Köhler, Wolfgang

views updated May 29 2018

Köhler, Wolfgang



Wolfgang Köhler, psychologist and philosopher, was one of the founders of the gestalt school of psychology. While the scope of his intellectual contributions was extremely broad—ranging from theoretical physics and brain physiology to epistemology and ethics, and from neurophysiology to personality—most of his work was focused on developing and testing the principles of gestalt psychology.

Kohler was born in Reval (now Tallinn), Estonia, in 1887 and grew up in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. After receiving his doctoral degree from the University of Berlin in 1909, he went to the University of Frankfurt as assistant in the psychological laboratory and became a Privatdozent in 1911. It was at Frankfurt that he began to work with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, and the three of them laid the foundations of gestalt psychology. Köhler spent the years from 1913 to 1920 as director of the anthropoid research station of the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Tenerife. He became director of the psychological laboratory at the University of Berlin in 1921 and professor of psychology and philosophy the following year. In 1935 he moved to the United States and became a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, where he remained until his retirement in 1955. He died in 1967.

Köhler received numerous honors. He was president of the American Psychological Association and the recipient of its Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award; he gave the William James lectures at Harvard in 1934; and he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The gestalt movement may be considered to date from Wertheimer’s 1912 paper describing his investigations of apparent movement. Köhler and Koffka had served as subjects for these experiments. The movement began as a protest against the then prevailing views of analytic introspectionism; later it opposed the various forms of associationist and behaviorist psychology. It is fair to say that Kohler was a member of the “opposition” throughout his career. [SeeGestalt Theory.]

Perception. To demonstrate that organization is a basic function that is not dependent on associations of peripheral events, the gestalt psychologists employed several strategies. One was the logical analysis of contradictions and hidden assumptions in traditional theories. Thus, with regard to perception, Köhler analyzed the “constancy hypothesis,” an assumption that is implicit in much psychological theorizing but not always recognized (1913). The constancy hypothesis assumes a one-to-one correspondence between local peripheral stimulation and the perceptual experience. Accordingly, if peripheral stimulation on various occasions is the same, the resulting perception should in all cases be the same; conversely, differences in peripheral stimulation should result in differences in perceptual experience. However, since the expected correspondences did not occur, some explanation was required. The most plausible one seemed to be that past learning experiences had supplied information not contained in the retinal stimulation. The gestalt psychologists discarded the constancy hypothesis and argued that local stimulation does not determine perceptual experience. They asserted instead that the effective stimulus for a given perception is relational in character: what is seen in a given region is determined not only by the stimulation arriving from that area but also by interaction among stimuli arriving from neighboring or surrounding areas. Experimental research revealed that many perceptions depend on such stimulus relationships. When the effective stimulus is defined in relational terms, reference to past experience is often unnecessary. [SeeLearning, article onDiscrimination Learning; Perception, article onPerceptual Constancy; see alsoZuckerman & Rock 1957.]

Another tactic used to throw doubt on traditional explanations of behavior was to demonstrate particular perceptual phenomena in animal subjects, to which judgments or unconscious inferences presumably cannot be attributed. Thus Köhler (1915) demonstrated size constancy in the perception of objects by hens and chimpanzees. In another series of experiments (1918) Kohler proceeded to show that the perception of relations and of structural aspects is a primitive, basic function. A hen was presented with two gray samples: a lighter one, A, and a darker one, B. After the animal was trained to respond to B, further investigations were made to determine whether the animal had learned a response to the absolute shade of B or to structural features of a particular arrangement—i.e., to B as the darker of the two samples. The animal was presented with a new pair of samples consisting of B and of C, C being darker than B. The majority of the hens chose C. Köhler obtained similar results with chimpanzees, using size as a stimulus factor as well as degree of brightness. These experiments supported the gestalt view of the priority of structural properties in perception and learning. This problem (transposition discrimination) has given rise to a large experimental literature, and attempts have been made to account for the results without accepting the gestalt view of structure. [SeeLearning, article onDiscrimination Learningsee alsoSpence 1937.]

Learning. The concept of organization was not limited by gestalt psychologists to the realm of perceptual events; rather their aim was to show that similar structural principles are valid for learning, memory, thinking, and other mental functions. Learning had traditionally been viewed as the building up of associations. An association was defined as a bond or link in the mind between two (or more) mental contents, A and B; they are so linked that activation of A will lead to the recall of B. The two most important factors involved in the formation of such a bond were held to be contiguity and frequency.

In his Gestalt Psychology Köhler offered several criticisms of associationist psychology. First, he attacked the law of association by contiguity as being a purely mechanical principle:

Two processes A and B happen to occur together and, whatever the nature of A and B may be, a bond is formed between them! I do not know a single law in physics or chemistry which could in this respect be compared with the law of contiguity.... There are no examples of interaction in which the nature of the interacting factors plays no part. And yet, in the classical law of association by contiguity, the nature of the things which become associated is tacitly ignored. ([1929] 1947, pp. 258—259)

Köhler argued that the nature of the A and B involved is essential in determining the facility with which an association between them will be established. For example, pairs of meaningful words are associated more readily than are pairs of nonsense syllables, because the former can more easily be organized into a unified whole (see Epstein et al. 1960). In addition, Köhler asserted that the subject presented with contiguous items does not receive them passively; were this the case, very few associations would be formed. Instead, the subject strives actively to tie the items together and may employ various strategies in order to accomplish this task. Köhler then attempted to derive association from the principles of perceptual organization; in 1941 he reported experiments de-signed to verify his thesis and concluded, “It seems no longer probable that association is an indifferent bond between merely contiguous items. Our evidence tends to support the view that associations are after-effects of specific organization or interaction” (1941, p. 502).

Recall. The associationist conception of recall neglected an important issue: the functional relation between two items. Köhler (1940) revived and extended an argument made by the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Hoffding: to say merely that the later presentation of mental content A leads to the recall of the associated item B omits a necessary prior step. Before B can be recalled, the present perception (A’) must be related to the memory trace of A. As Köhler explained Hoffding’s view, “any recall on the basis of a previous association presupposes...a more immediate process,” the tendency of one mental process to select another, “for which there is no other reason than their kin-ship” (1940, p. 127). Accordingly, a memory trace can be aroused not only via a previously established connection but also by a present perceptual process on the basis of the similarity of process and trace.

Köhler maintained that the activation of a memory trace by a percept is analogous to the grouping which occurs in the perceptual field because of similarity or, more specifically, distinctive similarity. This means that two objects in the visual field will be readily seen as a pair if they are similar to each other and at the same time different from other objects present; if the same two objects are presented in a field containing other similar units, they will not spontaneously be grouped together. Contact between trace and percept is simply an extension of this principle into the temporal dimension. This reasoning was subjected to, and substantiated by, experimental tests (see Köhler & Restorff 1933–1935, part 2; Bartel 1937).

It is unfortunate that neither the Hoffding argument nor the experiments confirming it are widely known among American psychologists. The explanation of recognition is a core problem in psychology; an explanation based on the similarity between process and trace has important implications for a variety of issues. On the basis of the Hoffding function Duncker (1945) explained the emergence into awareness of specific memory contents during problem-solving processes. Wallach analyzed the implications of the recognition function for the problem of the influence of past experience on perception (1949) and studied the effects of memory modalities on recognition (Wallach & Auerbach 1955). Other implications of Köhler’s argument are discussed by Rock (1962).

Better known in the United States is the work of Köhler and Restorff on the role of organizational factors in the realm of memory traces (1933–1935, part 1), which shows that the distinctive item in a list is recalled better than the items that are similar to each other. Köhler and other gestalt psy chologists have used this hypothesis to account for many phenomena of learning and retention. Thus, they maintain that the difficulty of learning non-sense syllables is due to their homogeneity, which makes it difficult to group and organize the material; that retroactive and proactive inhibition is caused by the crowding of similar traces; and that the serial-position effect occurs because the items at the beginning and the end of a list are more isolated than those in the middle and are therefore better learned and retained. [SeeForgetting.] Other investigators have called into question the validity of these perceptual analogies. In a more recent paper defending his views Köhler recommended that the Restorff experiments be replicated (1958a).

Problem solving. Köhler’s most famous work is, of course, his study of the mentality of apes (1917), based on investigations conducted at the anthropoid research station in Tenerife on problem solving in chimpanzees. Köhler reported detailed observation on the chimpanzees’ use and fabrication of simple tools (probably most widely noted is the account of the success of an ape named Sultan in fitting together two short sticks to fashion one stick long enough to reach the goal object); on the role of chance, play, and imitation; on the chimpanzees’ ability to build structures (the box-stacking problem); on the role of perceptual aspects of the problem situation, etc. Contrary to some secondary accounts of this work, Köhler was interested not only in demonstrating the apes’ capacity for insightful solutions but also in determining why the animals failed completely in certain situations (for example, in string-pulling tasks). In addition to the experimental data, Köhler reported many qualitative observations of chimpanzee behavior.

The polemical part of The Mentality of Apes was aimed at E. L. Thorndike’s treatment of learning and problem solving in animals. Thorndike had concluded that no evidence can be found of insightful solutions. According to him, a correct response is made in the course of random trial-and-error activity; on repeated trials this response is gradually strengthened in a purely automatic and mechanical way, simply because the animal receives a reward shortly after it makes the correct response. Thorndike’s law of effect has been widely accepted as an explanation of learning in animals and man, and it was the foundation of Clark Hull’s attempt to construct a systematic theory of behavior. Köhler argued that the puzzle-box situation with which Thorndike confronted his animals is inherently incomprehensible, permitting no “survey of the whole arrangement” ([1917] 1956, p. 23) and thus no possibility of problem solving. A true test for insight requires a situation that is both intelligible and “completely visible to the animals. For if essential portions of the experimental apparatus cannot be seen by the animals, how can they use their intelligence faculties in tackling the situation?” (ibid., p. 23). [See articles onProblem Solving; HullThorndike.]

According to Köhler, intelligence can be characterized as detour behavior—the ability to reach a goal by roundabout means. Thus, many of the problems he used in his research were varieties of detour: the goal object was so far away that it could be reached only by use of a stick; or the object was so high up that the animal had to pull over a box to a place directly under it in order to reach the object by standing on the box. Köhler concluded that the chimpanzees’ solution behavior cannot be described as random trial and error with gradual mastery of the task. Instead, the behavior indicated insight, that is, the perception of properties of the object in relation to certain traits of the problem situation. Solution often comes about suddenly and seems to reflect reorganization of the perceptual field.

Some aspects of this work have given rise to controversy. Köhler has been accused of using the term “insight” to explain, rather than to describe, certain kinds of behavior. A careful reading of his book reveals that this charge is unwarranted, and some years later Köhler himself said, by way of refutation: “Apparently some readers interpreted this formulation as though it [insight] referred to a mysterious mental agent or faculty which was made responsible for the apes’ behavior. Actually nothing of this sort was intended when I wrote my report” ([1929] 1947, p. 341). Again, Köhler is criticized for divorcing insight from the learning history of the animal and giving the impression that problem solving is independent of past experience. Yet Köhler’s experimental procedure—starting with simpler problems and proceeding to more complex ones—shows that he realized that solution of the present problem depends on skill and knowledge acquired in the past. One criticism for which there is some justification is that Köhler too sharply distinguished insightful learning from trial-and-error learning.

Neurophysiology of perception. Köhler’s interest in the physical processes in the brain dates back to the years on Tenerife. There he wrote a treatise (1920) tracing the parallels between examples of dynamic self-distribution in physics and the nature of perceptual processes and thus began a search for the neurological correlates of perceptual experience. He did not concern himself with the micro-structure of the nervous system but concentrated on the macrophysical processes that might take place in neural tissue, processes that are not subject to the constraints normally thought to be effected by the cellular structure of this tissue. These macroscopic processes thus would transcend the conventional picture of brain activity as a pattern of nerve impulses running along individual fibers and shunted from pathway to pathway. Rather, the processes would, at the cortical level, distribute themselves freely in the nervous tissue. Their nature would depend on the laws of physics and on the physicochemical characteristics of nerve tissue rather than on its microanatomy, while the specific form they would assume and their rough localization would depend on the pattern of nerve processes originating in the sense organ.

It was to this end that Köhler directed his work on figural aftereffects. Figural aftereffects are those distortions of shape and displacement that occur after a subject has been given a prolonged exposure to a specific form pattern. Their existence fits well with the idea that the neurophysiological correlate of pattern vision is to a degree free from micro-anatomical constraints. Under favorable conditions such distortions or displacements can be quite conspicuous and can therefore be measured by compensation or by matching.

By experimentation Köhler established a single rule that permits prediction of the directions, but not the magnitudes, of the displacement of the aftereffect: There will be a receding from areas where contours or boundaries of an inspection figure have previously been located. This rule also applies to Gibson’s form-adaptation phenomena, the first figural aftereffects to have been discovered (Gibson 1933).

Köhler’s explanation of figural afteraffects is based on his assumption that direct currents are generated in the cortex at the boundaries between areas of different neural excitation. Such boundaries are the cortical correlate of differences in intensities of stimulation, that is, of retinal contours. The cortical-current theory is hard to test. A demonstration of the existence of direct currents generated in the cortex and dependent on stimulation does not suffice. The role of direct currents in pattern vision needs to be demonstrated. The demonstrations attempted by Lashley (Lashley et al. 1951) and by Sperry (Sperry & Miner 1955; Sperry et al. 1955) were not successful, but their negative results were not conclusive. Kohler (1965) correctly criticized Lashley’s technique and found good cause to doubt Sperry’s results. The electric-current theory has not been developed to the point where predictions about figural aftereffects or other perceptual phenomena can be made so specific that they can be tested by psychological experimentation. Until more is known about nerve tissue as a medium for direct current, such a development will not be possible.

Carl B. Zuckerman and Hans Wallach

[See alsoLearning,article on Neurophysiological Aspects; Perception,article on Illusions and Aftereffects.Other relevant material may be found in the biographies of Angyal; Buhler; Goldstein; Katz; Koffka; Lashley; Wertheimer.]


1913 Über unbemerkte Empfindungen und Urteilstauschungen. Zeitschrift für Psychologic 66:51—80.

1915 Aus der Anthropoidenstation auf Teneriffa: 2. Optische Untersuchungen am Schimpansen und am Haushuhn. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, Physikalisch-Mathematische Klasse, Abhandlungen [1915] :no. 3.

(1917) 1956 The Mentality of Apes. 2d ed., rev. London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1959 by Random House.

1918 Aus der Anthropoidenstation auf Teneriffa: 4. Nachweis einfacher Strukturfunktionen beim Schimpansen und beim Haushuhn iiber eine neue Methode zur Untersuchung des bunten Farbensystems. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, Physikalisch-Mathematische Klasse, Abhandlungen [1918]: no. 2.

(1920) 1924 Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationdren Zustand. Erlangen (Germany): Philosophische Akademie.

(1926) 1928 An Aspect of Gestalt Psychology. Pages 163—195 in Psychologies of 1925: Powell Lectures in Psychological Theories. 3d ed. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press. → Lecture delivered on May 1, 1925.

(1929) 1947 Gestalt Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Liveright. → A paperback edition was published in 1947 by New American Library.

1930 Some Tasks of Gestalt Psychology. Pages 143—160 in Psychologies of 1930. Edited by Carl Murchison. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1933—1935 KÖhler, Wolfgang; and Restorff, Hedwig Von Analyse von Vorgängen im Spurenfeld. 2 parts. Psychologische Forschung 18:299—342; 21:56—112. → Part 1: Über die Wirkung von Bereichsbildungen im Spurenfeld, by Hedwig von Restorff. Part 2: Zur Theorie der Reproduktion, by Wolfgang Köhler.

1938 The Place of Value in a World of Facts. New York: Liveright.

1940 Dynamics in Psychology. New York: Liveright.

1941 On the Nature of Associations. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 84:489—502.

1944 Value and Fact. Journal of Philosophy 41:197—212.

1944 KÖhler, Wolfgang; and Wallach, Hans Figural After-effects: An Investigation of Visual Processes. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 88:269—357.

1947 KÖhler, Wolfgang; and Emery, David Figural After-effects in the Third Dimension of Visual Space. American Journal of Psychology 60:159—201.

1950 Psychology and Evolution. Acta psychologica 7: 288—297.

1952 KÖhler, Wolfgang; Held, Richard; and O’Connell, Donald An Investigation of Cortical Currents. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 96:290—330.

1957 KÖhler, Wolfgang; and Adams, Pauline A. Perception and Attention. American Journal of Psychology 71:489—503.

1958 a Perceptual Organization and Learning. American Journal of Psychology 71:311—315.

1958 b The Present Situation in Brain Physiology. American Psychologist 13:150—154.

1959 Gestalt Psychology Today. American Psychologist 14:727—734.

1965 Unsolved Problems in the Field of Figural Aftereffects. Psychological Record 15:63?—83.


Bartel, Hellmut 1937 Über die Abhangigkeit spontaner Reproduktionen von Feldbedingungen. Psychologische Forschung 22:1—25.

Duncker, Karl 1945 On Problem-solving. Psychological Monographs 58, no. 5.

Epstein, William; Rock, Irvin; and Zuckerman, Carl B. 1960 Meaning and Familiarity in Associative Learning. Psychological Monographs 74, no. 4.

Gibson, James J. 1933 Adaptation, After-effect and Contrast in the Perception of Curved Lines. Journal of Experimental Psychology 16: 1—31.

Lashley, K. S.; Chow, K. L.; and Semmes, Josephine 1951 An Examination of the Electrical Field Theory of Cerebral Integration. Psychological Review 58:123—136.

Postman, Leo; and Riley, Donald 1957 A Critique of Köhler’s Theory of Association. Psychological Review 64:61—72.

Rock, Irvin 1962 A Neglected Aspect of the Problem of Recall: The Höffding Function. Pages 645—659 in Jordan M. Scher (editor), Theories of the Mind. New York: Free Press.

Spence, Kenneth W. 1937 The Differential Response in Animals to Stimuli Varying Within a Single Dimension. Psychological Review 44:430—444.

Sperry, R. W.; and Miner, Nancy 1955 Pattern Perception Following Insertion of Mica Plates Into Visual Cortex. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 48:463—469.

Sperry, R. W.; Miner, N.; and Myers, R. E. 1955 Visual Pattern Perception Following Subpial Slicing and Tantalum Wire Implantations in the Visual Cortex. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 48:50—58.

Wallach, Hans 1949 Some Considerations Concerning the Relation Between Perception and Cognition. Journal of Personality 18:6—13.

Wallach, Hans; and Auerbach, Emanuel 1955 On Memory Modalities. American Journal of Psychology 68:249—257.

Zuckerman, Carl B.; and Rock, Irvin 1957 A Reappraisal of the Roles of Past Experience and Innate Organizing Processes in Visual Perception. Psychological Bulletin 54:269—296.

Köhler, Wolfgang

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. Reval [now Tallinn], Estonia, 21 January 1887; d. Enfield, New Hampshire, 11 June 1967). Gestalt psychology, animal behavior.

KRöhler was the son of Franz Eduard KRöhler director of the German-language gymnasium in Reval, and of Wilhelmine (Minni) Girgensohn KRöhler, both of whom were offspring of ministers. The family moved to Wolfenbüttel, Germany, when Wolfgang was six years old. He attended the gymnasium there and then went on to the universities of Tübingen, Bonn, and Berlin. he received his Ph.D. from Berlin in 1909 after studying philosophy and psychology under Carl Stumpf, and physical chemistry and physics under Walther Nernst and Max Planck.

KRöhler was appointed assistant at the Psychological Institute of Frankfurt am Main in 1909 and Privatdozent in 1911. In 1913 he was named director of the anthropoid research station established by the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Isolated on Tenerife by World War I, he did not return to Germany until May 1920. He became acting director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin in August 1920. In 1921 he was named professor at GRöttingen. He held this position for only one semester; in 1922 he was appointed professor of philosophy and director of the Psychological Institute at Berlin, the positions previously occupied by Stumpf.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, KRöhler was outspoken in his criticism of the new regime. In 1935 he resigned his positions in Berlin and emigrated to the United States, where he became professor of psychology (1935–1946) and then research professor of philosophy and psychology (1946–1958) at Swarthmore College. Earlier he had been a visiting Professor at Clark University (1925–1926) and Chicago (1935), and William James lecturer at Harvard (1934–1935). Upon retiring from Swarthmore he settled in New Hampshire and held the title of research professor at Dartmouth. He became a U. S. citizen in 1946.

KRöhler was married twice; in 1912 to The kla Gelb, with whom he had two sons and two daughters; and in 1927 to Lili Harleman, with whom he had one daughter. Among his many honors were Ehrenbuürger of the Free University of Berlin, honorary degrees from eight colleges and universities in the United States and Europe, presidency of the American Psychological Association (1959), and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Köhlerös doctoral dissertation under Stumpf at Berlin and his Habilitatkionsschrift at Frankfurt were studies of acoustic perception. his identification of vowel character as an attribute of tone, with the principal vowels separated by octaves, stimulated research among experimental psychologists. In addition, his experimental results concerning the physical and psychological dimensions of the perception of tones led him to challenge the common assumption that perception was a straightforward function of peripheral stimulation. At Frankfurt from 1910 to 1913 KRöhler was closely associated with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka. With Wertheirmer providing the initial lead, the three men proceeded to lay down the foundations of Gestalt psychology.

In 1913, in his first major theoretical contribution to gestalt theory, KRöhler attacked what he called the “constancy hypothesis,” the idea of a one-to-one relation between peripheral stimulation and perceptual sensation. He maintained that modern investigators would have to give up the traditional distinction between (1) peripheral, physiologically produced sensations and (2) central, psychological operations upon these sensations, because organization was a basic, underived feature of perception.

The work that first brought KRöhler international fame was that on chimpanzees on Tenerife (1913– 1917). In experiments now regarded as classics, he showed that instead of learning simply by “trial and error,” which was the most that E. L. Thorndike would attribute to infrahuman animals, chimpanzees were able to solve problems by grasping the relations between means and ends. They displayed what Köhler called “insight” — “the appearance of a complete solution with reference to the whole layout of the field” (The Mentality of Apes [1925], 198). Köhler also investigated what kinds of problems chimpanzees were unable to solve. His challenge to associationist psychology, his observation of primate social behavior, his attention to individual differences, and his use of films were all major contributions to the study of animal behavior in this period.

On Tenerife, Köhler also did important experiments demonstrating relational learning in chimps and chickens, and he composed his most fundamental philosophical work; Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationaren Zustand (1920). In this book he sought to model psychological theory on the field theory of Faraday and Maxwell. Using examples from electrostatics, he argued that in the physical world there were Gestalt phenomena, the qualities of which could not be described as merely sums of parts. He then maintained that the same characteristics could be found in brain processes, and that the whole “somatic field” of the brain could be treated as a single physical system.

In the 1920’s Gestalt theory became one of the leading schools of German academic psychology, with Köhler as one of its leading spokesmen, He helped found and was coeditor of Psychologische Forschung (1921—s1938), he debated such prominent critics of Gestalt theory as Georg Elias Müller and Eugenio Rignano, and he wrote Gestalt Psychology (1929), a book designed to introduce Gestalt ideas to American psychologists, whose views were dominated by behaviorism, an approach Köhler found philosophically native in its attempt to remove consciousness from science and atomistic in its reduction of behavior to reflexes. At the same time he sought to extend the principles derived from studying perception to other areas of psychology. He developed gestalt explanations of association, memory, and the perception of other people. Köhler also pursued the problem of the relation between psychology and neurophysiology and laid the basis for a theory of organisms as “open systems.” His work in the United States on figural aftereffects and cortical currents in the brain grew out of his belief in an isomorphism between brain processes and perceptual structures. His theoretical conclusions from research on cortical currents, though challenged by Karl Lashley and other, remain open to investigation.

Köhler, like his co-workers, did not see Gestalt psychology as simply a response to technical questions in the psychology of perception. They felt that in demonstrating the structured nature of experience they were providing an alternative to the “atomistic” and “mechanistic” world view that dominated philosophic accounts of psychological reality and that was, in their view, threatening modern culture. Köhler, who throughout his career was interested in relating psychological experience both to philosophy and to physics and physiology, was especially keen to urge that one could reject atomism and mechanism without sacrificing one’s allegiance to natural science. His philosophical position, presented in the books of 1920 and 1929, was developed further in The Place of Value in a World of Facts (1938). He again promoted his field theory of perception in Dynamics in Psychology (1940). The posthumously published The Task of Gestalt Psychology (1969) reviewed the achievement of Gestalt psychology and identified problems for the future.


I.Original Works. The main collection of Köhlerös personal papers and manuscript correspondence is in the American Philosophical Society Archives, Philadelphia. A complete listing of Köhlerös published scientific writings and reviews, compiled by Edwin B. Newman, is in Mary Henle, ed., The Selected Papers of Wolfgang Köhler (New York, 1971), 437—s449. Henleös volume provides an excellent selection of Köhler’s papers.

II. Secondary Literature, Köhler’s work and its historical context through 1920 are analyzed in Mitchell G.Ash, “The Emergence of Gestalt Theory; Experimental Psychology in Germany, 1890—s1920” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1982). Ash has also treated aspects of Köhler’s work after 1920 in’ Gestalt Psychology; Origins in Germany and Reception in the United States,” in Claude E. Buxton, ed., Points of View in the Modern History of Psychology (Orlando, Fla., 1985). 295–344. On Köhler’s behavior toward the Nazis see Ash, ’ Ein Institut and eine Zeitschrift. Zur Geschichte des Berliner Psychologischen Instituts und der Zeitschrift’ Psychologische Forschung’ vor und nach 1933, ’ in Carl Friedrich Graumann, ed., Psychologie im Nationalsozializmus (Berlin, 1985). 113—s137; and Mary Henle, “One Man Against the Nazis—Wolfgang Köhler,” in American Psychologist, 33 (1978), 939—944. Other valuable treatments of Köhler’s work and / or career include Solomon E. Asch, “Wolfgang Köhler, 1887—s1967,” in American Journal of Psychology, 81 (1968), 110—s119; Rudolf Bergius, “Wolfgang Köhler Zum Gedenken,” in Psychologische Forschung, 31 (1967), i—sv; Mary Henle, “Wolfgang Köhler (1887—s 1967), 139—145—also, with minor changes, in Mary Henle, ed., The Selected Papers of Wolfgang Köhler (New York, 1971), 3—s10; W.C.H. Prentiss,” The Systematic Psychology of Wolfgang Köhler, “in Sigmund Koch, ed., Psychology: A study of a Science. 1 (New York, 1959) 427–455; Hans Lukas Teuber, “Wolfgang Köhler zum Gedenken,” in Psychologische Forschung, 31 (1967), vi xiv; and Carl B, Zuckerman and Hans Wallach, “Köhler, Wolfgang,” in David sills, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Science.VIII(NEW YORK, 1968), 438–442.

Richard W. Burkhardt, JR.

Köhler, Wolfgang

views updated May 23 2018

Wolfgang Köhler

German psychologist and principal figure in the development of Gestalt psychology.

Wolfgang Köhler was born in Revel, Estonia, and grew up in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. He studied at the universities of Bonn and Tübingen, and at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1909, writing a dissertation on psychoacoustics under the direction of Carl Stumpf (1848-1936). In 1910, Köhler began a long professional association with Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) when he and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), both assistants to Friedrich Schumann at the University of Frankfurt, served as research subjects for an experiment of Wertheimer's involving perception of moving pictures. Within the next ten years, the three men were to found the Gestalt movement in psychology. In reaction to the prevailing behavioristic methods of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and others, the Gestalt psychologists held that behavior must be studied in all its complexity rather than separated into discrete components. Köhler's early work convinced him that perception, learning, and other cognitive functions should be seen as structured wholes.

Unlike Koffka and Wertheimer, Köhler concentrated on animal research. Beginning in 1913, he spent more than six years as director of the anthropoid research facility of the Prussian Academy of Sciences on the island of Tenerife, where he made many discoveries applying Gestalt theories to animal learning and perception. His observations and conclusions from this period contributed to a radical revision of learning theory . One of his most famous experiments centered on chickens which he trained to peck grains from either the lighter or darker of two sheets of paper. When the chickens who had been trained to prefer the light color were presented with a choice between that color and a new sheet that was still lighter, a majority switched to the new sheet. Similarly, chickens trained to prefer the darker color, when presented with a parallel choice, chose a new, darker color. These results, Köhler maintained, showed that what the chickens had learned was an association with a relationship, rather than with a specific color. This finding, which flew in the face of behaviorist theories deemphasizing the importance of relationships, became known as the Gestalt law of transposition, because the test subjects had transposed their original experience to a new set of circumstances.

Köhler also conducted a series of experiments in which chimpanzees were confronted with the problem of obtaining bananas that were hung just out of reach by using "tools"bamboo poles and stacked boxes. The chimpanzees varied in their ability to arrive at the correct combination of actions needed to solve the problem. Often, a test subject would suddenly find a solution at a seemingly random point. This research led Köhler to the concept of learning by a sudden leap of the imagination ,

or "insight," in which a relationship that had not been seen before was suddenly perceived, a formulation in conflict with the trial-and-error theory of learning resulting from Edward Thorndike's puzzle box experiments. Based on this work, Köhler published The Mentality of Apes in 1917, demonstrating that Gestalt theory could be applied to animal behavior.

Köhler returned to Germany after World War I, and in 1921 was appointed to the most prestigious position in German psychology, director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. For the next 14 years he made the Institute a center for Gestalt studies and was a noted spokesman for the movement. In 1935, however, Köhler resigned due to conflicts with the Nazis, and emigrated to the United States, where he served on the faculties of Swarthmore and Dartmouth Colleges. In 1959, he was appointed president of the American Psychological Association. There has been some speculation that he was a spy during World War I, a thesis explored by his biographer, Ronald Ley. Köhler's books include Gestalt Psychology (1929), The Place of Value in a World of Facts (1938), and Dynamics in Psychology (1940).

See also Behaviorism; Cognitive development; Gestalt psychology

Further Reading

Ley, Ronald. A Whisper of Espionage. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1990.

Petermann, Bruno. The Gestalt Theory and the Problem of Configuration. London: K. Paul, 1932.

Köhler, Wolfgang

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Köhler, Wolfgang (1887–1967) US psychologist, b. Estonia. With Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer, he was a key figure in Gestalt psychology. His work on animal learning and problem solving is summarized in The Mentality of Apes (1917).