Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt

I just ran across this blog post by Peter Melzer about the life of Max Wertheimer, and the application of his Gestalt ideas to physical chemistry.

Melzer notes that Frankfurt am Main, where Wertheimer was a professor, “had been a free city ever since Charlemagne’s rule and has always been a free-spirited place that had comparably friendly relations with its Jewish community before the Nazis came to power.” Wertheimer was Jewish and left Germany for New York soon after the Nazi’s assumed power in 1933. Frankfurt’s free character was maintained even during the Nazi years. According the Melzer:

Three years after the Wertheimers had left, der Fuehrer paid the City an official visit. A rally was to be held in the largest in-door venue (die Festhalle) on the City’s fairgrounds. The multi-purpose sports complex could hold more than 30,000 people…. As usual, the affair was highly choreographed. Heavy security ensured that any opposition did not stand a chance of disrupting the event. Plenty prearranged public jubilation was put on display. On arrival at the hall, der Fuehrer walked up the podium set up high and began to speak. At a certain point, disturbance erupted in the crowd. Hecklers started shouting. Cat calls rang out. Der Fuehrer broke off his speech. The calls rang louder. He folded his script, turned round and left the podium without a word or looking back. He never returned to the City of Frankfurt.

Melzer then goes on to tell the story of Wertheimer discovering the phi phenomenon more than 20 years earlier while riding the train across Germany and seeing that pairs of alternating warning lights sometimes appeared to be a single light moving back and forth between to two positions.

He then connects the general Gestalt claim of a whole being more than the sum of its parts to chemistry, in which the re-arrangement of the same set of atoms can result in an entirely different chemical.

(My MA supervisor, who was a great fan of the Gestaltists, used to say that this commonly-repeated creed was incorrect; that under Gestalt theory the whole was said to be different from (rather than “more than”) the sum of its parts. He said that the “more than” version had been the earlier claim of Christian von Ehrenfels, whose psychological position Wertheimer was attempting to move beyond. The point of the change from “more than” to “different from,” according to my MA supervisor, was that von Ehrenfels had thought that the Gestalt-qualitaet was an additional element, over and above the other elements in the configuration. Wertheimer’s position, by contrast, was more radical, arguing that the whole is actually more fundamental than the presumed “elements,” which can only be discerned relative to the whole in which they occur. So, the whole does not “add to” the sum of the elements. It is wholly different from merely summing prior elements. Over the years, though, I have seen the “more than” version attributed to the Gestaltists so many times that I have given up trying to assert this version of events, and have sometimes wondered if my MA supervisor was correct about this.)

I discovered Melzer’s blog in a comment he made about a fascinating column in the New York Times yesterday about the mathematics of cities (and animals). Did you know that within a given country, the sizes of cities tend to be inversely related to their rank? (e.g., the largest city tends to be twice as large as the second-largest city, three times the size of the third largest city, etc. It is called Zipf’s Law.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

2 thoughts on “Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt

  1. I wrote Michael Wertheimer (Max’s son) about my MA supervisor’s interpretation of Gestalt theory. He wrote back: “I believe your MA supervisor got it EXACTLY right.” So, I will happily return to espousing this interpretation.

  2. In Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Koffka wrote: “It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing up is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.”

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