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Gestalt-Cognition: Percepts & Concepts

Christoph Hueck (DE)

The question of cognition of shape (Gestalt) is of outstanding importance for Goethean science, especially for morphological, but also for other phenomenological questions. An understanding of Gestalt can emerge from the theory of knowledge elaborated by Rudolf Steiner.

Gestalt is a consistent context that integrates details into a superordinate whole. From an epistemological point of view, a perceptual Gestalt is created by adapting a conceptual form to a sum of perceptual contents in such a way that these contents are stripped of their own Gestalt character and merged into a superordinate whole. Fig. 1 shows two examples of how individual elements can be integrated into the Gestalt of a triangle or a three-dimensional cube when arranged in a certain way.

Fig. 1: Spatial integration of perceived stimuli by a concept into a Gestalt

The triangle and the cube are not "seen" because - as it is often said - "our brain" forms a Gestalt-like image, but because we merge a concept (an inwardly understood meaning) with the perceptual contents in the way described. The phenomena are thus no longer seen as random details but are grasped as a meaningful whole.

However, the process by which the perceived details are conceptually integrated often happens very quickly and is therefore hardly experienced. The situation is different with the two following figures. In Fig. 2, perception and concept cannot be brought to coincide conclusively, while in the case of Fig. 3, one may have to search for some time until one finds the concept that integrates the details into a coherent whole (but which then "locks in" in such a way that it is difficult, after recognising the figure, to once again see only the separate details that are meaningless in themselves).

Fig. 2: Self-observation of cognitive activity in Gestalt perception

As described in the article on Epistemology, a "representational image" is formed from the once completed unification of perceptions and concept, which then remains available to memory. When recognising a similar shape, the Gestalt-forming process is superimposed by the remembered representational image and is therefore no longer experienced as active - it seems to happen automatically, as it were. (Since the Gestalt-forming process in Fig. 2 cannot be finally completed and therefore no fixed representation can be formed, the attempt to unify the concept with the perceptions remains "alive").

Fig. 3: Demonstration of Gestalt as union of percept and concept

Time integration in Gestalt cognition

Fig. 2 illustrates yet another aspect of Gestalt cognition. A subtle observation may notice that one scans the figure with the focus of attention. The gaze wanders from top to bottom, from back to front and back again. In doing so, one retains in memory the impressions seen, and at the same time one has expectations of the impressions that are about to come. With this figure, however, what one expects to see cannot be reconciled with what one actually sees. - Gestalt cognition is therefore not only a spatial but also a temporal integration of different observation contents.

Fig. 4: Time integration in Gestalt perception

The temporal integration of perceived stimuli into holistic shapes can also be observed in Fig. 4. You only see a single point at a time. The change in its position is integrated into a circular figure.[1]

Gestalt cognition corresponds to organic Gestalt development

In the biological formation of an organic Gestalt, a similar process happens on an ontological level that can be described epistemologically for Gestalt cognition: Individual parts (organs) are integrated into a superordinate whole (organism). This integration is also spatial and temporal (see Organism & Time).


[1] This experiment was described by Viktor von Weizsäcker (1942). He commented: "The shape of a movement is the simultaneous representation of successive pasts - is actually an act of memory" (p. 32). "The feat that perception accomplishes in movement-path-seeing ... implies the faculty of anamnesis" (p. 33). "Experimental experience has now shown that also ... the direction of movement is an essential feature of all figure-perception. For example, in many cases the eye only makes comprehensible additions to the figure from this 'there-to', which are not founded at all in the stimulus (the object presented). We call this the prolepsis of perception and thus arrive at the statement of the anamnestic-proleptic character of perceptual figures." (p. 50).


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (ohne Datum): Fragmente zur vergleichenden Anatomie. Gestalt und Typus. Morphologie. In: Goethe. Berliner Ausgabe 24. Berlin 1965-1978 (digital 2005), S. 415–435.

Weizsäcker, Viktor von (1942): Gestalt und Zeit. Göttingen 1960.

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