Gestalt Theory: History

Table of Contents: Quick Links


One of the co-founders of Gestalt therapy was Fritz Perls and it reflects partially the spirit of times when he lived. Having received the M.D. degree in 1926, Perls left for Frankfurt-am-Main to become an assistant of Kurt Goldstein. They worked at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers and Professors Goldstein and Adhemar Gelb influenced him much there. He also got acquainted with Laura who became his wife later. At that point in time Frankfurt-am-Main can be called a center of intellectual life and Perls was subjected to influence of psychologists, psychoanalysts and existential philosophers, who had a leading role in Gestalt therapy in direct and indirect manner.

Fritz Perls started career of a psychoanalyst. He was under the direct influence of Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich, Otto Rank and other specialists, who influenced his work indirectly. But Wilhelm Reich influenced Perls more than others. Wilhelm Reich was Perls' analyst in the beginning of the 1930s. Perls said that he was the first who drew his attention to the essential aspect of psychosomatic medicine to the motoric system function of being an armor. (F. Perls, 1947, p. 3).

It is worthwhile mentioning three major influences on Perls' academic development. One of them was Sigmund Friedlander, a philosopher. Fritz Perls took up the notions of differential thinking from his philosophy as well as of creative indifference, which Perls mentions in his 1st book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression, written in 1947. The prime minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, also exerted influence upon Perls when he moved to Africa together with his from Nazi Germany and then Holland was occupied by Nazi. Prior to career of politician, Smuts had written a book about holism and evolution which actually scrutinized the wider ecological whole from a Gestalt perspective. Smuts devised the word holism. And the third person, the semanticist, Alfred Korzybski, also affected Perls' thinking and development.

Laura Posner Perls cofounded Gestalt therapy together with her husband. Laura's influence upon husband was widely known. She also contributed to the book Ego, Hunger and Aggression. One chapter in it was written by her. When she met Fritz Perls, she was a student and studied phychology. In 1932 she received the D.Sc. degree in the Frankfurt University. She was also influenced by Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, who were existential theologians. Her contribution to Gestalt therapy is great, though there is little she wrote about the subject under her name (Rosenfeld, 1978).

In spite of the fact, that Fritz Perls became a training psychoanalyst, he was irritated by dogmas coming from established Freudian psychoanalysis. The 20s, 30s, and the 40s of the last century were times of protest against Newtonian positivism. It was so for all spheres of life and not only science (Einstein's field theory, for instance), was permeated by a phenomenological-existential influence, but art too in addition to theater and dance, architecture and so forth. Afterwards, phenomenological-existential influence on Gestalt therapy was also big. (Kogan, 1976). Here we can mention, for instance, acknowledgment of responsibility and alternative to create personal existence, the dominance of existence over essence, in addition to the existential dialogue.

Gestalt psychology gives Fritz Perls integrating framework principle for Gestalt therapy. Gestalt belongs to the pattern or model of a set of elements and Gestalt psychologists consider that organisms unconsciously perceive whole models or patterns and not some pieces of it. Full patterns have different characteristics and they are not noticed when you analyze parts. Perception is not a passive process. It is not an outcome of sense organs stimulation received in a passive way. Integral organization of everything about the person should be considered. Organisms have the capability for correct perception when native ability of immediate experience in point of here and now is used. The assignment of phenomenological research and therapy is to use this capability to achieve insight into the studied structure. People logically perceive the whole patterns when they happen, real awareness can be believed more than dogma and interpretation.


Fritz Perls wrote Ego, Hunger and Aggression in 1941-1942. When he published it first in South Africa in 1946, it had different title then: A Revision of Freud's Theory and Method. Later in 1966 its subtitle was altered to The Beginning of Gestalt Therapy. «Gestalt therapy» term was initially used as the book title, the co-authors of which were Frederick Perls, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman (1951). Some time later the New York Institute for Gestalt therapy appeared and its headquarter was in the Perls' family apartment. Fritz and Laura Perls lived in New York City. There were seminars and workshops right in the apartment. Such people as Paul Weisz, Buck Eastman, Lotte Weidenfeld, Paul Goodman, Elliot Shapiro, Isadore From, Leo Chalfen, James Simkin, Iris Sanguilano and Kenneth A. Fisher studied then together with the Perls.

In the 1950s, serious workshops were organized everywhere alongside with study groups. Prior to American Psychological Association Convention in New York in 1954, an intensive workshop with 15 experienced psychologists was given, which lasted for three days. Workshops of this kind took place in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Miami. The Cleveland study group was organized in the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland in 1955.

Fritz Perls went to live to the West Coast, when Simkin organized Gestalt therapy workshop for him in 1960. Perls, James Simkin and Walter Kempler arranged the first training workshops on Gestalt therapy in summer of 1964 at the Esalen Institute. They worked under the guidance of Perls and Simkin to 1968. When Fritz Perls moved to another country, to Canada, Simkin stayed at Esalen and went on training up to 1970, together with Robert W. Resnick, Irma Shepherd, Jack Downing, Robert L. Martin, and John Enright,.

In the beginning Gestalt theory introduced many ideas accepted later in the practice of eclectic psychotherapy. The enthusiasm of immediate contact between therapist and client, the emphasis on immediate experience, the application of active experimentation, the stress on the here and now, the accountability of the patient, the awareness, the belief in organismic self-regulation, the mutual dependence between person and environment, the assimilation principle, and similar concepts were innovative, thrilling and scandalous for conservative-minded establishment. At that time the practice of psychotherapy was divided between the traditional approaches of psychoanalytic theory and the innovative Gestalt theory ideas. Gestalt definition was only forming then. This was a phase of development, when principles were integrated and the explanation and enucleation of the principles were left for the subsequent period. In this way Gestalt therapy also came into view and actively proclaimed about itself through contact with the therapist, but did not regard thoroughly what comprised a healing dialogic presence.

Current Status

There are no less than 62 Gestalt therapy institutes all over the globe, and their number is growing. Practically every big city in USA has one Gestalt institute as a minimum.

There is no national organization, no standards for institutes were established, for trainers and trainees. Consequently, every institute follows different criteria for training and membership selection. Many efforts were spent on arranging the conference in the past but they did not succeed. There are no standards for what represents good Gestalt therapy and a good Gestalt therapist. As a result, it is necessary for Gestalt therapy consumers to assess cautiously the educational, scientific, and training background of experts calling themselves Gestalt therapists or training on Gestalt therapy (see Yontef, 1981a, 1981b).

The Gestalt Journal is dedicated first and foremost to Gestalt therapy articles. Gestalt psychology articles are published in Gestalt Theory, as well as Gestalt therapy articles. Bibliographic details can be received from Kogan (1980), Rosenfeld (1981), and Wysong (1986).

With development of Gestalt training therapeutic practices which were common before have changed. For instance, former practice on Gestalt therapy frequently stressed the medical use of frustration, a misuse in notions of self-sufficiency, self-support, and an abrasive attitude of the client was understood by the therapist as manipulative. Due to this approach there was a tendency to develop the shame of shame-oriented patients. Gestalt psychology soft approach has changed a lot. Among the new things introduced were more self-expression by the therapist, accent on dialogues, reduced number of application of stereotypic techniques, more emphasis on explanation of character structure (with use of psychoanalytic notions), and bigger use of group practice.

So a client will discover a stress on self-acceptance, a softer therapist's manner, more reliance on the phenomenology of the client, and more unequivocal work with psychodynamic subjects. The group process is highlighted more, in addition to relation within a group between its members, and a decline in formal work in group. Much more attention is drawn to theoretical exposition, theoretical instruction and work with cognition upon the whole.