Max Wertheimer

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Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer (April 15, 1880 – October 12, 1943) was an Austro-Hungarian-born psychologist who was one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. He is known for his book, Productive Thinking, and for conceiving the phi phenomenon as part of his work in Gestalt psychology.


  • I stand at the window and see a house, trees, sky.
Theoretically I might say there were 327 brightnesses and nuances of colour. Do I have "327"? No. I have sky, house, and trees. It is impossible to achieve "327 " as such. And yet even though such droll calculation were possible and implied, say, for the house 120, the trees 90, the sky 117 -- I should at least have this arrangement and division of the total, and not, say, 127 and 100 and 100; or 150 and 177.
The concrete division which I see is not determined by some arbitrary mode of organization lying solely within my own pleasure; instead I see the arrangement and division which is given there before me. And what a remarkable process it is when some other mode of apprehension does succeed! I gaze for a long time from my window, adopt after some effort the most unreal attitude possible. And I discover that part of a window sash and part of a bare branch together compose an N.
  • Max Wertheimer (1923). "Laws of organization in perceptual forms." Translation published in W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology, pp. 71–94. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1938. (Original title: Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt II); Online at, accessed 03.2017.
  • Man is not only part of a field, but a part and member of his group. When people are together, as when they are at work, then the most unnatural behavior, which only appears in late stages or abnormal cases, would be to behave as separate Egos. Under normal circumstances they work in common, each a meaningfully functioning part of the whole.
    • Max Wertheimer (1924), cited in: Heinz L. Ansbacher (ed.), The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. 1954, p. 11

"Gestalt Theory," 1924[edit]

Max Wertheimer, "General Problems, Section 1: Gestalt Theory, (‘Ügestattheorie’)," an address before the Kant Society, Berlin] 17th December 1924. English translation found in Ellis, Willis D., A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1938. p.2 (online at; as

  • What is Gestalt theory and what does it intend? Gestalt theory was the outcome of concrete investigations in psychology, logic, and epistemology. The prevailing situation at the time of its origin may be briefly sketched as follows. We go from the world of everyday events to that of science, and not unnaturally assume that in making this transition we shall gain a deeper and more precise understanding of essentials.
  • It has long seemed obvious — and is, in fact, the characteristic tone of European science — that “science” means breaking up complexes into their component elements. Isolate the elements, discover their laws, then reassemble them, and the problem is solved. All wholes are reduced to pieces and piecewise relations between pieces.
The fundamental “formula” of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way. There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes...
We hear a melody and then, upon hearing it again, memory enables us to recognize it. But what is it that enables us to recognize the melody when it is played in a new key? The sum of the elements is different, yet the melody is the same; indeed, one is often not even aware that a transposition has been made... Is it really true that when I hear a melody I have a sum of individual tones (pieces) which constitute the primary foundation of my experience? Is not perhaps the reverse of this true? What I really have, what I hear of each individual note, what I experience at each place in the melody is apart which is itself determined by the character of the whole,
  • As quoted in: George Klir (2013), Facets of Systems Science, p. 25

"On Truth," 1934[edit]

ax Wertheimer (1934), "On Truth," Social Research, Vol 1, No. 2, May 1934; Republished in: Mary Henle (ed.), Documents of Gestalt Psychology, 1961,

  • Science is rooted in the will to truth. With the will to truth it stands or falls. Lower the standard even slightly and science becomes diseased at the core. Not only science, but man. The will to truth, pure and unadulterated, is among the essential conditions of his existence; if the standard is compromised he easily becomes a kind of tragic caricature of himself.
    • p. 19 (1961 edition)
  • Truth and falsity, indeed understanding, is not necessarily something purely intellectual, remote from feelings and attitudes.
    • p. 28 (1961 edition)
  • It is in the total conduct of men rather than in their statements that truth or falsehood lives, more in what a man does, in his real reaction to other men and to things, in his will to do them justice, to live at one with them. Here lies the inner connection between truth and justice. In the realm of behavior and action, the problem recurs as to the difference between piece and part.
    • p. 28 (1961 edition)

Productive thinking, 1945[edit]

Max Wertheimer (1945), Productive thinking. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers. First appearance: Über Schlussprozesse im produktiven Denken, 1920

  • What occurs when, now and then, thinking really works productively? What happens when, now and then, thinking forges ahead? What is really going on in such a process?
    • p. 1
  • The role of past experience is of high importance, but what matters is what one has gained from experience — blind, understood connections, or insight into structural inner relatedness. What matters is how and what one recalls, hoVi he applies what is recalled, whether blindly, in a piece meal way, or in accordance with the situation.
    • p. 62
  • The basic thesis of gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely; what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.
    • p. 84
  • Repetition is useful, but continuous use of mechanical repetition also has harmful effects. It is dangerous because it easily induces habits of sheer mechanized action, blindness, tendencies to perform slavishly instead of thinking, instead of facing a problem freely.
    • p. 112
  • Often, in great discovery the most important thing is that a certain question is found.
    • p. 123
  • Thinking consists in envisaging, realizing structural features and structural requirements; proceeding in accordance with, and determined by, these requirements; thereby changing the situation in the direction of structural improvements.
    • p. 190
  • A certain region in the field becomes crucial, is focused; but it does not become isolated. A new, deeper structural view of the situation develops, involving changes in functional meaning, the grouping, etc. of the items. Directed by what is required by the structure of a situation for a crucial region, one is led to a reasonable prediction, which like the other parts of the structure, calls for verification, direct or indirect. Two directions are involved: getting a whole consistent picture, and seeing what the structure of the whole requires for the parts.
    • p 212
  • I am not sure whether there can be a way of re ally understanding the miracle of thinking.
    • p. 227

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