IV: Gurwitsch on Gestalt Psychology

Our fourth reading is Aron Gurwitsch’s ‘Some Aspects and Developments of Gestalt Psychology‘, a 1936 survey paper that serves as an interesting complement to the Smith survey with which we began. Alongside Merleau-Ponty, Gurwitsch is the Phenomenologist most associated with developing the ideas of Gestalt Psychology, and this reading covers his take on the origins of Gestalt Psychology, the differences between the Graz and Berlin schools, and his conception of the philosophical importance of Gestaltist ideas.

The essay is reprinted in both vol. II of his collected works (Springer, 2010), and his Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology (Northwestern University Press, 1966). We’ll include a link to the text in our email about this reading, but if you miss that and don’t have access to the text, just email me, Alistair or Rosa.

As always, leave questions, observations and reactions in the comments to the post, and bear in mind that you can continue to comment on this and our other readings at any time. Some of our earlier posts are accruing some interesting comments that you might like to check out.

We’ll be posting our next reading in three weeks time.

III: Merleau-Ponty on Gestalt Psychology and Phenomenology

Our third reading is our first foray into Phenomenology, as we try to get to grips with Merleau-Ponty’s relationship with Gestalt Psychology. We’ll be looking at two fairly short pieces. The first is the 1947 essay ‘The Metaphysical in Man’, an exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the human sciences which begins with some reflections on Gestalt Psychology before moving on to consider linguistics and sociology.

The second reading consists in some excerpts from the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception. I’ve picked some of the passages where Merleau-Ponty is explicitly drawing on Gestaltist results or reflections, and a couple of places where he adds caveats to his admiration of Gestalt Psychology. The first excerpt consists in a few pages from the initial ‘Sensation’ chapter of the Introduction and is intended to provide some brief context for the next passages in the selection. Merleau-Ponty introduces the claims that there is a fundamental indeterminacy to perceptual experience, and that perceived qualities exist only as parts of complex structured wholes. Next are some pages from the second chapter, on ‘Association and the Projection of Memories’, where Merleau-Ponty makes further use of some Gestaltist work in his characterization of the structure of the perceptual field. Some of his remarks here anticipate his partial critique of Gestalt Psychology in the next chapter, ‘Attention and Judgment’, from which the penultimate excerpt is drawn. Finally, I’ve included a few pages from ‘The Phenomenal Field’, the last chapter of the Introduction section of the Phenomenology, which focus both on the concept of gestalt, and Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the relationship between psychology and his Phenomenology.

For those new to Merleau-Ponty who’d benefit from some brief orientation before diving in to these readings, Taylor Carman’s ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Mystery of Perception’ provides excellent relevant backdrop.

As always, remember that you can continue to comment on this and our other posts at any time, and that we welcome suggestions for further readings at the intersection of Phenomenology, Gestalt Psychology and Embodied Cognitive Science. Enjoy!


Carman, Taylor (2009). Merleau-ponty and the mystery of perception. Philosophy Compass 4 (4):630-638.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012). Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes. (excerpts available here)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1947/1964) “The Metaphysical in Man,” in Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 83-98. (available here)

II: Ehrenfels introduces “gestalt”

Our second official reading is the paper credited with introducing the term “gestalt” is the sense that would become influential in psychology, Christian von Ehrenfels (1890) “On ‘Gestalt Qualities,'” conveniently available online in English translation here.

(For those keen to read in German, the original “Über ‘Gestaltqualitäten'” appeared in Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 14: 249–292.)

As discussed in our Smith reading, Ehrenfels paper appears to be a historical bridge between several different strands of thought. It builds on the ideas in Mach’s (1886) Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations, drawing analogies between spatial and auditory perception.  Looking forward, while himself Austrian and influential on the Graz school, Ehrenfels’ view appears to share key similarities with that of the Berlin school as well, which it influenced not least through Wertheimer’s early training in Prague.  In particular, Ehrenfels view does not (as described by Smith) present gestalt qualities as derived by a process of production, but rather as directly perceived additional qualities.

The third reading will be posted in two weeks, but please feel free to continue to comment on earlier readings as you get around to them.  Our plan is to look next at some work from the phenomenological tradition.

Phenomenology: Background

Phenomenology is a methodology that aims to carefully examine and describe the properties of experience, and to draw philosophical conclusions from these descriptions. Characterised in this way, Phenomenological arguments and methodology are pervasive in philosophy – think, for example, of the role which clear and distinct apprehension of ideas plays in Descartes’ meditations; or of Hume’s argument that causal connections between events are not directly perceived. Contemporary discussion of Phenomenology, however, usually refers to a specific trajectory in the history of philosophy, beginning with Edmund Husserl and passing through Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others.

Thinkers within the Phenomenological tradition differ both as to the structures and properties of experience they emphasise, and the philosophical conclusions they draw from their characterisations of experience. To take just one influential example, consider the fact that objects within the visual field are experienced as having depth – some parts of an object appear nearer to me than others. Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012, pp.265-270) argues that this structural property of visual perception is explained by our status as situated, embodied perceivers, who must take in the spatial properties of objects from a particular vantage point. Moreover, our way of experiencing depth is explained by Merleau-Ponty in terms of our status as agents, who are able to skilfully change their perspective on the object in order to bring different aspects of it into view. Merleau-Ponty thus argues from an observation about the spatial structure of first-person experience to a conclusion about the active, embodied nature of perception.

Other experiential structures on which Phenomenologists have focused include the emotional or affective, temporal, intersubjective and owned character of experience. The diversity of Phenomenological reflections on these topics, and conclusions drawn from them, resist easy summary. An excellent recent introduction to some of the most influential Phenomenologists is Kaufer and Chemero (2015). An alternative treatment, organised by topic rather than by Phenomenologist is Smith (2016).

One important question for Phenomenology is the extent to which it can be integrated with natural science. Whilst some Phenomenologists (such as the early Husserl) aim only to describe and categorize structures and properties of experience, many others (such as the late Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) ascribe a transcendental role to experiential structures identified by their analyses. The entities and categories postulated by natural science are understood as sophisticated abstractions from the lived experience that Phenomenologists characterise. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:

‘I am not a “living being,” a “man,” nor even a “consciousness,” possessing all of the characteristics that zoology, social anatomy, and inductive psychology acknowledge in these products of nature or history. Rather, I am the absolute source. My existence does not come from my antecedents, nor from my physical and social surroundings; it moves out towards them and sustains them.’ (2012, lxxii)

Since contemporary interest in Phenomenology has often focused on mining Phenomenological works for insights that can be integrated with cognitive science, the apparent tension between the naturalist basis of science and the transcendental orientiation of many Phenomenological thinkers has become an important topic, with many debates centering on whether the descriptive fruits of Phenomenology can be divorced from any transcendental commitments of their authors. See Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) and Wheeler (2013) for treatments of this issue, and the talk from our recent conference by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc for a view of the relationship between Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and science.

For more detailed introductions to Phenomenology, see the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy articles on Phenomenology, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Luis de Sousa’s talk from our recent conference includes a treatment of Husserl’s key concept of the ‘Phenomenological Reduction’ and the way this is taken up by Merleau-Ponty. The recent book by Kaufer and Chemero (2015) is the best introductory overview of Phenomenology for newcomers, while Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) gives a good idea of the ways in which current work attempts to integrate Phenomenology and philosophy of cognitive science.


Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2013). The phenomenological mind. Routledge.

Kaufer, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012) Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. Routledge.

Smith, J. (2016). Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Routledge.

Wheeler, M. (2013). Science friction: Phenomenology, naturalism and cognitive science. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 135-167.

I: Smith on Gestalt Theory

For the first official reading for our group, we’ve decided to follow up on one of the themes that emerged in our inaugural conference, namely the many different strands of gestalt psychology, and in particular the contrast between the Berlin and Graz schools.  We’ve chosen the introductory essay “Gestalt Theory: An Essay in Philosophy” from Barry Smith’s (1988) anthology Foundations of Gestalt Theory, conveniently available online here.  Smith’s essay provides both a detailed history of the origins of gestalt theory, as well as a philosophical critique.

Discussion for the reading group will happen in the comment section — please use this for any comments or questions about the reading.  Also, please feel free to voice suggestions / ideas for future readings for the group, either in the comment section or in private email to one of the organizers.

Our second reading will be posted in two weeks, Jan. 30; with further reading following every other Monday.

Gestalt Psychology: Background

Gestalt psychology was an early 20th century movement defined in large part by the idea that our perceptual experience is organized, or structured, in various ways that cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, a mere aggregation of simple component sensations.

One category of phenomena particularly important for motivating this conclusion are bistable figure–ground effects.  When viewing the image below, for instance, one experiences it as organized into a cross (figure) against a uniform background; furthermore, the part of the image that stands out as cross may switch between two stable configurations (hence: “bistable”), either the thin-bladed or the thick-bladed cross. Crucially, the informational input to the visual system, and thus any “simple,” point sensations, stays the same while the organization of the experienced image changes; thus this figure-ground structure cannot be reduced to a mere aggregation of these supposed point sensations.


Not only does this phenomenon appear to be universal, aspects of it may be systematically manipulated and measured quantitatively (for instance, the speed at which one’s experience switches between the two configurations).  Well-known examples of bistable images include the Necker Cube and Rubin’s Vase.

The most influential strand of gestalt psychology emerged in Berlin, most immediately under the influence of Max Wertheimer, and developed by Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, Wolfgang Metzger, and others.  It was on track to be the dominant force in German psychology as Köhler rose to director of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin in the 1920’s and 30’s, but was cut short by the intervention of Nazi politics.  The major figures of gestalt psychology who escaped the war were spread thinly throughout the US, a gestalt diaspora that failed to muster enough momentum to halt the tide of behaviorism, and is largely remembered within psychology for the collection of perceptual effects it discovered.

In addition to the Berlin school, a distinct strand of gestalt psychology arose in Graz — for background on the doctrinal differences and rivalries between Berlin and Graz, see the talk from our inaugural conference by Guillaume Frechette.

For book length introductions to gestalt psychology, see Köhler’s Gestalt Psychology or Metzger’s Laws of Seeing.  For the purposes of our reading group, here are two short suggested background readings that establish some basic ideas of the Berlin school, one from its very inception, the other a retrospective:

Wertheimer, Max (1924) “Gestalt Theory” (address to the Kant Society, Berlin, different translations available here and here)

Köhler, Wolfgang (1967) “Gestalt Psychology” (address to the American Psychological Association, published in Psychologische Forschung 31: 18–30)

Welcome to Gestalt Structure and Phenomenology

This is the blog for the online reading group Gestalt Structure and Phenomenology, a subproject of the Cambridge New Directions in the Study of Mind project. The goal of this group is to examine the interactions between gestalt psychology and phenomenology, with an aim to deriving implications for contemporary, non-reductive cognitive science.

During December, 2016, we’ll post some suggested background readings for the group, as well as some of the talk from our first conference. In January, 2017, we’ll be begin our biweekly, asynchronous reading group.  For more background, here’s an abstract motivating the basic idea behind the project:


Gestalt Structure and Phenomenology


Our experience of the world presents itself to us as a structured whole.  Nonetheless, most empirical and theoretical work on perception and consciousness proceeds by focusing on artificially isolated parts of this whole.  For example, it is common to study colour sensations in isolation, sidelining the fact that colours are most often perceived as properties of solid, meaningful objects, situated in a complex perceptible environment, and so experienced in the context of a multitude of other sensed qualities.  Is it possible to study sensation without alienating it from this complex context?  What are the theoretical and empirical consequences of treating experience as a structured whole rather than a patchwork of unpluggable sensory elements?  How can this structured experience be described and studied rigorously?  As a means of investigating these questions, this project will explore the relationship between two influential movements that aimed to study experience as an integrated whole, rather than decomposing it artificially: gestalt psychology and phenomenology.

In the early 20th century, gestalt psychologists discovered and analysed empirical phenomena that seemed to indicate that experience is structured, and that this structure cannot be reduced to the properties of simpler components.  For instance, the very same image may be seen as either two faces against a black background or a candlestick against a white background: different structures with the same perceptible parts, and thus not reducible to those parts.  At around the same time, several phenomenologists—philosophers who aimed to uncover fundamental structures of perception and thought through careful reflection on experience —came to the same conclusion.  Some, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argued that such considerations about the structure of perception imply a non-reductive metaphysics of experience, whereby experience is fundamentally understood in terms of its structure.  If we want to understand what a tornado is, we shouldn’t focus on the atoms and particles in and around it—instead, we should focus on the complex but stable structure that those particles are caught up in.  Similarly, Merleau-Ponty argued that understanding perceptual experience requires focusing not on brains or nervous systems, but on the structured patterns of interaction with the world that our brains and nervous systems are caught up in.

Gestalt psychology and phenomenology continue to influence cognitive science, but the implications of their anti-reductive analyses for the contemporary metaphysics of experience have yet to be investigated—a gap this project aims to fill.  Have the results of gestalt psychology been subsumed, or superseded, by intervening cognitive science?  Do they really entail the metaphysical conclusions that some phenomenologists tried to draw from them?  And how do the non-reductive views that phenomenologists took to be supported by gestalt psychology map on to contemporary theorising?  We will investigate the possibility that these influential research programmes still have important lessons to teach us and that, taken together, gestalt psychology and phenomenology suggest a philosophically sophisticated and empirically tractable, non-reductive yet naturalist paradigm for investigating the mind.