Christian von Ehrenfels Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: An article published by Ehrenfels in 1890 is the source of modern Gestalt psychology. In his native Austria-Hungary, he was primarily considered a philosopher, especially in the field of value theory and ethics. Controversial in his time, he published a book on sexual ethics; he also wrote on eugenics, music, and mathematics, and was the author of several plays and dramas.

Early Life

Maria Christian Julius Leopold Karl Freiherr von Ehrenfels was born in Rodaun, Lower Austria, on June 20, 1859. At that time, Rodaun was a small town outside Vienna. His old, well-to-do aristocratic family included one grandmother who was a French countess; he may also have had some Jewish ancestors. As a young gentleman, he enjoyed life as a farmer and passionate hunter; later, he gave some of his estates to his younger brother Bernhard, who became a member of the Austrian House of Lords. Ehrenfels subsequently served in the Austrian army as a cavalry officer in a dragoon regiment. It was then, in the early 1880’s, that he took music lessons in Vienna in harmony and counterpoint with the famous composer Anton Bruckner, with whom he shared an admiration for Richard Wagner. After studying agriculture in Vienna, he finally transferred to the University of Vienna to major in philosophy. Among his professors there, the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano had the greatest impact upon him; Ehrenfels considered himself a follower of Brentano despite the differences in their philosophies. Brentano’s disciples, however, rejected Ehrenfels and his publications. At the University of Graz in Styria, he was a student of Alexius Meinong, whose ideas were similar to those of the Gestalt psychologists. Ehrenfels received the Ph.D. there in 1885; his doctoral dissertation dealt with Gestalten und Zahlen (forms and numbers). Three years later, in 1888, he started teaching philosophy at the University of Vienna, and in 1896 he accepted an associate professorship at the German branch of Charles University in Prague, the most ancient university in Central Europe. Promoted to professor of philosophy in 1899, he stayed there until his retirement in 1929. In Graz in 1894, he married Emma von Hartmann, the widow of a naval officer. They had two children: a daughter who was a well-known novelist and poetess, Imma von Bodmershof, and a son, Rolf von Ehrenfels, who became a university professor of anthropology.

Life’s Work

The work with the greatest and most lasting impact appeared fairly early in Ehrenfels’ career: “Über Gestaltqualitäten” (1890; on Gestalt qualities). Ehrenfels used primarily music as an example of Gestalt, stating that Gestalt qualities are not simply tonal or optical phenomena and that there must be something that goes beyond these phenomena. Recognizing a form (Gestalt), such as a square, one conceives a new element that is not contained in the lines or dots. Gestalt qualities do not constitute the sum of the parts alone. A melody that is transposed into different keys keeps its basic form, that is, the Gestaltqualität, provided that the relationships between the tones are not changed. In this regard, a melody is like a visual form. If the key is changed, the tones are all different, but the similarity of the melody is recognizable immediately. If, however, the tonal sequence is changed, one does not recognize the original melody. If a singer sings a melody in a different pitch, he does not reproduce the sum of the original single impressions but a completely different complex in which its members have an analogous connection to one another as do those of the experienced complex before. Thus, the Gestalt quality or entirety has been reproduced but not its elements or parts. The criterion of transposability applies here. Ehrenfels distinguished between temporal and nontemporal Gestalt qualities and between higher Gestalt and lower Gestalt. There are also color melodies and color harmonies beyond melody and harmony of sound. “There is Gestalt not only in musical notes but also in noises.” That includes language, although one is able to distinguish tones among individual vowels. “Every word of a language is a Gestalt quality.”

During World War I, Ehrenfels published a book entitled Kosmogonie (1916; Comogony, 1948), in which he extends his Gestalt theory within a mythical and dualistic philosophy. He did not believe that the creation of the world was complete but was an ongoing day-to-day process, a struggle between the formative principle and the formless chaos. Much in the world is still part of the chaos; therefore, the world in its entirety cannot be conceived rationally, but there is...

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