What do Gestalt therapy and Gestalt theory have to do with each other?

by Hans-Jürgen P. Walter

Presentation delivered at the 3rd Scientific Convention of the Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications e. V. (GTA) from the 21st to the 24th of September 1983 in Münster/Westf., Germany; originally published in German in Gestalt Theory 6, No. 1, 1984, 55-69; slightly revised for the translation. This English version was first published in The Gestalt Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 1, pp 45-68.

The above question permits answers ranging from "absolutely nothing" to "they're basically the same thing". I have phrased it in that way because I suspect it is possible for the answers those present will give to cover the entire spectrum between these two poles. For me, the question means that I have taken on the task of demonstrating how Gestalt therapy and Gestalt theory are related to each other and that they have decisive parts in common.

Preparing for this presentation, I increasingly got the impression that by taking on this task I had manoeuvred myself into a position of paralysing slackness. How much more attractive would it have been to define a "good" thing versus a "bad" thing using bold polemics? Why did I have to take on a task which demanded the psychic maturity of me to be convincing "without anger and jealousy", using no more than factual arguments? - After I had spent plenty of time feeling sorry for myself, I had an idea:

"I know you'd rather have your peace quietly drinking your pints of beer than explain yet again why you get along like you do", I told the Gestalt theoretician and the Gestalt therapist who had made themselves at home on my "psycho-physical level" (psychophysisches Niveau = PPN) or - more simply put - were vegetating in my garden of life. "But what", I continued, "if you pretended, for a good cause, that you had to worry about the other diluting your beer with water or spiking it with spirits, or imagine an intelligent young woman entering the scene and each of you wanting to take her home afterwards?"

The latter image struck home with both of them, and the Gestalt therapist - we'll call him Fritz - instantly began to gibe, "Age goes before beauty - you go first." Theo, the Gestalt theoretician, rebuffed on the spot, "Sex is your area of expertise, of course. Regarding age, at least I've stayed young, especially in my way of thinking, which I sometimes doubt you have. I totally go along with Mary HENLE (1978) and Maria RICKERS-OVSIANKINA and Rudolf ARNHEIM on this. RICKERS-OVSIANKINA wrote to me (letter of the 8th of December 1978) that she was worried about the too far-reaching and somewhat naive statements made by people like Fritz PERLS. And ARNHEIM is even more unequivocal (letter of the 10th of May 1979): He writes that in the United States the prospects for clinical psychology are bleak, 'mostly due to the influence of the unspeakable Fritz PERLS whose abuse of the term Gestalt has lead to dreadful confusion and degeneration'. So I suggest you keep your first name secret if you want to be taken seriously by a Gestalt theoretician. Your great Fritz PERLS was really a philanderer first and foremost, wasn't he?"

Fritz: "And why are you putting on airs like this? In your case it was nothing but the wish to put me in the shade with a woman which has turned you on so much that you're being unfair and are trying to get at me with quotes and untruthfully moralising insinuations. But that's not the way it works. I won't even get involved in a discussion about Fritz PERLS as a person. Look at your own horn! I'll start from an entirely different angle: Maybe you really haven't quite realised yet that Gestalt therapy has got Gestalt theory down from its academic ivory-tower where it might otherwise have continued to prove the ideas so revolutionary for human sciences on simple geometrical shapes until Doomsday. And I do mean 'revolutionary ideas'; but you had adjusted so well to this entire scientific ado which is so intent on pseudo-exactitude (including its elitist arrogance) and poses on the pedestal of alleged objectivity, that there was hardly anything left of the humanist notions of the holistic approach."

"All right, I'll get down to the facts now," said Theo. "But first I'd like to point out that your matter-of-factness wasn't exactly truthful. Academic Gestalt theory has never been as daft as you made it out to be, but I'll come back to that. The fact is that Gestalt therapy has developed into an irrational movement of salvation. In view of this I'd rather stay up in my ivory-tower of precise abstraction. I don't want anything to do with this humanist nonsense where holistic means that everything is somehow related to everything else!"

Listening to Theo and Fritz going on about their views I'm beginning to get impatient; they obviously need a mediator if there is to be a chance of initiating a factual dispute. The role-play seems to have become quite serious. "You two, I'd like to ask you a few questions now and make sure you stick to the subject. Firstly: Why is Gestalt therapy actually called Gestalt therapy?"

Fritz: "PERLS called it that deliberately. According to him his theoretical knowledge and practical experiences which gained crucial importance for the articulation of his criticism of psychoanalysis and for the description of his own therapeutic method are owing to his encounter with Gestalt theory. He wrote, 'I am indebted to Professor K. GOLDSTEIN for first introducing me to Gestalt psychology. Unfortunately, in 1926 when I was working at the neurological institute in Frankfurt I was still too preoccupied with the orthodox psychoanalytical method, and was therefore only able to absorb a fraction of what I was offered' (PERLS, 1942, cited from German edition, 1978, 9; Vorwort aus dem Jahr 1942). But even if he hadn't been to lectures of Gestalt theoreticians as a medical student in Berlin, he certainly attended a few in Frankfurt, held by Adhémar GELB (who supervised the dissertation of his wife Lore) and probably also by WERTHEIMER, to whom he dedicated his first book (Ego, Hunger and Aggression, first published in South Africa in 1942, in England in 1947) when he began to realise the importance of his experiences with Gestalt theoreticians. Whenever he starts talking about the basics of his own psychotherapeutic approach, he refers to views and terms pertaining to Gestalt theory!"

Theo interrupts, "I'm having to restrain myself. You want to prove that after psychoanalysis Gestalt theory became and remained his psychological habitat. That may be, but I've also heard that GOLDSTEIN was a wee bit embarrassed when he later discovered PERLS among his listeners in the United States. ARNHEIM talks about the 'entirely unauthorised usurpation of this name (i.e. that of the term Gestalt) through Fritz PERLS' (personal message of the 11th of December 1979). - A touch of Gestalt theoretical 'stable odour' mixed with psychoanalysis - PERLS (1969, 4) even admits to not having read most of FREUD's books and even fewer Gestalt theoretical papers. Basically you've got a mixture of two different fragrances which at best serve to produce a perfume. Psychoanalysts should be grateful that he has chosen Gestalt theory for his disavowal."

Fritz: "Let me start with the 'stable odour'. I don't think so little of it. Whoever has got his nose filled with the right intimate scent can never be totally wrong in his judgement of where his home is. [fn. 1] And that's what it was like for Fritz PERLS as well. He realized the significance the Gestalt theoretical approach gains for people, for the individual as well as for the community, provided it is systematically translated into practical therapeutic action. Who among the Gestalt theoreticians, apart from Kurt LEWIN after his emigration, has engaged with the confusing diversity of immediate human relationships?"

Theo: "Surely, there have been other approaches: the old paper by SCHULTE (1924) titled 'An Attempt at a Theory of the Paranoid Idea of Reference and Delusion Formation'; LUCHINS (e.g. 1949, 1964) and FROMM-OPPENHEIMER (e.g., 1968) studied clinical psychology in the United States, almost simultaneously with PERLS; ARNHEIM engaged in critical analysis of the arts and the film medium (cf., e.g., 1978); and there are a number of philosophical, almost psychotherapeutic and political publications by Max WERTHEIMER in the United States (1934, 1935, 1937, 1940)..."

Fritz: "... which no German Gestalt theoretician has found relevant enough to be translated, not even Wolfgang METZGER who has after all translated Productive Thinking (WERTHEIMER, 1964) and whose profound agreement with his teacher WERTHEIMER is supported by his important book Creative Freedom (Schöpferische Freiheit, 1962). You could actually talk to METZGER about Gestalt therapy without him immediately turning up his nose. But apart from that, most German Gestalt theoreticians disowned their own fathers after the war unless papers fitted tolerably into the paradigm of experimental statistophilia, to coin a new term. And even in the United States neither WERTHEIMER nor LUCHINS achieved any acclaim or influence with the above mentioned treatises. [fn. 2]
Of course I'll readily concede that PERLS wasn t the incarnation of Gestalt theory pure and simple (who is?), but he has impressed so many people in his concrete work with them that they have spread - and who could be surprised at it? - even his theoretical inconsistencies and have on top of that, according to the principles of the development of rumours, distorted whatever was indeed acceptable. These people shouldn't have been deserted. Mary HENLE's public discussion of PERLS in 1978, demonstrating remarkable passion and the obviously irrevocable intention of tearing him to pieces, came at least 20 years too late. Was LEWIN's fate any different in respect of the delay of discussion? No! And this has resulted in the fact that many representatives of group dynamics refer to him even though they have at best read his last programmatical papers, but have no idea about his Gestalt theoretical background (Jörg FENGLER, personal message to Jürgen STEINKOPFF of the 2nd of December 1977), which in turn has inflationary tendencies when it comes to theory and practice in this field. The group dynamics research of LEWIN hardly existed for academic Gestalt theoreticians. And this split too had already started in the United States."

Theo: "You've mentioned METZGER. He had reviewed the American LEWIN rather early on (cf. 1963, 1975). And very positively. And don't forget also many of those here present." -

"Right, let me interrupt you two once more. I'm finding all this reasonably interesting, but in regard to the topic I gave to you it seems a bit like talking about the world and his wife.
But your conversation has made me realise one important thing: It seems to me that Gestalt theoreticians of all orientations are to blame to some extent for the dissociated development of their own approach. After the dispersion of the former centres of Gestalt theory by the racist civil service legislation of the Nazis, too many theoreticians considered their own pile of muck to be the best and preferred to 'leave the field' when a realisation of the (lip) service to the whole and the differentiation of Gestalt characteristics would have required laborious and careful analysis of the achievements of others. So now I'd like to ask you, Fritz: Which Gestalt theoretical views and concepts does PERLS rely on?"

Fritz: "Well, I can think of so many that I hardly know where to start. No, I do, I'll start with a quote which has only recently come to my attention in PERLS's autobiography In and Out the Garbage Pail (1969, unpaginated, pp. 6-9, beginning with the author's text). In it he comments on 'self-actualization':

'Self-actualization is a modest term. It has been glorified and distorted by hippies, artists, and, I am sorry to say, by many humanistic psychologists. It has been put forth as a program and achievement. This is the result of reification, the need to make a thing out of a process. In this case it even means to deify and glorify a locus, for self indicates merely a 'where' of happening, self to be contrasted (and making sense only through this contrast) with otherness.

... A wheat germ has the potential of becoming a plant and the wheat plant is its actualization.

Now: self actualization means the wheat will actualize itself as a wheat plant and never as a rye plant.

... No eagle will want to be an elephant, no elephant to be an eagle. They 'accept' themselves; they accept them-'selves'. No, they don't even accept themselves, for this would mean possible rejection. They take themselves for granted, No, they don't even take themselves for granted, for this would imply a possibility of otherness. They just are. They are what they are what they are.

How absurd it would be if ... the eagle wanted to have the strength and thick skin of the beast.

Leave this to the human - to try to be something he is not - to have ideals that cannot be reached, to be cursed with perfectionism so as to be safe from criticism, and to open the road to unending mental torture.

The gap between one's potential and its actualization on the one side of the ledger, and the distortion of this authenticity on the other, becomes apparent. 'Shouldism' rears its ugly head. We 'should' eliminate, disown, repress, negate many features and sources of genuineness and add, pretend, play at, develop roles unsupported by our élan vital, resulting in phony behavior of different degrees. Instead of the wholeness of a real person, we have the fragmentation, the conflicts, the unfelt despair of the paper people.

Homeostasis, the subtle mechanism of the self-regulating and self-controlling organism, is replaced by an external superimposed control-madness undermining the survival value of the person and the species. Psychosomatic symptoms, despondency, lassitude and compulsive behavior replace the joie de vivre.

The deepest split, long ingrained in our culture and thus taken for granted, is the mind/body dichotomy: the superstition that there is a separation, yet interdependency, of two different kinds of substance, the mental and the physical. ...

... We are organisms, we (...) do not have an organism. We are one wholesome unit, but we are at liberty to abstract many aspects from this totality. Abstract, not subtract, not split off. We can abstract, according to our interest, the behavior of that organism or its social function or its physiology or its anatomy or this or that, but we have to stay alert and not take any abstraction for a 'part' of the total organism. ... We can have a compositum of abstractions, we can approximate the knowing of a person or a thing, but we never can have the total awareness of (to talk in Kantian language) das Ding an sich, the thing itself.

Am I becoming too philosophical?'"

"Indeed, indeed," sneers Theo who had begun to shake his head vehemently towards the end of the quote. But Fritz isn't quite ready to hand over to him: "Just bear with me a wee bit longer, then you may start to scoff. But before you do I'd like to propose a few theses in relation to this quote:

"1. PERLS's understanding of the term 'self-actualization' corresponds to what METZGER and WERTHEIMER call 'freedom' or 'creative freedom' (e.g. METZGER, 1962, 82ff.), especially with regard to PERLS's criticism of aberrations in so-called humanist psychology as well as in his mental proximity to Far Eastern practical philosophy. All three of them view meaningful self-actualization as the unfolding of a person's potential without external pressure such as rigid rules and without disregarding the general human and the individual possibilities (cf. METZGER, 1962, 22, 26, 75, 84).

"2. PERLS's understanding of self-actualization follows, like that of METZGER and WERTHEIMER, from the system- and field-theoretical view of Gestalt theory as it is represented by KÖHLER (cf. THOLEY, 1982). It is within the frame of this view that his discussion of homeostasis, of the 'subtle mechanism of the self-regulating organism', and of the 'control-madness' have their place.

"3. PERLS represents a psycho-physical approach based on his experiences with the Gestalt theoretically oriented neurologist GOLDSTEIN which, although the terminology may have been simplified, does justice to the Gestalt approach in the consequences it has for practical therapeutic work (i.e. on a level of immediate phenomena).

"4. In the final part of the quote PERLS discusses the feasibility and the possible benefits of an abstracting discussion of aspects of human wholeness; this part proves PERLS's epistemological affinity to a 'critical realism': Implicitely he differentiates between a naive-phenomenal world, a critical-phenomenal world (which is the physical view of life gained by abstraction), and a transphenomenal world of 'the thing itself' (cf. THOLEY, 1980 a).

"5. In conclusion we can say that psychotherapeutic practice which logically takes into account the views proposed in PERLS's text may rightfully refer to Gestalt theory. Furthermore I posit (substantiated by the session protocols in PERLS, 1974) that the practice of PERLSian Gestalt therapy undoubtedly shows that he has followed the right intimate scent. He integrates experiment, wholeness, and phenomenology, the holy Trinity of Gestalt theoretical research methodology, into an atmosphere permitting a person to breathe the air of freedom, which, as WERTHEIMER said once, can seem like recuperation after a long illness (1940).

Right, my dear Theo, thank you for letting me finish. Over to you now."

go to 2nd part


[1]For further discussion of this proposition compare METZGER's (1963, 2. Kap.) deliberations about the term "Wesenseigenschaften" (physiognomic or expression characteristics of a Gestalt as a whole), as distinguished from material characteristics and structural characteristics. [-> back to text]
[2]It would indeed be interesting to draw a comparison between Mary HENLE's views about the position of Gestalt theory (1978) and the propositions of Michael WERTHEIMER, Max WERTHEIMER's son, about his father's understanding of the Gestalt approach (1980, also contained in Max WERTHEIMER, 1991). [-> back to text]

Main index of the Gestalt Archive

Home GTA International
Gestalt People | Gestalt Publications | Gestalt Conferences | Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy
About Gestalt Theory and the GTA
GTA Home page Deutsch |GTA Home page Italiano |GTA Home page Français

updated/revised: 26.08.2000