: Gestalt Theory

Melinda Haley

Gestalt theory has a rich and varied history. While Fritz Peris is generally credited with being the foremost practitioner of Gestalt counseling and psychotherapy (Bloom, 2009), his method was influenced by the Gestalt psychologists who preceded him, such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka (Benjafield, 2008). These psychologists laid the psychological groundwork for Perls's application of Gestaltism to counseling and psychotherapy (Stoehr, 2009). The difference between Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy is that the former is concerned with perception and cognition, whereas the latter focuses on personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy (Henle, 1978). The word Gestalt is a German term used to define a unique patterning in which the parts are integrated into the perceptual whole (Engelmann, 2008). There are three parts to the definition of a Gestalt, "a thing, its context or environment, and the relationship between them" (Kelly & Howie, 2007, p. 137), and the term "connotes the structural entity which is both different from and much more than the sum of its parts" (Clarkson, 2004, p. 1).


Frederick (Fritz) Peris

Friedrich Saloman Peris was born in 1893, the middle child and only son of middle-class Jewish parents in Berlin. He later anglicized his name, becoming Frederick, although most people called him Fritz (Thompson & Rudolph, 2000). Peris received a medical degree in 1920 after a brief stint as a medical corpsman during World War I. He found his war experience brutal in military authoritarianism and racial prejudice. These experiences influenced his humanitarianism but also left him with a deep cynicism about human nature (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2009). His early training in psychoanalysis took place in Austria and Germany, and he became associated with neurologist Kurt Goldstein (Clarkson, 2004). While working as Goldstein's assistant at Frankfurt's Institute for Brain Injured Soldiers in 1926, Peris became interested in the transforming of Gestalt psychology into Gestalt therapy (Peris, 1969b).

When Hitler came to power, Peris and his new wife Lore (Laura) relocated to Johannesburg, South Africa (Stoehr, 2009), where they became the first psychologists in that area (Wheeler, 2004). In 1946, Peris immigrated to the United States, and in 1951 he cowrote Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality/ (Peris, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951). Following the favorable reception of this text, he established several Gestalt institutes throughout the country, the first in New York in 1952. His work at the Esalen Institute in California established him as a prominent practitioner of Gestalt counseling and psychotherapy.

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