“A thing may be true in the piecemeal sense, and false, indeed a lie, as a part in its whole”
Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) was a psychologist who developed the holistic idea of Gestalt, or underlying form.
A Prague-born Jew, forced to flee German-speaking Europe by the rise of Nazism, his organic worldview was very specifically anti-fascist.
The pseudo-holistic racists of the Third Reich claimed that piecemeal or fragmented thinking was a Jewish trait.
Wertheimer turned this round against them. He argued that the Nazis had only been able to flourish because the modern world had cropped humanity’s thinking capacity.
Piecemeal thinking – strings of propositions torn from their original living context – was being used by fascist demagogues and certain intellectuals to hoodwink people into accepting their ideas, he said.
In the 1934 essay ‘On truth’ he distinguished between truth and mere facts. Facts, brandished as a weapon by “scientific” minds in the Nazi system, meant nothing on their own.
Truth was a holistic understanding of the significance of various facts in the wider context of their relationship to one another and to a larger whole.
He wrote: “A thing may be true in the piecemeal sense, and false, indeed a lie, as a part in its whole”. (1)
Wertheimer judged that the key concepts of truth, ethics, democracy and freedom were all under attack from contemporary academic thinking, influenced by positivism, pragmatism and cultural relativism.
Indeed this anti-holistic stance had itself helped prepare a modern intellectual field in which people were unable to think properly and in which it had been possible for the Nazis to succeed.
In an essay on ethics, he took a critical look at ethical relativity which – like the Nazis with their German/Aryan particularism – denied the existence of ethical universals.
Ethical positions were instead regarded as mere historical facts, changing with place or time.
As a believer in the organic unity of humankind, Wertheimer disputed this and insisted that experience showed that most people, “when faced with clear, actual injustice”, responded spontaneously in ways that human beings would universally consider decent and ethical. (2)
While people were influenced to a great extent by the “outer shell” of various cultural norms, this tended to crack apart “in a serious moment” and the fundamentally “simple, good” person inside usually emerged. (3)
This was all linked to people’s ability to think clearly. Wertheimer argued that it was only when they had a proper understanding of a situation that their inner ethical code could be activated. Where their grasp of the truth was obstructed, their ethical response was disabled.
To illustrate this question, Wertheimer analysed the causes behind the anti-semitism of a hypothetical young Nazi Party member.
He wrote: “A young, idealistic party member is passionate in the negative evaluation of members of a certain race. It is not sufficient in such cases to give the formulation: in one system of evaluations, members of this race are positively evaluated, in another negatively.
“This young man perhaps believes thus only because he has been brought to this state through suggestion, propaganda, through the wanton slander that this race is a poisonous snake. He does not really behave with respect to A (members of this race) but to a B which he has been taught to identify with this race.
“The real problem here lies not only in the behavior of the young man, but in the enforcement of the blind identification. To take away by artifice the possibility of seeing the true situation through the enforcement of blind judgments, of improper narrowing of the mental field, induction of blind centering, deprives man of the prerequisites for our problems”. (4)
Thus, for Wertheimer, the fragmented and inadequate thinking of the modern era had created an intellectual confusion in which unthinking anti-semitism could become widespread.
From this perspective, Anne Harrington points out, Nazism was “a sickness of logic rather than, as so many of Wertheimer’s peers were saying, a phenomenon driven by powerful feeling and unleashed instinct”. (5)
Wertheimer’s development of Gestalt Theory, she adds, “affirmed what Goethe, in his way, had long known; that the basis of lived reality was not meaningless particles but rather ‘immanent structuralism’, order, and wholeness”. (6)
While right-wingers in Germany deployed the term Gestalt to concoct racist theory, Wertheimer, in exile in the USA, was defining it as a principle of clear thinking that would defend universal human freedom.
The Gestalt psychology which Wertheimer developed along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler, was an influence on the anti-capitalist Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School in general.
Several decades after Wertheimer’s death, in 1979, his analysis was taken up an article in the Gestalt Theory review to counter the suggestion that holistic or organic thinking was in any way instrinsically fascist, as some claimed.
In fact, insisted author Gerhard Portele, the very essence of Nazism lay in its narrowed-down industrialised thinking and in the way it had turned its back on the wider universal whole of humankind.
He wrote: “The Nazis, with their calculating book-keeping rationality, were trained in piecemeal thinking to an extreme degree and viewed people as cogs”. (7)
Video links: Max Wertheimer, Interaction Design and Gestalt Principles (5 mins), The optical illusion of motion (5 mins).
1. Max Wertheimer, ‘On truth’, Social Research 1 (2), cit. Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 133-34.
2. Max Wertheimer, ‘Some problems in the theory of ethics’, Social Research 2 (3), cit. Harrington, p. 134.
4. Wertheimer, ‘Some problems in the theory of ethics’, cit. Harrington, p. 135.
5. Harrington, p. 135.
6. Harrington, p. 117.
7. Gerhard Portele, ‘Gestalttheorie und Wissenschaftstheorie. Pläyoder für eine alternative Wissenschaft’. Gestalt Theory 1 (1): 26-38, cit. Harrington, p. 211.