the contact boundary

In my last post I discussed the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy, co-written by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline. For a landmark work of clinical psychology, it's a curiously schizophrenic book. One half, written by Goodman from ideas and notes by Perls, is a dense and cogent exposition of the personality theory in which Gestalt therapy is grounded. The other half, executed primarily by Hefferline of Columbia University, consists of 18 body-mind exercises with which Perls had experimented in his practice, introduced with light commentary in a simplified self-help tone.

The authors intended for Goodman's work to come first, but the publishers thought the book would sell better the other way around. It was an unfortunate decision that significantly slowed the diffusion of the Goodman/Perls theory. The direction of Perls' subsequent career did still more to paint a picture of Gestalt therapy in the public mind as a somewhat gimmicky, very 60s, be-here-now, encounter-group style driven by the therapist as charismatic guru.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few people who see what Goodman wrote in Gestalt Therapy as a path-breaking masterpiece, a step forward from Freud's insights into a coherent, empirically workable description of how personality and neurosis develop. Another of the field's leading figures, Isadore From, for many years taught Goodman's book line by line in a year-long course at the New York Gestalt Therapy Institute.

I'll try in a subsequent post (if I have the chutzpah) to describe the mechanics of Goodman's theory, but for now here are two things about it that contributed to the opening up of therapy beyond the assumptions and conventions of psychoanalysis. First, Goodman insisted that no solid boundary can be drawn between an individual organism and its environment. Remember, individual and society, organism and environment—the relationship that defines sociology and ecology—is what Goodman considered the through-line of his whole wide-ranging intellectual career. While the self and its constituent parts (id, ego, etc.) represent the fundamental unit of Freudian theory, Goodman decentered the self. In its place, his theory posited the "contact boundary" between an organism and something external to it—including, of course, other organisms. In Gestalt therapy, the points of contact are where it's at, the most salient locus for both useful observation and therapeutic intervention. This idea that wider realms and structures (the biosphere, the family, the nation) impact on every level what constitutes the self, is what makes Goodman's psychological model compatible with both his social-political theory and with the key insights of Asian religious philosophy.

The other breakthrough in the theory (and come to think of it, this also meshes well with Taoism and Buddhism) is its focus on the present rather than the past. In Freud's mythical model, the holy grail is whatever's locked up from childhood trauma and can be unlocked on the couch, but in Gestalt therapy, what matters is what's happening right now: how a person's moment-to-moment acts of cognition, reaction, making contact (or withholding contact) manifest the whole (the Gestalt) of the person's being, or neurosis, or state of growth, or possibility for further growth. I'm not sure I can unpack the word "phenomenology" (it has too many syllables and too much philosophical baggage for me), but the idea that what's observable, not what's hidden in the unconscious, really is what's going on—and thus that the here-and-now represents the most useful material for making progress in therapy—strikes me as a crafty, pragmatic approach.