Being Able to See the Overall Structure of a Problem
Summary of Gestalt Theory. Abstract
Gestalt Theory (GT) is a broadly interdisciplinary general theory which provides a framework for a wide variety of psychological phenomena, processes, and applications.
The focus of GT is the idea of "grouping",
i.e., characteristics of stimuli cause us to structure or interpret a
visual field or problem in a certain way (Max Wertheimer, 1922). The
primary factors that determine grouping are: (1) proximity
- elements tend to be grouped together according to their nearness, (2)
similarity - items similar in some respect tend to be
grouped together, (3) closure - items are grouped together
if they tend to complete some entity, and (4) simplicity -
items will be organized into simple figures according to symmetry,
regularity, and smoothness. These factors are called the laws of
organization and are explained in the context of perception and
The essence of successful problem-solving behavior according to Wertheimer is being able to see the overall structure of the problem: "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."
Human beings are viewed as open systems in active interaction with their environment. According to Wertheimer in 1924 (Über Gestalttheorie) there are wholes, the behavior 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 GT to determine the nature of such wholes.
In other words,
"there are wholes which, instead of being the sum of parts existing
independently, give their parts specific functions or properties that can
only be defined in relation to the whole in question" (Wolfgang Köhler).
GT is especially suited for the understanding of order and structure in psychological events, and has its origins in some orientations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ernst Mach, and particularly of Christian von Ehrenfels and the research work of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, and Kurt Lewin, who opposed the elementistic approach to psychological events, associationism, behaviorism, and to psychoanalysis. The coming to power of national socialism substantially interrupted the fruitful scientific development of Gestalt theory in the German-speaking world; Koffka, Wertheimer, Köhler and Lewin emigrated, or were forced to flee, to the United States.
The epistemological orientation of GT tends to be a kind of critical realism. Methodologically, the attempt is to achieve a meaningful integration of experimental and phenomenological procedures (the experimental-phenomenological method). Crucial phenomena are examined without reduction of experimental precision. GT is to be understood not as a static scientific position, but as a paradigm that is continuing to develop. Through developments such as the theory of the self-organization of systems, it attains major significance for many of the current concerns of psychology.
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