A REVIEW IN DEPTH
(Editor's note: This review originally appeared in the Spring, 1992, issue of The Gestalt Journal. In response to numerous requests, we are posting it on the World Wide Web so that those who were not subscribers at the time can have an opportunity to read it. A response from Gordon Wheeler appeared in the Fall, 1992, issue followed by final remarks from Yontef. We have written Wheeler asking if he would like us to include the materials from the Fall, 1992, issue here. As yet, he has not responded.
The Gestalt Journal
Gestalt Reconsidered, by Gordon Wheeler; The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press,(1991). Gardner Press, Inc.
People seem to either love or hate Gordon Wheeler's new book Gestalt Reconsidered. It has challenged and roused many readers few seem to feel neutral about it. I wanted to like this book.
The difference in response to the book seems to be in what kind of book it is perceived to be or by what criteria the book is being judged.
Many people like this book for one of the reasons that made me want to like it. Wheeler transmits some values, attitudes and ideas that I think are important for Gestalt therapy. This is quite a different matter than the theory from which Wheeler derives, explains and justifies these values. When the theoretical and historical analyses and theory constructions Wheeler uses to link these themes into a total theoretical statement are figural, the reactions to the book are much more critical.
Wheeler is interested in what might be called a people-oriented Gestalt therapy. He emphasizes Gestalten that are larger and more enduring than the momentary process or sub-processes of an isolated individual, and insists that we explicate phenomena that are larger in time and space than a moment and more social and psychological than simplistic, reductionistic, mechanistic, biological metaphors such as "chewing" as the paradigm of autonomous functioning. He insists on the importance of the historical and sociological processes that are essential to human understanding.
Wheeler challenges some of the individualistic cliches of the 1960's, clearly placing the individual in a social context (group, organizations, etc) and striving for a Gestalt therapy vocabulary that can be used to examine both individual and social/organizational processes.
Clinically he sees behavior from a functional viewpoint rather than dividing phenomena into healthy (contact) and pathological (resistance). His clinical attitude is one of conceptually integrating resistance into our concept of ordinary contact functions. He is very much against mechanically cathartic, confrontive and individualistic approaches to Gestalt therapy practice. To all of this, considered apart from his theoretical explication, I say "Amen!"
He gives an example from his work with a French training group in which he questions unstated assumptions behind certain attitudes and practices (which were reminiscent of the late 1960's). In this group there was no "shared articulation" (p. 172), each person was regarded as totally responsible for him or herself and not at all responsible for how they effect others or what happens between others in the group. "Responsibility for oneself, of course, never for anyone else as well as oneself, or for a relationship, or for the group as a whole (p. 173)." "The structure of group ... was such that figures of self-support and differentiation alone were allowed to emerge somewhat freely, while those of caring, nurturant support, or even exploration of others or of the group as a whole were actively discouraged....Under the given contact circumstances, then, small wonder if hardly any contact ... which crossed an interpersonal boundary was allowed (p. 173)."
A second reason I wanted to like this book was it appeared to be a serious attempt at theoretical analysis and construction and we need more of that in Gestalt therapy. Wheeler obviously has a scholarly interest in the intellectual history and theory of Gestalt therapy and shows initiative and creativity in theoretical analysis and reconstruction of Gestalt therapy theory. He attempts bold new steps that he intends to build on an accurate understanding of the existing theory. He has the temerity to question some of the most basic statements in Gestalt therapy theory, for example, that experience occurs at the boundary and, he asks, does it really? He neither accepts everything as perfect in the Camelot of Gestalt therapy theory nor does he reject it in favor of some new panacea.
Wheeler identified some very important theoretical issues and has made some interesting historical connections, e.g. he attempts to relate Perls and Goodman to differences between various Gestalt psychologists. He addresses some unresolved theoretical tensions in Gestalt therapy theory: He identifies a tension in Gestalt therapy theory between an individualistic, anarchistic bias and the holism of Gestalt therapy and yet another between the individual as an existential being and the biological nature of humankind. He also discusses the tension between the "late-Perlsian autonomy" (p.173) definition of maturity as self-support and the formulation of retroflection as pathological because the person is doing for or to him or her self rather than being contactful.
Unfortunately, when I read the book carefully, the promise that appeared on perusal and led me to want to like this book evaporated. I did not find the accurate understanding of history and theory upon which the bold new steps were to be constructed and old contradictions resolved. Certainly my initial enthusiasm in scanning the book turned into incredulity and dismay at the theoretical weaknesses revealed by a thorough examination of the theory in this book.
Those who hate this book seem to be those who look at the book from a more theoretical viewpoint. Reading the content of his social and clinical discussion as a political essay on attitudes, there is much to commend this book. It raises some necessary questions and challenges. Much of his clinical attitude I find easy to identify with. It continues in the tradition of the Polsters and dialogical Gestalt therapists (such as Jacobs, Hycner and myself). Looked at in this way, the book is well written, clear, thought provoking, and peppered with stimulating historical and theoretical thoughts. Much of what he advocates is not as new to Gestalt therapy as claimed by the author, nor are his accounts as accurate or scholarly as claimed, but nevertheless well worth reading.
Unfortunately, from a theoretical standpoint, Wheeler's historical and theoretical analysis, propositions and scholarship are so defective that they make the book unsatisfactory to this reviewer.
The paradoxical theory of change is a most simple and absolutely essential part of Gestalt therapy theory. Although this is an incidental part of Wheeler's exposition, it is revealing that Wheeler seems not to understand it. He states that calling it paradoxical is illogical "because there is really no paradox here (p. 40)." He summarizes the model as focusing on awareness "as a way of influencing action." Wheeler misses the paradox by being imprecise and overly simple in his understanding.
A paradox is "a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd but that may actually be true in fact (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, p. 1060)." The paradoxical theory does not just make awareness the route to action, but states a philosophy of how awareness relates to change, i.e. that the more one tries to change, via awareness or any other means, the more one stays the same and that owning or identifying with what is, paradoxically, supports organismic change.
Wheeler's central theses are similarly flawed. Wheeler considers the theory of Perls and Goodman to be "figure-bound", and advocates that we explore "the structures of the ground." He does not merely say: Let us examine (make figural) how the ground is structured. Or let us make figural the structure of social processes. He talks repeatedly of "the structured ground" [emphasis mine] and believes that instead of structured ground, Gestalt therapy theory treats ground as absent or unimportant by using a concept of empty ground.
Wheeler's entire construction rests on this idea of the "structured ground." In all of the themes discussed above, Wheeler relates the difficulty in Gestalt therapy theory, as he understands it, to its being centered exclusively on the figure isolated from the ground and no attention given the ground. It is his opinion that this difficulty in Gestalt therapy theory is due to Fritz Perls being more strongly influenced by Wertheimer than by Lewin or Goldstein. This is the major theme of his book; his entire analysis rests on it, including his analysis of resistance. It is also the most problematic aspect of the book.
Although I find his historical statements stylistically clear, authoritative and reasonable sounding, Wheeler has a tendency oversimplify and misunderstand positions and issues. Often he puts a spin on his interpretation that leads me to question the overall accuracy of his summaries of other theorists.
Let us take the issue of Perls supposedly being influenced more by Wertheimer than Lewin or Goldstein. Wertheimer had a tendency to attribute the Gestalt to the stimulus conditions (acknowledged by Wheeler). This was an ongoing debate in German Gestalt circles. Is the Gestalt in the person, as in the Gestalt psychology of Wilhelm Stern, or in the stimulus. Although in the Gestalt therapy theory of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman the Gestalt is configured by the interaction of the perceiver and that which is perceived, a general tenet of phenomenology, Perls personally had a decided but inconsistent tendency to attribute the Gestalt to the person, especially in the 1960's as if reality was constructed only by the experience of the person. This aspect of the Perlsian "organismic" rhetoric was attributed by Perls to the influence of Goldstein, although one can see that this is a distortion of Goldstein's position. This is a contradiction between Perls and Wertheimer, and an area in which Fritz might have benefitted from more rather than less of Wertheimer's influence.
Wheeler does not seem to appreciate Wertheimer's exquisite field orientation. While it was true that Wertheimer steered away from some of the variables of most interest to personality theory, preferring to start with data verifiable in the lab. I don't think Wheeler's account gives sufficient credit to Wertheimer. For example, in Productive Thinking Wertheimer talks of how the theory of relativity was formed by productive thinking, he discusses solutions to social, organizational problems. His discussion is one of the clearest demonstrations of the field theory attitude I have read.
Similarly, Wheeler takes a few Lewinian ideas out of context, isolated from the rest of his work, and puts them together into an inadequate account of Lewin. For example, the entire thrust of Lewin's work was against the concept of rigid, static forces organizing the field while supporting the importance of the forces currently comprising the field. This is dissonant with Wheeler's structural analysis yet treated by Wheeler as a basis for his theory of structured ground. "Structured ground," ground that organizes the field before the current field forces, before any figure forms, is a statement of rigid, static forces instead of ongoing process integrating present and historical understanding of experience in the field.
I find his analysis of Perls' early work unconvincing. He analyzes Perls' early theory work without even considering what is arguably his best early theory work, i.e. "Theory and Technique of Personality Integration" (1948). In my estimation Wheeler's analysis and contemptuous dismissal of Perls' discussion in Ego, Hunger and Aggression of replacing association psychology with Gestalt psychology is totally out of line (Wheeler, 1991, p.46). Wheeler claims that Perls' theorizing was not in line with British associationism and speculated (and proceeded as if his speculation were confirmed) that Perls confused free association with associationism. Re-reading Ego, Hunger and Aggression I have come, once again, to a renewed respect for the field theory that is clearly embedded in Ego, Hunger and Aggression.
In my opinion Perls had no intention of relating to British associationism per se and he was not confused about free association. He clearly related the problem of free association to the failure of classical psychoanalysis to focus clearly enough on how the patient is aware and unaware, i.e. awareness of awareness, failure to respect the process of resisting certain awarenesses, and its inefficiency in clarifying the process of alienation of ego functions.
Over and over again in Ego, Hunger and Aggression Perls demonstrates a clear understanding of field theory. He was no scholar, by any means, but his book is a clear, albeit disorganized, exposition of field theory. By association psychology he was referring to the mechanistic, Newtonian, linear, positivistic, associationistic trend in most of psychology at that time. Moreover, Perls did explicitly and by name elaborate on the connection with Gestalt psychology (e.g. at pp 27-28) and even without this explicit liaison, the book as a whole is clear about the Gestalt field theory foundation of his theorizing. I had no problem seeing the connection between Ego, Hunger and Aggression and Gestalt psychology. I wonder why Wheeler does not see it.
I also find his historiography in teasing out the comparative contributions to Gestalt Therapy of Perls (via his original manuscript) and Goodman, as well as Wheeler's analysis of the differences in their theoretical positions, unconvincing and simplistic although, frankly, interesting. As Erv Polster stated in a recent edition of The Gestalt Journal: "It is commonly understood that Paul Goodman did the actual writing of Volume 2 of Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman's Gestalt Therapy. What is not clear is what proportion of the material comes from Perls' original conceptual notes and what comes from Goodman's own theoretical perspectives (Polster, 1991, p. 46)."
In short, I find Wheeler's generalizations about historical trends in theory glib and not well supported.
Many of the improvements Wheeler advocates and claims as innovative and reparative of gaps in Gestalt therapy theory, are already commonplace in Gestalt therapy as I know it. Wheeler claims that Perls and Goodman fail to raise "it above the level of organization of the trivial, the impulse-ridden, the isolated moment (p. 65)." Although many of Perls' and Goodman's examples of figure/ground and mental metabolism tend to be simple, biological and paradigmatic, leaving elaboration to the reader, their total discussion range through a consideration of world politics, social organization, human development, boundaries in groups, etc. I do not see Perls as reductionistic, but rather see some of the socially oriented Gestalt therapy theorists as disowning or neglecting biological aspects of human development and functioning that Perls insisted on and which are essential to Gestalt theory.
Even more of a problem is Wheeler's juxtaposing of his concept of the "structured ground" and the "empty ground" concept he attributes to Gestalt therapy theory. In preparation for analyzing Wheeler's thesis, a restatement of Gestalt therapy theory would be useful.
As I understand Gestalt therapy theory, the field is structured phenomenologically by differentiations that are always configured jointly by the relationship between each observer and whatever is "out there." This configuration is conceptualized in terms of the relationship between figure, what stands out in the awareness of an observer, and ground, that out of which the figural awareness arises. Meaning is the relation between figure and ground and is always relative to the needs and motivations of the individual and the context. Context includes the factors of others, history, biology, culture, ecology and so forth.
Neither figure nor ground have any absolute or static existence, but only coexist as a constantly changing polar phenomenological differentiation of the field. In the theory of Gestalt therapy, the figure is defined by its relationship to the phenomenological field of which the subject is a part and the phenomenological field is configured by the perceiver's differentiation of what is figure and what is ground. The ground is everything in the phenomenological field from which the figure arises that is not in focal awareness. When one examines an aspect of what was, in the preceding moment, the "ground," then that aspect is temporarily now "figure." The figure then changes, the former figure has receded from focal awareness and become part of the new ground configuration while another aspect of what was ground emerges now as "figure." Each figure/ground formulation becomes ground for new figure/ground formulations.
The size of the figure/ground configuration can be microscopic, cosmic or anything in between. The progression in scope of the Gestalten can be toward larger, smaller or lateral changes. Temporally, the figure/ground constellation can be brief or lifelong, or anything in between.
While each momentary figure is determined by the dominant need or interest or motivation at a particular time/space and context, the overall organization is more complex. The figure of a moment may be a continuation of an aspect of the previous figure, or may be a resistance to that prior figure, or may be organized around a new stimulation from self or other.
The organization of figure and ground, e.g. sequence, is neither static nor randomly changing. While some aspects of the organization are constantly re-created in the field (it could be said they are "enduring"), the organization is constantly changing as regulated by current field forces. Just as each momentary figure/ground constellation can be figural, the process of organizing figure and ground can itself become figural, e.g. in work on awareness of the awareness process. These larger configurations are important and often deciding aspects of the ground even when not in awareness.
Perls, Hefferline and Goodman say this about figure and ground:
"The sign of spontaneous attention and concentration is the progressive forming of a figure/ground, whether the situation be one of sensing something, making a plan, imagining, remembering, or practical activity. If both attention and excitement are present and working together, the object of attention becomes more and more a unified, bright, sharp figure against a more and more empty, unnoticed, uninteresting ground. This form of unified figure against an empty ground has been called a 'good gestalt.'
But the gestalt-psychologists themselves have not, on the whole, been sufficiently interested in the meaning of the ground. the ground is everything that is progressively eliminated from attention in the experienced situation. In the figure/ground what is included in figure and what in ground does not remain static, but changes in the course of a dynamic development (Perls, et. al., p. 56)."
Nothing is more basic to the Gestalt therapy theory, and Wheeler totally misunderstands it. The more I examine Wheeler's discussion of the structured ground the less theoretical sense it makes. If one is examining some aspect of ground, it has been made figure during the exploration and recedes into the ground when the examination is over.
Empty ground does not mean that the field or the ground are considered stationary, undifferentiated or unstructured. The ground progressively empties as a part of the functioning of the figure ground cycle (For example, Gestalt Therapy, pp. 56-58). The empty ground is a phase of the overall experience/contact cycle in which the subject is totally absorbed in the figure and the ground occupies so little awareness that it is as if empty. The ground is "empty" only phenomenologically and only in some stages of the contact cycle, e.g. during final contact when the person is fully absorbed in the figure. In rejecting the empty ground idea Wheeler is reacting only to a strawman.
"Spontaneous concentration is contact with the environment. The actual situation is organized in a way that is detailed, structured, vivid, concernful (Perls,et. al, p. 63)."
Wheeler wants more examination of social processes, structures, processes that develop over time, processes that are not reduced to mere biology. Although he misses the continuum, that is one of the things most attractive about this book. However, I see all of this as inherent in the Gestalt therapy writings, including the early writings of Perls and in Gestalt Therapy. It is certainly more consistently present and further developed in the writings of the Polsters. I would agree that this aspect has been much under-developed and is often neglected in theory and practice. I would say that we should make these processes figural. But when we are making the social structures figural, they are phenomenologically no longer ground. In Gestalt therapy theory, when one examines something from the ground, including structure, it becomes figure. We can examine structures, including group and systems structures, social processes, organizations, etc. and stay theoretically consistent and keep to phenomenological and field principles by conceptualizing such an examination as making it figural rather than speaking of "structured ground."
Wheeler uses the term ground in an idiosyncratic way, without ever clearly saying what it is or stating how it is constructed or defined. This is a grave error in theory construction. It seems that Wheeler' theorizing ends up with exactly what he accuses Perls and Goodman of, i.e. the figure and ground being treated as separate entities. In Wheeler's theory, they are not only separable but also the ground is fixed, stationary, thing-like structure. Something is ground in some absolute way, something that can be examined apart from some figural focus. Wheeler describes the ground as organized prior to any figure. This becomes a fixed trait or state theory just that which Gestalt therapy, Lewin, and so forth were moving away from. Wheeler's formulation is at sharp variance from the phenomenological basis of Gestalt therapy and also the relativistic field theoretical basis of Gestalt therapy. This phenomenologically unsound point of view negates one of the beauties of Gestalt therapy theory: its infinite flexibility as a process theory and ease of applicability to any situation.
Let's examine structure. Wheeler uses the structured ground concept to deal with ongoing structure. How does something become structured in the Gestalt therapy theory? Structures are slowly changing processes that organize other processes. They are mutually constructed by what is out there (e.g. the "stimulus") and the perceiver. The field is orderly, not empty or chaotic. The exact background and the structure of that ground is constructed according to context by the perceiver.
How structures are maintained over time has not been fully explicated in Gestalt therapy theory. While Wheeler astutely identifies a need to do this, his solution is more confusing than the theory he is trying to clarify. I think the phenomenological concept of invariants, that which is repeatedly and given in awareness, would fit nicely with Gestalt therapy theory. In terms of personality theory this could be considered as part of personality as defined by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman.
To talk of "the structured ground," something that is other than process, is an absolutist, Newtonian concept at variance with field theory. Does Wheeler not know he is straying from field theory, or is he advocating a Gestalt therapy not based on field theory?
Wheeler is obviously very, very partial to the Cleveland School. In the past I have been quite suspicious of Joel Latner's position that the Cleveland School, at least in respect to their systems theory, is a throwback to linear, Newtonian theory (Latner, 1983. Yontef, 1984). I regret to say that Wheeler's Newtonian theorizing tends to confirm Latner's position and prove me wrong.
Wheeler writes that in the "Perlsian model of resistances" there is a dichotomy between resistance, which is pathological, and contact. He ascribes to early Gestalt therapy theory the notion that boundary disturbances are "resistances" to contact, hence pathological. He then credits the Polsters with making some improvement by their discussion of some of the positive functions of resistances. However, in Wheeler's estimation this still leaves an inadequate situation in that: (1) Resistance is still considered something other than contact; And, (2) since in post-Polster Gestalt therapy theory resistances can be either healthy or pathological, the simple autonomous criterion of health in Gestalt therapy theory is lost there is now no criterion for judging when a resistance is healthy and when pathological.
Instead of this strawman version of Gestalt therapy theory, he offers his own: Resistance is an aspect of contact. Every living process is part of contact. Contact is composed of a polarity of confluence and resistance. Undue emphasis on either disturbs good functioning.
There are at least two major difficulties with Wheeler's explication of resistance: 1) His summary of both early and post-Polster Gestalt therapy theory is inaccurate; and, 2) His own conceptualizing causes more confusion than it clears up.
It was never my understanding that resistance was dichotomous from contact. Rather it was my understanding that resistance, as all issues of awareness and human relationships, are an aspect of the contact cycle and as such are boundary phenomenon maintained and regulated by ego-functions. "Resistance" is resistance to or interruptions of a particular contact i.e. particular in kind, intensity, context, etc., not global resistance to all contact. This resistance is also a contact process. In fact, since Gestalt Therapy resistance has been discussed in terms of which point in the contact cycle the interruption takes place, not something dichotomous from all contact. From the earliest Gestalt therapy literature there has been an overall emphasis on the health and utility of resistance. Resistance has been discussed in Gestalt therapy in terms of what is being resisted and what assisted. When resistance is regulated by the dominant need in the organism/environment field, then the resistance is creative adjustment, it is healthy, an assistance to organismic functioning. In order for that condition to be met, awareness relevant to that need must be allowed to form a figure as needed, this figure of awareness change as needed and resolution achieved, i.e., so that each figure can recede into the background to make way for new figures of interest. There is also a need for this awareness to organize new behavior as needed. When this is not the case, when creative adjustment is stymied and necessary ego-functions are alienated, then the process is pathological. Resistance occurs as an ego-function, and is normal as long as it is not in the service of alienating basic ego-functions (See excellent debate between Davidoff, 1991 and Polster, 1991).
This criterion for health was crystallized in Gestalt Therapy, although the seeds of this concept were present in Perls' earlier work. It is true that there are many passages in Gestalt Therapy in which the terminology reflects the classical psychoanalytic attitude of considering resistance as pathological. This created an uncertainty as to whether resistance is unhealthy in Gestalt therapy that was put to rest in the writings of the Polsters in 1973 and 1976 (Polster and Polster, 1973; 1976).
This treating resistance and assistance as the same process depending on context and need can be seen in Perls' 1948 article "Theory and Technique of Personality Integration" (p. 575).
In Ego, Hunger and Aggression Perls says:
"One cannot destroy resistances; and in any case, they are not an evil, but are rather valuable energies of our personality harmful only when wrongly applied. We cannot do justice to our patients as long as we do not realize the dialectics of resistance. The dialectical opposite to resistance is assistance. The same fort which resists the aggressor assists the defender....It should ... be kept in mind that without appreciating the patient's outlook on his resistances as assistances we cannot successfully deal with them (p. 153, italics mine)."
Perls went on to say that the problem with resistances is when they become too rigid, that therapy's job is to recover the "elasticity of such rigid resistances (p. 154)." He likened pathological resistance to a door that has been locked and the keys mislaid. He likened total absence of resistance to a gap in a wall, i.e. loss of discrimination. "By analyzing resistances on the assumption that they should not exist, we run great risks (p. 154)." And finally he states that "The actual situation is the criterion as to whether resistance is useful or not (p. 155)." The absence of resistance has never been considered a sign of health in Gestalt therapy theory.
Although this early Gestalt therapy view expresses the best aspects of Wheeler's theory of resistance, there has been some inconsistency in the therapy literature. This is not surprising considering the theoretical milieu of the time in which Perls did his early writing. However, there has been a consistent and growing tendency in Gestalt therapy toward treating resistance pragmatically, recognizing that without resistance there is no life. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman make clear that resistances are not to be hammered against and eliminated. The ambiguity about resistance brought on by the use of older language of pathology and inconsistent and inexact usage is cleaned up by the clarification and advances of Polster and Polster make (Polster & Polster, 1973, 1976).
In Gestalt Therapy resistance is clearly not treated as global resistance to contact, but is a disruption or avoidance of some aspect of contact/awareness. It is healthy or unhealthy according to the availability in awareness, choice that is a function of dominant need in the organism/environment field, and in which essential ego functions are identified with and available for use as needed. The following quotations will illustrate:
"But there is a further plan: to show you how, by appropriate action, the resister can be reclaimed from unawareness and transformed into a most valuable assister. The resisting part of your personality has vitality and strength and many admirable qualities... (p. 45)"
"Our strategy for developing self-awareness is to extend in every direction the areas of present awareness. To do this, we must bring to your attention parts of your experience which you would prefer to stay away from and not accept as your own. Gradually there will emerge whole systems of blockages which constitute your accustomed strategy of resistance to awareness (p 82)."
"Yet we know that underlying the 'defensive' characteristic, indeed in the defensive characteristic, there is always a beautiful affirmative childlike feeling: indignation in the defiance, loyal admiration in the clinging, solitude in the loneliness, aggressiveness in the hostility, creativity in the confusion. Nor is this part at all irrelevant to the present situation, for even now and here there is plenty to be indignant about, and something to be loyal to and admire...(p. 285)"
"It is only where confluence is maintained as a means of preventing contact that it is unhealthy. After contact has been achieved and lived through, confluence has an entirely different meaning (p. 118)."
If my analysis is correct, what does Wheeler add to the Gestalt therapy literature of resistance?
Wheeler acknowledges that the Polsters clarify that "avoidances" are not inherently bad, but he claims that it is only in his own writing that resistance and contact are integrated. He claims that in the Polsters' theory there are positive and negative resistances, and that the autonomous criterion for healthy functioning is lost. "For how are we to know, in the terms of the model, when a given introject, say, is a creative or necessary coping strategy and when it is a deadening, life-inhibiting `resistance to contact'? (P.109)" Interestingly, I believe it is Wheeler who loses the clarity of a criterion for health by neglecting the central role of the ego-functions, especially identification and alienation, in defining health and pathology. I believe that Gestalt Therapy is clear that the test of the health or pathology of resistance is that when resistance alienates ego-functioning, it is pathological; Wheeler confuses rather than clarifies the picture.
I believe that Wheeler adds very little to the Gestalt therapy literature of resistance. Resistance as a part of the contact functions is already in the literature. The autonomous criterion for the health or pathology of a resistance is already clear in the literature and still operative. The question is always what is being resisted and what is being assisted, how this is being done, and whether this is regulated organismically or by rigid patterns of fixed Gestalten that are not responsive to the conditions of the organism/environment field. The boundary disturbances specify when in the contact cycle the resistance takes place. Resistance can be to differentness or to sameness, to being close or distant, it can be to content, it can be to autonomy and so forth.
Wheeler's formulation of contact being composed of the two poles of resistance and confluence is actually a continuation of the Gestalt therapy theory of the two functions of a boundary: All boundaries join and separate; a boundary connects the organism and the environment and it also separates the organism and the environment. Wheeler's discussion of resistance is virtually the same as the separating function of the boundary, the maintenance of differences. In arguing for the importance of resistance, Wheeler is making a case already made in the Gestalt therapy literature, but he calls it something else, i.e. resistance.
Wheeler repeatedly uses familiar words differently than their current usage in Gestalt therapy, but without a reliable or carefully stated definition of his own. While it is logical and simple to call the separation "resistance," it is confusing. For one thing, not all separation is resistance in any usual sense. Withdrawal from contact with one aspect of the environment (let's call it A) may be to go to another aspect without any actual struggle with A. "I love talking to you and I am tired and must now withdraw and rest." Does it have any meaning to call this withdrawal resistance? It might indeed be resistance if the contact with A was being resisted, and this resistance might be pathological if used in the service of ego-alienation.
Another problem with Wheeler's formulation is that resistance has been used in the clinical literature to indicate when an aspect of contact in therapy is avoided so as to avoid allowing something into awareness. Even in that sense it may be assisting the patient by restricting awareness to that for which there is sufficient support. Nevertheless, this would be resistance in the clinical sense, i.e. with resistance that alienates ego-functions. However, resistance to either the therapy or the therapist in the broader sense of resistance directed by the ego is not only healthy, but necessary.
Wheeler uses confusing terminology in equating the connecting function of the contact boundary with confluence, just as his discussion confuses the separation aspect with resistance. He talks as if all softness, relaxing a vigilant sense of differences, caring about another, is confluent. He obscures the differentiation between healthy and unhealthy confluence. And, many of the kinds of phenomena that Wheeler calls confluence occur in an overall context marked by a very clear sense of boundaries, hence not confluence. Identification with similarities with others and empathic and sympathetic response to others are not confluence when there is no loss of the sense of boundary.
Wheeler ridicules the notion that confluence could be resistance and states that to see confluence as a resistance "is to confuse terms hopelessly (p. 111)." It is only in his idiosyncratic usage that confluence can not be a resistance. Since Wheeler defines resistance in terms of separation from the environment, then it would be difficult to consider confluence, the absence of boundaries, as resistance. I think that any therapist who has a merger-hungry patient who resists by agreeing with everything and allowing no struggle will not find it difficult to understand confluence as a resistance.
Confluence may be a temporary loss of boundary in an overall context of clear boundaries. This requires movement from confluence back into contact as needed. Confluence can also be a process involving a loss of movement and in an overall context of poorly defined boundaries. In this latter case there is a static condition, a loss of awareness, hence it is a pathological alienation of ego-functions.
There are times when it seems as if Wheeler can see no good in the early Gestalt therapy literature. He accuses Perls, et. al. as not seeing the positive aspects of resistance (by which Wheeler is referring to separation, maintenance of differences) and also not seeing the positive aspects of loosening differences (which Wheeler calls confluence). It seems to me that Wheeler contradicts himself in his analysis of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. First he says that maintaining differences is overly valued in early Gestalt therapy theory, but then he calls this "resistance" (as opposed to confluence) and says this is insufficiently valued in early Gestalt therapy.
Wheeler's discussion of "resistance" is a morass of terminological confusion and idiosyncratic usage. His usage has a logic of sorts, and a simplicity to it, but flies in the face of common usage and technically does not treat the existent Gestalt therapy theory with respect and accuracy. He proceeds as if he has captured the essence of resistance, but seems not to know how far he deviates from common clinical and theoretical usage of the term.
At the beginning of this review, I enumerated reasons for my wanting to like this book. One must acknowledge Wheeler's bold historical and theoretical ambitions, clear and apparently erudite style, and advocacy of important attitudes valuing the importance of the social dimension of personality and organizational functioning and a balanced view of a variety of mechanisms (e.g. withdrawal, resistance, confluence, etc.).
But this book also makes a bold theoretical statement that is being widely read. Wheeler raises some important questions about the basic theory of Gestalt therapy and he identifies some definite areas of weakness. Gestalt Reconsidered warrants more than a pro forma review. It deserves a review that focuses on Wheeler's metatheory, on his theory qua theory. Therefore I have put heavy emphasis on looking at Wheeler's historical and theoretical analysis and theory construction from a theoretical perspective.
Seen from this perspective, Gestalt Reconsidered is at best very disappointing. His historical scholarship is questionable and his theoretical analysis and construction are seriously flawed. Although his theorizing is logically consistent with the attitudes he is advocating, there is no necessary connection between them. Others have already advocated much of what he advocates, without recourse to his particular brand of reasoning.
His definitions frequently do not define very well. They are often inexact, idiosyncratic and poorly articulated. He makes claims that often seem to me to be rediscovering the wheel, crediting the innovation to himself or the Cleveland Institute. For example, Wheeler seems to think that it is he and the Cleveland institute that introduces into Gestalt therapy the concepts of time, choice and context in judging the utility of a boundary disturbance. He also writes as if it is only the Cleveland group who added withdrawal as a necessary part of the contact cycle. I think this shows a lack of understanding of Ego, Hunger and Aggression and Gestalt Therapy.
There is a parallel issue in reference to Wheeler's clinical practice comments. Wheeler has some definite biases about clinical practice, which he links to his theory of "structured ground." But his clinical biases are separate from the theoretical constructions he makes to link these to Gestalt therapy theory. The connection is tenuous at best, and hardly necessary or parsimonious considering that his theory contradicts Gestalt field theory.
When I think of any population for whom Gestalt Reconsidered can be recommended, what is most salient and obvious to me is that I had to re-read many of the classic documents in Gestalt therapy and Gestalt psychology in order to do justice to a review of it. Wheeler gives a special spin to much of what he writes, a spin that seemed to me to be often of questionable accuracy in its understanding of Gestalt therapy theory and intellectual history and his analysis and construction of theory are remarkably flawed. Moreover, he frequently sets up inaccurate strawmen summaries of his theoretical predecessors as a support for his alternative. But there was enough apparent merit in what he said to reconsider my doubts and go back to the primary sources and then re-read Wheeler.
In theory, as in the rest of life, introjection has its problems. Wheeler's clear and authoritative writing style and scholarly appearance obscures questionable historical characterizations, faulty new theoretical constructions, and an apparent lack of understanding of the principles of phenomenology and field theory that underlie Gestalt therapy theory. I fear that many who read this book may attend primarily to some of the obvious content themes of the book and not take enough time to investigate Wheeler's theoretical analysis carefully and thoroughly and, therefore, may well inadvertently introject Wheeler's theoretical description of the existing Gestalt therapy literature and the somewhat new theoretical framework he has created.
I can only recommend this book to readers who are already expert in Gestalt therapy theory and who will do the background research and analysis I did in reviewing the book. For readers with that interest and that background, this is a good book for provocation and for stimulation. I cannot recommend this book for those who do not have both a good background and inclination for theoretical analysis. I do not recommend it for beginners or those who are not interested in making a theoretical analysis.
Latner, J. (1983). This is the Speed of Light: Field and Systems Theory in Gestalt Therapy. The Gestalt Journal, 6, 2 (Fall, 1983), pp. 71-90
Perls, F. (1947). Ego, Hunger and Aggression. London: Allen Unwin, Ltd.
Perls, F. (1948). Theory and Technique of Personality Integration. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 2, 4, pp. 565-586.
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press.
Polster, E. (1991). A Response to `Loss of Ego Functions, Conflict, and Resistance'. The Gestalt Journal, 14, 2 (Fall, 1991), pp. 45-60.
Polster, E. and Polster, M. (1973). Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Polster, E. and Polster, M. (1976). Therapy Without Resistance: Gestalt Therapy. in A. Burton (Ed.), What Makes Behavior Change Possible. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (1955). New York: The World Publishing Company.
Wheeler, G. (1991). Gestalt Reconsidered. New York: Gardner Press, Inc., (The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press)
Yontef, G. (1984). Modes of Thinking in Gestalt Therapy. The Gestalt Journal, 8, 1 pp. 33-74.