Hermann Ebbinghaus

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Ebbinghaus, Hermann



Hermann Ebbinghaus, German psychologist, was born on January 24, 1850. He was the son of Carl Ebbinghaus, a merchant in the town of Barmen near Bonn, Germany. Of his infancy and childhood it is known only that he was brought up in the Lutheran faith and was a pupil at the town Gymnasium until he was 17. In 1867 he went to the University of Bonn and somewhat later to Berlin and Halle. Although his initial interest was in history and philology, he was gradually drawn to philosophy. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 he joined the Prussian Army. In the spring of 1871, however, he left the army to continue his philosophical studies at Bonn. He completed his dissertation, Vber die Hartmannsche Philosophic des Unbewussten (1873), and received his PH.D. on August 16, 1873, passing his examination with distinction.

In 1880 he received his habilitation at Berlin. In 1885 he published Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. He was made a professor in the same year, probably in recognition of this publication. While at Berlin he founded the psychological laboratory, and in 1890, in association with Arthur Konig, he founded the Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologic der Sinnesorgane.

He was called to Breslau in 1894 to become a full professor in the chair left vacant by Theodor Lipps’ departure for Munich. (Lipps replaced Stumpf, who, in turn, was bound for Berlin.) At Breslau, Ebbinghaus again founded a psychological laboratory. In 1905 he moved to Halle to succeed Alois Riehl, who was going to Berlin. He remained there as professor of philosophy until his death from pneumonia on February 26, 1909.

Ebbinghaus found his own way to psychology. None of his instructors determined in any marked way the direction of his thinking, even though they included such eminent persons as Johann E. Erd-mann, Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, and Jiirgen B. Meyer. A major influence, however, was the combination of philosophical and scientific points of view that he found in Fechner, a copy of whose Elemente der Psychophysik he picked up in a Parisian secondhand bookstall. He acknowledged his debt in the Grundzuge (1897–1908), which he dedicated to the memory of Fechner.

One leitmotiv runs through his work: psychology is Naturwissenschaft. The very first thesis in his dissertation sets forth the proposition that psychology (in the broadest sense) belongs no more to philosophy than does natural science (1873, p. 2). His goal was the establishment of psychology on a quantitative and experimental basis. This focus is well brought out in the short historical sketch that introduces his Abriss der Psychologie. “When Weber in 1828 had the seemingly petty curiosity to want to know at what distances apart two touches on the skin could be just perceived as two, and later, with what accuracy he could distinguish between two weights laid on the hand … his curiosity resulted in more real progress in psychology than all the combined distinctions, definitions, and classifications of the time from Aristotle to Hobbes (inclusive)” (1908, p. 17). Ebbinghaus’ desire to bring into psychology clear and exact methods resulted in his extreme carefulness in experimental technique and his considerable interest in apparatus.

Ebbinghaus was an unusually good lecturer. His buoyancy, his humor, and the unusual clarity and ease of his presentation assured him of large audiences. Another outstanding trait, especially valuable for a journal editor, was his Jamesian tolerance (Boring [1929] 1950, p. 390). This capacity led him to publish widely diverse opinions—a policy vital to a young science. In contacts with his students, he invariably showed great interest in their problems.

It may seem surprising that Ebbinghaus had so few disciples. In his obituary of Ebbinghaus, Jaensch attributed this to Ebbinghaus’ lack of interest in developing them (1909). He never urged others to undertake investigations; in fact, to work with him one had to obtrude oneself upon him with determination. Some of his better known students are Arthur Wreschner, Louis W. Stern, and Otto Lipmann.

Ebbinghaus did psychology a great service in founding and editing the Zeitschrift für Psychologie. The 50 volumes published up to his death present a practically complete portrait of psychology in the two decades from 1890 to 1910. A brief selection of names from the index—Hermann von Helmholtz, Carl Stumpf, Georg E. Mtiller, Friedrich Schumann, Theodor Lipps, Johannes von Kries—is convincing evidence that the Zeitschrift was the most important psychological organ in Germany and therefore in the world.

Ebbinghaus published relatively little. His own point of view with regard to print is expressed in a passage quoted by Woodworth (1909, p. 255) to the effect that “the individual has to make innumerable studies for his own sake. He tests and rejects, tests once more and once more rejects. For certainly not every happy thought, bolstered up perhaps by a few rough and ready experiments, should be brought before the public. But sometimes the individual reaches a point where he is permanently clear and satisfied with his interpretation. Then the matter belongs to the scientific public for their further judgment.” The seriousness of Ebbinghaus’ attitude in this regard is shown by his memory experiments. Although they were completed in 1880, he did not report the results until 1885, after having repeated them in their entirety in 1883.

The interest aroused by Edward von Hartmann’s Philosophic des Unbewussten, which appeared in 1869, testifies to the general interest in the unconscious at that time. The unconscious was a popular dissertation subject among doctoral candidates. Ebbinghaus’ treatment of it in his own dissertation was very critical, in line with his views concerning the essential similarity of psychology and the natural sciences and the excessively abstract and verbal nature of the then existing psychology. Two of his verdicts on contemporary psychology were: “Wherever the structure is touched, it falls apart” (1873, p. 57); and “What is true is alas not new, the new not true” (ibid., p. 67).

It is unfortunate that Ebbinghaus left no record of the work he did before he began his work on memory, which was published in 1885. In the introduction to the section on nonsense syllables he made the bare statement, “In order to test practically, although only for a limited field, a way of penetrating more deeply into memory processes … I have hit upon the following method” ([1885] 1964, p. 22), and he went on to discuss the nature and mechanics of nonsense syllables. As nearly as we can tell, he conceived of nonsense syllables for the investigation of the nature of memory between 1875 and 1879.

Before the publication of Memory, exact work on the mind had been limited to problems of predominantly physiological affinities. Not that interest in more strictly psychological phenomena had been lacking; rather, the means for their study had not been easily available. Now, however, a fundamental central function had been subjected to experimental investigation. This must have meant a good deal to the young science, although comparatively little of the contemporary effect can be discovered in print. James ([1890] 1962, p. 443) was impressed with the “heroic” nature of the experiment, as was Tanzi (1885, p. 598), who characterized it as “truly worthy of a Carthusian monk.” A later opinion was expressed by Titchener: “It is not too much to say that the recourse to nonsense syllables, as means to the study of association, marks the most considerable advance, in this chapter of psychology, since the time of Aristotle” ([1909] 1928, pp. 380–381). However, Titchener also thought that the “introduction of nonsense syllables … has nevertheless done psychology a certain disservice. It has tended to place the emphasis rather upon organism than upon mind” (ibid., p. 414). Murphy later described this investigation as “one of the greatest triumphs of original genius in experimental psychology” ([1929] 1949, p. 174).

In 1894, Dilthey’s “Ideen liber eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologic” appeared. This amounted to an attack on the very keystone of Ebbinghaus’ faith. Dilthey claimed that the new psychology could never be more than descriptive and that attempts to make it explanatory and constructive were wrong in principle and led to nothing but confusion of opinion and fact. He asserted that we “explain nature, but we understand psychic life,” and that any psychology which is modeled after atomistic physics—as is that of Ebbinghaus—can never “understand,” for in the final analysis the process of “understanding” has to be experienced (erlebt) and cannot be inferred logically (erschlossen).

Although Ebbinghaus was reluctant to enter into controversy, he did undertake to defend psychology as he understood it. In an article in the Zeitschrift for 1896, “Über erklarende und beschreibende Psychologic,” he justified the use of hypothesis and causal explanation in psychology. He claimed that, insofar as Dilthey was attacking explanatory psychology, he was attacking the old associationists, who had indeed failed. He felt their difficulty had arisen because they had analogized psychology to the fields of chemistry and physics rather than to biology. Dilthey, as Ebbinghaus saw it, was not actually discussing modern psychology; what he identified with explanatory psychology was actually only the work of Johann Herbart—and Herbart was no longer read, even in Germany. To Ebbinghaus, Dilthey’s point that explanatory psychology works, like physics, on the principle that cause is exactly equal to effect was incorrect; rather, all that psychology can and does say, according to Ebbinghaus, is that “the contiguity of two sensations is considered as causal relationship because later a representation of one sensation results in a Vorstellung of the other” (1896, p. 186). This controversy has yet to be settled.

In 1895 the school authorities of Breslau were interested in the advisability of holding longer school sessions. Ebbinghaus was appointed to a commission that was created to investigate this problem. His contribution was the Kombinationsmethode, a form of completion test (1897, pp. 401–459) designed to measure intellectual fatigue. Although it did not serve its original purpose, it proved very valuable as a measure of general intellectual capacity, since scores on it correlated highly with the rank and scholarship of the pupils. There are many current adaptations of the test’s principle.

When Ebbinghaus died in 1909, the systematic treatise—the Grundzüge—that he had begun early in the 1890s was only a little more than half completed. The first half of Volume 1 had come out in 1897. This volume was published as a whole only in 1902, and a second edition of it followed in 1905. In 1908 the first section of Volume 2 (96 pages) appeared. On Ebbinghaus’ death Ernst Diirr took over the editing of his works and completed Volume 2. The major virtues of the Grundzuge lie in its readableness and convenient format rather than in any radical approach to psychology, but these, together with its comprehensiveness and its minor innovations, were sufficient to produce an enthusiastic reception.

Abriss der Psychologic (1908), an elementary textbook of psychology, achieved considerable success, as is evidenced by the fact that on the average more than one new edition appeared every two years until 1922. Additionally, an English translation by Max Meyer appeared in 1908, and French editions were published in 1910 and 1912—all of which attests to the value and appeal of the volume. The introduction consists of an admirable short history of psychology and begins with the well-known statement, “Psychology has a long past, yet its real history is short.”

Ebbinghaus’ influence on psychology, great as it was, has been mostly indirect. Memory is undoubtedly his outstanding contribution. His work on memory was the starting point not only for practically all the studies that have followed in this field but probably also for much of the work on the acquisition of skill. His Grundzuge is next in importance, not for its new system (which is very much like that of his contemporaries) but for its clear and concise treatment of the literature and its experimental emphasis. His Kombinationsmethode has been valuable to the field of mental testing. His editing of the Zeitschrift did much to advance psychology during a very productive period. His emphasis on experiment and his faith in the laboratory approach led to his personally establishing at least two laboratories and developing a third. His qualities as a lecturer and writer helped to spread a knowledge of orthodox psychology.

Despite an early training in philosophy, he was one of the leaders in the movement to emancipate psychology from philosophy. He belongs fundamentally in the tradition that leads from prepsychological science, to physiology and the work of Helmholtz and Fechner, to Wundt and “content psychology.” Dunlap (1927) would give him, together with Aristotle and Binet, the credit for making psychology “behavioristic,” but that is prob-ably going too far. His psychology does, however, have a functional emphasis, as suggested by his constant reference to the biological affinity of psychology, his nativism in the matter of general attributes of sensation, and his contribution to the problem of individual differences.

As Boring (1929) has pointed out, the history of general experimental psychology has passed through three successive phases: (1) sensation and perception; (2) learning; and (3) motivation. The landmark for the first is Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik of 1860 and for the last is Freud’s Die Traumdeutung of 1900. Ebbinghaus’ Ober das Geddchtnis of 1885 stands as the middle-phase landmark. If he had produced nothing else, this work would assure Ebbinghaus an important place in the history of psychology.

David Shakow

[For the historical context of Ebbinghaus’ work, see the biographies ofDilthey; Fechner. For discussion of the subsequent development of Ebbinghaus’ ideas, seeForgetting; Learning, article onTransfer; Psychophysics.]


1873 Über die Hartmannsche Philosophic des Unbewussten. Diisseldorf (Germany): Dietz. → Translation of extract in text provided by David Shakow.

(1885) 1964 Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith; New York: Dover. → First published as Über das Gedächtnis: Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie.

1896 Über erklarende und beschreibende Psychologie. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 9:161–205. → Translation of extract in text provided by David Shakow.

1897 Über eine neue Methode zur Prüfung geistiger Fahigkeiten und ihre Anwendung bei Schulkindern. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 13:401–459.

(1897–1908) 1911–1913 Grundzüge der Psychologie. 3d ed. 2 vols. Leipzig (Germany): Veit.

1901 Die Psychologic jetzt und vor hundert Jahren. Pages 49–60 in International Congress of Psychology, Fourth, Paris, 1900, Compte rendu des séances et texte des mémoires, publics par les soins du Dr. Pierre Janet. Paris: Alcan.

1908 Psychology: An Elementary Text-book. Translated and edited by Max Meyer. Boston: Heath. → First published in the same year as Abriss der Psychologie.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Dilthey, Wilhelm 1894 Ideen über eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, Sitzungsberichte 2:1309–1407.

Dunlap, Knight 1927 Use and Abuse of Abstractions in Psychology. Philosophical Review 36:462–487. → See especially page 477.

Jaensch, E. 1909 Hermann Ebbinghaus. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 51:i-viii.

James, William (1890)1962 Principles of Psychology. New York: Smith.

Murphy, Gardner (1929)1949 Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt. Shakow, David 1930 Hermann Ebbinghaus. American Journal of Psychology 42:505–518.

Tanzi, Eugenio 1885 Über das Gedächtnis: Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologic von W. [H.] Ebbinghaus. Rivista di filosofia scientifica 4:598–600. → Translation of extract in text provided by David Shakow.

Titchener, Edward B. (1909)1928 A Textbook of Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

Titchener, Edward B. 1910 The Past Decade in Experimental Psychology. American Journal of Psychology 21:404–421.

Woodworth, R. S. 1909 Hermann Ebbinghaus. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 6: 253–256.

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Hermann Ebbinghaus

German psychologist whose work resulted in the development of scientifically reliable experimental methods for the quantitative measurement of rote learning and memory.

Born in Germany, Hermann Ebbinghaus received his formal education at the universities of Halle, Berlin, and Bonn, where he earned degrees in philosophy and history. After obtaining his philosophy degree in 1873, Ebbinghaus served in the Franco-Prussian War. For the next seven years following the war, he tutored and studied independently in Berlin, France, and England. In the late 1870s, Ebbinghaus became interested in the workings of human memory . In spite of Wilhelm Wundt 's assertion in his newly published Physiological Psychology that memory could not be studied experimentally, Ebbinghaus decided to attempt such a study, applying to this new field the same sort of mathematical treatment that Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) had described in Elements of Psychophysics (1860) in connection with his study of sensation and perception .

Using himself as both sole experimenter and subject, Ebbinghaus embarked on an arduous process that involved repeatedly testing his memorization of nonsense words devised to eliminate variables caused by prior familiarity with the material being memorized. He created 2,300 one-syllable consonant-vowel-consonant combinationssuch as taz, bok, and lef to facilitate his study of learning independent of meaning. He divided syllables into a series of lists that he memorized under fixed conditions. Recording the average amount of time it took him to memorize these lists perfectly, he then varied the conditions to arrive at observations about the effects of such variables as speed, list length, and number of repetitions. He also studied the factors involved in retention of the memorized material, comparing the initial memorization time with the time needed for a second memorization of the same material after a given period of time (such as 24 hours) and subsequent memorization attempts. These results showed the existence of a regular forgetting curve over time that approximated a mathematical function similar to that in Fechner's study. After a steep initial decline in learning time between the first and second memorization, the curve leveled off progressively with subsequent efforts.

Ebbinghaus also measured immediate memory, showing that a subject could generally remember between six and eight items after an initial look at one of his lists. In addition, he studied comparative learning rates for meaningful and meaningless material, concluding that meaningful items, such as words and sentences, could be learned much more efficiently than nonsense syllables. His experiments also yielded observations about the value of evenly spaced as opposed to massed memorization. A monumental amount of time and effort went into this ground-breaking research. For example, to determine the effects of number of repetitions on retention, Ebbinghaus tested himself on 420 lists of 16 syllables 340 times each, for a total of 14,280 trials. After careful accumulation and analysis of data, Ebbinghaus published the results of his research in the volume On Memory in 1885, while on the faculty of the University of Berlin. Although Wundt argued that results obtained by using nonsense syllables had limited applicability to the actual memorization of meaningful material, Ebbinghaus's work has been widely used as a model for research on human verbal learning, and Über Gedachtnis (On Memory) has remained one of the most cited and highly respected sourcebooks in the history of psychology.

In 1894, Ebbinghaus joined the faculty of the University of Breslau. While studying the mental capacities of children in 1897, he began developing a sentence completion test that is still widely used in the measurement of intelligence . This test, which he worked on until 1905, was probably the first successful test of mental ability . Ebbinghaus also served on the faculties of the Friedrich Wilhelm University and the University of Halle. He was a cofounder of the first German psychology journal, the Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs, in 1890, and also wrote two successful textbooks, The Principles of Psychology (1902) and A Summary of Psychology (1908), both of which went into several editions. His achievements represented a major advance for psychology as a distinct scientific discipline and many of his methods continue to be followed in verbal learning research.

See also Forgetting curve; Intelligence quotient

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Hermann Ebbinghaus

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) is best known for his innovative contribution to the study of memory through nonsense syllables.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was born on Jan. 24, 1850, near Bonn. In 1867 he went to the University of Bonn and somewhat later attended the universities of Berlin and Halle. After the Franco-Prussian War he continued his philosophical studies at Bonn, completing a dissertation on Eduard von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, and received his doctorate in 1873.

Ebbinghaus's goal was to establish psychology on a quantitative and experimental basis. While professor at Berlin, he founded a psychological laboratory, and in 1890 he founded the journal Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane. He became full professor in Breslau in 1894, where he also founded a laboratory. In 1905 he moved to Halle, where he died on Feb. 26, 1909.

In psychology Ebbinghaus found his own way. None of his instructors determined in any marked way the direction of his thinking. A major influence, however, was the combination of philosophical and scientific points of view he found in Gustav Theodor Fechner. He acknowledged his debt in the systematic treatise Die Grundzüge der Psychologie, which he dedicated to Fechner.

Ebbinghaus was an unusually good lecturer. His buoyancy and humor, together with the unusual clarity and ease of his presentation, assured him of large audiences. Another valuable trait was his Jamesian tolerance, which led him as editor to publish widely diverse opinions—a policy vital to a young science.

Ebbinghaus himself published relatively little. No records exist of the work he did before he published Memory (1885). In the introduction to this work, in the section on nonsense syllables, he says only, "I have hit upon the following method," and goes on to discuss the nature and mechanics of nonsense syllables. Memory, a fundamental central function, was thereby subjected to experimental investigation.

In 1894 William Dilthey claimed that the new psychology could never be more than descriptive and that attempts to make it explanatory and constructive were wrong in principle, leading to nothing but confusion of opinion and fact. Since this amounted to an attack on the very keystone of Ebbinghaus's faith, he undertook, despite his reluctance for controversy, to defend psychology as he understood it. In an article in the Zeitschrift für Psychologie for 1896, he justified the use of hypothesis and causal explanation in psychology.

When Ebbinghaus died, the Grundzüge that he had begun early in the 1890s was only a little more than half completed; a colleague, Ernst Dürr, finished it. The major virtues of these volumes lie in their readableness and convenient format rather than in any radical approach to psychology, but these qualities, together with their comprehensiveness and minor innovations, were sufficient to produce an enthusiastic reception. Ebbinghaus's Abriss der Psychologie (1908), an elementary textbook of psychology, also achieved considerable success.

Ebbinghaus's influence on psychology, great as it was, has been mostly indirect. Memory, undoubtedly his outstanding contribution, was the starting point for practically all of the studies that have followed in this field.

Further Reading

Ebbinghaus's Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology was reissued with a new introduction by Ernest R. Hilgard (1964). There is no biographical work on Ebbinghaus. The most complete picture of him is in Edwin G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (1929; 2d ed. 1950). See also Gardner Murphy, Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology (1929; rev ed. 1948). □

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German psychologist, pioneer in the experimental investigation of memory, b. Barmen, Jan. 24, 1850; d. Halle, Feb. 26, 1909. He took his doctorate at Bonn with a dissertation on the philosophy of the unconscious of E. von hartmann in 1873. Later, while studying privately, he chanced upon a copy of the Elemente der Psychophysik of G. T. Fechner and at once began to adapt Fechner's method to the measurement of learning and memory. He first used himself as a subject and 2,300 nonsense syllables of his own invention for material; later he verified his results and published them in Ueber das Gedächtnis (Leipzig 1885). At this time he was at Berlin where, as assistant professor, he founded a psychological laboratory in 1886. Ebbinghaus is memorable also for the construction of a completion test, the type destined for long use in intelligence testing. In 1890, with Arthur König, he founded the Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane (Leipzig). He wrote two highly successful books, a general text, Die Grundzüge der Psychologie (Leipzig 1902), and a shorter work, Abriss der Pscychologie (Leipzig 1908). His treatise on memory is considered by some as the original impetus for more research in psychology than any other single study.

Bibliography: e.g. boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New York 1950). r. i. watson, The Great Psychologists (Philadelphia 1963).

[m. g. keckeissen]