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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: May 2019

5 - Phenomenology and Gestalt Psychology


A New Generation's View of Perception: Focus on Wholes

Like their precursors, the new generation of German experimental psychologists who started their university careers immediately before and afterWorldWar I regarded mental processes as their subject matter. Perception was the central area, as it had been for the previous generation, and, like the previous generation, they neither included behavior in their thinking nor based their treatment of psychological questions on biological evolution.

With these features in common, the psychologists of the first and second generations may appear to modern psychologists as rather similar. The new generation believed, however, that their approach was entirely different from the approach they attributed to the psychologists of the 1800s. The new generation's criticism was primarily directed against the way the earlier generation had tried to describe mental events, and the tendency to break psychological processes down into elements.

The early German students of perception emphasized, as we have seen, that great care had to be taken to describe perceptual experiences accurately and without preconceived ideas, in attempts that have been called phenomenology. Outstanding representatives of early phenomenology were Goethe, Purkinje, and Hering. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the tendency to emphasize accurate descriptions was strengthened when a broad philosophical movement arose that tried to clarify problems of epistemology and the philosophy of science by starting from accurate descriptions. The originator of this movement was Franz Brentano, who first taught in Würzburg and then in Vienna. His ideas spread throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.

In probably all empirical sciences, researchers are faced with the problem of understanding the relationship between some kind of wholeness and some kind of partness. One generation of scientists may be more occupied with problems concerning the wholes in contrast to another generation concentrating more on the parts. The German experimental psychologists of the 1800s were markedly concerned with the parts. At the beginning of the 1900s, interest was directed more towards the wholes. The Brentano school strongly contributed to this change of interest. An important event in this development was the realization by one of Brentano's students, Christian von Ehrenfels (1890), that certain perceptual impressions should be regarded as new types of elements in addition to those traditionally conceived of as elements.

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A History of Modern Psychology
  • Online ISBN: 9781316272442
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