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Christian von Ehrenfels - On the Theory of Gestalt

Christian von Ehrenfels - On the Theory of Gestalt

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Published by camckoy5554
Chapter Eight Christian von Ehrenfels I On the Theory of Gestalt
1. The Theory of Gestalt Qualities In the present chapter we shall deal with the birth of the theory of Gestalt, and particularly with the essay “On ‘Gestalt Qualities’” by Christian von Ehrenfels, published in 1890. It will become clear in the course of this chapter that the Gestalt psychologists of the Berlin school, above all Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, were part of a wider Gestalt tradition whose roots lie
Chapter Eight Christian von Ehrenfels I On the Theory of Gestalt
1. The Theory of Gestalt Qualities In the present chapter we shall deal with the birth of the theory of Gestalt, and particularly with the essay “On ‘Gestalt Qualities’” by Christian von Ehrenfels, published in 1890. It will become clear in the course of this chapter that the Gestalt psychologists of the Berlin school, above all Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, were part of a wider Gestalt tradition whose roots lie

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Chapter EightChristian von Ehrenfels IOn the Theory of Gestalt
1.
The Theory of Gestalt Qualities
 In the present chapter we shall deal with the birth of the theory of Gestalt, and particularly with the essay “On ‘Gestalt Qualities’” by Christian von Ehrenfels, published in 1890. It will become clear in the course of this chapter that theGestalt psychologists of the Berlin school, above all Max Wertheimer,Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, were part of a wider Gestalt tradition whoseroots lie in developments in Austrian philosophy in the last part of thenineteenth century.Ehrenfels was born in Rodaun (near Vienna) in 1859 and died inLichtenau in 1932.
1
He studied in Vienna under Brentano and Meinong, andwas Professor in the German University in Prague from 1896 to 1929, where hecontinued to teach until his death in 1932. His circle of friends, students andacquaintances during this time included a number of important writers andthinkers, among them T. G. Masaryk, Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, as well asthe economist Friedrich von Wieser and linguists of the Prague circle such as Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Ehrenfels figures, too, in Kafka’s diaries, for example in anentry for 1912:
 
1. On Ehrenfels’ life see Fabian 1985. Like many of the leading figures in the Gestaltmovement, Ehrenfels was a passionate musician. He took lessons in compositionfrom Bruckner, and made a name for himself as the librettist of a number of Wagnerian music-dramas. Ehrenfels made a name for himself also as an exponent of the evolutionary theories of Darwin. He corresponded with Sigmund Freud, and gavelectures on his own peculiar views concerning sexual ethics and related subjects to theVienna Psychoanalytic Society: see Rug and Mulligan 1986.
 
244 CHAPTER TEN244
Amusing scene when Prof. Ehrenfels, who grows more and more handsome and who
B
with his bald head sharply outlined against the light in a curve that is puffed out atthe top, his hands pressed together, with his full voice, which he modulates like amusical instrument, and a confident smile at the meeting
B
declares himself in favour of mixed races.
Of greater importance for us here, however, is the fact that Ehrenfels’students in Prague included the young Max Wertheimer, the most innovativethinker in what would later become the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology.Psychology in the nineteenth century was at least officially elementaristin nature. It sought to understand the nature of mental processing in terms of ‘atoms’ of mental experience and of certain laws of combination which wouldgovern the behaviour of these atoms. The Gestalt movement amounted, ineffect, to a campaign designed to overthrow this atomistic orthodoxy in psychology, in a fashion which culminated in the work of the Berlin school in aradical doctrine which made psychological parts derivative of psychologicalholes, so that ‘atoms’ would have the status of abstractions or mere theoreticalentities. Ehrenfels’ paper is the first sorty from the holistic side of thiscampaign. The paper addresses our experience of complex structures of different sorts. How, from an elementaristic perspective, are we to understandwhat is involved in our apparent perception of complex formations such asspatial figures? The relevant experiences are after all distinct from allexperiences of mere aggregates or sums of separate data. But what can accountfor the unity which they seem to involve? In order to answer this question Machhad assumed the existence of a new sort of simple element called a ‘muscular feeling’ (
 Muskelgefühl 
), which would be associated with the other elementsinvolved in such experiences and give rise, via ‘thought-economy’, to theillusion that the experiences in question would be directed towards complexobjects. Feelings of this sort might be correlated e.g. with specific movementsor adjustments of the eyes and associated muscle-tissue.Ehrenfels’ answer, too, involved the postulation of a new sort of element,yet in a fashion which presupposes the discoveries of Brentano in the field of the ontology of mind, discoveries pertaining above all to the dependencerelations between psychic constituents. Brentano’s seminal ideas in this areahad formed the substance of lectures in Vienna which were attended not only by
 
GESTALT THEORY 245245
Ehrenfels, but also by Meinong, Husserl and Stumpf.
2
And as we haverepeatedly insisted, the power of Brentano’s philosophy consists precisely in itshaving set forth a means by which psychology and ontology can be developedin tandem with each other in fruitful ways. (It is this which is the theoreticalcore of his doctrine of intentionality.)The fact that our experience is structured is, according to Ehrenfels, amatter of certain special ‘
Gestalt qualities
’ which are given in special experi-ences, superadded to our experiences of sensory elements. A two-level theoryof this sort was, as we shall see, characteristic of that ‘Austrian’ approach tocomplex experience which was developed by Ehrenfels, Meinong, Witasek,Benussi, Bühler and their followers. According to the later, ‘Berlin’ approach,in contrast, a collection of data (or any other psychological formation) does not
have
a Gestalt on a second level. Rather, it
is
a Gestalt, a whole whose parts arethemselves determined as being such that they can exist only as parts of a wholeof this given kind. The significance of this distinction, or of the transition fromthe Austrian theory of Gestalt as
quality
to the Berlin theory of Gestalt as
whole
,cannot be overestimated. The distinction can be seen as parallel, in somerespects, to that between dualistic conceptions of man as composed of body andsuperadded
mind 
or 
 soul 
, and conceptions of man as
 person
, or in other wordsas a special sort of structured whole with both mental and physical aspects.The essay “On ‘Gestalt Qualities’” consists, first of all, in a termino-logical proposal. Ehrenfels suggests that the German term ‘Gestalt’, whichmeans ‘shape’, ‘figure’, ‘form’ should be subject to a certain generalization.
3
A
2. See Brentano’s own notes to these lectures in his 1982, and also Mulligan andSmith 1985. On the theory of dependence in general see Smith and Mulligan 1982.Note that Brentano himself did not accept Ehrenfels’ doctrine of Gestalt qualities, norany of its manifestations, and Kraus 1921 is a critique of Gestalt psychological fromthis orthodox Brentanian perspective.3. More or less extended or metaphorical uses of this term have a long history. Thereis a common use of the term to mean ‘external or visible form’ (e.g. of the devil, or of a ceramic pot), as also a family of uses allied to English expressions such as ‘cut afigure’, ‘Great Figures in Styrian Philosophy’, and so on. The term signifies also quitegenerally an integrated structure or complex, so that Clausewitz, for example, canspeak of a war as an ‘absolute Gestalt’, an ‘indivisible whole, whose elements (the

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