Is the ‘whole’ different from the sum of its parts?

Gestalt Psychology and the Theory of Perception.


A common phrase we hear is ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ This will often be said of a team at work or in sport…but is this the case or is the whole just different from the sum of its parts? Psychologist, Max Wertheimer (pictured), would say the latter.


Wertheimer, along with Koffka and Kohler are recognised as the founders of Gestalt Psychology – a movement which emerged in Germany, circa 1912. Wertheimer believed that a Gestalt (structured whole) is not just a sum of its parts but is in fact, fundamentally different (Wertheimer, 2014).


Benjamin (2007) explains the importance of this statement in relation to the foundations of Gestalt Psychology. Gestalt is a movement which believes in things being holistic, in that there are ‘perceptual qualities’ that can be experienced in the ‘whole’ that cannot be experienced in the parts. Benjamin cites Wertheimer’s own definition of his fundamental formula:


“There are wholes, the behaviour 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 Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes” (Wertheimer, 1938).

Wertheimer (2014) highlights that whilst Max Wertheimer is recognised as a founder of Gestalt Psychology, his ideas were influenced by holistic perspective in Greek culture and 19th Century Jewish sub-culture experienced during childhood. The bridge from Wertheimer’s childhood to the emergence of Gestalt Theory, came in the form of Christian von Ehrenfels, whom Wertheimer met at Prague University, and who was responsible for the 1890 monograph, ‘Gestalt qualities’.


Gestalt has made several contributions to psychology, including the theory of perceptual organisation. Co-Founder, Kurt Koffka (1922), in a review of his own work, stated that whilst Gestalt Theory was more than just a theory of psychology or perception, it was the study of perception that was the origin of this theory and of many of the experiments undertaken.


Some of the most referenced principles of perceptual organisation are in the diagram below:





The image highlighting the principle of closure is above (middle bottom) – this is where we are likely to see an object as complete, even if it is incomplete.


The principle of proximity (top left), means we might perceive this image as three groups of two lines. This is due to events or stimuli being spatially, even temporarily, close together and therefore perceived as belonging together (Reber et al., 2009).


Gestalt Psychology has garnered support since its emergence, with Lewin and Goldstein prominent individuals influenced by this movement. However, there is also opposition, which, for example, is evident in Structuralism.


Gestalt psychology has significant influence on modern day research and practice. A web-search of ‘Gestalt’ brings back numerous findings for current practice and training, in particular in support of helping those suffering with poor mental health.


In applied psychology, Gestalt therapy, associated with Frederick (Fritz) Perls, is a holistic approach to psychotherapy. Although there are arguments suggesting the connection between Gestalt Psychology and Gestalt therapy is loose, the influence of this movement is evident. For example, Gestalt therapy focuses on achieving increased self-awareness and heightened awareness of the world around us. Or, perhaps to put it a different way, ‘to perceive things differently’.


Reference List

Benjamin, Jr., L. T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology (1st ed.).Blackwell Publishing.

Koffka, K. (1922). Perception: an introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie. Psychological Bulletin, 19(10), 531–585. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0072422

Reber, A. S. & Allen, R. & Reber, E. S. (2009). Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (4th ed.). Penguin.

Wertheimer, M. (2014). Music, thinking, perceived motion: The emergence of Gestalt theory. History of Psychology, 17(2), 131–133. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035765


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