Kurt Goldstein’s Influence on Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls’ arrival in Frankfurt during 1926-1927 marked a pivotal point in his career. At Frankfurt University, a renowned center for social sciences in Germany, Gestalt psychology held significant influence. Lore Perls earned her doctorate at this institution, where prominent figures such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Goldstein shaped the intellectual landscape.

Goldstein, director of the Neurological Institute, based his research on war-related brain injuries. Perls served briefly as an assistant within Goldstein’s research group. Renowned for his holistic and organismic approach, Goldstein conceptualized neuronal function as an integrated network. He was among the physicians advocating for a multidisciplinary psychosomatic perspective on human suffering, urging the medical profession to view individuals as integrated wholes. Goldstein criticized both somatic medicine and psychoanalysis for their failure to incorporate the organism’s environment and their reliance on abstractions of reality rather than the integrated mind-body experience.

Perls embraced Goldstein’s organismic theory, which resonated with his professional background and his adoption of contextual, relational thinking influenced by Friedlander. This foundation shaped Perls’ subsequent contributions to the development of Gestalt therapy.

Kurt Goldstein’s ideas on health and self-realization deeply impacted Perls’ personal and professional development.

  • Health as Self-Actualization: For Goldstein, health wasn’t a fixed state but rather the ability of an individual to live authentically and fulfill their potential. As Harrington (2002) explains, health hinges on “the degree to which individual human beings can realize their nature, in other words, that which is important for their lives” (p. 277).
  • Therapy for a Meaningful Life: Goldstein believed therapy shouldn’t just analyze problems; it should empower individuals. The goal, as quoted in Harrington (2002, p. 277), is “a transformation of the patient’s personality” that allows them to “make the right choice” – a choice that aligns with their true nature and makes life feel worthwhile again.
  • Navigating Challenges: A healthy organism actively shapes its environment and experiences clashes, disruptions, and crises. Goldstein emphasizes the importance of courage in facing these challenges, making decisions, and overcoming difficulties.
  • Perls’ Personal Connection: Perls throughout his life exemplified courage in the face of fear. He might have found inspiration in a quote by Kierkegaard, relayed by Goldstein: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself” (in Harrington, 2002, p. 286).

References:

Harrington, Anne. (2002). Die Suche nach Ganzheit. Die Geschichte biologisch-psychologischer Ganzheitslehren: Vom Kaiserreich bis zur New-Age-Bewegung. Hamburg