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Koffka, Kurt

Koffka, Kurt



Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) was a German psychologist who, with Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler, was responsible for the development of gestalt psychology. Koffka was born in Berlin of a family that had been distinguished for more than a generation in the legal profession. His enrollment at the University of Berlin in 1903 as a stu-dent of philosophy represented a break with family tradition, but he found himself at home in this field and received the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1908. His thesis, entitled “Experimental-untersuchungen zur Lehre vom Rhythmus” (1909; “Experimental Investigations of Rhythm”) was done under Carl Stumpf at Berlin. During this period Koffka spent a year, from 1904 to 1905, in Edinburgh, perfecting his command of English and familiarizing himself with British psychology, then largely a part of philosophy and physiology. This experience made it easier for him than for many of his German colleagues to renew international contacts at the end of World War I and later to introduce to the English-speaking world the theory that he had helped develop.

During 1908/1909 he was assistant in the psychological laboratory of Johannes von Kries in Freiburg, and in 1909/1910 he was assistant in Wiirzburg, first to Oswald Külpe and then, after Külpe left for Bonn, to Karl Marbe. This was the period when studies of “imageless thought” were under way at Wiirzburg, which meant that Koffka was brought into contact there with work that raised questions about the then dominant elementarism of German psychology. His first book, published in 1912 and entitled Zur Analyse der Vorstellungen und ihrer Geseize (“Regarding the Analysis of Images and Their Laws”), reflected the Würzburg approach and was dedicated to Külpe.

In 1910 there came a major turning point in Koffka’s development as a psychologist. He went to Frankfurt am Main, where he formed his lasting association with Wertheimer and KÖhler. Koffka and KÖhler were already there as assistants to Friedrich Schumann when Wertheimer arrived, full of ideas for experiments that he wanted to carry out in the Frankfurt laboratory. During the months that followed, Koffka and Köhler served as the principal subjects for these experiments and joined in discussions of the results. This work led to Wertheimer’s paper on the perception of movement that marked the birth of gestalt psychology in 1912.

In 1911, after three semesters at Frankfurt, Koffka became Privatdozent at Giessen and in 1918 extraordinary professor. Except for intervals during World War I when he was engaged in military research, he remained at Giessen until 1924. At that time he began the series of visits to the United States that led to his permanent residence in that country. During the year 1924/1925 he was Schiff professor at Cornell and in the spring of 1925 participated with Köhler, as a representative of the gestalt movement, in the series of lectures at Clark University that was published as Psychologies of 1925 (1926). In 1926/1927 he was at the University of Wisconsin and in 1927 was appointed, for a period of five years, to the newly established William Allan Neilson chair at Smith College. At the end of this period he remained at Smith, teaching, continuing research, and writing, until his death in 1941. During his tenure at Smith, he spent the summer of 1932 in Uzbekistan on an expedition sponsored by the Soviet government and the year 1939/1940 at Oxford.

Publications. During the first few years after 1912, Koffka found himself the spokesman for the gestalt psychologists. Wertheimer did not find it easy to bring his ideas to publication, and Köhler was doing work which served to broaden the theoretical base of gestalt psychology but which did not directly answer the criticism that arose as the impact of the new theory was felt. Koffka had al-ready formalized his position as a gestalt psychologist in 1913 when he began to edit a series of publications entitled Beiträge zur Psychologic der Gestalt (“Contributions to the Psychology of the Gestalt”). There were 25 Beiträge in all, the first four published originally as part of the Zeitschrift für Psychologic (between 1913 and 1919) and the remaining 21 in the Psychologische Forschung. The latter journal began to appear in 1921 as the special organ of the gestalt group, largely in German but with some contributions in other languages. Some of the Beiträge were also collected in separate volumes, the early ones under that name, and those from the period of 1930 through the final number in 1932 as Smith College Studies in Psychology. It was in this series that Koffka presented new experimental work, for example, in 1915 the work of his student, A. Korte, in which the spatial and temporal relationships of stimuli that produce perceived motion were studied; four years later his own treatment of these factors (1919a); and in 1922 F. Wulf’s study of changes in successive reproductions of visual figures.

In 1915 Koffka answered criticisms of gestalt theory in a paper entitled “Zur Grundlegung der Wahrnehmungspsychologie: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit V. Benussi” (“Foundations of Perception: A Discussion With V. Benussi”), and in 1919 came ÜOber den Einfluss der Erfahrung auf die Wahrnehmung” (1919 b; “Regarding the Influence of Experience on Perception”). The first direct presentation of gestalt theory to American psychologists was his article entitled “Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie,” which appeared in the Psychological Bulletin in 1922.

In 1921 Koffka published Die Grundlagen der psychischen Entwicklung: Eine Einfuhrung in die Kinderpsychologie and in 1924 the English translation, entitled The Growth of the Mind (1921), with revised editions in 1925 (German) and 1928 (English). His final major work, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, was published in 1935 and is the most comprehensive application of gestalt thinking to the field of psychology.

Koffka’s contribution. It is impossible to treat Koffka’s contribution without taking into account the unique collaboration that produced the gestalt movement. The men whose names were originally connected with it formed a closely knit triumvirate, and to some extent it is impossible to attribute particular aspects of the theory to one rather than another. Nevertheless, the three were very different in personality and intellectual style. Each played his own role in the group and made his own contribution. In the course of years they differed on details of the theory and in the kinds of investigations they made, but they remained in agreement on its fundamentals and each continued to value the contributions of the others.

The movement itself came into being as a protest against the reductionist theories that were then current. These theories assumed that if psychology was to be a science, it must find ways of analyzing its subject matter into constituent elements. Experience was taken as the starting point, but the elements into which it was broken down were often completely lacking in the quality of the experience that was being studied. For example, until Wertheimer’s studies, movement was commonly treated as the experience of a succession of states of rest, states that showed none of the essential character of movement.

Gestalt theory, on the other hand, contended that the real subject matter of psychology is to be found at the level of experience itself and that when experience is analyzed in laboratory studies, the analysis should be in terms of “natural” units at that level: for example, in order to study the experience of movement and relate it to environmental factors, it is necessary to study movement itself and not states of rest.

The empirical work from which the theory was first developed was done in the field of visual perception, and much of the effort of the gestalt movement continued to be in that area. This was especially true of Koffka, who did not go as far afield in his experimental work as Köhler did, for example, in his studies of apes, or as Köhler’s students did in their work on memory.

Although Koffka, with his students, was responsible for a large body of experimental work, it is likely that his most important contribution will remain his systematic application of gestalt principles—first to the field of mental development in The Growth of the Mind (1921) and, 14 years later, in the Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935), to a broad field ranging from perception to social values.

The Growth of the Mind is an attempt to apply evidence supporting the gestalt point of view to the field of developmental psychology. In it, Koffka argued that the infant’s first experience is of organized wholes, of relatively vague and undifferentiated figures perceived against a still less differentiated ground, rather than the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of William James’s classic formulation. The infant’s first responses are to gross features of the environment, like facial expression, rather than to “simple,” fixed stimulus patterns, and the process of development, depending both on inner maturation and on experience, involves a gradual increase in structure and differentiation of this originally vague field. A considerable portion of the book consists of Koffka’s arguments against the trial-and-error model of learning and his exposition of Köhler’s studies of problem solving. This book did a great deal to shift the emphasis in educational theory and practice from rote learning to “insight” and understanding.

In the Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Koffka used the gestalt point of view to bring together the large amount of work done by members of the gestalt group and their students, as well as work like Kurt Lewin’s, which took much of its original orientation from gestalt principles and further ex-tended the range of application of gestalt theory. At the same time Koffka reinterpreted experimental work that had been used to support other points of view and argued against theoretical explanations that he found unacceptable. Koffka felt that an adequate theory must be able to deal with many aspects of life, and he ended his introductory chapter with:

If psychology can point the way where science and life will meet, if it can lay the foundations of a system of knowledge that will contain the behavior of a single atom as well as that of an amoeba, a white rat, a chimpanzee, and a human being, with all the latter’s curious activities which we call social conduct, music and art, literature and drama, then an acquaintance with such a psychology should…repay the time and effort spent in its acquisition. (1935 p. 23)

It is likely, however, that the book’s greatest contribution is its treatment of the topics of perception, on the one hand, and of learning and memory, on the other. In discussing perception, Koffka dealt extensively with the work done on perceptual constancy and on the problems involved in the fact that cognition is often closer to the “real” object than are the proximal stimuli through which cognition is mediated. His answer to the question, “Why do things look as they do?” was, “.. . because of the field organization to which the proximal stimulus distribution gives rise,” and he admitted that the answer, instead of closing a chapter in psychology, only served to open one (1935, p. 98).

That answer involves most of the central problems of gestalt theory, including those of learning and memory, with which Koffka concerned himself again and again. The first publications of the gestalt group, as part of their attack on the one-sided empiricism of the dominant theories of their day, had emphasized cases in which organizational gestalt factors outweigh experience. Their emphasis on these factors left the movement open to the criticism that gestalt theorists disregarded experience entirely. Koffka made a frontal attack on this criticism in his paper on the influence of experience on perception (1919 b). At this time, he was principally concerned with refuting the prevailing assumption that the effect of experience is merely to alter or add to an event that occurs when stimuli affect an organism. Instead, he contended, the frequent occurrence of particular events creates dispositions for similar events to occur at a later time, even when the stimuli then present do not in themselves call them forth; and when these later events occur, they represent psychological processes in their own right, with underlying physiological activity that must possess the same character as that which was related to the original events.

He again treated questions regarding the influence of experience on later events in The Growth of the Mind, especially in his distinction between the problem of achievement, or how the first performance of an act comes about, and the problem of memory, or the way in which later performances depend upon earlier ones. In the Principles he re-affirmed the importance of past experience in such statements as the following: “Although we have attacked traditional empiricism incessantly we have insisted ourselves on the all-pervasive influence of experience” (1935, p. 421). In this final work, he postulated a trace theory that distinguishes the arousal of the correct process, the trace left by that process, presumably in the tissue of the central nervous system, and finally the effects of this trace on later processes. The circularity of the relationship between process and trace in this theory is suggestive of parts of Piaget’s developmental theories. Koffka said, “.. . new processes occur in systems already endowed with traces; it is this fact alone that makes mental development intelligible.” And in the same paragraph: “Thus by processes making traces and traces [affecting] processes, the system is bound to develop . . . if we mean by development the production of ever new processes” (1935, pp. 541–542).

The chapters in the Principles specifically related to memory (and forgetting) draw on a long series of investigations and present a theory in which it is postulated that the formation of trace systems, alterations that occur over time in these trace systems, and the stability and availability of traces all follow laws that have been found valid for perception. His treatment of the availability of traces as a factor in forgetting comes close to current ideas about the retrieval of stored information. Wertheirner’s principles of grouping and Köhler’s studies of memory contributed to the foundation on which this final theoretical exposition of Koffka’s was built.

Koffka’s somewhat abstract style and his detailed, often legalistic, arguments against theories that even in 1935 seemed primarily of historical importance somewhat lessened the immediate im-pact of the book. Koffka himself, in his concluding sentences, admitted that many of his special hypotheses needed further verification. Nevertheless, the book stands as a creative integration by a psychologist with a wide and detailed knowledge and, as such, may well remain a classic.

Grace M. Heider

[For the historical context of Koffka’s work, seePhenomenologyand the biographies ofKÖhler; Külpe; Stumpf; Wertheimer. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeField Theory; Gestalt Theory; Perception, article onPerceptual Constancy; Thinking; and the biography ofLewin.]


1909 Experimental-untersuchungen zur Lehre vom Rhythmus. Zeitschrift für Psychologic 52:1–109.

1912 Zur Analyse der Vorstellungen und ihrer Gesetze. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer.

1915 Zur Grundlegung der Wahrnehmungspsychologie: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit V. Benussi. Beiträge zur Psychologic der Gestalt, No. 3. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie 73:11–90.

1919 a Zur Theorie einfachster gesehener Bewegungen: Ein physiologisch-mathematischer Versuch. Beitrage zur Psychologic der Gestalt, No. 4. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie 82:257–292.

1919 b über den Einfluss der Erfahrung auf die Wahrnehmung. Die Naturwissenschaften 7:597–605.

(1921) 1928 The Growth of the Mind. New York: Har-court. → First published as Die Grandlagen der psychischen Entwicklung: Eine Einfiihrung in die Kinderpsychologie. 1922 Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie. Psychological Bulletin 19:531–585.

(1926) 1928 Mental Development. Pages 129–143 in Psychologies of 1925. 3d ed. Edited by Carl Murchison. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1935 Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Har-court.


Harrower-Erickson, M. R. 1942 Kurt Koffka: 1886’1941. American Journal of Psychology 55:278’281.

KÖhler, Wolfgang 1942 Kurt Koffka: 1886–1941. Psychological Review 49:97–101.

Korte, Adolf 1915 Kinematoskopische Untersuchungen. Beiträge zur Psychologic der Gestalt, No. 2. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie 72:194–296.

Murchison, Carl 1929 Bibliography of Koffka’s Work. Pages 131–132 in Psychological Register. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

Wertheimer, Max 1912 Experimentelle Studien liber das Sehen von Bewegung. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie 61:161–265.

Wulf, Friedrich 1922 über die Veränderung von Vorstellungen (Gedächtnis und Gestalt). Beiträge zur Psychologic der Gestalt, No. 6. Psychologische Forschung 1:333–373.

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Koffka, Kurt

Kurt Koffka

German-American experimental psychologist and a founder of the Gestalt movement.

Working with Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler , Kurt Koffka helped establish the theories of Gestalt psychology . It was Koffka who promoted this new psychology in Europe and introduced it to the United States. He was responsible for systematizing Gestalt psychology into a coherent body of theories. He extended Gestalt theories to developmental psychology , and his ideas about perception , interpretation, and learning influenced American educational theories and policies.

The son of Emil Koffka, a lawyer and royal councilor of law, and Luise Levi (or Levy), Koffka was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1886. His early education was in the hands of an English-speaking governess, and his mother's brother, a biologist, fostered his early interests in philosophy and science. After attending the Wilhelms Gymnasium and passing his exams, Koffka studied at the University of Berlin with the philosopher Alois Riehl. In 1904-1905, Koffka studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, improving his English and becoming acquainted with British scientists and scholars. Upon returning to Berlin, he changed his studies from philosophy to psychology.

Koffka's first published research, an examination of his own color blindness, was carried out in the physiology laboratory of Wilibald Nagel. Koffka completed his doctoral research at Berlin, on the perception of musical and visual rhythms, under Carl Stumpf, one of the major experimental psychologists of the time.

Cofounds Gestalt psychology

Koffka moved to the University of Freiburg in 1909, as assistant to the physiologist Johannes von Kries, a professor on the medical faculty. Shortly thereafter, he became an assistant to Oswald Külpe and Karl Marbe at the University of Würzburg, a major center of experimental psychology . That same year, Koffka married Mira Klein, who had been an experimental subject for his doctoral research. It was Koffka's next move, in 1910, that was to prove the most fateful for his career. Koffka and Köhler both went to work as assistants to Friedrich Schumann at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt am Main. They shared a laboratory with Wertheimer, who was studying the perception of motion. Soon, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler were establishing the theoretical and experimental basis of Gestalt psychology. Their new approach rejected the mechanistic psychology of the nineteenth century, which had attempted to reduce experience and perception into smaller components or sensations. Instead, they favored a holistic approach to perception. Wertheimer had studied with the phenomenologist Christian von Ehrenfels, and the three scientists tried to combine this philosophy with experimental methods. Koffka left to take a position as lecturer at the

University of Giessen in 1911, where he continued his experimental research on visual perception and began new studies on memory and thinking. However he maintained his close association with Wertheimer and Köhler.

In 1914, Koffka began studying hearing impairments in brain-damaged patients, with Robert Sommer, the director of the Psychiatric Clinic at Giessen. During the First World War, he also worked for the military on localization of sound. Koffka was promoted to a professorship in experimental psychology in 1918, a position that increased his teaching responsibilities but not his salary. In 1921, when he became director of the Psychology Institute at Giessen, he was forced to raise his own funds to set up his new laboratory. Nevertheless, Koffka and his students published numerous experimental studies over the next few years, including 18 publications in the Gestalt journal founded and edited by Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka.

Applies Gestalt principles to child development

Koffka's major work extending Gestalt theory to developmental psychology was published in 1921. He maintained that infants first perceive and respond holistically. Only later are they able to perceive the individual sensations that comprise the whole. Soon, Koffka was being invited to lecture in the United States, where his ideas were well received by psychologists. In 1922, he published his first English-language paper, on Gestalt theories of perception, in Psychological Bulletin. Robert Ogden, the editor of the Bulletin, translated Koffka's work on developmental psychology, and it was published in 1924 as The Growth of the Mind: An Introduction to Child Psychology. Translated into numerous languages, this work had a major influence on theories of learning and development. In 1923, Koffka divorced his wife and married Elisabeth Ahlgrimm, who had just finished her Ph.D. at Giessen. However, they were divorced in the same year and he remarried his first wife.

Gestalt psychology was strongly opposed by the traditional psychologists of German academia, and Koffka, as the public advocate for Gestalt, encountered many obstacles to advancement in Germany. Therefore, he spent 1924-1925 as a visiting professor at Cornell University and 1926-1927 at the University of Wisconsin. In 1927, Koffka was offered a five-year appointment as the William Allan Neilson Research Professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The non-teaching position included an equipped and funded laboratory staffed with assistants. He continued his research on visual perception, and his results were published in the four-volume Smith College Studies in Psychology (1930-1933), as well as in the German Gestalt journal that he continued to edit. Koffka remained a professor of psychology at Smith until his death. In 1928, he was divorced again and he remarried his second wife, Ahlgrimm.

Koffka undertook a research expedition to Uzbekistan in 1932, with funding from the Soviet Union. However an attack of relapsing fever, an infection transmitted by lice and ticks, forced him to return home. On the way back, he began writing his classic contribution to psychology, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, published in 1935. Drawing on his lifetime of experiments, he extended Gestalt theory to many areas of psychology, including memory and learning. In his later lectures and writings, Koffka applied Gestalt principles to a wide range of political, ethical, social, and artistic subjects. In 1939, as a visiting professor at Oxford, he worked with brain-damaged patients at the Military Hospital for Head Injuries. There, he developed the widely adopted evaluation methods for such patients. Although heart disease began to restrict his activities, Koffka continued teaching at Smith until a few days before his death in 1941 from coronary thrombosis.

See also Gestalt principles of organization

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. "Koffka, Kurt." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 12, pp. 861-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Henle, Mary. "Koffka, Kurt." In Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical and Critical Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Devine, Michael Held, James Vinson, and George Walsh, pp. 298. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

Wesley, Frank. "Koffka, Kurt." In Biographical Dictionary of Psychology, edited by Noel Sheehy, Antony J. Chapman, and Wendy A. Conroy, pp. 329-30. London: Routledge, 1997.

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Koffka, Kurt

Kurt Koffka (kŏf´kə, Ger. kŏŏrt kôf´kä), 1886–1941, American psychologist, b. Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Berlin, 1908. Before settling permanently in the United States in 1928 as a professor at Smith, he taught at Cornell and at the Univ. of Wisconsin. With Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler he is credited with developing the theories that gave rise to the school of Gestalt psychology. His book Growth of the Mind (1924) was considered responsible for awakening much interest in Gestalt concepts.

See his Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).

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Koffka, Kurt

Koffka, Kurt (1886–1941) US psychologist, b. Germany. With Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer, Koffka was a founder of gestalt psychology. He wrote The Growth of the Mind (1921) and Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).

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