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Principles of Gestalt Psychology

by Kurt KOFFKA (1935)

Principles of Gestalt Psychology , Lund Humphries, London, 1935.

Chapter 1 reproduced here.

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Learn more about life and work of Kurt Koffka from Molly Harrower's "Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Portrait"!

Einige Kapitel von Kurt Koffka's Klassiker "Principles of Gestalt Psychology sind inzwischen in der Zeitschrift GESTALT THEORY auch in deutscher Übersetzung erschienen.

Chapter I

Why Psychology?


When I first conceived the plan of writing this book I guessed, though I did not know, how much effort it would cost to carry it out, and what demands it would put on a potential reader. And I doubted, not rhetorically but very honestly and sincerely, whether such labour on the part of the author and the reader was justified. I was not so much troubled by the idea of writing another book on psychology in addition to the many books which have appeared during the last ten years, as by the idea of writing a book on psychology. Writing a book for publication is a social act. Is one justified in demanding co-operation of society for such an enterprise? What good can society, or a small fraction of it, at best derive from it? I tried to give an answer to this question, and when now, after having completed the book, I return to this first chapter, I find that the answer which then gave me sufficient courage to start on my long journey, has stayed with me to the end. I believed I had found a reason why a book on psychology might do some good. Psychology has split up into so many branches and schools, either ignoring or fighting each other, that even an outsider may have the impression - surely strengthened by the publications. "Psychologies of 1925" and "Psychologies of 1930" - that the plural "psychologies" should be substituted for the singular.

Psychology has been pampered in the United States, where for many years it has enjoyed great popularity, though it seems to me that its fortunes have somewhat ebbed and may be ebbing more; in England, the land of conservative change, it found for a long time as cold a welcome as any other loud and startling innovation, but has gradually gained ground and is, in my belief, still gaining; in Germany, where experimental psychology was born and had at first a period of rapid expansion, a strong reaction set in soon afterwards which very definitely kept psychology "in its place."

I confess that today I feel much less animosity towards the active enemies of psychology - or those of them who are serious and honest - than when I was younger.

The comparison of psychology as it is today with other branches of human knowledge has raised the question in my mind what contribution psychology has made through the very extensive and intensive effort of the men and women who devote their life's work to it.

No student of philosophy need fail to get some inkling of the great and deep problems which have beset the minds of our profoundest thinkers from ancient to modern times; no student of history need remain unaware of the terrific human forces that have been consumed in the making and unmaking of empires and have combined to create the world in which we are living at this moment; no student of physics need pass his final examination without some insight into the increasing rationalisation of our knowledge of nature nor into the inexorable exactness of experimental methods; and no student of mathematics should leave his courses without having learned what generalised thinking is and what beautiful and powerful results it can achieve. But what can we say of the student of psychology? Must he have learned to understand human nature and human actions better at the end of his course? I am not ready to answer this question in the affirmative. But before I had an answer to the question, what it is that a student of psychology should be able to gain from his general course, what it is, more generally expressed, that psychology can contribute to the imperishable possessions of our race, I did not feel justified in writing a general book on the subjects


Nobody can reproach psychology with having discovered too few facts. A psychologist who knew all the facts that have been brought to light by experimental methods would indeed know much, very much. And such knowledge is today regarded as an aim in its own right. "Find facts, facts, and again facts; when you are sure of your facts try to build theories. But your facts are more important." This slogan expresses the creed of a philosophy which is widely accepted today. And indeed it seems very plausible. On the one side are the objective facts, independent of the scientist who investigates them; on the other are Ills hypotheses, his theories, pure products of his mind. Naturally we should attribute more value to the former than to the latter. In psychology such a view can claim a particular justification. For this science consisted of a number of simple and comprehensive theories and few scientifically, established facts before the beginning of the new era. With the advent of experiment more and more facts were discovered which played havoc with the old theories. Only when psychology determined to become a fact-finding science did it begin to become a real science. From the state in which it knew little and fancied a great deal it has progressed to a state where it knows a lot and fancies little - at least consciously and with a purpose, though unawares it contains more fancy than many psychologists are aware of. To evaluate this progress we have to examine what it means to know much. The Latin adage multum non multa distinguishes between two meanings of the word "much." The one which it discards in favour of the other is purely quantitative. According to the latter a person who knows twenty items knows ten times as much as the person who knows only two items. But in another sense the latter person, if he knows those two items in their intrinsic relation, so that they are no longer two but one with two parts, knows a great deal more than the former, if he knows just twenty items in pure aggregation. Although from the point of multa this person would be superior, he would be inferior from the point of multum.

Now as I look upon the growth of science it seems to me that it began to find itself and thereby entered a new epoch when at the time of the Renaissance it changed from a chase for the multa to a search for the multum. Since that time science has continually striven to reduce the number of propositions from which all known facts can be derived. In this enterprise it has been more and more successful, and has by its new method also discovered more and more facts which otherwise would never have become known; it has simultaneously discarded as fancy many a piece of knowledge which was taken as fact, and has changed the systematic status of many other facts. It is a "fact" that heavy bodies fall more quickly than light ones, as anyone can test by dropping a pencil and a sheet of paper. But it is a complex, not a simple fact, whereas the simple fact is that all bodies fall with the same velocity in a ,vacuum. From this scientific fact the everyday fact can be derived but not vice versa. The very concept of fact, therefore, becomes problematical.

One can look at the progress of science as a steady increase in the number of facts known. Then one arrives at a position where much knowledge means knowledge of multa. But a very different aspect of scientific progress is also possible: the increasing simplicity - not of course in the sense that it is more and more easy ,o learn, but in the sense that to him who has mastered it the system of science becomes a more and more cohesive and unitary whole. Or otherwise expressed, science is not comparable to a catalogue in which all facts are listed according to an arbitrary principle, like the books in a library in the alphabetical order of their authors; science is rational; the facts - and their order are one and the same; facts without order do not exist; therefore if we know one fact thoroughly we know ever so many more facts from the knowledge of this one fact. From this point of view, much knowledge is knowledge of multum, knowledge of the rational system, the interdependence of all facts.


Of course science never succeeds in reaching its goal. At any one moment in its history there is a wide gap between its ideal and its accomplishment. The system is never complete, there are always facts, old and newly discovered, which defy the unity of the system. Apparent as this is within the compass of any individual science, it becomes even more manifest when we consider the variety of different sciences. They have all arisen from one common matrix. The first scientific impulse was not directed towards different special groups of topics but was universal. In our present terminology we can say that philosophy is the mother of all sciences.

Progressive specialisation has marked scientific progress, and our science, psychology, was the last to gain her independence. This separation and specialisation was necessary, but it has of necessity worked against the aim of unification of knowledge. If a number of separately established sciences have developed, then ' coherent as each one may be in itself, what is their mutual relation? How can a multum arise from that multa? That this task must be accomplished follows from the very function of science. I am the last to see the value of science in its practical applications. The explanation of the shift of spectral lines coming from stars millions of light years distant, is in my eyes a much greater triumph of science than the construction of a new bridge with a record span or the transmission of photographs across the ocean. But for all that I do not believe that science can be legitimately regarded as the game of a relatively small number of people who enjoy it and get their livelihood from it. In some sense science cannot be wholly divorced from conduct.


Conduct, of course, is possible without science. Humans carried on in their daily affairs long before the first spark of science had been struck. And today there are millions of people living whose actions are not determined by anything we call science. Science, however, could not but gain an increasing influence on human behaviour. To describe this influence roughly and briefly will throw a new light on science. Exaggerating and schematising the differences, we can say: in the prescientific stage man behaves in a situation as the situation tells him to behave. To primitive man each thing says what it is and what he ought to do with it: a fruit says, "Eat me"; water says, "Drink me"; thunder says, "Fear me," and woman says, "Love me."

This world is limited, but, up to a point, manageable, knowledge is direct and quite unscientific, in many cases perfectly true, but in many others hopelessly wrong. And man slowly discovered the errors in his original world. He learned to distrust what things told him, and gradually he forgot the language of birds and stones. Instead he developed a new activity which he called thinking. And this new activity brought him great advantages. He could think out the consequences of events and actions and thereby make himself free of past and present. By thinking he created knowledge in the sense of scientific knowledge, knowledge which was no longer a knowledge of individual things, but of universals. Knowledge thereby becomes more and more indirect, and action, to the extent that it loses its direct guidance by the world of things, more and more intellectualised. Moreover, the process of thinking had destroyed the unity of the primitive world. Thought had developed categories or classes, and each class had its own characteristics, modes of behaviour, or laws. Concrete situations which demand decisions and prompt actions do not, however, fall into only one such class. And so action, if it were to be directed by scientific knowledge, had to be subjected to a complex thought process, and often enough such a process failed to give a clear decision. In other words, whereas the world of primitive man had directly determined his conduct, had told him what was good, what bad, the scientific world proved all too often a failure when it came to answering such questions. Reason seemed to reveal truth, but a truth that would give no guidance to conduct; but the demand for such guidance remained and had to be filled. Thus arose eventually the dualism of science and religion, with its various phases of double-truth theory, bitter enmity, and sentimentalisation of science, one as unsatisfactory as the other.


Is it the tragedy of the human race that for every gain it makes it has to pay a price which often seems greater than the gain? Must we pay for science by a disintegration of our life? Must we deny on week-days what we profess on Sundays? As a personal article of faith I believe that there is no such inexorable must. Science, in building rational systems of knowledge, had to select such facts as would most readily submit to such systematisation. This process of selection, in itself of the greatest significance, involves the neglecting or rejecting of a number of facts or aspects. As long as scientists know what they are doing, such procedure is fraught with little danger. But in the triumph over its success science is apt to forget that it has not absorbed all aspects of reality, and to deny the existence of those which it has neglected. Thus, instead of keeping in mind the question which gave rise to all science, "what God is, what we are . . ." it holds up such questions to ridicule, and considers the men and women who persist in asking them as atavistic survivals.

This attitude, whose historical necessity and merit I plainly discern, must be rejected, not because it is inimical to religion, but because it would, if consistently maintained, block the progress of science itself by closing to its advance the gates that lead to the most essential of all questions. In my opinion no gate should be closed to science; by this I do not mean that today's or yesterday's science is capable of answering the fundamental questions, as so many radicals, men of the best motives, seem to think. Instead I believe that science, aware of its incompleteness, should gradually attempt to broaden its base, to include more and more of the facts which it found at first necessary to exclude, and thereby become better and better equipped to answer those questions which mankind will not be denied. As long as science misunderstands its task it will always be in danger of losing its position of independence and integrity. The illegal usurper of a throne will always find illegal pretenders. The denunciation of the intellect which has assumed such tremendous proportions in some parts of our world with such far-reaching consequences, seems to me the outcome of the wrong scientific attitude, although for that reason it is no less wrong itself. I shall revert to this theme in a later chapter (Chapter IX), and shall point out only that science if it follows the path which I have briefly indicated will assume a different face. But I hope that such a science will, slowly but surely, help to re-create that original unity which it had to destroy in order to develop.

A science, therefore, gains in value and significance not by the number of individual facts it collects but by the generality and power of its theories, a conclusion which is the very opposite of the statement from which our discussion started. Such a view, how. ever, does not look down upon facts, for theories are theories of facts and can be tested only by facts, they are not idle speculations of what might be, but theoriai, i.e., surveys, intuitions, of what is. Therefore in my presentation of psychology I shall emphasise the theoretical aspect; many facts will be reported, but not as a mere collection, or an exhibition of curious phenomena to be compared to Mme. Tussaud's waxworks, but as facts in a system - as far as it is humanly possible not a pet system of my own, but the system to which they intrinsically belong, i.e., as rationally understandable facts.


Such a procedure would, however, be without value if it neglected another aspect of science, so far omitted from our discussion, viz., the greatest possible exactness in the establishment of facts. By its demand for exactness science frees itself from the personal wishes of the scientist. A theory must be demanded by facts; in its turn it demands facts, and if they fail to conform exactly to it, then the theory is either wrong or incomplete. In this sense science is discipline. We cannot do what we want, but must do what the facts demand. The success of science has tended to make us proud and conceited. But such conceit is out of place. He is the greatest master who is the greatest servant. Again and again we experience in the progress of knowledge how apt we are to halt and stumble, again and again we find how little we can make knowledge, how we must give our thoughts time to grow. Therefore the pursuit of knowledge, instead of making us proud and boastful, should make us modest and humble.


To ' summarise: the acquisition of true knowledge should help us to reintegrate our world which has fallen to pieces; it should teach us the cogency of objective relations, independent of our wishes and prejudices, and it should indicate to us our true position in our world and give us respect and reverence for the things animate and inanimate around us.


This is true of all sciences. What special claim can psychology make? To teach us humility, what science can do that better than astronomy and astrophysics which deal with times and distances far beyond the scope of our imagination? And what science can discipline us better than pure mathematics with its demands for absolute proofs? Could we then claim that psychology is particularly fitted for the task of integration, and give this as an answer to the question from which - we started? I think we can, for in psychology we are at the point where the three great provinces of our world intersect, the provinces which we call inanimate nature, life, and mind.


Psychology deals with the behaviour of living beings. Therefore, as every biological science, it is faced with the problem of the relation between animate and inanimate nature whether it is aware of and concerned with this problem or not. But to the psychologist, one special aspect of behaviour, in ordinary parlance called the mental, assumes paramount importance. This is not the place to discuss consciousness and mind as such. Later chapters will show the use we make of these concepts. But we will not reject at the outset a distinction which permeates our idiomatic speech as much as our scientific terminology. We all understand what is meant by the proposition that a prize-fighter was knocked out and did not recover consciousness for six minutes. We know that during these fatal six minutes the pugilist did not cease to live, but that he lost one particular aspect of behaviour, Furthermore we know that consciousness in general and each specific conscious function in particular, is closely bound up with processes in our central nervous system. Thus the central nervous system becomes, as it were, the nodal point where mind, life, and inanimate nature converge. We can investigate the chemical constitution of the nervous tissue and will find no component that we have not found in inorganic nature; we can study the function of this tissue and will find that it has all the characteristics of living tissue; and finally there is this relation between the life function of the nervous system and consciousness.

Two Types of Solutions of the Problems Involved in This Relation Rejected.

Anybody who would claim to have found a complete and true solution of our problems would expose himself to the just suspicion of being either an ass or a quack. These problems have occupied the best human minds for thousands of years, and therefore it is more than unlikely that a solution can be found by any, other way than a slow and gradual approach. What I think about the mode of this approach I shall again defer to a later part of the book.


But here I shall reject two types of solutions that have been offered. The first is the solution of crude materialism, which gained great momentum about the middle of the last century and found its most popular expression in a book that around 1900 was a best-seller and is now practically forgotten. I mean Haeckel's Riddle of the Universe. I am not sure that the United States are not even now feeling the last ebbing wave of this flood which reached the shores of the New World long after its crest had passed from the Old. This materialistic solution is astonishingly simple. It says: The whole problem is illusory. There are no three kinds of substance or modes of existence, matter, life, and mind; there is only one, and that is matter, composed of blindly whirling atoms which, because of their great numbers and the long time at their disposal, form all sorts of combinations, and among them those we call animals and human beings. Thinking and feeling, why, they are just movements of atoms. Interfere with the matter of the brain and see what remains of consciousness. Although I have expressed this view very crudely, I believe that I have expressed it adequately, particularly when I add that this view is not only a scientific conviction, but as well, or even more so, a creed and a wish. It is the revolt of a generation that saw a strongly entrenched church hold on to dogmas which science, growing up like a young giant, had crushed - a generation that, by the successful applications of science to technical problems, had become vainglorious and had lost that feeling of awe which should accompany all true knowledge. just as the victorious barbarians, be they vandals or Calvinists, destroyed thoroughly and passionately the creations most dear to their vanquished enemies, so our materialists developed a hatred of those parts of human philosophy that pointed beyond the pale of their narrow conceptions. To be called a philosopher was an insult, and to be a believer was to belong among the untouchables.

Now I bear no grudge against these men, much as I see their narrow-mindedness and their smallness of stature. For I believe that malgré tout they have served a good purpose. They have helped to build up an intelligentsia strong enough to stand out against the unwarranted interference of a reactionary church and pursue their own way, bringing up a new generation which was unhampered by theological restrictions and therefore had no axe to grind.

As to materialism itself, it is not necessary today to refute it. I will add only this: the materialist's claim that the problems of relationship or interaction between matter, life, and mind were falsely put may turn out to be perfectly valid. The hopeless error which the materialists committed was to make an arbitrary discrimination between these three concepts with regard to their scientific dignity. They accepted one and rejected the two others - their excuse being the intrinsic and extrinsic success of science and the absurdities of the contemporary speculative philosophy - whereas each of them may, as a conception, contain as much of the ultimate truth as the others, quite apart from the stage of development which each of them may have reached at a given time.

Vitalism, Spiritualism.

The other type of solution which I want to reject here does not deny the validity of our problems; rather it attempts to solve them by establishing two or three separate realms of existence, each sharply distinguished from the other by the presence or absence of a specific factor. One can discriminate three such attempts; the first draws the dividing line between life and mind, life and inanimate nature belonging together (Descartes), and mind, a new and divine substance, separating man from the rest of creation. The second, on the other hand, throws life and mind together as directed by a power not found in inorganic nature and therefore essentially different from it (vitalism). The third sticks to the threefold division and looks for special active principles in each of the three realms (Scheler). Of these three, vitalism has gained by far the greatest importance because many thorough and highly ingenious attempts have been made to establish it as a truly scientific theory. The problem of vitalism will therefore occupy us repeatedly in the following pages. Here I only explain why I must reject this whole type of explanation at the outset. The answer is simple enough, but will, without a wider context, appear somewhat unsatisfactory. The vitalistic type of solution is no solution, but a mere renaming of the problem. By renaming it, it emphasises the problem, and is, in that respect, much superior to crude materialism. But by pretending that a new name is a solution, it might do a great deal of harm to science were it widely accepted. Characteristically, however, vitalism, not to mention the two other forms of our type, has never been popular among scientists, particularly not among those nearest concerned, the biologists. It required always a full share of personal courage to profess oneself a vitalist, and therefore let us honour the men who were willing to sacrifice their reputations and their careers in the service of a cause which they considered to be a true one.

Integration of Quantity, Order, and Meaning.

By rejecting these types of solution I have implied the kind of solution our psychology 'II have to offer. It cannot ignore the mind-body and the life-nature problem, neither can it accept these three realms of being as separated from each other by impassable chasms. It is here that the integrative quality of our psychology will become manifest. Materialism tried to achieve a simple system by using for its interpretation of the whole the contribution of one part. To be truly integrative, we must try to use the contributions of every part for the building of our system. Looking at the sciences of Nature, Life, and Mind, we may extract from each one specific and particularly important concept, viz., from the first: quantity, from the second: order, and from the third: meaning or significance (in German: Sinn). Our psychology, then, must have a place for all of these. Let us discuss them one by one.

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