Külpe, Oswald (1862–1915)

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A German psychologist, philosopher, and historian of philosophy, Oswald Külpe was born in Kandava, Latvia. After teaching history, Külpe entered the University of Leipzig in 1881, intending to continue in history. However, the lectures of Wilhelm Wundt stimulated his interest in philosophy and psychology, and after further studies in Berlin, Göttingen, and Dorpat (Russia), he returned to Wundt's seminar in 1886, receiving his doctorate the following year. In 1894 he was appointed extraordinary professor at Leipzig but left to accept a full professorship at Würzburg, where he founded a psychological laboratory. Külpe returned to Leipzig in 1896, and he subsequently held academic positions at Bonn and Munich. Primarily because of his work in organizing experimental laboratories, Külpe is regarded as a pioneer of experimental psychology in Germany. He died in Munich during World War I of influenza contracted while visiting wounded German soldiers.

Psychology and Epistemology

Külpe's philosophical position, a form of critical realism, was closely related to his work in psychology. He came to regard the positivistic attempts of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius to reduce mental processes to sensations as incapable of accounting for the findings of introspective experiments. In one series of experiments, Külpe presented cards with nonsense syllables of varying colors and arrangements to subjects who were asked to report either the color, pattern, or number of items seen. Each person abstracted the features he had been instructed to report, remaining unconscious of the other features of the cards. Külpe concluded that the process of abstraction depends not only on the material presented to sensation but also on the subject's apprehension. This was taken to prove that sensationsas well as physical phenomenamust be distinguished from their apprehension. Thus he questioned the equation of "being" with "being perceived," even at the level of sensation.

Külpe abandoned the sensationalist psychology of contents in favor of a psychology recognizing both contents and acts of mind. Abstraction, he maintained, is a mental act or function that cannot be directly observed, but its occurrence is undeniable, even though it is discoverable only retrospectively. There exist both thought contents (Gedanken ) and thought processes (Denken ). The latter include the impalpable acts of thinking, meaning, and judging, which are not merely relations among contents but activities of the ego that transform the actualities (Wirklichkeiten ) of consciousness into realities (Realitäten ).

Külpe's position was thus hostile to both naive realism and idealism. Against the former, he argued that thought, although it does not produce the object of knowledge, is nevertheless genuinely spontaneous and creative in contributing to the realization of the object. His argument against idealism held that the facts of conscious experience require the existence of independent objects. When a scientist studies the maturation of an egg, for example, he assumes that this process takes place while no consciousness is directed upon it. Such continuity of development implies the object's independence of its being thought, a presupposition of every science.

Külpe used the word awareness (Bewusstheit ) to indicate that the meanings of abstract words can be discovered in consciousness even when only the words themselves are perceivable entities. This thesis is an application of the theory that there exist impalpable (unanschaulich ) or imageless contents of consciousness, a theory for which Külpe's "Würzburg school" of psychology was noted. Meanings can be experienced and objectified even without words or other signs. Although we cannot analyze precisely how these contents are given, retrospective acts make the world of meanings accessible to us. Külpe's indebtedness to Edmund Husserl and Franz Brentano is evident. Mental acts provide knowledge of meanings, and the act of meaning (das Meinen ) may be directed even to such objects as God, the soul, electrons, or atoms, which could not possibly be actualized in consciousness. The capacity for imageless thought is essential if thought is to relate itself to something independent of it. When one wants to imagine a certain structure, the particular image one has in mind is only representative of the structure; the image points beyond itself or is the occasion for such an intentional act.


In aesthetics, Külpe attempted to support Gustav Fechner's results concerning the golden section. Like Wundt, he maintained that the aesthetic pleasure produced by ideally proportioned objects results from mental economy. When the ratio of a whole to its larger part is the same as that of the larger to the smaller part, the perception involves the least effort combined with the greatest possible diversity.

Külpe attempted to further the development of experimental aesthetics by such methods as asking people to record their reactions to glimpses of slides showing works of art. His findings indicated no sympathetic empathy on the part of his subjects, thus opposing the contention of Theodor Lipps that such empathy (Einfühlung ) is the basic condition of all aesthetic enjoyment. In the reports of his subjects Külpe found that form, orderliness, symmetry, and harmony were related to attractiveness. However, he recognized the limited validity of his findings, admitting that aesthetically inexperienced people might respond differently than his subjects. This reluctance to claim more for a theory than was warranted by experimental findings was characteristic of Külpe's work in psychology.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Avenarius, Richard; Brentano, Franz; Critical Realism; Fechner, Gustav Theodor; Husserl, Edmund; Idealism; Lipps, Theodor; Mach, Ernst; Psychology; Wundt, Wilhelm.


works by kÜlpe

Grundriss der Psychologie auf experimenteller Grundlage dargestellt. Leipzig: Engelmann, 1893. Translated by E. B. Titchener as Outlines of Psychology, Based upon the Results of Experimental Investigation. New York: Macmillan, 1895.

Einleitung in die Philosophie. Leipzig, 1895. Translated by W. B. Pillsbury and E. B. Titchener as Introduction to Philosophy. London, 1910.

Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Deutschland. Leipzig: Teubner, 1902. Translated by M. L. Patrick and G. T. W. Patrick as The Philosophy of the Present in Germany. London: G. Allen, 1913.

Immanuel Kant. Leipzig, 1907.

Die Realisierung. Vol. I, Leipzig, 1912; Vols. II and III, edited by August Messer, Leipzig, 1920 and 1923.

Ethik und der Krieg. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1915. Külpe's defense of Germany's position in World War I.

Grundlagen der Aesthetik. Edited by S. Behn. Leipzig, 1921.

works on kÜlpe

Messer, August. Der Kritische Realismus. Karlsruhe, 1923.

Ogden, R. M. "Oswald Külpe and the Würzburg School." American Journal of Psychology 61 (1951): 419.

Arnulf Zweig (1967)