should be reduced to sensations

10. When something about me observes the "I" in me, a phenomenological reductionism is occuring. I am experiencing myself.

11. Dilthey claimed that psychology should be an experimental laboratory science.

12. The social sciences, according to Dilthy are descriptive rather than explanatory

13. Phenomenology has been primarily rationalistic and intellectual

14. Phenomenology emphasizes generalizations, abstractions, and sophisticated understandings.


15. Existentialism attempts to define the nature of reality and the nature of knowledge.

16. Existentialism maintains that the norm for behavior should be one's national group.

17. The mysterious is not necessarily to be shunned, according to existentialism.

18. Knowledge comes from action, living, and encountering.

19. One can objectively study the subjective.

Humanistic Psychology:

20. Placing value judgements on action is desirable.

21. Man is basically rigid and psychology should attempt to find ways of loosening man up.

22. The major leaders in humanistic psychology are ay, Sartre, and Freud.

23. Karl Buhler is perhaps the best known of the humanistic psychologists.

24. Frederick Allen believed that one basic part of growth was spontaneity.

25. Gestalt psychotherapy maintains that interpretation of one's acting out is a fundamental ingredient of therapy.

26. In Gestalt psychotherapy the past experiences of the individual are of crucial importance to an understanding of each person.


Now take the Unit Test

Unit 9 Table of Contents

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February 23, 2008