Max Wertheimer biography, theory and books

Max Wertheimer - Toolshero

Max Wertheimer (April 15 1880 – October 12 1943) was an Austro-Hungarian psychologist and philosopher. He created the Phi phenomenon which forms the basis of the Gestalt School of Psychology. He is therefore seen as one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. Max Wertheimer‘s work created a foundation of psychological theory, and his findings are presented in his book Productive Thinking. This article contains his biography, some of his quotes and a list of his publications.

Biography Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague and he was the son of a familiar banker who devoted himself to teaching. His father innovated teaching methods and next established and directed the Handelsschule Wertheimer, a German Business school.

Max helped his father by creating computational devices and bookkeeping equipment. Because of this, he developed an interest in mathematics and teaching.

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His mother was a pianist and taught these skills to Max Wertheimer. He became interested in music and even performed musicological research at the University of Berlin. His interest in music made Max Wertheimer easy to socialize because music brought him in contact with other people, including Albert Einstein.

Max Wertheimer found difficulties in deciding which area to specialize after high school. In 1900, he first studied law at Charles University in Prague but did not finish his study. While he studied law, he identified himself to be more interested in psychology instead of law.

In 1901, he moved to Berlin to study psychology at the University of Berlin. During this time, he met Carl Stumpf and Friedrich Schumann with who he collaborated and conducted research.

He later studied at the University of Würzburg where he studied along with Oswald Külpe in 1903. After one year, he obtained his Ph.D. with summa cum laude.

In his doctoral research, Max Wertheimer researched how a lie detector can be used to evaluate testimonies. He next continued his research in testimonies.

Max Wertheimer later worked at the Psychological Institute of Frankfurt University.

During this time, Max Wertheimer observed how two stationary objects created an illusion of apparent movement. He named this the Phi phenomenon and it formed the basis of Gestalt psychology, which revolutionized psychological thinking and believes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Wertheimer’s interest in perception increased and he continued his research in perception. In 1912 he published his seminal paper on “Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement”, and was offered a lectureship.

Max Wertheimer moved to Berlin in 1916 and taught psychology as a privatdozent, someone who has formal qualifications and can teach a subject at university level without being a professor, at the University of Berlin from 1923 until 1929. He was able to gather attention from students of all subjects, including sociology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics.

While he taught psychology, Wertheimer married Anne Caro. They have four children: Rudolf, Valentin, Michael, and Lise. Unfortunately, Rudolf died at a young age. In this period, Max Wertheimer simultaneously established Psychologische Forschung, a German psychology magazine in which he served as an editor for almost 15 years.

In 1929, Max Wertheimer left the University of Berlin and started to teach research in social and experimental psychology at the University of Frankfurt. Next to this, he provided together with Gelb, Paul Tillich, and Kurt Riezler, seminars on essential problems of mathematics, and productive thinking.

However, after hearing one of Hitler’s speech before the elections in 1933 and the combination with Nazi tyrannies, he realized his family had to leave the country. They immediately returned to Czechoslovakia.

Max Wertheimer was later this year invited to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. He continued to work there for the next decade. He provided a variety of courses, including logic, social psychology, educational psychology, experimental psychology, and the psychology of music of art.

His lessons were always interactive, both in the United States as in Germany. Max Wertheimer’s lectures stimulated students to discuss problems and share their original thoughts since he was interested in the work of others. Next to this, he also occasionally lectured at Princeton University and Columbia University.

Max Wertheimer’s ideas about experiments and theories were not always published, but they do form the basis of research of other well-known psychologists, including Solomon Asch, George Katona, Abraham S. Luchins, and Abraham H. Maslow who is known for the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

He unexpectedly died from a coronary thrombosis in New Rochelle, New York, just after he divorced his wife in 1942. His death was honored by many people, including Albert Einstein. The work of Max Wertheimer has influenced the science of psychology, and his work changed the way people understand perception and cognition.

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Famous quotes

  1. “Often, in great discovery, the most important thing is that a certain question is found.”
  2. “There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.”
  3. “Science is rooted in the will to truth. With the will to truth, it stands or falls. Lower the standard even slightly and science becomes diseased at the core. Not only science but man. The will to truth, pure and unadulterated, is among the essential conditions of his existence; if the standard is compromised he easily becomes a kind of tragic caricature of himself.”
  4. “Man is not only part of a field, but a part and member of his group. When people are together, as when they are at work, then the most unnatural behavior, which only appears in late stages or abnormal cases, would be to behave as separate Egos. Under normal circumstances they work in common, each a meaningfully functioning part of the whole.”
  5. “Pieces” almost always appear ‘as parts’ in whole processes. … To sever a “‘part” from the organized whole in which it occurs-whether it itself be a subsidiary whole or an “element”-is a very real process usually involving alterations in that “part”. Modifications of a part frequently involve changes elsewhere in the whole itself. Nor is the nature of these alterations arbitrary, for they too are determined by whole-conditions.”

Books and Publications by Max Wertheimer

  • 1945. Productive thinking. Nova Yorlc Harper.
  • 1944. Gestalt theory. Social Research, 78-99.
  • 1940. A story of three days. Freedom: Its meaning, 555-569.
  • 1938. The syllogism and productive thinking. A source book of Gestalt psychology, 274-282.
  • 1938. The general theoretical situation.
  • 1938. Numbers and numerical concepts in primitive peoples. A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, New York: Hartcourt, 265-273.
  • 1938. Laws of organization in perceptual forms.
  • 1938. Gestalt psychology. Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
  • 1935. Some problems in the theory of ethics. Social Research, 353-367.
  • 1934. On truth. Social Research, 135-146.
  • 1925. Drei abhandlungen zur gestalttheorie.
  • 1923. Laws of organization in perceptual forms. A sourcebook of Gestalt Psychology.
  • 1923. A brief introduction to gestalt, identifying key theories and principles. Psychol Forsch, 4, 301-350.

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Alexander Zeeman
Article by:

Alexander Zeeman

Alexander Zeeman is Content Manager at ToolsHero where he focuses on Content production, Content management and marketing. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business school. Currently, in his study, working on the development of various management competencies and improving operational business processes.


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