A brief history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, psychology was a branch of philosophy. Three philosophers, Wertheimer (studied in Prague), Koffka (earned his PhD in Berlin) and Köhler (also studied at the University of Berlin) began to collaborate on the founding of a new holistic attitude toward psychology, called Gestalt theory.
Wertheimer had become interested in the lectures of Christian von Ehrenfels, an Austrian philosopher who, in 1890, published what is often said to be the first paper on holistic formqualities or (as Ehrenfels called them) Gestalt qualities. This paper anticipated some of the findings of Wertheimer, Koffka and Kohler, in what is now commonly known as Gestalt psychology.
The three philosophers published papers and in time they became world-famous as the originators of Gestalt theory. Gestalt theory is to imply that it also pertains to disciplines outside of psychology. Gestalt is the German word for “form” or “configuration”.
Fritz Perls (1893 - 1970), a noted German-born psychiatrist and psychotherapist of Jewish descent, who gravitated to the work of Freud and Wilhelm Reich, coined the term 'Gestalt Therapy' for the approach to therapy he developed with his wife Laura Perls from the 1940s. This approach is related but not identical to Gestalt psychology.
The Perls moved to New York in 1946, where Fritz worked briefly with Karen Horney, and Wilhelm Reich. Around 1947, Fritz asked author Paul Goodman to write up some hand-written notes, which together with contributions from Ralph Hefferline and Goodman, were published as Gestalt Therapy. This book became what many called “the Gestalt Bible” and was used in all training organisations worldwide.
Gestalt therapy began as a reaction to the rigidity of classical psychoanalysis by therapists who were trained in classical psychotherapy. Gestalt therapy also reacted against the psychoanalytic change theory, which was pessimistic about growth possibilities and had a limited sense of available options. Psychoanalysis stressed transference rather than relationship, accompanied by an emphasis on interpretation rather than actual experience of either the patient or therapist (phenomenology). The entire concept of the role of the therapist was radically modified by the early Gestalt therapists.
Gestalt therapy was based on the power of experimentation, of trying something new and letting awareness emerge from the new experimental behaviour. Gestalt therapy made room for a powerful methodology. It did not just react to psychoanalysis - it started a revolution that was firmly rooted in a basic belief in the power of human capabilities.
Based in these earlier principles, Gestalt theory and therapy have been further developed by many contemporary therapists, most of whom had good clinical as well as philosophical backgrounds and who trained under the Perls’ and other significant trainers and therapists.
Today, we have a very sophisticated methodology, rooted in a long history that has integrated principles of other therapies, such as psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), person centred and psychoanalysis. And other diverse sources have flowed into Gestalt therapy, like existentialism, phenomenology, Zen, theatrical performance, systems and field theory..