Gestalt, Gestalt Theory

Gestalt is a unified whole. In other words, a gestalt is more than the sum of its parts. You cannot derive the whole from the parts.

Gestalt Theory refers to a community of practice that investigates the role of human mind in relation to perception and interpretation.

Key Concepts: Empiricism; Phenomenology; Rhetorical Theory

The concept of Gestalt as well as Gestalt Theory emerged in response to Behaviorism and its focus on empiricism and positivistic knowledge.

Max WertheimerWolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka were German psychologists who were interested in investigating the role the human mind plays in perception. They were especially curious how the mind makes sense of the world—how we sort all of the information we perceive, moment-by-moment, from our senses. They were especially eager to demonstrate that the human mind played a substantive role in regards to what it perceives. They aimed to demonstrate humans were more than stimulus-response organisms. Based on their empirical observations and their theories, their suppositions about causal relationships, they theorized that the human mind doesn’t focus on specifics details but rather focuses on the big picture. Rather than perceiving each of our senses as they bombard us moment-by-moment, they theorized the mind perceives the small details of life, the minutia, as a part of a greater whole.

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 clearcut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.

Max Wertheimer 

The whole is other than the sum of the parts

Kurt Koffka

As an example of gestalt thinking, consider a football game: if a friend asked what happened at the game, chances are you wouldn’t give a blow-by-blow review, addressing the thousands of hits, catches, fumbles. You wouldn’t account for the game by talking about every detail you observed. Rather, you might mention the score and give an overall impression of what happened, something like “Well, you know, Tampa Bay had Tom Brady and that great front line. They were unstoppable.”

Gestalt is a theory of human perception. Gestalt theorists explore a range of research questions related to the role of human mind in relation to perception and interpretation:

  • how does the human mind make sense of the constant bombardment of information?
  • how does the human mind identify patterns?
  • how is it possible that the whole can be greater than the parts? why in some instances is the whole “Other than the sum of the parts” (Koffka).

Gestalt Theory investigates how people make sense of the world by navigating between the big picture of things and all of the details that make up the big picture. Gestalt Theory explores a number of concepts that are sometimes described as laws or principles:

  1. Figure-Ground
  2. Pragnanz
  3. Similarity
  4. Proximity
  5. Continuity
  6. Closure



Koffka, Kurt. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace 1935. p. 176

Wertheimer, Max  Productive thinking. University of Chicago Press, 1982

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