Max Wertheimer Biography (1880-1943)

Max Wertheimer was one of the founding figures of the school of thought known as Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt approach focused on looking at things as a whole, suggesting that the whole was more than simply the sum of its parts. This could be contrasted with the structuralist school of thought, which was focused on breaking things down to their smallest possible elements.

Wertheimer's work and observations contributed to the Gestalt approach as well as to other areas such as experimental psychology and the study of sensation and perception.

Best Known For

Birth and Death

  • Max Wertheimer was born on April 15, 1880.
  • He died on October 12, 1943.

Early Life

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia during the late 1800s. His father was an educator and served as the director of a local school in addition to teaching. While he had an early interest in music, he also became fascinated with philosophy. Wertheimer originally studied law at university, but soon switched to philosophy and psychology. In 1904, he graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate degree from the University of Wurzburg.


After observing how flashing lights at a train station created the illusion of movement, he became increasingly interested in the study of perception. He called this illusion of movement the Phi phenomenon, which is the same principle upon which motion pictures are based.

While at the University of Frankfurt's Psychological Institute, he began to work with two assistants named Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. The three men became lifelong colleagues and would go on to form the school of thought known as Gestalt psychology.

After working as a professor at the University of Frankfurt for several years, he immigrated to the United States in 1933. He then began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City and continued to work there over the next decade.

Thanks to his work, the New School became one of the leading schools of psychology during the early part of the twentieth century. On October 12, 1943, Wertheimer suffered a fatal coronary embolism at his home in New York. Many people attended a memorial service held in his honor at the New School several weeks after his death, including the famed scientist Albert Einstein.

Wertheimer's son, Michael Wertheimer, is also a well-known psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

His Contributions to Psychology

As one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology, Wertheimer had an enormous influence on the development of psychology as well as on specific subfields including sensation and perception and experimental psychology.

In 1946, psychologist Solomon Asch wrote that the "...thinking of Max Wertheimer has penetrated into nearly every region of psychological inquiry and has left a permanent impress on the minds of psychologists and on their daily work. The consequences have been far-reaching in the work of the last three decades, and are likely to expand in the future."

Gestalt psychology formed partly as a reaction to the atomism of the structuralist school of thought. Unlike structuralism, which focused on breaking down mental processes into their smallest possible parts, Gestalt psychology took a holistic approach. According to the Gestalt thinkers, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

From this school of thought emerged the Gestalt principles of perceptual organization. This set of perceptual principles explains how smaller objects are grouped together to form larger ones.

A Word From Verywell

Max Wertheimer had an important role in the early development of psychology. In addition to founding a new school of thought in psychology that contributed to our understanding of how the mind works, Wertheimer also influenced countless other thinkers who also went on to make essential contributions to the field of psychology. 

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  • Hergenhahn, BR & Henley, T. An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2014.
  • Wertheimer, M. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. New York: Routledge; 2017.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.