Max Wertheimer: Co-founder of Gestalt psychology (1880 - 1943) | Biography
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Max Wertheimer
Co-founder of Gestalt psychology

Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Co-founder of Gestalt psychology
Was Psychologist Professor Educator
From Austria-Hungary Germany United States of America
Field Academia Healthcare
Gender male
Birth 15 April 1880, Prague, Czech Republic
Death 12 October 1943, New Rochelle, USA (aged 63 years)
Star sign Aries
The details (from wikipedia)


Max Wertheimer (April 15, 1880 – October 12, 1943) was an Austro-Hungarian-born psychologist who was one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. He is known for his book, Productive Thinking, and for conceiving the phi phenomenon as part of his work in Gestalt psychology.

Wertheimer became interested in psychology and studied under Carl Stumpf at the University of Berlin. Wertheimer then went on to obtain his PhD in 1904 under Oswald Külpe, at the University of Würzburg and then began his intellectual career teaching at the Frankfurt University. For a short time he left Frankfurt to work at the Berlin Psychological Institute, but returned in 1929 as a full professor. Wertheimer eventually ended up on the faculty of The New School in New York, a position he held until his death.

Early life

Max Wertheimer was born on April 15, 1880 in Prague, then part of the Bohemian Austria-Hungary. Max was born to Wilhelm and Rosa Wertheimer, second to his brother Walter. Wilhelm Wertheimer was a successful educator, as well as financier. Rosa Wilhelm, born Rosa Zwicker, had a rich classical education. The Wertheimers were active in the Jewish community in which they lived. The Wertheimer household was extremely intellectual, therefore Max received education from both his parents; he engaged in political and educational discussions at home, as well as taking piano and violin lessons. After he received one of Baruch Spinoza's books as a gift, he developed an interest towards philosophy. He felt that he and Spinoza shared a culture and common traits.

Max began his formal education at age five, at a private elementary school maintained by the Piarist order of the Roman Catholic Church. It was not uncommon at this time for Jewish children in central Europe to receive educations from the Catholic Church. At age ten, Max graduated from the Piarist Grammar School and enrolled in the Royal Imperial New City German State High School where he could expect to obtain a degree that would qualify him for admittance to a University. Due to the diverse courses offered by the University, Max began to contemplate his future, and realized his deep fascination with philosophy. Max first started studying law at Charles University, where he also explored other fields such as philosophy, music, physiology, and psychology. After a year, Max left and enrolled in University of Berlin where he shifted his study to philosophy. At Berlin, Max was able to work in the company of notable figures such as Carl Stumpf, Friederich Schumann, Georg Elias Müller, and Erich von Hornbostel. Later on in 1903 he got his PhD from the University of Würzburg. There he completed research on the lie detector.

Later life

Max Wertheimer began his academic career at an institute in Frankfurt, later to become the University of Frankfurt. Max left Frankfurt from 1916 to 1929 to pursue a job at the Berlin Psychological Institute but returned to Frankfurt in 1929 as a full professor, where he stayed until 1933. In 1923, while teaching in Berlin, Wertheimer married Anna Caro (called Anni), a physician's daughter, with whom he had four children: Rudolf (who died in infancy, 1924), Valentin (1925-1978), Michael (born 1927) and Lise (born 1928, Lisbeth Rosa). Max and Anna Wertheimer divorced in 1942.

Wertheimer represented his country in World War I as a captain in the army. After coming back from the war he gave lectures and pursued his research on perception and gestalt in the University of Berlin until 1933. But in 1933, dramatic changes in Germany's regime encouraged or convinced Wertheimer to leave Germany; he heard Hitler's declarations on the media and he felt his Jewish roots were not going to be tolerated or accepted by the government directed by Adolf Hitler. So before Hitler rose to power, the Wertheimer family joined the other German emigres and moved to the United States. 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. The family became citizens as well; that's why Max Wertheimer is referred to as a German-American psychologist.

Along with his move to America, Max accepted a professional position at age fifty-three in New York City at the New School for Social Research. The New School was only fourteen years-old when Max got the chance to teach various courses there. Max remained at the New School for the last decade of his life. He remained in touch with his European colleagues, many of whom had also emigrated to America. Koffka was teaching at Smith College; Köhler 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, what he preferred to call "productive thinking." He completed his only book, "Productive Thinking" on the subject in late September 1943. Max died of a heart attack just three weeks after the completion of his book at his home in New Rochelle, New York. Wertheimer is interred in Beechwoods Cemetery, also in New Rochelle. Max is father of Michael Wertheimer, a successful psychologist.

Phi phenomenon

Max Wertheimer began the formal founding of Gestalt psychology in 1910 as he began experiments on the phi phenomenon. He published these experiments in a paper titled "Experimental Studies on the Perception of Movement". The phi phenomenon is apparent movement caused by alternating light positions. Wertheimer illustrated this phenomenon on an apparatus he built that utilized two discrete lights on different locations. Although the lights are stationary, flashing the lights at succeeding time intervals causes the retina to perceive the light as moving. Wertheimer worked with partners Koffka and Köhler to collect data which ultimately led to their launch of the Gestalt movement. Their findings further demonstrated that the quality of the whole is different from the sum of the parts. The explanation of the phi phenomena was that movement is perceived because the eye itself moves in response to the successive flashes of light. The movement an observer experiences is based on feedback from the moving eye. The researchers maintained that human perception is prone to such illusions and they speculated that it is more meaningful to connect close-together events than to keep them artificially separate.

Productive thinking

As a Gestalt theorist, Max Wertheimer was interested in perception, but additionally interested in thought. Max published his ideas in his book "Productive Thinking" (1945) before his death in 1943. Wertheimer was interested in making a distinction between reproductive thinking and productive thinking. Reproductive thinking is associated with repetition, conditioning, habits or familiar intellectual territory. Productive thinking is the product of new ideas and breakthroughs. Productive thinking is insight-based reasoning. Wertheimer argued that only insightful reasoning could bring true understanding of conceptual problems and relationships. Wertheimer encouraged training in traditional logic. He believed traditional logic stimulated thinking. However, he believed that logic alone did not give rise to productive thinking. He believed creativity was also crucial to engage in positive thinking. In Productive Thinking, similar to his lectures, Wertheimer used concrete examples to illustrate his principles. Wertheimer used these illustrations to demonstrate the transition from S1, a state where nothing really seems to make sense, to S2, where everything seems clear and the concept grasped. He points out in "Productive Thinking" that solving a problem by blind obedience to rules prevents real understanding of the problems. He believes that this blind obedience forestalls a person from uncovering the solution. Max Wertheimer's ideas of productive thinking are of continuing relevance in modern ideas of schemas, plans, and knowledge structures today.

Gestalt theory

Wertheimer developed his Gestalt theory in 1910 while he was on board a train from Vienna for a vacation in Germany's Rhineland. Gestalt, in the closest English definition of the term, is translated potentially as configuration, form, holistic, structure, and pattern. According to Gestalt psychology, perception is a whole. In this sense, perception can shape vision and the other senses. In addition, the theory also maintained that the whole is not only greater than its components but also different from those components. By 1920, Wertheimer added the position that the properties of any parts are governed by the structural laws of the whole. Later efforts to discover such laws had limited success. Wertheimer's work on gestalt psychology with his colleagues at The New School was seen as an opposition and alternative to the behavioral approach to psychology.

Wertheimer started the cognitive school of psychology. His ideas also challenged structuralism and atomism, in that he and other gestalt psychologists were more concerned about the whole rather than small structures or fragments of an object.


  • M. Wertheimer (1912). "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung" [Experimental Studies on Motion Vision] (PDF). Zeitschrift für Psychologie. 61 (1): 161–265.
  • Wertheimer, M. (1922). Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt, I: Prinzipielle Bemerkungen [Investigations in Gestalt theory: I. The general theoretical situation]. Psychologische Forschung, 1, 47–58.
  • Wertheimer, M. (1923). Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt, II. [Investigations in Gestalt Theory: II. Laws of organization in perceptual forms]. Psychologische Forschung, 4, 301–350.
  • Wertheimer, M. (1938a). The general theoretical situation. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 12–16). London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1922)
  • Wertheimer, M. (1938b). Gestalt theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 1–11). London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1924)
  • Wertheimer, M. (1938c). Laws of organization in perceptual forms. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 71–94). London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1923)
  • Wertheimer, M. (1945). Productive thinking. New York, NY: Harper.


  • 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.
  • Sills, D. L., & Merton, R. K. (1968). Max Wertheimer. International encyclopedia of the social sciences (pp. 522–527). New York: Macmillan.
  • Cherry, K. (n.d.). Max Wertheimer Biography. Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved February 25, 2012
  • Cherry, K. (n.d.). Perceptual Organization - Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization. Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved February 25, 2012
  • Hothersall, D. (2003). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Sarris, V. (1989). "Max Wertheimer on seen motion: Theory and evidence". Psychological Research. 51 (2): 58–68. doi:10.1007/BF00309358. PMID 2687920.
  • "Max Wertheimer memorial issue". Psychological Research. 51 (2): 43–85. 1989. PMID 2687919.
  • Sarris, V. (1988). "Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt--on the origin and development crisis of gestalt psychology. III. Further studies of motion perception (1929-1933)". Zeitschrift für Psychologie Mit Zeitschrift für Angewandte Psychologie. 196 (1): 27–61. PMID 2905852.
  • Sarris, V. (1987). "Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt--on the beginnings and developmental crisis of Gestalt psychology. II. Structural rules of motion and space perception (1911-1914)". Zeitschrift für Psychologie Mit Zeitschrift für Angewandte Psychologie. 195 (4): 403–431. PMID 2895554.
  • Sarris, V. (1987). "Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt--on the beginnings and developmental crisis of Gestalt psychology. Initial studies of motion perception (1910-1912)". Zeitschrift für Psychologie Mit Zeitschrift für Angewandte Psychologie. 195 (3): 283–310. PMID 2895552.
  • Miller, A. I. (1975). "Albert Einstein and Max Wertheimer: A Gestalt psychologist's view of the genesis of special relativity theory". History of Science; an Annual Review of Literature, Research and Teaching. 13 (2): 75–103. doi:10.1177/007327537501300201. PMID 11610002.
  • Wertheimer, M.; King, D. B.; Peckler, M. A.; Raney, S.; Schaef, R. W. (1992). "Carl Jung and Max Wertheimer on a priority issue". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 28 (1): 45–56. doi:10.1002/1520-6696(199201)28:1<45::AID-JHBS2300280104>3.0.CO;2-P. PMID 11612657.
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 17 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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