- 1: a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts
Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt – "essence or shape of an entity's complete form") is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perception is the product of complex interactions among various stimuli. Contrary to the behaviorist approach to understanding the elements of cognitive processes, gestalt psychologists sought to understand their organization (Carlson and Heth, 2010). The gestalt effect is the form-generating 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. In psychology, gestaltism is often opposed to structuralism. The phrase "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts" is often used when explaining gestalt theory, though this is a mistranslation of Kurt Koffka's original phrase, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts". Gestalt theory allows for the breakup of elements from the whole situation into what it really is.
The concept of gestalt was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology 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 of which it was composed, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as von Ehrenfels's earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.
Both von Ehrenfels and Edmund Husserl seem to have been inspired by Mach's work Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations, 1886), in formulating their very similar concepts of gestalt and figural moment, respectively. On the philosophical foundations of these ideas see Foundations of Gestalt Theory (Smith, ed., 1988).
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 which determined the way in which objects were perceived. It is based on the here and now, and in the way you view things. It can be broken up into two: figure or ground (figure–ground principle), at first glance do you see the figure in front of you 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.