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Max Wertheimer (April 15, 1880 – October 12, 1943) was a Czech-born, American psychologist who was one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler.

Gestalt psychology (also Gestalt of the Berlin School) is a theory of mind and brain which proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies; or that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. The classic Gestalt example is a soap bubble, whose spherical shape is not defined by a rigid template, or a mathematical formula, but rather it emerges spontaneously by the parallel action of surface tension acting at all points in the surface simultaneously. This is in contrast to the "atomistic" principle of operation of the digital computer, where every computation is broken down into a sequence of simple steps, each of which is computed independently of the problem as a whole. The Gestalt effect refers to the form-forming 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.

World War I

The collaborative work of the three Gestalt psychologists was interrupted by World War I. Both Wertheimer and Koffka were assigned to war-related research, while Kohler was appointed the director of an anthropoid research station on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The three men reunited after the war ended and continued further research on the experiments.

Berlin years

After the war, Koffka returned to Frankfurt, while Kohler became the director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, where Wertheimer was already on the faculty. Using the abandoned rooms of the Imperial Palace, they established a now-famous graduate school, in tandem with a journal called Psychologische Forschung (Psychological Research: Journal of Psychology and its Neighboring Fields), in which their students’ and their own research was initially published. The success of their efforts is evidenced by the familiarity of the names of their students in the literature of psychology, among them Kurt Lewin, Rudolf Arnheim, Wolfgang Metzger, Bluma Zeigarnik, Karl Duncker, Herta Kopfermann and Kurt Gottschaldt.

In 1923, while teaching in Berlin, Wertheimer married Anna (called Anni) Caro, a physician’s daughter, with whom he had four children: Rudolf (who died in infancy), Valentin, Michael and Lise. They divorced in 1942.

The New School

From 1929 to 1933, Wertheimer was a professor at the University of Frankfurt. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, it became apparent to Wertheimer (and to countless other “non-Aryan” intellectuals) that he must leave Germany. In the end, he accepted an offer to teach at The New School in New York. 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.

Later life

For the remaining decade of his life, Wertheimer continued to teach at the New School, while remaining in touch with his European colleagues, many of whom had also emigrated to the U.S. Koffka was teaching at Smith College, Kohler 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, or what he preferred to call “productive thinking.” He completed his book (his only book) on the subject (with that phrase as its title) in late September 1943, and died just three weeks later of a heart attack. Wertheimer was buried in Beechwood Cemetery in New Rochelle, New York.

See also


  • 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.
  • 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, ISSN 0340-0727, 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): 403–31, 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, 1975 Jun, PMID 11610002 
  • Wertheimer, M; King, D B; Peckler, M A; Raney, S (1992), "Carl Jung and Max Wertheimer on a priority issue.", Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences 28 (1): 45–56, 1992 Jan, doi:10.1002/1520-6696(199201)28:1<45::AID-JHBS2300280104>3.0.CO;2-P, PMID 11612657 

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