Letter 2: Historical Gestalts

A review of Michael Wertheimer’s “A Brief History of Psychology”  (5th edition). Psychology Press, 2012.


June 20, 2015

If you read the previous letter, you might remember that I mentioned starting Wertheimer’s book on the plane from Tampa to Toronto. Once I was back in Toronto, I had to focus most of my energy on finishing my dissertation (which is now completed). Although writing the dissertation was very demanding, reading history-of-psychology material remained a consistent part of my daily routine. I finished Wertheimer’s book and I am excited to begin reviewing it for you. Due to time constraints, I will have to write it in multiple fragments.

June 24, 2015

Anyone who attempts writing a comprehensive history of psychology is a hero of mine. To appreciate Wertheimer’s task, imagine sharing your life story with a friend. Where would you begin your story? Would you begin with your own birth or would you begin with your parents or even earlier? Would you begin with the cultural climate? Would you begin by mentioning some important events around the time of your birth? How would you order the events? Would you go through a timeline of events, properly ordered in a sequence? Or would you go back-and-forth in time in order to do justice to each separate theme of your life? Even an individual life contains multiple stories. How would you decide what to eliminate? What information would you eliminate and what would you keep-but-summarize? There are so many decisions involved. And those decisions are involved in any attempt in writing a history of anything. The decisions have consequences for the kind of story you tell. And they have consequences for how your listener experiences your story.

Wertheimer’s volume begins with highlighting the importance of these decisions as they relate to the history of psychology. There is no such a thing, he argues, as the definitive history of psychology. The history we read is the outcome of countless decisions. Of course, this does not mean the decisions are arbitrary. The decisions are made consciously and intentionally. They are grounded in a set of criteria, but the criteria are subject to bias and subject to change.

I should first point out the important distinction between giving a brief account and a selective account of the history of psychology. The selective style is dominated by elimination, while the brief style is based on summarization. A selective history enables in-depth focus and extensive treatment of a few topics, while a brief history enables access to the bigger picture(s) that include, not only more topics, but more comparisons between the topics. In this sense, Wertheimer’s volume is aptly titled. It covers an impressively wide range of topics central to the history of psychology, although it covers most of the topics rather briefly. The interested reader is given many potential lines of exploration. Above all, the wide scope of the volume enables a big-picture view of the discipline.

What is the benefit of having a big-picture view of Psychology? The benefit has to do with the way each individual topic is treated with a mindfulness of the larger context. Similar to the logic of Gestalt Psychology, the whole of the history of psychology is distinct from, and has primary over, individual stories. Let’s take Wundt (1832-1920) as an example. One could simply discuss the experimental work of Wundt and move to the next chapter. Given that Wundt’s experimental work played a more dominant role in the next generation of professional psychologists, this might seem like a fair decision. It is not difficult, however, to make an argument for the inclusion of Wundt’s cultural psychology. The point is not only that Wundt’s cultural psychology should be included for its own sake. There is a more subtle point. Namely, a fair treatment of Wundt’s experimental psychology would require inclusion of his cultural psychology, because the latter would clarify, through contradistinction, the scope of the former. It would clarify Wundt’s intentions and philosophies of the two psychologies.

The dominance of Wundt’s experimental psychology — and its emphasis on the study of perception — had consequences for the image of the discipline and for future intellectual movements within psychology. Because of Wundt’s emphasis on perception, Gestalt Psychologists were also viewed as primarily concerned with perception, even though the core members of the Gestaltist movement were concerned primarily with thinking. Accordingly, Max Wertheimer’s paper in 1912 on perception of apparent motion, as well as Kurt Koffka’s 1922 review paper on perception, found a home in the mainstream much more easily than other aspects of Gestalt Psychology. Here, Michael Wertheimer demonstrates the point that intellectual movements should be considered in relation to each other, instead of being treated separately. This is not always in the service of unifying the movements in a single story but, as is in the case of Wundt and the Gestaltists, in the service of appreciating genuine differences (in scope and subject-matter) that exist between the movements.

Another good example is the case of Structuralism. Structuralism was relatively less effective in gathering and maintaining supporters and, therefore, is typically dismissed in histories of psychology. There is, however, more to Structuralism than a failed school of thought. Wertheimer shows the important role of Structuralism in the history of psychology — The other early 20th century American psychological movements, including Functionalism and Behaviorism, defined themselves largely in explicit contrast to Structuralism. It is clear that James Angell could not have written his papers, which established the standpoint of Functionalist Psychology so well, had it not been for Titchener to occupy the contrary position. Indeed, it is conceivable that had Structuralism not been a part of early 20th century American Psychology, students of William James would have invented their own version of Structuralism.

June 25, 2015

I was pleasantly surprised to read about Franz Brentano (1838-1917) in this book, and I believe the comparison between Brentano’s psychology and Wundt’s experimental psychology was done fairly and effectively. Discussion of the systematic and crucial experiments is interesting and important for students with an interest in philosophy of science. The inclusion of figures like Brentano reveals to the interested students the vastly different forms that psychology can take on different philosophical grounds.

Wundt’s “Physiological Psychology” and Brentano’s “Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint” were both published in 1874. Years later, Titchener would make the following statement about the two thinkers: “The student of psychology, though his personal indebtedness be also twofold, must still make his choice for the one or the other. There is no middle way between Brentano and Wundt.” (1921; The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 32, p. 108). Although Titchener’s position might be exaggerated, Brentano’s style of psychology represents an important complement to Wundtian experimental psychology.

June 26, 2015

Let’s go back to the beginning of the book. The first person who is mentioned in Wertheimer’s text is one of his mentors, Karl Muenzinger (1885-1958), who traced the origins of psychology in terms of eight distinct intellectual and technological trends. These eight trends (or dimensions) stay with us throughout the text and provide a set of evaluative heuristics to examine each intellectual movement. In effect, Wertheimer breaks down each school of thought into separable dimensions. This analysis makes apparent, for instance, that Structuralism and Behaviorism — schools that otherwise drastically differed from each other — shared several common philosophical assumptions, including atomism. This is the (anti-Gestaltist) assumption that understanding complex psychological phenomena is possible through understanding their constituent elements (“atoms”).

Although the elements of Behaviorism and Structuralism were not the same, both schools made the promise of one day providing a systematic and comprehensive science of psychology that would rest on an understanding of those basic elements. Furthermore, both schools promised the eventual unification of psychology with the rest of the life sciences by the eventual discovery of the physiological correlates of their psychological elements. One could, in addition, argue (as Raymond H. Wheeler did in a series of five articles in 1925) that the strong position of the two schools with regard to exclusion of each other from the subject-matter of psychology was also grounded in a dualism that they shared in common. After all, how could one argue for the exclusion of either the mind [as the behaviourists did] or behaviour [as the structuralists did] from the scope of psychology without adhering to their sharp distinction? Considering these shared assumptions is important for anyone who is interested in examining why these schools of thoughts failed to unify the discipline. 

June 28, 2015

In part IV of the text, Wertheimer considers the future of psychology and demonstrates how examining the discipline’s past can sharpen our vision of the present-day state of psychology. He states that, “[p]sychology as an integrated diversified umbrella discipline might have had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, but that heyday appears to have passed. […] People identify with particular subfields and not with broad, general psychology anymore.” (p. 242) Does this undermine the attempt to understand the discipline, including the author’s own project? No. Once again, we should remember that understanding any subfield of psychology would benefit from an understanding of the larger context that includes other subfields. Contrast is as important as similarity. And apparent similarities can be as deceiving as apparent differences. Wertheimer’s volume demonstrates these points numerous times and, consequently, justifies studying the history of psychology.

June 29, 2015

Today, I walked into my first “History of Psychology” class. Sixty students are enrolled in the class, which is a surprisingly high number for a summer course. I am excited about teaching the course and I do hope it will be a good learning experience for the students. Having read Wertheimer’s textbook was an important part of my preparation, and I am sure I will return to it several times during the course. I certainly recommend this book to my students, especially to those who already have some background in the subject. The chapters devoted to Wundt and Gestalt Psychology are particularly strong and I would benefit from re-reading them.

To emphasize, once again, I see the major strength of the book to be in its insightful examination of each intellectual movement in relation to the intellectual and cultural context, in relation to other movements within psychology, and in relation to the set of eight general dimensions that could be applied to any psychological movement or sub-discipline. Wertheimer’s text is a great contribution that would raise the awareness of students not only about psychology’s past but its present and its possible futures.

Postscript: Here is my interview with Michael Wertheimer.