Project (2004-2005)

The Relationship between Gestalt Psychology and Scientific Philosophy in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s

In the years preceding and following WWI, the European capitals (Berlin, Vienna, Prague) were rife with social, political, cultural, and scientific movements. This project investigated the relationship between two specific movements that emerged at roughly the same time and in somewhat close physical and intellectual proximity: Gestalt psychology and the movement of “scientific philosophy” (which would later be known by names such as logical positivism/empiricism). Uljana Feest argued that these two movements have to be understood at the junction of debates over the nature of scientific knowledge and the function of such knowledge in society.

Feest's interest in the relationship between Gestalt psychologists and scientific philosophers was twofold: on the one hand, a precise systematic understanding of the role played by Gestalt-psychological ideas in the philosophical ideas put forth by writers such as Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach, and vice versa, was explored. On the other hand, Feest explored the historical place of both movements as coming out of specific (and in part overlapping) intellectual traditions, and as being situated in a very specific cultural and political context.

The three founders of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler, were all students of Karl Stumpf in Berlin during the first decade of the twentieth century. In the academic year of 1910–11, the three briefly worked together at the Commercial Academy at Frankfurt (which later became the University of Frankfurt). After WWI, Karl Stumpf was instrumental in appointing Wolfgang Köhler to his chair in Berlin, which Köhler assumed in 1922, appointing Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin (one of Stumpf’s younger students) as his co-workers, thereby founding what came to be known as the “Berlin School” of Gestalt psychology. The time period that followed (1920–33) can be regarded as the high point of this movement. During this time, the members of the Berlin School formed institutional and intellectual ties with a group of philosophers who would later be known as logical positivists/empiricists (Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Moritz Schlick, to name just a few).

Evidence of ties between Gestalt psychologists and philosophers of science can be found in the history of two journals, Erkenntnis and Psychologische Forschung. The initiative to found the journal Erkenntnis was first launched by Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Lewin in 1923. This journal (edited by Carnap and Reichenbach) eventually appeared in 1930 on behalf of the Gesellschaft für empirische Philosophie (founded in 1927 in Berlin) and the Verein Ernst Mach (founded in 1928 in Vienna). The Berlin-based Gesellschaft für empirische Philosophie held lecture series with speakers as diverse as Kurt Lewin, Wolfgang Köhler, Carl Hempel, Alfred Adler, and Berthold Brecht. Likewise, the journal Psychologische Forschung, founded in 1921 (by Koffka, Wertheimer, Köhler, and others), was intended to be an interdisciplinary organ for contemporary issues, and throughout the 1920s, it included articles by philosophers like Katz, Haldane, Reichenbach, and Schlick.

A well-known reference to Gestalt psychology appears in Carnap’s Aufbau (Carnap 1966 [1928], 92). Carnap refers to an article by Wertheimer (1925), which was based on a lecture to the Kant Society in Berlin in 1924. In it, Wertheimer suggested that the Gestalt theory could be a response to “a problem of our times.” According to Ash (1995), the problem in question was the deepening chasm between scientific knowledge and ordinary experience (see also Harrington 1996). Taking up this lead, Uljana Feest suggested that both of these movements have to be regarded as negotiating the place of scientific and philosophical knowledge vis-à-vis ordinary experience. In this research, Feest tried to substantiate this suggestion through detailed analyses of both the content and context of their scientific and philosophical work in relation to practical and political concerns as well as philosophical debates of the time.