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Müller, Georg Elias

Müller, Georg Elias


Memory and learning




Georg Elias Müller (1850–1934) was one of the leaders of the new experimental psychology when it was being “founded” in Germany, just after the middle of the nineteenth century. If Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig was the founder and therefore first, Müller perhaps was second. Wundt’s Leipzig laboratory was certainly the best, but Müller’s at Göttingen was clearly second best. If most of the able students flocked to Wundt, still many important psychologists formed their values with Müller. Helmholtz had enormous influence, but he was a sense physiologist, who presently turned physicist. Fechner, the founder of psychophysics, was at heart a philosopher, with no loyalty to psychology as such. Hering was a physiologist, who influenced many by his thinking and his phenomenology of vision, but he was not quite a psychologist. Müller, throughout his forty years at Göttingen, was known for his clear thinking, his vigorous logic, his insistent polemics, and his indefatigable pursuit of theory and fact in each of his three chosen fields of research: psychophysics, memory and learning, and vision. He did not originate any of these fields, but in each he became the leader for a time. He took over psychophysics from Fechner when the latter died. He developed the experimental attack on learning and memory after the interests of Hermann Ebbinghaus, the pioneer, had moved elsewhere. From Hering he picked up the problems of visual sensation and color theory, and he became one of the three leading figures in that area of investigation, along with Hering and Helmholtz.

Müller was born on July 20, 1850, in Grimma, a small town 16 miles from Leipzig, which boasted a thirteenth-century castle. His father was a theologian and a professor of religion at the local royal academy, later becoming rector at another village near Leipzig. The son went first to the Gymnasium at Leipzig and then, at the age of 18, to the university there, to study history and philosophy. He had been a studious boy, with his thinking directed toward mysticism by his reading of Goethe, Byron, and Shelley but redirected later, by his discovery of Lessing, to the hard clarity that characterized his maturity. At Leipzig he was inducted into Herbartian philosophy; he then went to Berlin to study history. For two years he worried over the choice between history and philosophy, but when he became a soldier in the Franco—Prussian War, escaping from the worrisome dubieties of academic life, he saw clearly that he preferred philosophy. After the war he went back to Leipzig and then moved on to Göttingen to study with the great R. H. Lotze, in the days when Lotze was actively sponsoring the new scientific psychology and it was being said that all philosophy must be firmly founded upon a knowledge of science. He received his doctorate at the hands of Lotze in 1873 after having presented a psychological thesis on the theory of sensory attention, a basic analysis of this function that was still being cited in books on attention 35 years later.

After receiving his degree, Müller became a tutor, first at Rötha, near Leipzig, and then at Berlin. A severe illness caused him to return home, and there, during his convalescence, he became interested in Fechner and psychophysics. He wrote a critical monograph, which he presented when he applied at Göttingen in 1876 to become a Dozent and which was published in 1878 as Zur Grundlegung der Psychophysik. This and his critique the next year of the method of constant stimuli, a paper that contained a table of the well-known Müller weights, established Müller as a worthy successor to Fechner, who was then nearing the end of his eighth decade. In 1880 Müller accepted the chair in philosophy at Czernowitz; but in 1881 Lotze was persuaded to go to Berlin, where he died a few months later, and Müller succeeded him at Göttingen, remaining there for forty years of continuous service. Lotze had held the chair for 37 years—making a total of three-fourths of a century for the two of them. Actually, Müller’s productive life extended to almost six decades, from 1873 to 1930.

We shall now consider separately the three lines of endeavor that he promoted so successfully through those many years.


Müller’s 1878 monograph was concerned mostly with a critique of Weber’s law, the law of the relation of sensory intensity to its stimulus. In 1889—we can touch only the high points—he pursued this problem with Friedrich Schumann in an experimental study of the discrimination of weight. With an American, Lillian J. Martin, he published a classic paper (1899) on how anticipation affects the discrimination of weights, one of the early experimental papers on attitude. In 1903 appeared his elaborate study of psychophysical methods, the study that caused E. B. Titchener to delay the publication of his magnum opus on psychophysics for two years while he made revisions.

Memory and learning

In 1894 Müller and Schumann took up Ebbinghaus’ work on learning, standardizing the method of complete mastery and working out rules for the use of the nonsense syllables that Ebbinghaus had invented as material for learning. In 1900 Müller, with Alfons Pilzecker, developed the use of reaction times in the memory method of right associates. Much later Müller, working alone, produced three huge volumes (1911–1917) on memory activity, which included much of his work with Ruckle, the mathematical prodigy, and also his analysis of the method of introspection.


Müller’s third line of interest was vision, particularly color vision. His classic papers of 1896 and 1897 contain his revision of Hering’s theory of color, in which he eliminated some of the contradiction by assuming that the brain adds a constant gray to all the colors induced by the retina—a cortical gray, as he called it. At this time he also laid down his five “psychophysical axioms,” principles of the relation of neural events in the brain to the corresponding events in perception. About twenty-five years later these axioms formed the basis for the gestalt psychologists’ theory of isomorphism. In 1930, toward the end of his life, Müller published two large volumes on the psychophysics of color sensations; but these tomes made less of an impression than did his earlier work, because Müller was then 80 years old, nine years past his retirement, and the times were moving away from the patterns of his interests. Nevertheless it must be noted that not so many years before, in the period from 1909 to 1911, some of the important work on visual perception—work cast in the modes of the new experimental phenomenology—had been produced at Müller’s laboratory by three soon-to-be-famous psychologists: E. R. Jaensch, David Katz, and Edgar Rubin.

Müller had retired in 1921. In 1923 he published a little book polemicizing against the new gestalt psychology, followed in 1924 by a short outline of general psychology as he then saw it. He died at Göttingen on December 23, 1934, an outstanding figure among the pioneers of the new experimental psychology.

Edwin G. Boring

[For the historical context of Müller’s work, see the biographies of Ebbinghaus; Fechner; Helmholtz; Hering; Lotze; Titchener; Weber, E. H.; Wundt;for discussion of the subsequent development of Müller’s ideas, see Forgetting; Gestalt theory; Psychophysics; Vision,especially the article on COLOR VISION AND COLOR BLINDNESS; and the biographies of Katzand Jaensch.]


1873 Zur Theorie der sinnlichen Aufmerksamkeit. Leipzig: Edelmann.

1878 Zur Grundlegung der Psychophysik. Berlin: Grieben.

1889 MÜller, Georg E.; and Schumann, Friedrich Über die psychologischen Grundlagen der Vergleichimg gehobener Gewichte. Archiv fur die gesammte Physiologic 45:37–112.

1894 MÜller, Georg E.; and Schumann, Friedrich Experimentelle Beiträge zur Untersuchung des Gedachtnisses. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologic der Sinnesorgane 6:81–190, 257–339.

1896–1897 Zur Psychophysik der Gesichtsempfindungen. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologic der Sinnesorgane 10:1–82, 321–413; 14:1–76, 161–196.

1899 MÜller, Georg E.; and Martin, Lillian J. Zur Analyse der Unterschiedsempfindlichkeit. Leipzig: Barth.

1900 MÜller, Georg E.; and Pilzecker, Alfons Experimentelle Beiträge zur Lehre vom Gedächtniss. Zeitschrift fur Psychologic, Supplement No. 1.

1903 Die Gesichtspunkte und die Tatsachen der psychophysischen Methodik. Ergebnisse der Physiologic 2, part 2: 267–516.

1911–1917 Analyse der Gedächtnistätigkeit und des Vorstellungsverlaufes. 3 parts. Zeitschrift fur Psychologic, Supplements no. 5, 8, 9.

1923 Komplextheorie und Gestalttheorie: Ein Beitrag zur Wahrnehmungspsychologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &Ruprecht.

1924 Abriss der Psychologic. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &Ruprecht.

1930 Über die Farbenempfindungen: Psychophysische Untersuchungen. 2 parts. Zeitschrift für Psychologic, Supplements no. 17, 18.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. →See especially pages 371–379; and the bibliography on pages 382–383.

Boring, Edwin G. 1935 Georg Elias Müller: 1850–1934. American Journal of Psychology 47:344–348.

Boring, Edwin G. 1936 Georg Elias Müller. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Proceedings 70:558–560.

ClaparÉde, Èdouard 1935 Georg Elias Muller: 1850–1934. Archives de psychologic 25:110–114.

Katz, David 1935a Georg Elias Müller. Acta psychologica 1:234–240.

Katz, David 1935b Georg Elias Möller. Psychological Bulletin 32:377–380.

Van Essen, Jacob 1935 G. E. Möller ter gedachtenis. Nederlandsch tijdschrift voor psychologic 3:48–58. → Contains a bibliography.

Watson, Robert I. 1963 The Great Psychologists: From Aristotle to Freud. Philadelphia: Lippincott. → See especially pages 269–270, “G. E. Muller.”

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Müller, Georg Elias


(b. Grimma, Germany, 20 July 1850; d. Göllingen, Germany, 23 December 1934)


Müller was the son of Oberpfarrer Müller and Rosalie Zehme. At the Fürstenschule in Grimma, where his father was a professor of religion, Müller became intellectually awakened by Goethe’s Faust and by romantic poetry, an enthusiasm from which he was rescued by studying Lessing. He briefly attended the Gymnasium at Leipzig, and on leaving there he determined to accept in philosophy only what could be proved by strict logic, a resolve from which he never wavered.

He spent the next two years, successively, at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin. During this time he was much concerned with whether science or history should be the propaedeutic to philosophy. During a year in the Franco-Prussian War, he decided in favor of science. Müller then returned to Leipzig but went on to Göttingen to study psychology and philosophy under Lotze. Lotze’s influence is shown in Müller’s 1873 doctoral dissertation, Zur Theorie der sinnlichen Aufmerksamkeit, a nonexperimental but exhaustive study of sensory attention which was soon cited extensively.

While at Leipzig, Müller had heard Fechner lecture, and he continued a somewhat belligerent scientific correspondence with him from Rötha, where he had a job as a tutor. This correspondence resulted in his Grundlegung der Psychophysik, which Müller presented as his Habilitationsschrift at Göttingen. He became Dozent there in 1876. The work was published in 1878, and its meticulous discussion of Weber’s law and many innovations in psychophysical method became the chief reason for Fechner’s own Revision der Hauptpunkte der Psychophysik (1882).

Müller remained at Göttingen as Dozent for four years, then spent a year as professor of philosophy at Czernowitz. He succeeded Lotze at Göttingen in 1881. Remaining at Göttingen for the rest of his life, he became an institution, much like Wundt at Leipzig. His laboratory vied with Wundt’s as the best in Germany for psychological research. Müller was methodological, austere, and had a mania for impartiality. His work was characterized by a fierce insistence on order, so much so that he refused to partake in seminars, regarding them as too improvised to be of value.

Müller’s work can be classified as being in three areas: psychophysics, learning, and vision.

Psychophysics . Beyond the work already mentioned, Müller’s contributions in psychophysics comprised articles on method and the muscle basis of weight judgments. He and L. J. Martin published jointly in 1899 Zur Analyse der Unterschiedsempfindlichkeit, which, after Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik, is the classical study of the psychophysics of lifted weights, the most thoroughly investigated psychophysical function. In 1903 there appeared the definitive handbook on psychophysics, the Gesichtspunkte und Tatsachen der psychophysischen Methodik. This book did not present anything very new, but it was a thorough summing-up of the entire field and what, in Müller’s view, psychophysics had accomplished up to that time.

Learning . In 1885 Ebbinghaus published his classic work on the learning and memory of nonsense syllables. In 1887 Müller made the problem his own. Where Ebbinghaus was original, Müller was thorough. He carefully extended Ebbinghaus’ findings, and he and Schumann invented the memory drum for more accurate presentations; most interestingly, they recorded introspections while the learning was going on. This innovation contradicted the feeling one gets from Ebbinghaus that learning is a mechanical and automatic process occurring through mere contiguity. During learning, subjects are active, not passive, using groupings and rhythms, finding meanings even in nonsense materials, and, in general, consciously organizing material. And the preparatory set or Anlage of the subject is a determining factor in memory.

These emphases are entirely absent from Ebbinghaus’ work and anticipated those of the Würzburg laboratory under Külpe, once Müller’s student. Another student at this time was Adolph Jost, whose work with Müller led to Jost’s law— when two associations are of equal strength, a repetition is more strengthening to that which occurred first. This work led to the theory of the advantage of distributed practice; and with another student, Alfons Pilzecker, Müller published a joint monograph in 1900 showing the significance of reaction times as indicators of the strength of associations.

Müller summarized his work in learning in the encyclopedic, three-volume Zur Analyse der Gedächtnistätigkeit und des Vorstellungsverlaufes (1911–1917).

Vision . Müller’s first work dealing with vision presented the hypothesis that cortical gray is the zero point from which all color sensations diverge. This work was an attempt to solve the paradox of color mixture inherent in Hering’s theory of three reversible photochemical substances which in equilibrium should, but do not, result in visual silence. After occasional publications in this area over the years, Müller published his lengthy Über the Farbenempfindungen: Psychophysische Untersuchungen in 1930, reviewing and evaluating the entire field.

From 1907 to 1918, David Katz worked with Müller, and he published his important work in surface and volumic colors, a landmark in experimental phenomenology, during this time. Edgar Rubin, working in Müller’s laboratory, printed his own phenomenological analysis of visual perceptions into figure, ground, and contour, instead of into the more conventional sensory ultimates.

Müller’s position at the beginnings of phenomenology and Gestalt psychology was extremely important, if complex. One of his last works was his 1923 Komplextheorie und Gestalttheorie, a work on methodology in perception that criticized the more strident claims to newness on the part of Gestalt psychology.

Much more than Wundt, Müller’s approach and work set the ideal pattern for experimental psychology. It was Müller who established the precedent that psychology had to be separated from philosophy if it was to become a rigorous science. Titchener, although Wundt’s student, always turned to Müller for criticism and guidance. Among German psychologists of the period, Müller is usually ranked second to Wundt partly because of the large numbers of American students whom Wundt managed to attract, partly because of Müller’s austerity and occasional absentminded ungraciousness to visitors, and partly because Müller, unlike Wundt, never wrote popular or systematic books. But at the present day Wundt’s influence is difficult to find because it is so diffuse; whereas the emphases, problems, and particularly the tough-minded experimentalism represented by Müller are at the heart of contemporary experimental psychology.


I. Original Works. Müller’s major works are Zur Theorie der sinnlichen Aufmerksamkeit (Leipzig, 1873); Zur Grundlegung der Psychophysik (Berlin, 1878); “Ueber die psychologischen Grundlagen für die Vergleichung

der gehobenen Gewichte,” in Pflüger’s Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere, 47 , 37–112, written with F. Schumann; “Theorie der-Muskel contraction,” in Nachtrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (1889); “Experimentelle Beiträge zu Untersuchungen des Gedächtnisses,” in Zeitschrift für Psychologies und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, 6 (1893), 81–190, 257–339, written with F. Schumann; with L. J. Martin, Zur Analyse der Unterschiedsempfindlichkeit (Leipzig, 1899); with A. Pilzecker, Experimentelle Beiträge zur Lehre vom Gedächtnis (Leipzig, 1900); Zur Analyse der Gedachtnistätigkeit und des Vorstellungsverlaufes (Leipzig, 1911–1917), also published in Zeitschrift für Psychologie, vols. 5, 8, 9; Komplextheorie und Gestalttheorie: ein Beitrag zur Wahrnehmungspsychologie (Göttingen, 1923); and Über die Farbenempfindungen; psychophysische Untersuchungen (Göttingen, 1930).

II. Secondary Literature. The only biographical source for Müller’s early life is two letters from him to E. G. Boring, which are now in the Boring Papers of the Harvard archives. These letters are excerpted in Boring’s obituary of Müller, in American Journal of Psychology, 47 (1935), 344–348; see also E. G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New York, 1929), 361–373, which contains a more complete bibliog.; for his personality see the obituary by his student D. Katz, in Psychological Bulletin, 32 (1935), 377–380; and for a description of the Göttingen Laboratory in 1892, see O. Krohn, in American Journal of Psychology, 5 (1893), 282–284.

E. B. Titchener discusses Müller’s work throughout his own publications, but see particularly his Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention (New York, 1908), esp. 188–206, 356–359; Experimental Psychology, II (New York, 1905), 2, esp. 300–313; and for Müller on introspection, see “Prolegomena to a Study of Introspection,” in American Journal of Psychology, 23 (1912), 490–494.

See also O. Klemm, A History of Psychology (New York, (1914), esp. 257–262, 296; H. Münsterberg, Professor G. E. Müller’s “Berichtigung” (Boston, 1893); and reviews of Müller’s books by: J. A. Bergstrom, in American Journal of Psychology, 6 (1894), 301–303; F. Angell, ibid. 11 (1899), 266–271; J. W. Baird, in Psychological Bulletin, 13 (1916), 373–375; and K. Koffka, ibid. 19 (1922), 572–576.

W. Köhler’s reply to Müller’s 1923 criticism of Gestalt psychology can be found in Psychologische Forschung, 6 (1925), 358–416; and Müller’s rejoinder, in Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 99 (1926), 1–15.

Julian Jaynes

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