Wolfgang Metzger: 1899-1979

by Heinz Heckhausen

Originally published in: American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 4/1983, pp. 567-571

A dedicated and inspired research career ended on December 20, 1979, when Wolfgang Metzger died in Tübingen-Bebenhausen at the age of 80. His career was guided by a single passion: to discern the lawful order within the manifold complexities of the phenomenal world. His efforts proved fruitful not just in the area of perception but also in the subdisciplines of memory, will, character ('personality'), social relations, development, and education.

As early as his student years when Metzger was assisting Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer, his productivity was already evident; some of his first experimental work won him an early international reputation. As he reached his early thirties, however, his highly promising research career was hampered by the Nazi takeover. He lost most of his stimulating research community when his renowned teachers, as well as many of his colleagues, fled Germany.

Metzger remained. At the time, and even decades later, many of his colleagues reproached him for not leaving with them, but when we look back at that event from today's perspective, it seems clear that this remaining was a lucky stroke for the rebuilding of psychology in Germany. He kept alive and fostered the key ideas of the Gestalt school in the land of its origin during a gloomy span of Germany's history, thus preserving the school through the Nazi times and developing what we today know as Gestalt psychology. In fact, his two most important books appeared during these 12 years that were so inhospitable to original scientific thought.

Wolfgang Metzger was born on July 22, 1899. His father was a high school principal in Heidelberg. After a brief service in World War I, which cost him one eye, and a term as prisoner of war he enrolled as a student of German studies, history, and art history at the University of Heidelberg. After a short stay in Munich, he moved to the University of Berlin. Here, he found himself in a seminar led by Köhler and Wertheimer and was at once completely taken by the subject matter and the two proponents. He immediately changed his area of concentration to psychology, with minors in mathematics and physics.

The style with which Wertheimer examined the phenomena of vision and uncovered the principles of visual perception, as well as Köhler's stringent inquiries based on natural science, awakened a latent talent in Metzger and crystallized the form his lifelong research was to take. As a newcomer to seminars at the Berlin Institute, he immediately made the brilliant impression, according to fellow students, of a 'born' Gestaltist.

In 1926, on the basis of his experimental work in perception, he completed his work for the doctors degree under the guidance of Köhler. In the following years, still working under Köhler, he was a busy and productive experimenter. His studies on the perception of the homogeneous visual fiel (Ganzfeld) were so widely read that ganzfeld was adopted as a generally accepted term.

Metzger felt most at home with the work of Max Wertheimer and developed a close personal attachment to his teacher. When Wertheimer accepted a position in Frankfurt in 1929, Metzger followed in 1931. In 1932 be completed his Habilitation (postdoctoral lecturing qualification) with an investigation on phenomenal identity and depth perception. Wertheimer left for the United States in 1933, and Metzger continued at Frankfurt, first in an assistant's position, then in 1939 as Extraordinarius (associate professor and as temporary head of the Psychological Institute. During his Frankfurt period, interrupted briefly by his visiting position in Halle from 1937- 1939, Metzger published two major works: Gesetze des Sehens (Laws of vision) and Psychologie. In 1942 he took a chair at the University of Münster and founded its Psychological Institute, only to find himself having to rebuild the institute following the bombings in the last years of the war. When he departed in 1977, 10 years after attaining emeritus status, he left behind one of the best known and most finely equipped psychology institutes in Germany. His remaining years, with the exceptions of his frequent travels, were spent in Bebenhausen, near Tübingen.

The early major work Gesetze des Sehens first appeared in serial part issues, edited by the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Frankfurt. Expanded editions were printed in 1936, 1954, and 1975. Metzger's devotion to this work was monumental. He continued to supplement his collection of phenomena from everyday perception and the fine arts, always endeavoring to find ever more compelling illustrations for the Gestalt point of view. It is a masterpiece for those who come to it without an intense background in the psychology of perception; in a nontechnical style Metzger moves the reader toward a deeper experience, and sometimes an altered conception, of the visual world.

Metzger's most widely acclaimed work is Psychologie: Die Entwicklung ihrer Grundannahmen seit der Einführung des Experiments (Psychology: The development of basic principles since the introduction of the experimental method). The first edition, in 1941, had no references. Since Wertheimer, not to mention numerous other prominent Jewish psychologists, could not be cited, Metzger cited only a few authors, such as Aristotle, Hume, von Helmholtz, and Wundt. In the preface he gave a rather straightforward justification for this unusual deficiency: "In order that the reader might gain a more factual statement concerning the present state of the theoretical debates, the citation of authors has been restricted to historical figures and to those who stand outside the ongoing controversies within psychology" (p. ix). Wertheimer and others finally appeared in 1954 in the second edition of Psychologie. Metzger's earlier book, Gesetze des Sehens, was handled similarly: and in fact the later editions of that book were dedicated to Wertheimer.

It is possible to view Psychologie merely as the cumulative knowledge in the psychology of perception until 1941, although anyone who would construe the book in this way must not have read it. By the same token, anyone who regards the book as a device for summarizing literature would certainly condemn the newest edition (1975) as being hopelessly out-of-date. It is a book that at the time of its writing, and still today, portrays lucidly the foundations of psychology, including the different kinds of psychological reality, the problems associated with reference systems, order, and much more. Pivotal in its discussions was the cumulative knowledge, at that time, of the entire Gestalt school. One could, of course, exchange new bodies of literature for those older findings of Gestalt psychology and still expect that the basic problems would remain the same and that most of them would in no way be more clearly formulated or answered. Why Metzger never attempted to write a new edition that would update his earlier works in terms of current research literature is understandable. Had he attempted this, the book would necessarily have expanded into several volumes and could have been accomplished only with the joint efforts of several scholars, all with Metzger's capabilities and orientation. Psychologie, scarcely over 300 pages long, is a rarity. It defies the usual half-life process of aging textbooks and is not only a respectable book but also deserves to be read anew.

A central feature in Metzger's career was his intense interest in monocular factors of depth perception. Upon losing an eye during World War I, he wondered why his depth perception did not seem to be affected since shortly before his entry into the military he had learned in high school that depth perception is a function of the disparity between the images of the two retinae. He liked to relate a story to his first-semester students, in his characteristic humorous style, of his college professor who attempted to explain the binocular basis of depth perception through the Greek myth of Polyphemus the Cyclops. Because a Cyclops has to rely on a monocular visual system, it was no wonder that Polyphemus was unable to hit the target when he hurled a stone at the boat of Odysseus and his companions. At the suggestion that the story captured the idea of binocular depth perception, a student objected with the observation that Polyphemus's single eye had already been burnt out by the Greeks. The professor then remarked, "That makes it still more difficult!"

Those returning home from the war in the late 1940s found Metzger embodying the prototypical professorial image of a bygone era, an image that called up just as much respect as it did personal fondness. He wore black suits exclusively and, like his teacher Wertheimer, displayed a mane that flowed down the nape of his neck. In fact, in his seventies he wore a full beard that made one think of Old Testament days. His classic, long-haired, black-suited appearance was occasionally enough to frighten bystanders and pedestrians as he made his way on bicycle from home to institute to lecture hall. In company he was an amiable person. He took part in the common interests and social activities. and was constantly ready to help - even if no plea for help came to his attention.

He gave his doctoral students and other co-workers a good deal of free time for their own research activities; important in this respect was the choice of research themes - no one was pressured to delve into the psychology of perception. In working with his students and colleagues, Metzger relied on natural, not forced, order and was seldom disappointed by the outcome of his permissive trust. Because ideas pertinent to the psychology of perception stirred in his mind continuously, it was sometimes difficult to focus his attention on a new research report. There was, however, a solution, well understood by his students. One needed only to submit a manuscript, knowing that he could not possibly neglect what lay directly in front of him on his desk - he would have to read it and make something of it. His interest in the written, finished product extended to students' reports on experiments in laboratory courses, which he took upon himself to turn into lucid scientific manuscripts.

Toward the end of the 1960s, student unrest began to control the atmosphere at the institute, but Metzger, at the time already professor emeritus but still fully engaged in his responsibilities, hardly intervened to curb it. However, he did object to the new student movement as a false use of the institute as a base of operations for conducting missionary work for new political bandwagons. To be sure, self-aggrandizement, political leadership, confrontation, and polemic were alien to him. Among the large faculty of philosophy at Münster, with its inner circles, he remained an outsider during his entire career. His primary dealings at the university consisted of intellectual contact with single individuals. This contact was found much more frequently outside the faculty to which he belonged, as for example with the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who was for a period in Buldern (near Münster), as well as with the zoologist Bernhard Rensch and the child-clinician Hermann Mai.

His wife, Juliane, was mother to five young Metzgers. She brought together an incessantly growing collection of old toys that earned her a reputation among experts. Metzger's colleagues and more advanced students were invited to his home regularly to read alout, play music, or meet foreign visitors. The highpoint in these get-togethers and celebrations came once each years when the institute members were led on tours by the Metzgers, practically like a traveling theater group, to visit neighboring countries and to meet such notable acquaintances as Jean Piaget in Geneva or Joseph Nuttin in Louvain.

Metzger engaged in almost no experimentation following the early years at Frankfurt. Although one might be tempted to blame the events of the war, administrative duties, and teaching responsibilities in nine areas of psychology for his cessation of experimental work, a much better reason exists. For the empirical realization of his conceptual thinking, the translation of his ideas into experimental research designs was less central than was the meticulous setting up of stimulus patterns that would capture compellingly the essence of the perceptual phenomenon in question.

Metzger found a congenial way of conducting science at such Italian institutes as Bologna (Renzo Canestrari), Milan (Gaetano Kanizsa), and Padua (Fabio Metelli). Frequent visits to Italy were inspiring events during his last two decades of life, as were extensive journeys to the United States and the Far East. He was revered in Italy not just as an accomplished master, but for the depth of his insights and the reliability of his judgment. At the University of Padua he received an honorary doctoral degree, and the University at Trieste bestowed a medal of honor. The universities of Louvain and Prague also awarded him distinctions. Although he no longer experimented himself, he stood very definitely for an experimental approach, something to which the work of his students could testify.

Following the war Metzger devoted increasing energy to applied questions, especially those having to do with child-rearing, classroom education, and psychotherapy. His guiding principles in these applied endeavors were developed in his last two books, Schöpferische Freiheit (Productive freedom, 1949, 1962) and Psychologie in der Erziehung (Psychology in education, 1971). The theoretical starting point was again Gestalt psychology with its assumption of a natural, nonforced order in nature, which led him to make his observations on the virtues of a theme of freedom among the goals of education. In part, this theme of self-determination in child-rearing was enriched by wisdom of the Far East. In numerous invited addresses he was an eloquent proponent of his ideas. No doubt his intellectual proximity to Alfred Adler played an influential role in his founding the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Individualpsychologie in 1962. But above all, Metzger's legacy is carried forth in the Gesellschaft für Gestalttheorie und ihre Anwendungen (Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications - GTA), an organization founded by several of his students, of which he was honorary chairman.

Metzger was president of the 16th International Congress for Psychology in 1960 in Bonn. From 1962 until 1964, he was president of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie. He was highly committed to activities associated with his membership in the Association de Psychologie de la Langue Française, even though connections between psychologists in German-speaking and romance-language countries have never been overly close. With the passing of Metzger, German psychology has lost an important bridge to these countries.

Metzger's contribution to psychology was a singular and distinguished endeavor. Most prominent was his pivotal role in the continuation and furthering of a great tradition of German psychology over the period of decay during the 12 years of national socialism and World War II. He was active until his last days, carrying a full load of teaching and research as professor emeritus. Five months after his 80th birthday he died in his sleep. He left behind five children, eight grandchildren, and his wife Juliane. He had given birth to an entire group of Metzger students, active in teaching and research in diverse locations, all of whom owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Heinz Heckhausen, Max-Planck-Institut für psychologische Forschung, Munich

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