Max Wertheimer

Max Wertheimer
Born April 15, 1880 (1880-04-15)
Prague, Austria-Hungary
Died October 12, 1943 (1943-10-13) (aged 63)
New Rochelle, New York, United States
Nationality Austria-Hungary
Fields Psychology
Alma mater University of Prague
Doctoral students Rudolf Arnheim

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.[1] Wertheimer then went on to obtain his PhD in 1904 under Oswald Külpe, at the University of Würzburg [1] and then began his intellectual career teaching in Frankfurt. 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.[2] Wilhelm Wertheimer was a successful educator, as well as financier. Rosa Wilhelm, born Rosa Zwicker, had a rich classical education.[3] The Wertheimers were active in the Jewish community in which they lived.[4] 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 to receive educations from the Catholic Church at this time in central Europe. 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[9] Wertheimer is interred in Beechwoods Cemetery, also in New Rochelle. Max is father of Michael Wertheimer, a successful psychologist.[9]

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".[11] 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.[11]

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.[11] 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.[11] 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 this 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.[12] He believes that this blind obedience forestalls a person from uncovering the solution.[11] Max Wertheimer's ideas of productive thinking are of continuing relevance in modern ideas of schemas, plans, and knowledge structures today.[13]

Gestalt theory

Gestalt, in the closest English definition of the term, is translated potentially as configuration, form, holistic, structure, and pattern.[11] According to Gestalt psychology, perception is a whole. In this sense, perception can shape vision and the other senses. 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.


By his son:

See also


  1. 1 2 Hothersall, D. (2003)
  2. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005), pg 20
  3. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005), pg 17-18
  4. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005), pg 21
  5. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005), pg 23
  6. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005), pg 24-25
  7. Sillis, D.L.; Merton R.K. (1968). "Max Wertheimer". International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: 522–527.
  8. King, B. D., Viney, W., Douglas Woody, W. (1993)pgs 351-352
  9. 1 2 3 King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005)
  10. Michael Wertheimer, A Brief History of Psychology. 4th edition. Fort Worth TX: Harcourt Brace, 2000
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 King, B. D., Viney, W., Douglas Woody, W. (1993). A history of psychology (4): 356-358.
  12. Wertheimer, M. (1996). A Contemporary Perspective on the Psychology of Productive Thinking. University of Boulder Colorado
  13. King, B. D., Wertheimer, M. (2005). Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ.


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