Wertheimer is famous as the originator of Gestalt psychology, which attempts to examine psychological phenomena as 'structural wholes'; that is, not as aggregates in which the parts are added, but as integral unities arising from the interrelations of their parts.
His philosophy, which came to the fore only after he had moved to America in 1933, reflected his Gestalt theory. In his Productive Thinking (1945) he distinguished between the laws of logic and the laws of thought, between habitual, imitative behaviour and creative, productive acts of thinking. Thus he criticized the current educational emphasis on traditional logic, arguing that important problem-solving processes such as grouping and reorganization, which deal with problems as structural wholes, were not recognized in logic. For Wertheimer truth was a function not of individual details but of the entire systematic structure of experience where all is relevant to all. Wertheimer's Gestalt theory has had an enormously stimulating influence not only on psychology but also on philosophy, especially the philosophy of perception and aesthetics.
Swedish-Finnish. b: 20 November 1862, Helsinki. d: 3 September 1939, London. Cat: Anthropologist; moral philosopher. Ints: Sociology of morals. Educ: University of Helsinki. Infls: J.S. Mill and Spencer. Appts: 1903-7, Lecturer in Sociology, London School of Economics; 1906-18, Professor of Practical Philosophy, University of Helsinki; 1907-30, Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics.
Westermarck's first major book, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906-08), took him many years to produce and in it his subjectivist view of ethics is already presupposed. He argued that, since there are no objective moral truths, the task of a scientific ethics is 'to investigate the moral consciousness as a fact'. Accordingly he made a comparative and historical survey of the varying attitudes and practices of different human societies on such topics as homicide, blood revenge, charity and slavery.
Westermarck's subjectivism was criticized by G.E. Moore amongst others and he replied to his critics in his main philosophical work, Ethical Relativity (1932). He sought to show that those philosophical theories which sought to provide an underpinning for an objectivist ethics, such as utilitarianism and evolutionary ethics, failed to provide a suitable defence for their fundamental principles. Subjectivist and relativist views in ethics, though widely popular, have been extensively criticized by philosophers. 'Nevertheless', in the opinion of J.L.Mackie, 'some contemporary philosophers believe that Westermarck's views on ethics are substantially correct and that he made an important contribution to the development and defense of views of this kind' (1967, p. 286).
Sources: Westermarck (1929) Memories of My Life, London: Allen & Unwin.