Foundations of Gestalt Therapy 1 The History and Development of Gestalt Therapy

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Foundations of Gestalt Therapy


The History and Development of Gestalt Therapy

Charles E. Bowman

Edwin C. Nevis, Dialogue Respondent

It is highly instructive to learn something of the intensively tilled soil from which our virtues proudly emerge. Paul Goodman, “The Father of the Psychoanalytic Movement


Because everyone describes Gestalt therapy from his or her own perspective, there are multiple definitions of Gestalt therapy and widely differing historical accounts.[please retain original first sentence – your changes are not as accurate as the author’s account in that not “everyone” describes GT from own perspective; that is too broad a statement.] The typical narrative of Gestalt therapy history can be summarized in Carlyle’s (Strouse & Strouse, 1993) famous maxim that all history is the biography of great men. The “great man” approach to history recounts the legend of a heroic figure (typically male) who individually changes the course of modern history, founds a school of thought, or introduces a new paradigm. In the history of Gestalt therapy, this approach details the contributions of Frederick Perls. Perls’s name has been virtually synonymous with Gestalt therapy, along with his famous “empty chair” technique.

Numerous problems plague these traditional historical accounts. Discoveries are glamorized and multiple contributors are ignored. Embarrassing moments are omitted and disciplines are protected at the expense of truth. These “Fritz Perls” accounts are ethnocentric, sexist, shallow, and historically ignorant. They have stranded[please use author’s original word here: “cemented”; the meaning of stranded is different from what he intended] Gestalt therapy in the zeitgeist of 1960s popular psychology. Unfortunately, most historical accounts ignore the richness of Gestalt therapy theory as the confluence of many contributions, from physics to feminism, Hasidism to Taoism, and radical individualism to relational psychology, to name just a few. Therefore, this chapter will present the history of Gestalt therapy from a field theoretical[au: can you provide a brief definition here? Or will all your readers know what field theory is?][they will know; field theory is in every chapter of this book; please leave as field theoretical perspective] perspective, identifying contributions to Gestalt therapy from an array of cultural, scientific, historical, and aesthetic components of human experience.

The broadest overview of Gestalt therapy identifies a changing weltanschauung as responsible for Gestalt therapy’s development. Weltanschauung connotes more than the dictionary definition, “a shared worldview.” It is how we apprehend the world—how we are involved in it, perceive it, and bring our personal history to bear on it. This is a collective perspective that helps explain momentum and change. In Gestalt therapy, the result has been movement (a) from deconstructive views of the world toward holistic models of existence; (b) from linear causality toward field theoretical paradigms; and (c) from an individualistic psychology toward a dialogical or relational perspective.

The following definition of Gestalt therapy reflects the influences of a field perspective on methodology:

Gestalt therapy is a process psychotherapy with the goal of improving one’s contact in community and with the environment in general. This goal is accomplished through aware, spontaneous and authentic dialogue between client and therapist. Awareness of differences and similarities are encouraged while interruptions to contact are explored in the present therapeutic relationship. (Bowman, 1998, p. 106)

This definition clearly outlines what a Gestalt therapist does in practice. Viewing the history of Gestalt therapy from a field theoretical perspective makes it possible to see how the various components in this definition have evolved. Understanding the changing weltanschauung adds texture and contour to an already colorful historical account of Gestalt therapy.

Gestalt therapy is celebrating over 50 years of existence, marking the publication of its first comprehensive text, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951, 1994, hereafter referred to as Gestalt Therapy), and the birth of the first professional training group, the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. While Frederick Perls looms large as the father of Gestalt therapy in the “great man” perspective, he invented neither the theory nor the subject matter, as he acknowledged (Perls, 1969[au: are you citing Gestalt Therapy Verbatim; Ego, Hunger, and Aggression; or In and Out of the Garbage Pail? All are 1969 in ref list][we need to check this out with the chapter author]). The seeds of Gestalt therapy were planted well in advance of Frederick Perls and have fully germinated into a comprehensive theory of psychotherapy and a philosophical foundation for living.

An acquaintance with some of the early contributors in psychoanalysis, psychology, and philosophy only partially illuminates the theory labeled “Gestalt” in 1951. Victorian Europe, the dramatic impact of fascism and world war, the denouement of 1960s liberalism, and the subsequent conservative shift have all interacted to shape the landscape of Gestalt therapy.

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