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Unread March 31st, 2006, 08:41 AM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
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Default Notes on Field Theory

Field Theory and Gestalt Therapy

The one concept that students seem to struggle with most in Gestalt therapy is Field Theory. This short paper is offered as a way to better understand the impact and application of field theory in Gestalt therapy. It is helpful to begin with an understanding of just how the terms “field” and “field theory” are being used in physics and Gestalt therapy, and in particular, to what extent are these terms used as an epistemology (ie as a method of obtaining and validating knowledge) and secondly as an ontology (ie expressing the nature of being), with each term not exclusive of the other.

Field as Representation and Field as Real in Physics

Physics began with the simple concepts of mass, force, vectors and inertia which described the mechanics of the world and universe. In this classical Newtonian physics, there are separate objects and separate forces which act on these objects. This is the consensus reality of the western World in how we construct our state of consciousness (Ornstein 1972, Tart 1975) and provides us a sense of separate identity. In a similar way psychology began with theories of inner and external forces which acted on or in the individual through drives, unconscious processes, reinforcement, will and motivation.

For 19th century physicists this presented a reality which was common sense experience and agreed with our intuitive understanding of the world.

The challenge arose to this view of reality in the attempts to develop an understanding of processes which were essentially invisible yet the results of which clearly observable. The forces of gravity, magnetism, electricity and light all posed problems which then required a new conceptualisation which Faraday and Maxwell introduced in the form of a field.

In physics a new concept appeared which Einstein and Infield (1938) state is the most important development since those of Newton - the field. Initially with electromagnetism and then light, this concept proved experimentally successful in describing and predicting reality. The field is at first a way of representing vectors of force in a schematic drawing of forces (such as gravity) and as such it is purely a representation of reality.

However with the advent of Maxwell’s four equations describing the structure of the electromagnetic field, there was born, in Einstein’s words, “a new reality”.

“The electromagnetic field is, for the modern physicist, as real as the chair on which he sits” (Einstein and Infield, 1938, pg151)

Field as Representation

The first stage of developing a field perspective of reality was to visualise and map as vectors the force that was operating in a field. At this point the field was used simply as a device, or method to assist with conceptualisation. By drawing these lines of force such as gravity, physicists were able to note the direction of the force, but they could not use this as a way to explain gravity. So the attempt to make the field at this point more than a representation or model seemed fruitless (Einstein and Infield 1938). The field remained an epistemological tool - a field theory or method.

Field as Real

However it was the work with electricity, magnetism and then electromagnetism which began to establish the field as a reality. While Newton’s laws defined the motion of the earth as effected by the force of a sun far away, Maxwell theory was about a field here and now, as a whole, not two widely separated events.

As Einstein and Infield (1938) relate, a new reality was created which described both electric and optical phenomena and the new concept of the field, in their opinion, was the most important discovery in physics since the time of Newton. The field had thus shifted from being simply an epistemology to become an ontology - no longer just field theory but the field as real.

Field theory in Psychology and Gestalt therapy

With the concept of the field physics re-invented the frame of reality beyond that of Newtonian physics, and psychology took its first steps with field theory in the work of James, Smuts, Lewin, Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy.

The majority of psychology has remained in the frame of the separate reductionist world of Decarte and Newton, as many Freudian and behavioural theorists as well as most in psychiatry, considered the human being as a distinct seperate "unit" effected by outside or internal forces.

Those psychologies which have adopted a field theoretical understanding have, like Maxwell and modern day physicists, adopted a new view of reality with the field expressing not only a theory but an ontological reality.

From the various influences which have shaped its development Gestalt therapy carries both of these possibilities, that field theory is an epistemological method and an ontological reality .

Field Theory and Psychology

William James

James, as the father of American psychology, was particularly adroit in his time to have considered that the field as a concept was relevant to psychology. He used the term to understand the structure of consciousness and related the notion that there were “fields of consciousness” rather than the traditional reductionist units of thought or memory or an idea. He states -

“… it (field of consciousness) is nevertheless there, and helps both to guide our behavior and determine the next movement of our attention. It lies around us like the ‘magnetic field’, inside of which our centre of energy turns like a compass needle, as the present phase of consciousness alters into its successor.” (James 1977 p. 233)

Gestalt Psychology

A field based psychology with a strong influence on Fritz and Laura Perls was that of Gestalt psychology and the work of people such as Wertheimer, Koffka, Kohler, Fuchs, Gelb and others. This included work which followed, in particular that of Kurt Goldstein in neurophysiology and Kurt Lewin in social science (Ellis1938, Bowman 2005). The focus of this school was on perception and related areas such as animal experiments, thought, psychical forces, and pathological phenomena (Ellis 1938). When the original theory as outlined by Wertheimer is studied, the correlation to the later work of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman becomes clear.

The very basic and fundamental formula for Gestalt theory, as outlined by Wertheimer (1938) presents a description of the field in every way consistent and agreeable with the work of Smuts and PHG -

“ There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole” (Wertheimer, 1925 in Ellis 1938, pg 2)

Wertheimer was clear that Gestalt psychology was not a separate entity in itself but a convergence of scientific and philosophical standpoints. It was equally as functional as mathematics, wherein a formula, whether mathematical or psychological, had a dynamic functional relationship to the whole. This included Gestalt psychology’s view of the ego, which was seen as a functional part of the total field, and the whole processes operating in the field that effecting behavior.

The connection to the later theory of Gestalt therapy is also very explicit. The organism is part of a larger field of organism and environment, and the behavioural concepts of stimulus-sensation are replaced by alterations in field conditions and the total reaction of the organism (Wertheimer, 1925).

Kurt Lewin

Lewin (1951) described Field theory as an epistemology (or methodology) in that it is simply a way of understanding reality and not the reality itself. He equates it more to a handicraft, in that methods like field theory can only be understood, learnt and mastered by ongoing practice.

“Field theory is probably best characterized as a method; namely, a method of analysing causal relations and building scientific constructs”. (Lewin, 1951, pg 45)

Behind the field theory of Lewin appears a desire to express human behavior in scientific, mathematical terms. Borrowing from physics, he talks of psychological force, power fields and the direction and velocity of behavior and notes the parallel between time-space quanta and his own notion of “time-field-units” (Lewin, 1951, pg 52)

It is less the physics of fields and more in mathematical modelling that Lewin seems to be inspired and field theory is a vehicle (or in his word, method) to hold his quasi-scientific methodology of the mathematics of behavior. A flaw in his approach is the lack of quantification in numbers of the mathematical terms and formulae he uses.

He draws these life spaces and field forces in a similar way to which physicists draw vectors of force. This is clearly not the organism/environment field theory of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG), though it may have influenced it.

Jan Smuts

Smuts (1926) provides significantly more detail than Lewin in outlining the scientific ground he uses to build his theory. He describes electromagnetic, and biological fields and returns his work to connect with relativity and the beginnings of quantum physics. There is no emphasis on the mathematics required to do this and instead Smuts uses a language of connection and holism which is strikingly similar to PHG.

Smuts places the concept of “field” within the history of science and brings an epistemological cohesiveness and integration to physics, biological and psychological field theory. In doing so Smuts demonstrates a very erudite understanding of the field theory of physics and psychological field theory.

The organism and the field as described by Smuts are more akin to the writing of PHG, as he speaks of “the system of organic regulation“, “co-ordination amongst an indefinitely large number of parts”, “self restoration” and the “system of co-operation amongst all its parts which makes them function for the whole”. (Smuts, 1926, pg 65)

It is in this conceptualisation of Holism that Smuts synthesises the work of quantum theory and Gestalt therapy, albeit in before Gestalt therapy was developed. He states -

“The Field is the source of the grand Ecology of the universe. It is the environment, the Society - vital, friendly, educative, creative - of all wholes and all souls. It is not a mere figure of speech or figment of the imagination, but a reality..” (Smuts, 1926, pg 369)

Perls, Hefferleine and Goodman - Gestalt therapy

PHG offers an ontological description of the field as a whole - an organism/environment field. In essence there is not a field theory, more simply there is the field. This speaks to the theoretical descriptions of Smuts, where the field is an epistemological device to explain the nature of the ontological reality of wholes and holism.

Each of these field theorists takes us only so far in using the realities of physics to develop similar understanding of the human condition. This is rightly so as each was a product of his time and the state of physics at this period in history.

If each of these field theorists were alive today I imagine they would be excited by separate yet related corroborating work of quantum physics and the work of scientists such as Bohm and Sheldrake.

From the various influences which have shaped its development Gestalt therapy carries both possibilities, that field theory is an epistemological method and an ontological reality. Few gestalt therapists have dared to venture further to relativistic quantum field theory or the holographic field of Bohm (1993) or Sheldrake’s (2003) morphogenic fields. It is Parlett who offers this call for further extension in his current writing on field theory -

“No discussion of the field in the specialized and relatively small scale arena of Gestalt therapy should ignore the general scientific beliefs of the day. (Parlett 2005 p.61) “

He goes on to state it would be ironic if Gestalt therapists were to turn their back on these scientific developments which might well confirm the emphasis in Gestalt therapy of field theory.

Gestalt therapists have been operating and espousing a reality of dialogue, phenomenology and field which are well supported by current world views of physics. In many ways the traditional "scientific" approaches of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and others are operating within a classical Newtonian framework which is at best a special and limiting case of the wider reality as described by relativistic quantum field theory.

Gestalt therapy speaks to the reality of modern physics, where observations effect the nature and identity of the observed. The connectedness and the “whole” of the organism/environment field and the relativistic quantum field of physics are clearly more in tune with each other, and field theory offers both in physics and psychology, and in particular in Gestalt therapy, a way to bring an integration of physical science, psychology and spirituality - or as Smuts said all those years ago -

"The Field is the source of the grand Ecology of the universe..."

References and bibliography.

Bohm, D & Hiley, B.J. (1993). The Undivided Universe. Routledge, London.

Bowman, C. (2005). The History and Development of Gestalt Therapy in Woldt, A. and Toman, S.(2005) Gestalt Therapy: History, Theory, Practice. SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Capra, F. (1982) The Tao of Physics, Flamingo, London.

Crocker, S. (1999) A Well Lived Life: Essays in Gestalt Therapy. GIC Press Cleveland

Einstein, A & Infield, L. (1938) The Evolution of Physics. Simon and Schuster, New York

Ellis, W. ed.,(1938 reprinted 1997). A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology.The Gestalt Journal Press, New York

Francis, T.(2005). Working with the Field. British Gestalt Journal,14,1, pp 26-33.

James, W. (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1977 Fontana Paperback, Glasgow.

Kepner, J. (1995).Healing Tasks: Psychotherapy with Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse. Jossey-Bass and Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, San Francisco.

Latner, J. (1983) Thi is the speed of light: Field and systems theory in Gestalt therapy. The Gestalt Journal,6,2 (Fall 1983), 71-90

Lee, R.(Ed) (2004) The Values of Connection: A Relational Approach to Ethics. GIC Press, Cleveland.

Le Shan, (1974) The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist. Ballantine Books, New York

Lewin, K. (1936) Principles of Topological Psychology. McGraw-Hill, New York

Lewin, K.(1951) Field Theory in Social Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Lightman, A (2000). Great Ideas in Physics. McGraw-Hill, New York

Mackewen, J.(1997). Developing Gestalt Counselling, Sage Publications, London.

McTaggart, L. (2003) The Field. Harper Collins, London.

Mitchell, S. (translator) (2000) The Bhagavad Gita. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Nicoll, M (1976) Living Time and the Integration of Life. Watkins, London.

Ornstein, R. (1972) The Psychology of Consciousness, Penguin, New York

Parlett, M.(1993). Towards a More Lewian Gestalt Therapy, British Gestalt Journal,2,2 p. 115-121

Parlett, M.(1997). The Unified Field in Practice. Gestalt Review, 1,1 p.16-33

Parlett, M. (2005) Contemporary Gestalt Therapy: Field Theory in Woldt, A. & Toman, S. Gestalt Therapy: History, Theory and Practice. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Perls, F., Hefferline, R., and Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Souvenir Press edition (1984) London.

Polster, E. & Polster, M. (1973) Gestalt therapy integrated: Contours of theory and practice. Brunner-Mazel, New York.

Polster, E & Polster, M. (1999) From the Radical Center: The Heart of Gestalt Therapy. GIC Press, Cleveland.

Resnick, R. (1995). Gestalt therapy: Principles, prisms and perspectives. British Gestalt Journal,4(1),3-13.

Robine, J.(2001) From Field to Situation in Robine, J (Ed) Contact and Relationship in a Field Perspective. L’experimerie, Bordeaux.

Sheldrake, R.(2003) The Sense of Being Stared At and other aspects of the Extended Mind. Random House, London.

Shepard, M (1976) Fritz. Bantam, New York

Smuts, J. (1926) edited by Holst, S. (1999) Holism and Evolution: The Original Source of the Holistic Approach to Life. Sierra Sunrise Books.

Talbot, M.(1991) The Holographic Universe. Harper Collins, London.

Tart, C., (1975) States of Consciousness. E P Dutton and Co, New York.

Wheeler, G (1991) Gestalt Reconsidered: A New Approach to Contact and Resistance. GIC Press, Cleveland.

Wertheimer, M. Gestalt Theory. (1925) in Ellis, W. ed.,(1938 reprinted 1997). A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology.The Gestalt Journal Press, New York

Wilber, K. (ed) (1985) The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes. Shambhala, Boston & London.

Yontef, G. (1993) Awareness, Dialogue and Process: Essays of Gestalt Therapy. The Gestalt Journal Press, New York,

Zinker, J. (1994) In search of good form: Gestalt therapy with couples and families. Jossey- Bass, San Francisco.
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