Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
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Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
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Maurice Merleau-Ponty (March 14, 1908 – May 4, 1961) was a French philosopher, strongly influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the hermeneutic philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He is sometimes considered an existentialist thinker because of his close association with Jean-Paul Sartre, though significant differences remain between these thinkers. Merleau-Ponty’s primary philosophical contributions are his emphasis on perception and his notion of corporeality as the lived bodily experience of the world, which for him is the basis of all knowledge. His later work focuses on the role of language and the spontaneity of expression. His work has influenced many areas of philosophy, particularly that of cognitive science, feminism, and environmental philosophy.
Merleau-Ponty was born on March 14, 1908, in Rochefort-sur-Mer, France. In 1930 he received his aggregation in philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he met Jean-Paul Sartre. Afterwards Merleau-Ponty taught philosophy at a number of different high schools throughout France. He completed his Docteur des Lettres after finishing his two dissertations that were to become his first major works, The Structure of Behavior (1942) and the Phenomenology of Perception (1945). In 1949, Merleau-Ponty was awarded the Chair of Child Psychology at the Sorbonne, and in 1952, at the age of forty-four, he was appointed the Chair of Philosophy at the College de France, the youngest person ever to achieve this position. He held the position until May 1961, when he died suddenly of a stroke, apparently while preparing for a class on Descartes. Merleau-Ponty is interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (French: [mɔʁis mɛʁlo pɔ̃ti]; 14 March 1908 – 3 May 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, and politics. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine established by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945.

At the core of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. Like the other major phenomenologists, Merleau-Ponty expressed his philosophical insights in writings on art, literature, linguistics, and politics. He was the only major phenomenologist of the first half of the twentieth century to engage extensively with the sciences and especially with descriptive psychology. It is through this engagement that his writings have become influential in the recent project of naturalizing phenomenology, in which phenomenologists use the results of psychology and cognitive science.

Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world, a corrective to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge, and maintained that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other. The articulation of the primacy of embodiment led him away from phenomenology towards what he was to call “indirect ontology” or the ontology of “the flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), seen in his final and incomplete work, The Visible and Invisible, and his last published essay, “Eye and Mind”.

Merleau-Ponty’s most important works of technical philosophy were La Structure du comportement (1942; “The Structure of Behavior”, 1965) and Phénoménologie de la perception (1945; “Phenomenology of Perception”, 1962). Though greatly influenced by the work of Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty rejected his theory of the knowledge of other persons, grounding his own theory in bodily behaviour and in perception.
He held that it is necessary to consider the organism as a whole to discover what will follow from a given set of stimuli.
For him, perception was the source of knowledge and had to be studied before the conventional sciences.
(Encyclopædia Britannica: Maurice Merleau-Ponty)


The primacy of perception

In The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty argued against the empirical or “naturalist” tradition (beginning with John Locke), which held that perception was the causal product of atomic sensations. At the time this atomist-causal conception was being perpetuated in certain psychological currents, particularly in behaviorist psychology. At the same time, however, Merleau-Ponty argued also against the rationalist or idealist tradition that gave primacy to the intellect in our understanding of the world. In contrast to both these positions Merleau-Ponty held that perception is the dominant, active dimension in knowing, in that it is the primordial openness to the lived world (Lebenswelt). This primordial openness, then, is at the heart of his thesis of the primacy of perception.

Merleau-Ponty was greatly influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, who held to the essential unity of consciousness in that "all consciousness is consciousness of something." Within this unity, however, a distinction can be made between the "act of thought" (noesis), which comes from the subject, and the "intentional object of thought" (noema), which comes from the object. In Husserlian phenomenology, the correlation between noesis and noema is the first step in the constitution of an analysis of consciousness.

While studying the posthumous manuscripts of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty discovered certain aspects of Husserl's later work that called into question some of the claims of Husserl’s earlier work, for the later work revealed particular phenomena which cannot be assimilated within the noetic-noematic formulation. This is particularly the case when one attends to the primordial experiences of the body (which is at once body-subject and body-object), of subjective time (which is neither an act of consciousness nor an object of thought) and of the Other (which transcends all objectifications). For this reason, the distinction between "acts of thought" and "intentional objects of thought" does not constitute an irreducible ground, as Husserl had initially argued. Rather this correlation appears at a higher level of analysis; or in other words, it is founded on a more primordial ground. For this reason, Merleau-Ponty does not suppose at the outset a noetic-noematic ground. Instead, he develops the thesis according to which "all consciousness is perceptual consciousness." In doing this, he establishes a significant turn in the development of phenomenology, indicating that its conceptualizations should be re-examined in the light of the primacy of perception.


Taking the study of perception as his point of departure, Merleau-Ponty was led to recognize that one's own body (le corps propre) is not only a thing, a potential object of study for science, but also a permanent condition of experience, a constituent of the perceptual openness to the world and its investment. The primacy of perception signifies a primacy of experience in so far as perception becomes an active and constitutive dimension. In his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Merleau-Ponty develops the concept of the "body-subject" as an alternative to the cartesian "cogito." Rather than trying to establish the reality of essences, and in turn the world, on the primacy of the cogito, Merleau-Ponty held that consciousness, the world, and the human body as a perceiving thing are all intricately intertwined and mutually ‘engaged’. Moreover, against empiricism he held that the phenomenal thing is not the unchanging object of the natural sciences, but a correlate of our body and its sensory functions. Taking up and coinciding with the sensible qualities it encounters, the body as incarnated subjectivity intentionally reconstructs things within an ever-present world frame. This occurs not through its conscious intentions but through a pre-conscious, pre-predicative understanding of the world and the things in it. Things are that upon which our body has a grip, while the grip itself is a function of our connaturality with the world's things.

The dependency upon experience and a corporeal subjectivity means we are limited to an essential partiality in our view of things. Nonetheless, the fact that things are given only in a certain perspective and at a certain moment in time does not diminish their reality, but on the contrary establishes it, as there is no other way for things to be co-present with us. The thing seen in perspective transcends our view and yet is immanent in it. By a pre-conscious act of ‘original faith’ we immediately place this phenomenal thing in the world, where it blends in with other things and behaves like any "figure" against a certain background. Just as much as our own unity as a bodily subject is not a unity in thought, but one that is experienced in our interaction with our surroundings, so the unity of the thing is ‘perceived’ as pervading all of its perspectives. We do not consciously construct the thing, but rather allow it to construct itself before our eyes; only when this unconscious process results in perceptive ambiguity (i.e., when the body is unable to present us the thing in any clearly articulated way) does the subject consciously interfere and clarify his perception. Apart from such instances, the subjectivity of the perceiving body operates unknown within the subject, engaging the pre-objective factuality of the world in which it too participates. Thus, in this way we encounter meaningful things in a unified though ever open-ended world.


Book Cover: Phenomenology of Perception
Book Cover: Phenomenology of Perception
Image source: Phenomenology of Perception-(English translation by Colin Smith 1962) 
The perspective drawing
The perspective drawing
Fig. 1 can be seen either as a cube seen from below with the face ABCD in the foreground, or as a cube seen from above with the face EFGH in the foreground, or as a mosaic pattern of ten triangles and a square.
Fig. 2 on the other hand will almost inevitably be seen as a cube, because that is the only organization which gives it perfect symmetry.
Image source: Phenomenology of Perception-(English translation by Colin Smith 1962), page 306 

Phenomenology of Perception

What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered. Phenomenology is the study of essences; and according to it, all problems amount to finding definitions of essences: the essence of perception, or the essence of consciousness, for example. But phenomenology is also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence, and does not expect to arrive at an understanding of man and the world from any starting point other than that of their ‘facticity’.
It is a transcendental philosophy which places in abeyance the assertions arising out of the natural attitude, the better to understand them; but it is also a philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins—as ’an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with a philosophical status.
It is the search for a philosophy which shall be a ‘rigorous science’, but it also offers an account of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ them. It tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is, without taking account of its psychological origin and the causal explanations which the scientist, the historian or the sociologist may be able to provide. Yet Husserl in his last works mentions a ‘genetic phenomenology’, and even a ‘constructive phenomenology’.
One may try to do away with these contradictions by making a distinction between Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenologies; yet the whole of Sein und Zeit springs from an indication given by Husserl and amounts to no more than an explicit account of the ‘natürlicher Weltbegriff’ or the ‘Lebenswelt’ which Husserl, towards the end of his life, identified as the central theme of phenomenology, with the result that the contradiction reappears in Husserl’s own philosophy. The reader pressed for time will be inclined to give up the idea of covering a doctrine which says everything, and will wonder whether a philosophy which cannot define its scope deserves all the discussion which has gone on around it, and whether he is not faced rather by a myth or a fashion.


Sensation as Impression

Pure sensation will be the experience of an undifferentiated, instantaneous, dot-like impact.
However, this notion corresponds to nothing in our experience, and that the most rudimentary factual perceptions that we are acquainted with, in creatures such as the ape or the hen, have a bearing on relationships and not on any absolute terms.
Let us imagine a white patch on a homogeneous background. All the points in the patch have a certain ‘function’ in common, that of forming themselves into a ‘shape’. The colour of the shape is more intense, and as it were more resistant than that of the background; the edges of the white patch ‘belong’ to it, and are not part of the background although they adjoin it: the patch appears to be placed on the background and does not break it up. Each part arouses the expectation of more than it contains, and this elementary perception is therefore already charged with a meaning.
When Gestalt theory informs us that a figure on a background is the simplest sense-given available to us, we reply that this is not a contingent characteristic of factual perception, which leaves us free, in an ideal analysis, to bring in the notion of impressions.

The pure impression is, therefore, not only undiscoverable, but also imperceptible and so inconceivable as an instant of perception.....
An isolated datum of perception is inconceivable, ...

I shall therefore give up any attempt to define sensation as pure impression. Rather, to see is to have colours or lights, to hear is to have sounds, to sense (sentir) is to have qualities.

Sensation as quality

I shall therefore give up any attempt to define sensation as pure impression. Rather, to see is to have colours or lights, to hear is to have, to sense (sentir) is to have qualities. To know what senseexperience is, then, is it not enough to have seen a red or to have heard an A? But red and green are not sensations, they are the sensed (sensibles), and quality is not an element of consciousness, but a property of the object.
…. the quality is as rich and mysterious as the object, or indeed the whole spectacle, perceived.

There are two ways of being mistaken about quality: one is to make it into an element of consciousness, when in fact it is an object for consciousness, to treat it as an incommunicable impression, whereas it always has a meaning; the other is to think that this meaning and this object, at the level of quality, are fully developed and determinate. The second error, like the first, springs from our prejudice about the world (the unquestioned belief in the world).
Suppose we construct, by the use of optics and geometry, that bit of the world which can at any moment throw its image on our retina. Everything outside its perimeter, since it does not reflect upon any sensitive area, no more affects our vision than does light falling on our closed eyes. We ought, then, to perceive a segment of the world precisely delimited, surrounded by a zone of blackness, packed full of qualities with no interval between them, held together by definite relationships of size similar to those lying on the retina. The fact is that experience offers nothing like this, and we shall never, using the world as our starting-point, understand what a field of vision is.


Book Cover: Phenomenology of Perception
Book Cover: Phenomenology of Perception
Image source: Phenomenology of Perception-English translation by Donald Landes 2013 
The two straight lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion
The two straight lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion.
Image source: Phenomenology of Perception-English translation by Donald Landes 2013, page 6 

Phenomenology of Perception

Phenomenology of Perception stands in the great phenomenological tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. Yet Merleau-Ponty’s contribution is decisive, as he as he brings this tradition and other philosophical predecessors, particularly Descartes and Kant, to confront a neglected dimension of our experience: the lived body and the phenomenal world. Charting a bold course between the reductionism of science on the one hand and “intellectualism” on the other, Merleau-Ponty argues that we should regard the body not as a mere biological or physical unit, but as the body which structures one’s situation and experience within the world.


Phenomenology is a descriptive study of experience and the experiencing subject. Reduction can only ever be incomplete and a vehicle to the pre-reflective truth of experience.

Phenomenology is essence yet experience, transcendence yet pre-reflective presence, science yet lived. (lxx) To cut one path through it, MP identifies phenomenology as a pre-philosophical style and movement – though he then argues “phenomenology is only accessible through a phenomenological method.” (lxxi)

Phenomenology is a work of description first, not analysis. It describes the experiencing I at the source of all things – but not a transcendental subject. Since no logic could hope to capture this world entirely (a logic being a product of the experienced world itself), phenomenological description cannot be asked to achieve a systemic completion; it can only be verified by its consistency with experience. (lxxiv)

The époche is always incomplete, leaving a mystery of being. Despite the work reduction does, there is no transcendental cogito without a place in the world; it too has an In-der-Welt-sen. Fink’s (version of Husserl’s) reduction as a ‘wonder’ / defamiliarisation is true, but it is again by nature incomplete. (lxxvii) Phenomenology does not therefore ‘essentialise’ (as Husserl would like); rather, it uses essences as a vehicle to reach the pre-reflective. (lxxviii)

MP therefore argues against philosophy’s mistake of denying the evident truth of experience. ……….. That is not to say that “perception is presumed to be true, but rather that perception is defined as our access to the truth.” (lxxx) It provides no apodicity, no completeness; “I am open to the world […] but I do not possess it, it is inexhaustible.” (lxxx-lxxi) Operative intentionality is the persistent, perspectival connectivity of consciousness to the world. (lxxxii)

Classical empiricism’s ‘sensation’ and the ‘constancy hypothesis’ is rejected by Gestalt findings. Intellectualism’s psychologism also shows as reflective what is grounded. Gestalt theory, despite its naturalism, crucially shows how experience is motivated. The phenomenal field is therefore the background where we find intentional consciousness and the appearing of being to perceptual experience.

Part I: The perception of my own body is the unique experience which prefigures our phenomenal field, and what makes our knowledge of perception possible. Motricity is the non-thetic ‘intentional arc’ where perception translates seamlessly yet contextually into the ‘I-can’. The ‘body schema’ is this phenomenal field of bodily do-ability. Speech also operates in this pre-reflective manner.

Part II: The object is defined in light of the affective responses it arouses; motivation is the inverse of affordance. Space is not objective, nor primarily object-in-space, but the I-in-space. Motivations furnish our pre-reflective intuition of ‘realness’ in our perception, which builds up into a sense of a ‘world’. The social is latent in this world. Recognition of other behaviours ‘like mine’ constitutes communication.

Part III: Experience is pre-cogito. My tacit cogito exists as a primordial, virtual I grounding the ‘spoken’, second-hand cogito. We possess faculties of a restricted movement towards the world, the Other, and time, and are not completely ‘locked in’.

Phenomenology of Perception , in one sense, may be understood as:
* An analysis of the philosophical consequences of contemporary psychological findings (especially Gestalt) regarding perception and sense experience.
* A demonstration of existentially oriented phenomenological philosophy.



Language and Art

The highlighting of corporeality as intrinsically having a dimension of expressivity that is fundamental to the constitution of the Ego is one of the conclusions from The Structure of Behavior that is constantly reiterated in Merleau-Ponty's later works. Following this theme of expressivity, he goes on to examine how an incarnate subject is in a position to undertake actions that transcend the organic level of the body, such as in intellectual operations and the products and actions of one's cultural life. In doing this, he carefully considers language as the core of culture and examines the connections between the unfolding of thought and sense. In this way, he enriches his perspective not only by an analysis of the acquisition of language and the expressivity of the body, but also by taking into account the ‘logic’ of language, painting, cinema, literature, and poetry.

It is important to clarify that Merleau-Ponty’s interest in diverse forms of art (visual, plastic, literary, poetic) was not primarily motivated by a concern for beauty as such. For he did not attempt to elaborate any normative criteria for art, and one does not find in his work a theoretical attempt to discern what constitutes the work of art. Rather his interest in aesthetics focuses mainly on his important distinction between primary and secondary modes of expression. This distinction appears in the Phenomenology of Perception and is sometimes repeated in terms of spoken and speaking language (language parlé et parlant). Spoken language (le language parlé), or secondary expression, relies on our ‘linguistic baggage’, that is, on the cultural heritage that we have acquired, as well as the brute mass of relationships between signs and significations. Speaking language (le language parlant), or primary expression, is language in the production of sense or meaning; it is language at the advent of thought, at the moment where thought breaks through and makes itself understood. It was speaking language or primary expression, then, that interested Merleau-Ponty in art and which motivated his treatment of the nature of production and the reception of expressions. This subject also overlaps his analysis of action, intentionality, perception, and the interconnections between freedom and external conditions.

More particularly, in his discussion of painting, Merleau-Ponty says that at the moment of his creative work, the painter starts either with a certain idea and then tries to actualize it, or with the material and attempts to form a certain idea or emotion; in both cases, though, there exists in the activity of painting a pregnancy between the elaboration of expression and the sense or meaning that is created. Beginning with this basic description, then, Merleau-Ponty attempts to explicate the invariant structures that characterize expressivity, attempting to take account of the over-determination of sense that he had described in "Cezanne's Doubt."

Also, among the structures to consider, the study of the notion of style occupied an important place in "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence." In spite of certain similarities with André Malraux, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes himself from Malraux in respect to three conceptions of style, the last of which is employed in Malraux's "The Voices of Silence." Merleau-Ponty noted that "style" is sometimes used by Malraux in a highly subjective sense, understood as a projection of the artist's individuality. At other times it is used in a very metaphysical sense (in Merleau-Ponty's opinion, a mystical sense), in which style is connected with a conception of an "über-artist" expressing "the Spirit of painting." Finally, at still other times, style is reduced to simply designating a category of an artistic school or movement. For Merleau-Ponty, it is these uses of the notion of style that lead Malraux to postulate a cleavage between the objectivity of Italian Renaissance painting and the subjectivity of painting in his own time, a conclusion that Merleau-Ponty disputes. According to Merleau-Ponty, it is important to consider the heart of this problematic, by recognizing that style is first of all a demand owed to the primacy of perception, which also implies taking into consideration the dimensions of historicity and intersubjectivity.

Contemporary influence

Anti-cognitivist cognitive science

Despite Merleau-Ponty's own critical position with respect to science, his work has become a touchstone for anti-cognitivist strands of cognitive science. This has occurred largely through the influence of Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus' critique of cognitivism (or the computational account of the mind) in What Computers Can't Do consciously replays Merleau-Ponty's critique of intellectualist psychology in order to argue for the irreducibility of a corporeal know-how that occurs through discrete, syntactic processes. Moreover, through the publication in 1991 of The Embodied Mind (by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch) this association was extended to another strand of anti-cognitivist cognitive science, namely, “embodied” or “enactive cognitive science.” It is through the influence of Dreyfus and these others, then, that Merleau-Ponty (and phenomenology) became a focal point in theories of cognition. This has led, in turn, to various neurophysiological accounts of the interrelatedness of mind and body in the knowing process.

Feminist philosophy

Merleau-Ponty’s work has also drawn the interest of some Australian and Scandinavian philosophers, who have been inspired by the French feminist tradition, including Rosalyn Diprose and Iris Young. Diprose's recent work uses Merleau-Ponty conception of intercorporeality, or indistinction of perspectives, in order to critique individualistic identity politics from a feminist perspective. In doing this, she analyzes the irreducibility of generosity as a virtue, where generosity has a dual sense of both giving and being given. Iris Young, as well, uses Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of the body in her essay "Throwing Like a Girl," and its follow-up, "'Throwing Like a Girl': Twenty Years Later." In these works Young analyzes the particular modalities of feminine bodily comportment as they differ from that of males. Young observes that while a man usually throws a ball by putting his whole body into the motion, a woman generally restricts her movements as she throws the ball; generally, then, in sports, women move in a more tentative and reactive way. Young refers to Merleau-Ponty’s argument that we experience the world in terms of the "I can"; in other words, we are oriented towards certain projects based on our capacities and habits. Young uses this in her thesis that in women, this intentionality is often inhibited and ambivalent rather than confident.


Finally, Merleau-Ponty’s work has been appropriated as well by certain environmental thinkers in their attempt to forge an “eco-phenomenology.” Eco-phenomenology attempts to rethink the idea of “nature” through a phenomenological analysis of our experience of nature and the intrinsic relations which are operative within the world. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of corporeality suggests an inner-dynamism within the play of nature. David Abram, for example, explains Merleau-Ponty's concept of "the Flesh" as "the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity." (Abram, 66.) This leads to a concept of nature in which subject and object are dialectically united as determinations within a more primordial, unified reality.



1922, from German Gestaltqualität (1890, introduced by German philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels, 1859-1932), from German gestalt "shape, form, figure, configuration, appearance,"
As a school of psychology, it was founded c.1912 by M Wertheimer, K. Koffka, W. Köhler.

A configuration, pattern, or organized field having specific properties that cannot be derived from the summation of its component parts;
A unified whole;
A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts. It is also called gestalt phenomenon.
The cognitive sum total is of a gestalt nature-much higher than the sum of its parts.
The main contribution of gestalt psychology consisted of studies of human perception.
A perceptual pattern or structure possessing qualities as a whole that cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts;

The Gestalt Principles
Gestalt is a psychology term which means "unified whole". It refers to theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied. These principles are:
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Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt [ɡəˈʃtalt] "shape, form") is a philosophy of mind of the Berlin School of experimental psychology. Gestalt psychology is an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world. The central principle of gestalt psychology is that the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies. The assumed physiological mechanisms on which Gestalt theory rests are poorly defined and support for their existence is lacking. The Gestalt theory of perception has been criticized as being descriptive of the end products of perception without providing much insight into the processes that lead to perception.

This principle maintains that when the human mind (perceptual system) forms a percept or "gestalt", the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. The original famous phrase of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts" is often incorrectly translated as "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts", and thus used when explaining gestalt theory, and further incorrectly applied to systems theory. Koffka did not like the translation. He firmly corrected students who replaced "other" with "greater". "This is not a principle of addition" he said. The whole has an independent existence.

In the study of perception, Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perceptions are the products of complex interactions among various stimuli. Contrary to the behaviorist approach to focusing on stimulus and response, gestalt psychologists sought to understand the organization of cognitive processes (Carlson and Heth, 2010). The gestalt effect is the capability of our brain to generate whole forms, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of global figures instead of just collections of simpler and unrelated elements (points, lines, curves, etc.).

In psychology, gestaltism is often opposed to structuralism. Gestalt theory, it is proposed, allows for the deconstruction of the whole situation into its elements.

The concept of gestalt was first introduced in philosophy and psychology in 1890 by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano).
The idea of gestalt has its roots in theories by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach.
Max Wertheimer's unique contribution was to insist that the "gestalt" is perceptually primary, defining the parts it was composed from, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as von Ehrenfels's earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.

Early 20th century theorists, such as Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Köhler (students of Carl Stumpf) saw objects as perceived within an environment according to all of their elements taken together as a global construct. This 'gestalt' or 'whole form' approach sought to define principles of perception—seemingly innate mental laws that determined the way objects were perceived. It is based on the here and now, and in the way things are seen. Images can be divided into figure or ground. The question is what is perceived at first glance: the figure in front, or the background.

These laws took several forms, such as the grouping of similar, or proximate, objects together, within this global process. Although gestalt has been criticized for being merely descriptive, it has formed the basis of much further research into the perception of patterns and objects (Carlson et al. 2000), and of research into behavior, thinking, problem solving and psychopathology.


Gestalt Therapy

The founders of Gestalt therapy, Fritz and Laura Perls, had worked with Kurt Goldstein, a neurologist who had applied principles of Gestalt psychology to the functioning of the organism. Laura Perls had been a Gestalt psychologist before she became a psychoanalyst and before she began developing Gestalt therapy together with Fritz Perls. The extent to which Gestalt psychology influenced Gestalt therapy is disputed, however. In any case it is not identical with Gestalt psychology. On the one hand, Laura Perls preferred not to use the term "Gestalt" to name the emerging new therapy, because she thought that the gestalt psychologists would object to it; on the other hand Fritz and Laura Perls clearly adopted some of Goldstein's work. Thus, though recognizing the historical connection and the influence, most gestalt psychologists emphasize that gestalt therapy is not a form of gestalt psychology.

Mary Henle noted in her presidential address to Division 24 at the meeting of the American Psychological Association (1975): "What Perls has done has been to take a few terms from Gestalt psychology, stretch their meaning beyond recognition, mix them with notions—often unclear and often incompatible—from the depth psychologies, existentialism, and common sense, and he has called the whole mixture gestalt therapy. His work has no substantive relation to scientific Gestalt psychology. To use his own language, Fritz Perls has done 'his thing'; whatever it is, it is not Gestalt psychology" With the Gestalt theory however, she restricts herself explicitly to only three of Perls' books from 1969 and 1972, leaving out Perls' earlier work, and Gestalt therapy in general.

There are clinical applications of Gestalt psychology in the psychotherapeutic field, foremost in Europe, e.g. Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman in the 1940s, is an experiential and humanistic form of therapy that was originally designed as an alternative to conventional psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapists and their clients use creative and experiential techniques to enhance awareness, freedom, and self-direction. The word gestalt comes from the German word meaning shape or form, and it references the character or essence of something.

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