First of all, an important psychological trend that emerged during the “open crisis” was Gestalt theory (roughly translated from German as the psychology of shape). It was associated primarily with the names of such German investigators as Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler (Gordon, 2004). They considered that an image was generated by the synthesis and properties of individual elements with defined properties. Gestalt psychology puts forward the idea of integrity of an image, whose properties are not reduced to the sum of properties of its elements (in this context, it is often emphasized that Gestalt psychology establishes a systematic approach not only in psychology but also in science in general) (Koffka, n.d.). In other words, perception is not limited to the sum of sensations; the properties of shapes that people see are not described by the properties of their parts.
Gestalt psychology, which emerged as a part of research in cognitive processes, had an immense impact on psychology in its various manifestations. The subject of the study was integral structure (Gestalt). As for practical applications, the scientists determined the use of certain provisions of specific areas of applied psychology.
The revelation of Gestalt proved to be fruitful when applied to art and education. Ian Gordon in his book “Theories of Visual Perception” underlines that academic psychology of K. Koffka currently enjoys universal acceptance. However, because of the interest in behaviorism with its propulsion, mostly academics relate to the core Gestalt aspects related to perception (Gordon, 2004). The essay researches the studies of K. Koffka and their importance for modern psychology.
The Concept of Gestalt
It is necessary to highlight the main concept K. Koffka worked with. Gestalt (from the German word “Gestalt,” meaning an image structure, complete form) is one of the basic concepts of Gestalt psychology that emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century in Germany and describes qualitative features of the holistic manner and mental structures reduced to the sum of their individual parts. The term “Gestalt” was coined to emphasize the fact that the gestalt man is an indivisible whole, a unity of the body and the soul (Gordon, 2004). Gestalt is aimed at ensuring that people learn to understand the labyrinth of the soul, which can sometimes be very confusing, as well as all the sources and causes of internal discomfort.
Gestalt psychology was one of the most influential and interesting areas of the period of “open crisis.” It was a reaction to mechanistic atomism and all kinds of associative psychology. Gestalt psychology has become the most productive solution to the problem of integrity in German (German and Austrian) psychology and philosophy of the late 19th – early 20th century. The concept of “Gestalt” was introduced in 1890 by Graf Christian von Ehrenfels in “The Quality of Shape” as a part of the study of perception, which served as a pretext for some comments about perception of tones and geometric forms. Graf Christian von Ehrenfels allocated a specific feature “gestalt” as property transposition (transfer): the melody remains the same when transferring it from one key to another; Gestalt square persists regardless of the size, location and color of its constituent elements, and so on (Gordon, 2004). “Gestalt” (Gestalt – shape, image, structure) is a functional structure that by its inherent diversity of laws regulates specific phenomena (Gordon, 2004).
Gestalt psychology developed from the teachings of F. Brentano and E. Husserl about consciousness. The main representatives were M. Wertheimer, W. Kohler, and K. Koffka, who conducted a study in perception, the principles of which were transferred to the study of thinking. The study covered perception, thinking, needs, emotions, and will. It also stressed the existence of the intellectual climate, which differs from country to country and influences the before mentioned notions (Koffka, n.d.). M. Wertheimer was considered the “Father of Gestalt psychology” (AQA GCSE, n.d.).
- Koffka also stressed that M. Wertheimer was interested in the perception of motion, but his explanation faced difficulties that arose from the structuralism perspective. As K. Koffka noted, this material of Wertheimer discovered new principles of psychological explanation (Wertheimer & Beardslee, 1967).
- Wertheimer attracted the attention of K. Koffka, who participated in his study. M. Wertheimer discussed results of the experimental research method with him and formulated a new approach to explain the perception of motion.
Kurt Koffka was probably the most resourceful among the founders of Gestalt psychology. He was born in 1886 and raised in Berlin. His family supported his desire to study; thus, he was educated at the local university, showing exceptional interest in science and philosophy. Koffka was a wise person; thus, he considered literary work of great responsibility and stressed, “Writing a book for publication is a social act” (Koffka, n.d.). Later, he studied psychology under the direction of Carl Stumpf and received his PhD in 1909. In 1910, K. Koffka began his long and fruitful cooperation with M.Wertheimer and W. Kohler in Frankfurt University.
The article of K.Koffka called “Perception: An Introduction to Gestalt Theory” (1922) contained the foundations of Gestalt theory and the results and evaluation of many studies. The main reason why the founders of Gestalt concentrated their publications on the problem of perception was the very spirit of time: the psychology of W. Wundt, which developed in opposition to supporters of the new doctrine, derived its basic research results through support sensations and perceptions because they chose perception as a starting point of W. Wundt’s criticism in his own scientific citadel (Gordon, 2004).
In 1921, K. Koffka published the book “Mental Development” devoted to the formation of child psychology and which was a success in Germany and the United States. He was invited to America to lecture at the universities of Cornell and Wisconsin, and in 1927 he received a professorship in the Northampton College, Massachusetts, where he worked until his death. In 1933, the scientist published the book “Principles of Gestalt Psychology” that was too difficult to read, and, therefore, did not become the main and most comprehensive guide to learning a new theory how it its author had expected. K. Koffka died on 22 November 1941 in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The study of perception in children, conducted in the laboratory of K. Koffka, showed that a child has a set of vague and not very adequate images of the outside world. K. Koffka came to a conclusion that perception is the combination of figures and background that demonstrate a subject. He made one of the laws of perception, which was called “transduction.” This law argued that children perceive not color but colors’ relationships (Koffka, n.d.). According to K. Koffka’s studies, the term “Gestalt” is used in two cases:
- First, it indicates the form or shape of objects. In this sense, Gestalt refers to common properties that can be expressed in terms such as corner or symmetrical and describes characteristics such as a triangular or geometric shape.
- Secondly, it means a complete object, which as one of the inherent properties has a particular form or shape. In this sense, the word “Gestalt” can refer, for example, to triangles that are more than the concept of “triangle.”
Thus, the concept of “Gestalt” can be used to refer to the object as well as to its specific form. The use of this term is not limited to visual general field. The functional sense of the word Gestalt is rather wide; K. Koffka tried to deal it with the whole field of psychology (Gordon, 2004).
The main problem of Gestalt theory could be formulated as follows: there are connections in which what happens in general is not derived from elements and exists as if in separate pieces that then bind together; it is manifested as a separate part of the whole determined by the internal law of this entire structural whole. Gestalt is central to the issue of integrity and holistic approach, as opposed to elementary and mechanistic, associative, and new behaviorists’ psychology. Gestalt psychology also focused on science, especially physics. The Gestalt principle helps to decide on a new psychophysical problem, leading minds in line with the physical world and at the same time not undermining its independent value. This decision resulted in the concept of isomorphism.
Gestalt theorists, including K. Koffka, pulled to the material from all sciences and from different philosophical perspectives to address fundamental questions concerning the approach to the understanding of psychological problems (Gordon, 2004).
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Gestalt Principles of Perception
Koffka’s principles of perception seem to be appropriate. He stresses that the materialistic approach to life is uncomplicated. Hence, Gestalt psychology considers “three kinds of substance or modes of existence, matter, life, and mind” (Koffka, n.d.). Actually, Gestalt history begins with the release of M. Wertheimer’s “Experimental Study of Motion Perception” (1912), which deals with the prevailing perception of the presence of certain elements in the act of perception. In the experiments, the subjects were presented successively from two light stimulus (one – vertical or inclined strip (A), the other – horizontal (B)). The time interval between A and B, both visible stimuli that follow one another, were estimated. In the rapidly changing stimuli, the subjects perceived the corner, with the average rate seen as the first. It seems that the movement tested could not be distinguished from the real movement even after special instructions (Wertheimer & Beardslee, 1967). K. Koffka agreed with M. Wertheimer, who outlined the principles of perception in his work published in 1923. This is due to the fact that people see things in the manner that seems to perceive motion, that is, they see an object as a whole rather than as a set of individual experiences. The basic premise of these principles is the perception that the organization is instantaneous. Organization of perception occurs spontaneously, and its occurrence is inevitable whenever people look around (Wertheimer & Beardslee, 1967).
According to K. Koffka, the primary activity of the brain through visual perception of objects is not the accumulation of their individual manifestations. The area of the brain responsible for visual perception does not respond to some elements of visually input signals and does not bind them together using a mechanical process of association. Instead, the brain is a dynamic system in which all elements are active in any given interaction. Elements that are identical or close to each other seek to unite, and the elements that are dissimilar or far apart are not bound together (Gordon, 2004).
- Koffka and other Gestalt theorists explained a few basic principles of perception:
- Proximity. People tend to unite items that are close to each other in space or time into a group and perceive them together.
- Continuity. People have a tendency towards repetition, which allows linking the observed elements into a continuous sequence or giving them some guidance.
- Similarity. This element is seen as being together and forming a closed group.
- Closure. People tend to complete unfinished items and fill empty spaces.
- Easy. In any circumstances, a man strives to see figures as finished as possible. Form should be symmetrical, simple and immutable and cannot be simplified or streamlined in any other way.
- Background. Individuals strive to organize their perception so as to see an object (shape) and background in which it appears. This figure seems to people to be more visible and clearly stands out against the background of the image (Koffka, n.d.; Wertheimer, 2014).
These principles do not depend on the perception of higher mental processes or past experience; they are present in the observed objects themselves. M. Wertheimer also acknowledged that the perception of the main factors influence an organism. For example, higher mental processes that determine prior knowledge and setting can also affect perception. However, in general, K. Koffka and M. Wertheimer tried to focus more on perception than results from training or experience (Wertheimer, 2014).
Approach to Koffka Studies
- Koffka’s explanations seem to be correct, and his works can be used in psychology and children’s education. It is necessary to consider the fact that the child’s world, like ours, is composed of colors, sounds, smells, and so on. The first perception of an object acquires its value already due to its relation to the behavior of the perceiver. Objects, therefore, gain their significance because they become a part of the field of perception in the moment of action (Gordon, 2004).
For a child, all the properties are so strong in a subject that they are largely determined by the subject in the later stages of development. For a child, the subject and its impact are still closely linked. It is characteristic for people’s thinking that they can produce mental operations randomly on any material regardless of the natural relationships of objects. It is utterly true for operations and images, replacing numbers, which people will call numerical operations and image. While numbers are applicable to any subject and always mean the same thing, the procedure for a number of images, natural grouping, the natural relationship of parts and materials are not indifferent (Philippson, 2013). So, the numerical way is a pair. The pair is not determined by a simple combination but relies on mutual supplies (Reynolds, & Mortola, 2005). Moreover, Vicki Bruce, Mark A. Georgeson, and Patrick R. Green consider that Gestalt psychology explains the importance of spatial and sequential filtering (Bruce & Georgeson, 1996).
Initially, behavior is determined by biological needs and forces lying in the immediate, phenomenal, or rather psychophysical field (Reynolds & Mortola, 2005). However, it still does not apply to the most basic things because while a baby perceives the world, it develops its “I.” There is a differentiation, expansion, enrichment; thus, the child develops the personality in a variety of directions. Children’s world is called the world of games, carelessness and arbitrary treatment with the reality (Oaklander, 1997). The game, at least in its original form, is used, in fact, at such an early age in which people cannot talk about a picture of the world yet, even in the most limited sense of the word. Even when the child does not play, his attitude towards the world is still characterized by a game character. In other words, the uniqueness of children’s games, to a certain extent inherent in the game as adults, is in the internal and external behavior of children, even when they do not play. Educators must not forget that a child grows up in the world owned by adults, which therefore, constantly affects the child (Reynolds & Mortola, 2005). Children’s view of the world undergoes the process of transformation that can occur faster or slower. It must be remembered when scientists try to describe the child’s world (Oaklander, 1997).
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Primarily, Gestalt psychology tried to develop an atomic theory in psychology, overcome schematics in the treatment of mental processes, and discover new principles and approaches. This is the essence and historical significance of Gestalt theory. Methods of experimental study of perception, thinking, and personality, which were obtained from the use of their rich phenomenology, are an important result of K. Koffka’s studies. However, the research was incomplete. Nevertheless, this school made an important step in overcoming intellectualism inherent in traditional psychology (Gordon, 2004).
Secondly, the controversial point is that the introduced structural principle does not justify itself as universal, that is, common to psychology in general, namely children and abnormal psychology (Schultz, 2013). This versatility gives insufficient structural strength for the explanatory principle. Thus, as applied to the problems of mental development, scientists try to reach a single principle of instinctive and intellectual processes; however, they do not allow seeing a fundamental difference between animals and humans, leading to a naturalistic theory of mental development of children, which ultimately does not explain mental development. (Bruce & Georgeson, 1996).
The concept of Gestalt, described by K.Koffka as an important psychological fact, continues to attract researchers’ attention. Its theoretical understanding through the principle of isomorphism is rightly regarded as a frank physical approach and cannot be considered an explanation. In his studies, K.Koffka reflected on the achievements of modern psychology. Experimental studies were provided by the scientist to explain the fact of Gestalt. Thus, he analyzed the fundamental researches in Gestalt perception, discussed credibility and attractiveness of this area, and concluded that the key to understanding Gestalt theory can be found in the genesis of perception. His approach allows people to understand the psychological mechanism of Gestalt, particularly in the field of perception. K.Koffka proclaimed the favor of experience of a subject. He stressed that psychological mechanisms highlighted in studies, revealed a simultaneous identification conducted in the context of the theory and the formation of intellectual actions and concepts.