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Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967) founded Gestalt psychology in the early 20th century. The dominant view in psychology at the time was structuralism, exemplified by the work of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), and Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927). Structuralism was rooted firmly in British empiricismand was based on three closely interrelated theories: “atomism,” also known as “elementalism,” the view that all knowledge, even complex abstract ideas, is built from simple, elementary constituents, “sensationalism,” the view that the simplest constituents—the atoms of thought—are elementary sense impressions, and “associationism,” the view that more complex ideas arise from the association of simpler ideas.
Together, these three theories give rise to the view that the mind constructs all perceptions and even abstract thoughts strictly from lower-level sensations that are related solely by being associated closely in space and time. The Gestaltists took issue with this widespread “atomistic” view that the aim of psychology should be to break consciousness down into putative basic elements. In contrast, the Gestalt psychologists believed that breaking psychological phenomena down into smaller parts would not lead to understanding psychology. The Gestalt psychologists believed, instead, that the most fruitful way to view psychological phenomena is as organized, structured wholes. They argued that the psychological “whole” has priority and that the “parts” are defined by the structure of the whole, rather than vice versa.
One could say that the approach was based on a macroscopic view of psychology rather than a microscopic approach. Gestalt theories of perception are based on human nature being inclined to understand objects as an entire structure rather than the sum of its parts.