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Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer

Wertheimer, Max, 1880-1943, German psychologist, b. Prague. He studied at the universities of Prague, Berlin, and Würzburg (Ph.D., 1904). His original researches, while he was a professor at Frankfurt and Berlin, placed him in the forefront of contemporary psychology. Wertheimer came to the United States in 1933, shortly before the Nazis seized power in Germany. He immediately joined the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research (1933-43). Wertheimer's discovery (1910-12) of the phi phenomenon (concerning the illusion of motion) gave rise to the influential school of Gestalt psychology. His early experiments, in collaboration with Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, introduced a new approach (macroscopic as opposed to microscopic) to the study of psychological problems. In the latter part of his life he directed much of his attention to the problem of learning; this research resulted in a book, posthumously published, called Productive Thinking (1945, repr. 1978).
Max Wertheimer (April 15, 1880 – October 12, 1943) was a Czech-born Jewish teacher who was one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler.

Gestalt psychology (also Gestalt of the Berlin School) is a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies; or, that the whole is different than the sum of its parts. The classic Gestalt example is a soap bubble, whose spherical shape is not defined by a rigid template, or a mathematical formula, but rather it emerges spontaneously by the parallel action of surface tension acting at all points in the surface simultaneously. This is in contrast to the "atomistic" principle of operation of the digital computer, where every computation is broken down into a sequence of simple steps, each of which is computed independently of the problem as a whole. The Gestalt effect refers to the form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves.

World War I

The collaborative work of the three Gestalt psychologists was interrupted by World War I. Both Wertheimer and Koffka were assigned to war-related research, while Kohler was appointed the director of an anthropoid research station on Teneriffe, in the Canary Islands. The three men reunited after the war ended and continued further research on the experiments.

Berlin Years

After the war, Koffka returned to Frankfurt, while Kohler became the director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, where Wertheimer was already on the faculty. Using the abandoned rooms of the Imperial Palace, they established a now-famous graduate school, in tandem with a journal called Psychologische Forschung (Psychological Research: Journal of Psychology and its Neighboring Fields), in which their students’ and their own research was initially published. The success of their efforts is evidenced by the familiarity of the names of their students in the literature of psychology, among them Kurt Lewin, Rudolf Arnheim, Wolfgang Metzger, Bluma Zeigarnik, Karl Duncker, Herta Kopfermann and Kurt Gottschaldt.

In 1923, while teaching in Berlin, Wertheimer married Anna (called Anni) Caro, a physician’s daughter, with whom he had four children: Rudolf (who died in infancy), Valentin, Michael and Lise. They divorced in 1942.

The New School

From 1929 to 1933, Wertheimer was a professor at the University of Frankfurt. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, it became apparent to Wertheimer (and to countless other “non-Aryan” intellectuals) that he must leave Germany. In the end, he accepted an offer to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. The Wertheimers’ emigration was arranged through the U.S. consulate in Prague, and he and his wife and their children arrived in New York harbor on September 13, 1933.

Later life

For the remaining decade of his life, Wertheimer continued to teach at the New School, while remaining in touch with his European colleagues, many of whom had also emigrated to the U.S. Koffka was teaching at Smith College, Kohler at Swarthmore College, and Lewin at Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Although in declining health, he continued to work on his research of problem-solving, or what he preferred to call “productive thinking.” He completed his book (his only book) on the subject (with that phrase as its title) in late September 1943, and died just three weeks later of a heart attack. Wertheimer was buried in Beechwood Cemetery in New Rochelle, New York.

References

  • Michael Wertheimer, A Brief History of Psychology. 4th edition. Fort Worth TX: Harcourt Brace, 2000.
  • American Psychological Association. Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. New York: APA and Ehrlbaum, 2000.
  • D. Brett King and Michael Wertheimer, Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

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