The seminal article of Gestalt Theory, by Christian von Ehrenfels (1890), Über Gestaltqualitäten, begins with a review of Mach’s Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Analysis of Sensations, 1886). Mach asks, “what constitutes a melody?” The relationships of the sound to one another, he answers. Although it seems empirically odd, the melody, he says, is not constituted out of its sounds, for different sounds can construct the same melody. Providing relationships remain the same, the recognition of the structure is possible. For Mach, this process is at the basis of all perception. Mach uses the term Gestalt to indicate the characteristics of a whole that depend on the specific configuration of its parts. Gestalten, for Mach, appear thanks to an equality (Gleichheit) in the sensations, which can be noticed directly, not deduced or abstracted. This, along with the discussion in the school of Brentano, constituted the starting point for Ehrenfels. Moreover, Meinong, Ehrenfels’ teacher, has dedicated a work to theory of relations (Meinong, 1882), and he is also very influential by explicity pointing out that relations are themselves nothing but Gestalt qualities. At the same time, Husserl also had used the term Gestalt and Gestaltmoment to indicate higer-order quasi-qualities.
Despite these parallels (see Albertazzi, 2001), it was Ehrenfels who tematized the topic. By asking “is a melody (i) a mere sum of elements, or (ii) something novel in relation to this sum, something that certainly goes hand in hand with but is distinguishable from the elements.” Like Stumpf (1890), he concluded that it is much more than the sum of the parts. “the qualities are not in the least changed … but a new relation is introduced between them, which establishes a closer unity than that between members of a mere sum (Stumpf, 1890, p. 64). In line with this theoretical background, and rejecting a simplistic approach to perception, Ehrenfels explains Gestalt as follows,
By Gestalt quality we understand a positive content of presentation bound up in consciousness with the presence of complexes of mutually separable (i.e. independently presentable) elements. That complex of presentations which is necessary for the existence of a given Gestalt quality we call the foundation of that quality (Ehrenfels, 1890; Smith, 1988, p. 93).
Ehrenfels foci Gestalt qualities in its relations (Ehrenfels, 1890; Smith, 1988, p. 101), in which the movement of going from an unintuitive to the corresponding intuitive presentation gives rise to a Gestalt quality,
Thus anyone confronted with, say, a complicated description of a work of architecture will first of all form a merely indirect presentation of it, which will then be rounded out by gradual execution or fulfilment of the various merely intended components, to yield an intuitive total picture. But this process of formation of the intuitive presentation directly from the indirect presentation is something that happens, a process of change, which serves as the foundation for a specific temporal Gestalt quality (Ehrenfels 1890, tr. Smith 1988, p. 104).
Given the Gestalt nature of relations, Gestalt qualities can be compared to one another and give rise to increasingly higher order Gestalt qualities. Ehrenfels adds to this the “intimate unity with which we combine presentational contents of physical and psychical occurences” (Ehrenfels 1890, tr. Smith 1988, p. 107).
Psychic phenomena are essentially distinct from ‘physical phenomena’, which for Brentano are immanent and intentional objects of the presentations themselves. A physical phenomenon is, thus, composed by two nondetachable parts, i.e. phenomenal place, and quality (Brentano, 1874/1995, pp. 77-80). Interlocked perceptual appearances, like colour, shape, and space, are in fact the initial direct information presented to us in awareness. They are not the primary properties of what are commonly understood as physical entities, even though they are correlated with stimuli defined on the basis of physics (Albertazzi, 2015). Appearances, in visual awareness, are not simply representations of ‘external’ stimuli; rather, they are internal presentations of active perceptual constructs, co-dependent on, but qualitatively unattainable through a mere transformation of stimuli (see Mausfeld, 2010).
Thus, the goal that should be pursued in the study of Gestalt qualitative relations is, the discover and analysis of necessary functional connections among visual phenomena, identification of the conditions that help or hinder appearance or the degree of their evidence, in other words: determination of the laws which the phenomenological field obeys. And this without leaving the phenomenological domain; without, that is, referring to the underlying neurophysical processes . . . The influence of such processes and activities certainly cannot be denied, but they must not be identified with seeing…The experimental phenomenology of vision is not concerned with the brain, but with that result of the brain’s activity that is seeing (Kanizsa, 1991, pp. 43-44).
The study of Gestalt qualitative relations does not obviously deny the existence of stimuli, nor the correlation between the physical stimulus and the behavioural response, but stimuli are seen as the triggers to the perceptual experience. For that reason, the phenomenological method distinguishes between what concerns psychophysics of brain analysis, and what concerns qualitative analysis of the phenomena.