Principles of Gestalt Psychology

by Kurt Koffka (1935)

Chapter I
Why Psychology?

(continued ... 2nd part)


Modern scientific psychology was started by quantification. Mental functions were shown to be expressible in purely quantitative terms (Weber's Law), and ever since then the quantitative interest has done as much harm as good to the further development of our science. On the one side, we find those who want to measure everything, sensations, emotions, intelligence; and on the other, those who deny that true psychological problems are amenable to quantitative treatment; to them, psychology is the domain of quality, excluding quantity. In my opinion this famous antithesis of quantity and quality is not a true antithesis at all. It owes its popularity largely to a regrettable ignorance of the essence of quantity as used in physical science.

Modern science, it is true, begins with quantitative measurement. The present-day physicist devotes the greatest efforts to making his measurements finer and finer; but he will not measure anything and everything, but only such effects as in some way or other contribute to his theory. It is impossible to discuss here all the functions of quantitative measurement in physics. But it is fair to say that a mere collection of numbers is never what the physicist wants. What he is frequently interested in is the distribution of measurable characteristics in a given volume and the changes which such distributions undergo. Both types of facts he describes by means mathematical equations which may contain a few concrete numbers but in which abstract numbers are by far the most important constituents. And the mathematical formula establishes primarily a definite relationship between these abstract numbers. Measurement has then the role to test the validity of the equation for the process which it is meant to describe, i.e., of the relationship established. Such a relationship, however, is no longer quantitative in the simple sense in which any one concrete number is; its quantity is no longer opposed to quality. The misunderstanding arises when one considers only the individual facts with their measured quantities, overlooking the manner of their distribution. But the latter is no less factual than the former, and it indicates a property or quality of the condition or process under discussion. A simple example should clarify this point: In a soap bubble the forces of cohesion between the soap particles pull them as close together as possible. They are held in equilibrium by the air enclosed by the soap membrane, whose pressure would increase if the bubble contracted. The soap, therefore, must remain distributed over the outside boundary of an air volume, and the distribution will be such that it will occupy as little space as possible. Since of all solids the sphere is the one which has the greatest volume for a given surface or the smallest surface for a given volume, the soap will distribute itself on a spherical surface. A statement like this seems to me to be as much qualitative as quantitative; the latter, because it says of each particle that it is here and not somewhere else; the former, because it assigns a definite shape with all its peculiarities to our distribution. Once our attention has been drawn to this point we shall find it difficult in a great many cases to decide whether a statement is quantitative or qualitative. A body moves with constant velocity; truly quantitative, but equally truly qualitative, and the same is true whatever kind of velocity we attribute to the body. Thus when the velocity varies with the sine or cosine of time, the body executes a periodic movement which is qualitatively quite different from a mere translatory movement.

We conclude from these examples: the quantitative, mathematical description of physical science, far from being opposed to quality, is but a particularly accurate way of representing quality. I will, without proof, add that a description may be quantitative without being at the same time the most adequate one. Of the two analytic equations of the circle: x' + y' = r', and r = constant, the second expresses the specific quality Of the circle more directly and hence more adequately than the first.

And we can now draw a lesson for our psychology: it may be perfectly quantitative without losing its character as a qualitative science, and on the other hand, and at the present moment even more important, it may be unblushingly qualitative, knowing that if its qualitative descriptions are correct, it will some time be possible to translate them into quantitative terms.


Let us now turn to "order," the concept derived from the sciences of life. Can we give a satisfactory definition of this concept? We speak of an orderly arrangement of objects when every object is in a place which is determined by its relation to all others. Thus the arrangement of objects thrown at random into a lumber room is not orderly, while that of our drawing room furniture is. Similarly we speak of an orderly march of events (Head) when each part event occurs at its particular time, in its particular place, and in its particular way, because all the other part events occur at their particular times, in their particular places, and in their particular ways. An orderly march of events is, e.g., the movement of the piano keys when a. practised player plays a tune; a mere sequence of events without any order takes place when the keys are pressed down by a dog running over the keyboard.


Both examples may give rise to a particular objection or may lead to a special theory of order. Let us take up the objection first: "Why," so an opponent, whom for the sake of convenience we shall call Mr. P, might ask, "do you call the motions of the piano keys in the second case less orderly than the first? I can," so he continues, "find only one reason, and that is that you like the first better than the second. But this subjective feeling of preference is surely not a. sufficient reason for introducing a distinction allegedly fundamental, and for deriving from this distinction a new scientific category. And the 'same is true of your first example. You happen to like your drawing room, but I can well imagine a person, say a stranger from another planet, who would feet happier in your storeroom. Look at your two cases without any personal bias; then you will find that each object, whether in the drawing room or in the loft, is where it is because, according to mechanical laws, it could not be anywhere else; and just so is each key set into motion according to the stern laws of mechanics whether it be Paderewski's fingers or a frightened dog which run over the keyboard. But if the ordinary old mechanical laws explain these events, why introduce a Dew concept, order, which confuses the issue by creating an artificial difference between processes which from the point of view of mechanics are essentially similar?"


To this argument another person (we will call him Mr. V) might reply as follows: "My dear fellow, it is very generous of you to disregard your own feelings in the matter, for I know how sensitive you are to badly furnished rooms and how fastidious your taste is with regard to piano music. I shall therefore exclude from my answer the person who is merely supposed to look at or live in one of our two rooms and to listen to the two sequences of tones, just as you said one should. But even so there remains a difference between the two alternatives in each of the two examples, and this difference is decisive, since it refers to the way in which the arrangement and the sequence have been brought about. In my ideal lumber room, each piece has been deposited as it happened to come without regard to any other. And since, as you pointed out yourself, every object in this loft is where it is according to strict mechanical laws, this lumber room is an excellent example of what mechanical forces will do if left to themselves. Compare this with our drawing room. Here, careful planning has preceded the actual moving of the furniture, and each piece receives a place that makes it subservient to the impression of the whole. What does it matter whether a table has at first been pushed too far to the left? Somebody who knows the plan, or who has a direct feeling for the intended effect, will push it back into its proper place: just so a picture hung awry will be straightened out; vases with proper flowers will be well distributed, all of course with the help of mechanical forces, but nothing by these mechanical forces alone. I need not repeat my argument for the two tone sequences, the application is too obvious. But my conclusion is this: in inorganic nature you find nothing but the interplay of blind mechanical forces, but when you come to life you find order, and that means a new agency that directs the workings of inorganic nature, giving aim and direction and thereby order to its blind impulses." And so Mr. V, in trying to answer Mr. P's argument, has developed the theory which I referred to at the beginning of this discussion. Remembering our previous discussion of nature and life, one will recognise this theory as a vitalistic one. As a matter of fact the strongest arguments for vitalism have been based on the distinction of orderly processes and blind sequences.


But let us return to the argument between Messrs. P and V. We have already pledged our psychology to a rejection of vitalism. But can we disregard V's answer to P's argument, his defence of the distinction between orderly and orderless arrangements and events? We can not. And that lands us in a quandary: we accept order but we reject a special factor that produces it. For the first we shall be despised by Mr. P and his followers; for the second we shall incur the wrath of Mr. V. Both reactions would be justified if our attitude were truly eclectic; we should then appear to accept two propositions that are incompatible with each other. Therefore the task of our system is clearly defined: we must attempt to reconcile our acceptance and our rejection, we must develop a category of order which is free from vitalism. The concept of order in its modern form is derived from the observation of living beings. But that does not mean that its application is restricted to life. Should it be possible to demonstrate order as a characteristic of natural events and therefore within the domain of physics, then we could accept it in the science of life without introducing a special vital force responsible for the creation of order. And that is exactly the solution which Gestalt theory has offered and tried to elaborate. How that has been done we shall learn in the course of this book. But it is meet to point out the integrative function of the Gestalt solution. Life and nature are brought together not by a denial of one of the most outstanding characteristics of the former but by the proof that this feature belongs to the latter also. And by this kind of integration Gestalt theory contributes to that value of knowledge which we have called reverence for things animate and inanimate. Materialism accomplished the integration by robbing life of its order and thereby making us look down on life as just a curious combination of orderless events; if life is as blind as inorganic nature we must have as little respect for the one as for the other. But if inanimate nature shares with life the aspect of order, then the respect which we feel directly and unreflectively for life will spread over to inanimate nature also.


We turn to the last of our categories: significance. What we mean by that is harder to explain than the two previous concepts, and yet here lies one of the deepest roots of Gestalt theory, one which has been least openly brought before the English-speaking public. The reason for this is easy to understand. There is such a thing as an intellectual climate, and the intellectual climate, just as the meteorological, varies from country to country.

And just as the growth of a Plant depends upon the physical climate, so does the growth of an idea depend upon the intellectual climate. There can be no doubt that the intellectual climates of Germany and the United States are widely different. The idealistic tradition of Germany is more than an affair of philosophic schools; it pervades the German mind and appears most openly in the writings and teachings of the representatives of "Geisteswissenschaften," the moral sciences. The meaning of a personality prominent in history, art, or literature Seems to the German mind more important than the pure historical facts which make up his life and works; the historian is often more interested in the relation of a great man to the plan of the universe than in his relations to the events on the planet. Contrariwise, in America the climate is chiefly practical; the here and now, the immediate present with its needs, holds the centre of the stage, thereby relegating the problems essential to German mentality to the realm of the useless and non-existing. In science this attitude makes for positivism, an overvaluation of mere facts and an undervaluation of very abstract speculations, a high regard for science, accurate and earthbound, and an aversion, sometimes bordering on contempt, for metaphysics that tries to escape from the welter of mere facts into a loftier realm of ideas and ideals.

Therefore when the first attempts were made to introduce Gestalt theory to the American public, that side which would most readily appeal to the type of German mentality which I have tried to sketch was kept in the background, and those aspects which had a direct bearing on science were emphasised. Had the procedure been different, we might have incurred the danger of biasing our readers against our ideas. Living in a different intellectual climate they might have taken this aspect of Gestalt theory for pure mysticism and decided not to have anything to do with the whole theory before they had had a chance of becoming acquainted with its scientific relevance.

At the present moment, however, when Gestalt theory has been taken up as a main topic of discussion, it seems only fair to lift the old restriction and expose all its aspects.


To do this I shall revert for a moment to the origins of our theory and to the leading ideas of its first founder, Max Wertheimer. What I said about the German intellectual climate does not apply to German experimental psychology. Rather, experimental psychology had carried on a feud with speculative psychologists and philosophers who, not without reason, belittled its achievements and claimed that mind in its truest aspects could never be investigated by scientific methods, i.e., by methods derived from the natural sciences.' How could, so the argument would run, the laws of sensation and association, which then composed the bulk of scientific psychology, ever explain the creation or enjoyment of a work of art, the discovery of truth, or the development of a great cultural movement like that of the Reformation? The facts to which these opponents of scientific psychology pointed and the facts which the experimental psychologists investigated were indeed so far apart that they seemed to belong to different universes, and no attempt was made by experimental psychology to incorporate the larger facts in their system which was erected on the smaller ones, at least no attempt which did justice to the larger.

Weighing this situation in retrospect we are forced to take an attitude similar to that which we took with regard to the materialism-vitalism controversy. We must admit that the criticism of the philosophers was well founded. Not only did psychology exhaust its efforts in trivial investigations, not only had it become stagnant with regard to the problems it actually worked on, but it insisted on its claim that it held the only key to those problems which the philosophers emphasised. Thus the historian was right when he insisted that no laws of sensation, association or feeling - pleasure and displeasure - could explain a decision like that of Caesar's to cross the Rubicon with its momentous consequences; that, generally speaking, it would be impossible to incorporate the data of culture within current psychological systems without destroying the true meaning of culture. For, so they would say, culture has not only existence but also meaning or significance, and it has value. A psychology which has no place for the concepts of meaning and value cannot be a complete psychology. At best it can give a sort of understructure, treating of the animal side of man, on which the main building, harbouring his cultural side, must be erected.

On the other hand we cannot disregard the attitude of experimental psychology. Its position was this: for ages psychology had been treated in the way which philosophers and historians claimed to be the only true one, with the result that it had never become a true science. Clever, even profound, things might have been said about men's higher activities by speculative philosophers and "understanding" historians, but all these dicta bore the stamp of their authors' personalities; they could not be verified and could not produce a scientific system. Science wants an explanation in terms of cause and effect, but the kind of psychology they opposed gave explanations in terms of motives and values. This, the experimental psychologists averred, was no explanation at all, whereas their work was concerned with true causal theories. If it failed at the moment to include the cultural aspects, it did so only because it was so very young. But a building had to be erected from the bottom and not from the roof. "Psychologie von unten" was their slogan. And there is much to be said for this attitude. If we believe that the sciences, natural and moral, are not merely a collection of independent human activities, some players playing one kind of game, others another, but that they are branches of one all-embracing science, then we must demand that the fundamental explanatory principles be the same in all.

The dilemma of psychology, then, was this: on the one hand it was in possession of explanatory principles in the scientific sense, but these principles did not solve the most important problems of psychology, which therefore remained outside its scope; on the other hand, it dealt with these very problems, but without scientific explanatory principles; to understand took the place of to explain.


This dilemma must have been prominent in Wertheimer's mind even when he was a student. Perceiving the merits and faults of both sides, be could not join either, but he had to try to find a solution of this acute crisis. In this solution two principles could not be sacrificed: the principles of science and of meaning. And yet these very two were the origin of the whole difficulty. Scientific progress occurs very often by a re-examination of the fundamental scientific concepts. And to such a re-examination Wertheimer devoted his efforts. And his conclusions can be stated in a few simple words, although they demand a radical change of our habits of thought, a change in our most ultimate philosophy. To explain and to understand are not different forms of dealing with knowledge but fundamentally identical. And that means: a causal connection is not a mere factual sequence to be memorised like the connection between a name and a telephone number, but is intelligible. I shall borrow a simile from Wertheimer (1925) - Suppose we entered Heaven with all our scientific curiosity and found myriads of angels engaged in making music, each playing on his own instrument. Our scientific training would tempt us to discover some law in this celestial din. We might then set out to look for regularities of such a kind that, when .angel A has played do, angel C would play re, then angel M fa, and so on. And if we were persistent enough and had sufficient time at our disposal, we might discover a formula which would make it possible for us to determine the note played by each angel at each moment of time. Many philosophers and scientists would say that then we had explained the music of the heavens, that we had discovered its law. This law, however, would be nothing more than a factual statement; it would be practical, making prediction possible, but it would be without meaning. On the other hand, we might try to hear the music as one great symphony; then if we had mastered one part, we should know a great deal about 'he whole, even if the part which we had mastered never recurred again in the symphony; and if eventually we knew the whole we should also be able to solve the problem which was resolved by our first attempt. But then it would be of minor significance and derivative. Provided, now, that the angels really played a symphony, our second mode of approach would be the more adequate one; it would not only tell us what each angel did at any particular moment but why he did it. The whole performance would be meaningful and so would be our knowledge of it.

Substitute the universe for Heaven and the occurrences in the universe for the playing of the angels and you have the application to our problem.

The positivistic interpretation of the world and our knowledge of it is but one possibility; there is another one. The question is: Which is really true? Meaning, significance, value, as data of our total experience give us a hint that the latter has at least as good a chance of being the true one as the former. And that means: far from being compelled to banish concepts like meaning and value from psychology and science in general, we must use these concepts for a full understanding of the mind and the world, which is at the same time a full explanation.


We have discussed quantity, order and meaning with regard to their contributions to science in general and to psychology in particular. We extracted each of our categories from a different science, but we claimed that despite their different origins, they are all universally applicable. And as a matter of fact, in our treatment of the issues involved in each of our three categories - we have found the same general principle: to integrate quantity and quality, mechanism and vitalism, explanation and comprehension or understanding, we had to abandon the treatment of a number of separate facts for the consideration of a group of facts in their specific form of connection. Only thus could quantity be qualitative, and order and meaning be saved from being either introduced into the system of science as new entities, the privileges of life and mind, or discarded as mere figments.


Do we then claim that all facts are contained in such interconnected groups or units that each quantification is a description of true quality, each complex and sequence of events orderly and meaningful? In short, do we claim that the universe and all events in it form one big Gestalt?

If we did we should be as dogmatic as the positivists who claim that no event is orderly or meaningful, and as those who assert that quality is essentially different from quantity. But just as the category of causality does not mean that any event is causally connected with any other, so the Gestalt category does not mean that any two states or events belong together in one Gestalt. "To apply the category of cause and effect means to find out which parts of nature stand in this relation. Similarly, to apply the Gestalt category means to find out which parts of nature belong as parts to functional wholes, to discover their position in these wholes, their degree of relative independence, and the articulation of larger wholes into sub-wholes." (Koffka, 1931.)

Science will find Gestalten of different rank in different realms, but we claim that every Gestalt has order and meaning, of however low or high a degree, and that for a Gestalt quantity and quality are the same. Now nobody would deny that of all Gestalten which we know those of the human mind are the richest; therefore it is most difficult, and in most cases still impossible, to express its quality in quantitative terms, but at the same time the aspect of meaning becomes more manifest here than in any other part of the universe.


Psychology is a very unsatisfactory science. Comparing the vast body of systematised and recognised facts in physics with those in psychology one will doubt the advisability of teaching the latter to anybody who does not intend to become a professional psychologist, one might even doubt the advisability of training professional psychologists. But when one considers the potential contribution which psychology can make to our understanding of the universe, one's attitude may be changed. Science becomes easily divorced from life. The mathematician needs an escape from the thin air of his abstractions, beautiful as they are; the physicist wants to revel in sounds that are soft, mellow, and melodious, that seem to reveal mysteries which are hidden under the curtain of waves and atoms and mathematical equations; and even the biologist likes to enjoy the antics of his dog on Sundays unhampered by his weekday conviction that in reality they - are but chains of machine-like reflexes. Life becomes a flight from science, science a game. And thus science abandons its purpose of treating the whole of existence. if psychology can point the way where science and life will meet, if it can lay the foundations of a system of knowledge that will contain the behaviour of a single atom as well as that of an amoeba, a white rat, a chimpanzee, and a human being, with all the latter's curious activities which we call social conduct, music and art, literature and drama, then an acquaintance with such a psychology should be worth while and repay the time and effort spent in its acquisition.

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