Gestalt from Goethe to Gibson

Theories on the vision of beauty and order

Ph.D Thesis Utrecht University 1994

Cretien van Campen

In the third decade of this century Max Wertheimer formulated a unique theory of visual Gestalt experiences. He presupposed that Gestalten (sensible structures) are perceived first and their constituent parts second. He disagreed with the traditional presupposition that elemental sense-data are perceived directly and sensible structures are construed indirectly. Wertheimer's uncommon Gestalt theory appears to have no predecessors in the experimental psychology of perception. Historians have considered the Gestalt theory as a `revolutionary' theory, that provided psychology with a new Weltanschauung in a Kuhnian sense.

However, theories of Gestalt experiences are older than experimental psychology. Goethe might be the most famous writer and researcher of the phenomenon that the world reveals sensible structures. After analysis of the problems of actual historiography, the first part of this study will present an alternative history of the emergence of Gestalt theory in an aesthetic perspective.

Wertheimer's theory of Gestalt perceptions shows similarity with the philosophies of aesthetic orders. The consideration that man is gifted with a sense of beauty traces back to remarks of Renaissance-artists about the perception of proportion, symmetry, and harmony. They thought that the human eye was sensitive to certain orders with a special aesthetic meaning. The first theoretical system of this sense of aesthetic order is found in Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft. Kant's philosophical investigations of the aesthetic problem that aesthetic experiences are subjective, but not always bound to personal taste, led to a psychological (Gestalt)theory about a common aesthetic sense (sensus communis aestheticus) of formal organisations. This sense of beauty was, according to Kant, not only a faculty to perceive aesthetic orders, but also a faculty to perceive developing biological structures. Kant's philosophy provided a framework for the empirical investigations into the primordial organisations of plants and animals by his contemporary Goethe, who wrote explicitly about perceivable Gestalten. Schiller's letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man discuss an early psychological theory of Gestalt experiences. Schiller considers the organisation of experiences in aesthetic Gestalten as a psychological process that intermediates between the sensual and the rational world.

The theories of Schiller, Goethe and especially Kant influenced and restricted the domain of the nineteenth-century empirical research of aesthetic experiences of formal aspects of art and other aesthetic subjects. In his aesthetic experiments with the aesthetic appraisal of cards with differing length- width ratios, the psychologist Fechner demonstrated that the sense of beauty can be described formally. In extensive studies of aesthetic expressions of classical facades, the art historian Woelfflin described the psychological preferences for regular, symmetrical, proportional and harmonious orders. The art historian Riegl and the sculptor Hildebrand observed, in their perceptual analyses of ornaments and sculptures, that the perception of three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional formal wholes (Gesamteindruecke) makes special aesthetic qualities visible.

This empirical aesthetic research emerged about simultaneously with experimental psychology. And although both of them formulated theories of perception, their presuppositions and research programmes diverged. The physiologically-oriented experimental psychology of Wundt and others stressed the study of elemental sense-data. The aesthetics researchers emphasized experiences of form and order. In experimental psychology critical reactions on the physiologically-oriented programme were raised from the beginning; notably Brentano criticized the disregard for complex experiences. From the 1890s onwards the interest for aesthetic research increased in experimental psychology. Psychologists scrutinized the observed formal regularities of aesthetic experiences (see for instance Cornelius, 1908), a method of comparing Gestalt experiences was introduced in psychological experiments (see for instance Schumann, 1900a). The gradual introduction of aesthetic knowledge in the experimental psychology of perception created a new psychological research-domain of Gestalt experiences, and offered a research method to compare Gestalt experiences. Wertheimer's Gestalt theory appears to be a logical step: after introducing an aesthetic domain and aesthetic methods, he accepted the aesthetic presuppositions in the study of Gestalt phenomena. The emergence of Wertheimer's Gestalt theory comes to light as a logical step in the research of the sense of beautiful order.

In this aesthetic perspective, the investigations of Wertheimer and his colleagues are interpreted as Gestalt-aesthetic research of perceptual preferences for abstract orders, i.e. investigations into the human sense of beauty and order.

Connections between Gestalt psychology and the work of abstract artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Van Doesburg and Mondrian become more obvious in this aesthetic perspective. Artists and psychologists had at least a subject in common: the Gestalt experience of abstract two-dimensional figures. Artistic and psychological experiments with abstract Gestalten are appraised as parallel continuations of the Gestalt-aesthetic tradition of the nineteenth century.

According to the historians of psychology, Wertheimer's Gestalt theory lacked not only roots but also offshoots. They argued that Wertheimer's approach declined after a short successful period in the Interbellum, and was more or less replaced by more successful cognitive and, later, ecological approaches. In part II of this study the consideration that Gestalt theory disappeared as soon as it appeared is questioned. An alternative is drawn, in which the Gestalt- aesthetic research tradition described in part I is continued in the theories and experiments of Gibson.

The success of the Gestalt-psychological approach in explaining visual Gestalt phenomena diminished in the thirties. It appeared that the Gestalt theory was limited to artificial two-dimensional abstract phenomena. Three-dimensional Gestalt phenomena were established under experimental conditions, which - it turned out - the Gestalt theory was unable explain. After several attempts of among others Metzger and Brunswik to solve these problems, Gibson, a student of the emigrated Gestalt psychologist Koffka, found a solution with his theory of invariant optical structures. Gibson explained the experience of three-dimensional Gestalten as perceptions of optical invariants.

Out of this theory of optical invariants, Gibson developed the ecological approach of visual perception in the sixties and seventies. Traces of the Gestalt-aesthetic tradition are found in ecological investigations into the perception of pictures (Gibson, 1978; Hagen, 1986). Analysis of the ecological theory in the Gestalt-aesthetic perspective illuminates new aspects of this theory. It seems that perception of optical invariants can be interpreted as a set of perceptual preferences; and `affordances' can be interpreted as `aesthetic' meanings. The theory of direct perception is considered as a theory of perceptual preferences for formal Gestalten.

Especially in recent research of the perception of pictures, representations, abstract compositions etcetera, the Gestalt- aesthetic approach is vivid present. Gestalt aesthetics still appears to be a fertile field for research. If not in the main stream but as a more or less slumbering undercurrent, Gestalt aesthetics still influences perception research by generating new research problems and notices problems in the mainstream research of visual Gestalten. Wertheimer's approach has not disappeared. The short successful career of the Gestalt theory of perception appears to be only the tip of an iceberg that stretches out over more than two hundred years.