Koffka, Kurt (1886–1941)

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Kurt Koffka, one of the three founders of the Gestalt movement in psychology, was born in Berlin. In 1903 he went to the university there to study philosophy, and he is said to have had a special interest in Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche at that time. In 1904 he moved to Edinburgh, and in the next few years his interest in psychology became increasingly strong. Soon after receiving his doctorate at Berlin in 1908, he moved to Würzburg, where he served as an assistant to Oswald Külpe and Karl Marbe. In 19101911 he taught at the Academy at Frankfurt am Main, and it was during this period, as a result of the joint deliberations of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and himself, that the central notions of Gestalt theory began to emerge. In 1911 Koffka became a lecturer at the University of Giessen, and from 1919 to about 1927 he was assistant professor.

The early 1920s saw the founding of Psychologische Forschung, a periodical in which several of the original articles on Gestalt theory were originally published, and of which Koffka was for many years the editor. During this decade he traveled extensively: A visit to Oxford for the International Congress of Psychology in 1923 resulted in much wider recognition of Gestalt theory than had hitherto been possible, and in succeeding years he was visiting professor at Cornell, Chicago, and Wisconsin. In 1927 he took up permanent residence in the United States, having accepted a professorship at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1932, at the invitation of the USSR State Institute, he joined an expedition to Uzbekistan to carry out ethno-psychological research, but at an early stage he was forced to return because of illness. He remained intellectually active until his death. He is said to have been a person of considerable kindness and charm, with wide interests that included music, art, and travel. His friendship with Wertheimer and Köhler was lifelong.

To separate Koffka's distinctive contributions from those of Wertheimer and Köhler is not easy, since each was influenced considerably by the other two. Koffka's The Growth of the Mind was an attempt to apply Gestalt principles to child psychology, while Principles of Gestalt Psychology was a comprehensive account of a wide range of psychological work up to 1935, with detailed theoretical discussion. One of his central claims was that it is possible to take seriously the advances of science while still finding a place for the concepts of meaning and value; indeed, scientific inquiries themselves suffer if one does not do so. An aggressive materialism or behaviorism was quite foreign to him, but the alternative to this for Koffka was a new approach, using the concept of Gestalt, rather than a return to vitalism or Cartesian dualism. In an interesting passage in Principles of Gestalt Psychology he called attention to the difference in intellectual climate between Germany and America. The more abstract and speculative ideas, in which many German scholars were interested, had to be kept in the background when Gestalt theory was presented to the Americans, whose "high regard for science, accurate and earthbound" was accompanied by "an aversion, sometimes bordering on contempt, for metaphysics that tries to escape from the welter of mere facts into a loftier realm of ideas and ideals" (p. 18).

Philosophically interesting contributions found in Principles of Gestalt Psychology include the distinction between the geographical and behavioral environments, a discussion of the criteria by means of which "things" in the behavioral environment are distinguished from "not-things," and an attempt to reinstate the concept of ego. The behavioral environment is, in effect, the perceived world, the world of commonsense experience, whereas the geographical environment is the world as studied by the physical scientist. There are features in the geographical environment (such as infrared rays) that in ordinary circumstances are not present in the behavioral environment, whereas there are features in the behavioral environment (for example, the fact that two lines are grouped together when someone looks at them) that have no direct counterpart in the geographical environment. Examples of "things" are sticks, stones, clouds, and some types of fog; marginal cases are waves, words, and noises, while "a fog that makes our ocean liner reduce speed and sound its piercing horn is not thing-like at all, as little as the mist from which we emerge when we climb a mountain" (ibid., p. 70). The three characteristics of things are "shaped boundedness, dynamic properties, and constancy." As for the ego, "it has a very definite place in that [the behavioral] world, and well-defined, if variable boundaries. 'In front,' 'to the left and right,' 'behind,' and 'above and below' are characteristics of space which it possesses with regard to an object which serves as the origin of the system of spatial co-ordinates" (ibid., p. 322). In this case science itself is seriously impoverished if the concept of the ego is simply ignored. The study (sometimes called phenomenology) of how the world appears at the commonsense level is logically independent, according to Koffka's view, of any new discovery in physics about what is "really" happening.

Many of the problems that Koffka raised are of current philosophical interest, and as a psychologist he ranks among the greatest of his generation.

See also Dualism in the Philosophy of Mind; Gestalt Theory; Kant, Immanuel; Köhler, Wolfgang; Külpe, Oswald; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Vitalism.


works by koffka

Besides numerous articles published in journals, Koffka's works include Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935); The Growth of the Mind, translated by R. M. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1924); "Mental Development," in Psychologies of 1925, edited by Carl Murchison (Worcester, MA: Clark University, 1928), pp. 129143; and "Some Problems of Space Perception," in Psychologies of 1930, edited by Carl Murchison (Worcester, MA: Clark University, 1930), pp. 161187. See also "Perception: an Introduction to the Gestalt-theorie. " Psychological Bulletin 19 (1922): 531585; "Problems in the Psychology of Art," in Art: a Bryn Mawr Symposium (Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College, 1940).

secondary works

For discussions of Koffka's work, see G. W. Hartmann, Gestalt Psychology; A Survey of Facts and Principles (New York: Ronald Press, 1935). See bibliography to the Gestalt Theory entry for works discussing Gestalt psychology as a whole.

additional sources

Arnheim, R. "The Two Faces of Gestalt Psychology." American Psychologist 41 (1986): 820824.

Ash, Mitchell G. Gestalt Psychology in German Culture 18901967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Harrower, Molly. Kurt Koffka, an Unwitting Self-Portait. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1983.

Petermann, Bruno. The Gestalt Theory and the Problem of Configuration. Translated by Meyer Fortes. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932.

Smith, Barry, ed. Foundations of Gestalt Theory. Munich: Philosophia, 1988.

T. R. Miles (1967)

Bibliography updated by Alyssa Ney (2005)