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Origins and Development of Gestalt Therapy

The theory of Gestalt therapy has three major sources. First is psychoanalysis, which contributed some of its major principles concerned with the inner life. Humanistic, holistic, phenomenological and existential writings, which center on personal experience and everyday life, constitute a second source. Gestalt psychology, the third source, gave to Gestalt therapy much more than its name. Though Gestalt therapy is not directly an application or extension of it, Gestalt psychology’s thoroughgoing concentration on interaction and process, many of its important experimental observations and conclusions, and its insistence that a psychology about humans include human experience have inspired and informed Gestalt therapy.

Gestalt therapy emerged from the clinical work of two German psychotherapists, Frederick Salomon Perls, M.D., and Lore Perls, Ph.D. F.S. Perls, known to many of his students as Fritz, was trained as a psychiatrist. He worked with Kurt Goldstein, a principal figure of the holistic school of psychology, in his inquiries into the effects of brain injuries on veterans of the first World War. Later, in the 1920s, he trained in psychoanalysis with Karen Homey and Wilhelm Reich. Laura Perls–she adopted the anglicized spelling after she came to the United States–studied with the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger and was awarded a doctorate in psychology for her graduate studies. The most important of her teachers was the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. F. S. and Laura Perls fled Western Europe in 1933 ahead of the onslaught of Nazism to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they practiced until the termination of hostilities in 1945.

Ego, Hunger and Aggression was written during this period. The book, published under F. S. Perls’s name in London in 1947, is subtitled A Revision of Psychoanalysis. It included chapters reevaluating the analytic viewpoint on aggression. They suggested that Freud and his followers had underestimated the importance of the development of teeth, eating, and digestion, and that this developmental watershed was as important as the others noted by Freud. These suggestions constitute an early contribution to the development of ego psychology. The book also contained chapters from holistic and existential perspectives and chapters describing therapy exercises. These exercises were designed to promote physical awareness rather than insight, and were called concentration therapy.

With the end of the war, the Perlses emigrated to the United States. They settled in New York City, in a community of artists and intellectuals versed in philosophy, psychology, medicine, and education. Several years of collaboration with members of this group resulted in the training of the first generation of Gestalt therapists, a comprehensive formulation of the theory, methodology, and practice for this new approach, and a book describing it. Published by the Julian Press in 1951, the volume was entitled Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Authorship was credited to F. S. Perls, along with Ralph Hefferline, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, and the writer Paul Goodman, perhaps best known for his subsequent bestseller, Growing Up Absurd (1963). Half the book consisted of reports of the results of exercises in awareness which Hefferline administered to his students. The other half was their statement of their new approach. Goodman wrote this section, basing his work off a manuscript by F. S. Perls and reflecting the common ground achieved by the collaborators. Goodman’s keen and prolific mind–he wrote more than 30 books and hundreds of shorter pieces (novels, plays, poems, articles, short stories, and books of shorter essays in the fields of literature, psychology, philosophy, and social and educational criticism)–is reflected in the volume. His special respect for the many contributions to psychology of Otto Rank, perhaps especially the importance of art and the artist in understanding daily life, for Reich, and for communitarian philosophers like Kropotkin also find a place in Gestalt Therapy, and he is responsible for a large measure of its completeness and power. Gestalt Therapy remains the basic book of the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy, a cornerstone of the Gestalt approach.