Max Wertheimer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia during the late 1800s. His father was an educator and served as the director of a local school in addition to teaching. Wertheimer originally studied law at university, but soon switched to philosophy and psychology. In 1904, he graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate degree from the University of Wurzburg.
After observing how flashing lights at a train station created the illusion of movement, he became increasingly interested in the study of perception. While at the University of Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute, he began to work with two assistants named Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. The three men became lifelong colleagues and would go on to form the school of thought known as Gestalt psychology.
After working as a professor at the University of Frankfurt for several years, he immigrated to the United States in 1933. He then began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City and continued to work there over the next decade. Thanks to his work, the New School became one of the leading schools of psychology during the early part of the twentieth century. On October 12, 1943, Wertheimer suffered a fatal coronary embolism at his home in New York. Many people attended a memorial service held in his honor at the New School several weeks after his death, including Albert Einstein.
Contributions to Psychology:
As one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, Wertheimer had an enormous influence on other areas including sensation and perception as well as experimental psychology. In 1946, psychologist Solomon Asch wrote that the “…thinking of Max Wertheimer has penetrated into nearly every region of psychological inquiry and has left a permanent impress on the minds of psychologists and on their daily work. The consequences have been far-reaching in the work of the last three decades, and are likely to expand in the future.”
Gestalt psychology formed partly as a reaction to the atomism of the structuralist school of thought. Unlike structuralism, which focused on breaking down mental processes into their smallest possible parts, Gestalt psychology took a holistic approach. According to the Gestalt thinkers, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
From this school of thought emerged the Gestalt laws of perceptual organization. This set of perceptual principles explains how smaller objects are grouped together to form larger ones.
Source: Cherry, Kendra. “Max Wertheimer Biography (1880-1943)”. about.psychology.com. Web. 09 Nov 2014.
Photo: Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), German psychologist. Head and shoulders portrait. Corbis images. Web. 09 Nov 2014.