Gestalt Therapy: A Tapestry Woven from Psychoanalysis, Gestalt Psychology, and Field Theory

This passage explores the intellectual milieu of Frankfurt in the 1920s, highlighting the cross-pollination of ideas that significantly influenced the development of Gestalt therapy by Fritz Perls. Bocian’s book “Fritz Perls in Berlin” is a great resource for those who wish to fully grasp the theoretical foundations of Gestal therapy.

A Fertile Ground for Interdisciplinary Exchange

The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS) served as a central hub for intellectual exchange. Here, renowned figures like Gestalt psychologists Ademar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, social philosopher Paul Tillich, and Marxist sociologists all interacted and debated. Both Lore Posner (later Perls) and Fritz Perls were deeply impacted by these thinkers, particularly Goldstein and his emphasis on the organism as a self-regulating whole.

Psychoanalysis and the South West German Working Group

In 1926, the South West German Working Group for Psychoanalysis was established. Key members like Karl Landauer and Erich Fromm fostered a space for critical engagement with psychoanalysis. Lore Perls underwent training analysis with Clara Happel, a member of the group, and later with Landauer, who Perls greatly respected. The Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute (FPI), founded in 1929, further solidified Frankfurt’s position as a center for psychoanalytic thought. Perls and Lore Posner attended lectures by prominent psychoanalysts like Anna Freud and Siegfried Bernfeld at the FPI.

Bridging the Gap Between Psychoanalysis and Gestalt Psychology

While both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology explored the human mind, they did so from distinct perspectives. Psychoanalysis focused on the unconscious mind and the role of past experiences, whereas Gestalt psychology emphasized present experience and the formation of meaningful wholes. However, there were attempts to bridge this gap.

  • Siegfried Bernfeld’s work in 1934 explored the relationship between these two schools of thought, highlighting the potential for Gestalt psychology’s holistic view of perception to inform psychoanalytic theory.
  • Psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler and Imre Hermann (Ferenczi’s student) saw connections between their work and Gestalt psychology. Adler’s individual psychology, whichwas already establishe, like Gestalt therapy, viewed humans as integrated wholes within social contexts.

  • Wilhelm Reich and Fritz Perls, who had both studied under Paul Schilder (who reviewed Kurt Koffka), believed Gestalt psychology could contribute to refining psychoanalytic concepts. Perls went on to be in analysis with Reich after having been with Karen Horney.
  • Georg Gero, who also was in analysis with Reich, reviewed and studied the work of Kurt Lewin (theory of the field) and Kurt Lewin’s colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik (unfinished business).
  • Thomas French introduced the concept of “insight” into psychoanalysis, which he had taken over from Wolfgang Köhler, attempting to create a synthesis of psychoanalysis and Lewin’s field theory.
  • Siegmund Fuchs (S.H. Foulkes) who worked with Perls as assistant to Goldstein employed Gestalt and Field theory to groups.
  • George Deveraux drew on gestalt psychology to explain how confrontation stimulate rudimentaty gestalts, while interpretation uncover repressed elements.
  • Wolfgang Hochheimer studied under Goldstein and Gelb published “on the analysis of the therapeutic field, investigating the application of analytical field theory. He acknowledged how the therapist and client’s respective “life fields” overlap has therapeutic significance.

Shared Interests and the Rise of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls, influenced by his exposure to both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, sought to create a synthesis. He was likely further drawn to this path due to his background in Mynona’s polarity philosophy, which emphasized the interplay of opposing forces.

  • Later developments such as the work of René Spitz (a friend of Kurt Lewin who explored Zeigarnik’s unfinished business and their connection to dreams) and the contextualist psychoanalysts further demonstrate the ongoing dialogue between Gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis. Spit developed a concept called “action cycles” that are similar to Gestalt Therapy’s “contact cycle”.
  • This group of psychoanalysts sought to integrate Gestalt psychology and field theory into their practice, focussing attention to the world beyond the client’s inner psyche, the environment (the field) that reciprocates its influences.

Conclusion

Even before Gestalt psychology became a formalized school of thought, Freud, particularly in his Interpretation of Dreams, began to employ concepts that resonated with a Gestalt understanding of the mind. Perls and other Gestalt therapists would later draw on these elements as evidence of psychoanalysis’ latent acknowledgment of the role of wholes and patterns in mental life.

The intellectual ferment of Frankfurt in the 1920s provided a fertile ground for the birth of Gestalt therapy. Perls, drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and other influences, wove these diverse threads into a unique therapeutic approach that emphasized present experience, self-awareness, and the organism’s capacity for self-regulation and growth.