Last week I had the word gestalt at the tip of my tongue for days. I asked Johnny and Mom — usually they can track down almost anything in the corners of my mind — but to no avail.

I described the word to them as meaning “mindset” or “worldview” or “personal zeitgeist,” none of which was entirely accurate. I like this definition of gestalt, from WordNet:

a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts

I remember when I first discovered the word: it was the perfect word to describe whatever it was I was thinking or writing about at the time. I write about it here simply to reinforce those neural pathways.


Nick Burka's picture
Nick Burka on March 14, 2005 - 17:33 Permalink

Gestalt Theory comes up every once in a while in art history. Though its exact use somehow continues to elude me.

DerekMac's picture
DerekMac on March 14, 2005 - 18:27 Permalink

From Google -
Definitions of Gestalt on the Web:

A collection of memories connected neurologically based on similar emotions.…

Any system of stuff that appears to take on an existence of its own, beyond the sum of its parts. It can be addressed as a whole.…

A perceptual pattern or structure possessing qualities as a whole that cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.…

The totality of an experience at all logical levels and in all senses.…

whole, figure, form, pattern, meaning, configuration…

Collection of memories that are organized in a certain way around a certain subject.…

Music Psychology…

A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.…

A German word for “form”, defined as an organized whole in experience. The Gestalt psychologists, about 1912, advanced the theory which explains psychological phenomena by their relationships to total forms rather than their parts.…

Refers to the process of perceiving objects, physical and social, as whole units, not separable into parts.…

a psychological view that the whole is not just the sum of its parts…


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on March 14, 2005 - 19:04 Permalink

Were you listening to How to Seem Smart on CBC Radio this weekend?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 14, 2005 - 19:06 Permalink

I just knew that someone was going to point that out and blow my “use German words to sound smart” cover. Damn you, Garrity, damn you.

al's picture
al on March 14, 2005 - 19:55 Permalink

I think gestalt theory is often used in art/design to think about composition and the use of negative space.

My first introduction to gestalt was when a friend in grade school drew a vase that was also two people facing each other — remember that?

oliver's picture
oliver on March 15, 2005 - 00:16 Permalink

Whoda thunk? I thought it was yiddish for when your engine quits on the freeway. I tells ya, if it ain’t one thing it’s another.

Davey's picture
Davey on March 15, 2005 - 01:25 Permalink

One early encounter with the word ‘gestalt’ came to me courtesy of the American theatre director, William Ball. In his book, “A Sense of Direction,” he writes about ‘unresolved gestalt’ as (roughly) a wayward condition on stage that is known to both actors and audience but is left unresolved. An example: a lamp is unintentionally knocked over by an actor but he fails to deal with it.

In the meantime, the audience is left with this ‘unresolved gestalt’ which causes them undue anxiety. (Does he know he knocked over the lamp? Is it broken? Does he see it? Will the actor pick it up? Why won’t he pick it up? Omigod, he’s going to trip on the lamp! No, he won’t! Help us!) Needless to say, the audience quickly loses track of what is otherwise happening on stage, which is (usually) the stuff you paid to see.

I second Ball’s advice at every opportunity — just pick up the lamp and move on.