Bühler, Karl

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Bühler, Karl



Karl Ludwig Bühler (1879–1963), German psychologist, was born in Meckesheim, near Heidelberg; his father was a railway clerk and small peasant, and his mother came of Catholic peasant stock. Bühler grew up a Catholic and obtained a scholarship to the Tauberbischofsheim Catholic Gymnasium. In 1899 he matriculated at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau and in 1903 earned his m.d. with a dissertation on the physiological theories of color vision under Johannes von Kries. He also studied philosophy at Freiburg and continued his philosophical studies at the University of Strassburg. There he earned his ph.d. under Clemens Bäumker in 1904 with a dissertation on the psychology of Henry Home (Lord Kames), the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher.

After returning to Heidelberg to serve as assistant to von Kries, Bühler went to Berlin to study under Erdmann and Carl Stumpf; in 1906 he went to WÏrzburg as an assistant to Oswald Külpe, obtaining his habilitation as docent in philosophy upon submitting experimental studies on the psychology of thought processes. Bühler followed Külpe when the latter moved to Bonn in 1909 and to Munich in 1913; there Bühler was appointed associate professor without tenure. During World War i he was for a time a captain in the medical corps, developing psychological aptitude tests for drivers and pilots and also treating brain injuries.

In 1916 Bühler married Charlotte Malachowski, who in the same year earned her PH.D. at the University of Munich. At the end of the war, in 1918, Bühler was appointed a full professor at the Dresden Institute of Technology, where his wife received the habilitation as a docent in 1920. Two years later, when Bühler was appointed professor in Vienna, Charlotte Bühler also transferred her docentship to Vienna and became his assistant. Between 1922 and 1938, Bühler, with his wife’s support, established and ran a psychological institute in Vienna, as well as his own school of psychology, which soon achieved world-wide recognition. Concurrently he was visiting professor at the Pedagogical Institute of the City of Vienna.

In 1926–1927 and again in 1929 he taught in the United States as an exchange professor at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Chicago universities. In 1938 he was briefly arrested by the Hitler regime in Vienna but released upon the intervention of Norwegian friends. Then he emigrated, first to Oslo and, in 1939, to the United States, where he became professor of psychology, first at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, and later, from 1940 to 1945 (with a brief interlude at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts), at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the end of World War II he moved to Los Angeles, serving as assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the medical school of the University of Southern California until 1955 and as consulting psychologist at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. He died in Los Angeles in 1963.

In 1960 Bühler was elected honorary president of the Sixteenth International Psychological Congress in Bonn, where he was awarded the Wilhelm Wundt medal of the German Psychological Association. During his years in Vienna, Bühler had a number of European students who later made names for themselves, such as René Spitz, Alexander Willwoll, Hildegard Hetzer, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Egon Brunswik, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Konrad Lorenz, Albert Wellek, and Peter Hofstätter, and from the United States, Edward Tolman, David Klein, and Neal Miller.

When Bühler’s Würzburg habilitation thesis on the psychology of thought was published in the Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie in 1907–1908, it gave rise to a celebrated controversy with Wilhelm Wundt, the old master of experimental psychology, concerning the methodological legitimacy of nonexact experiments and retrospective introspection. Next to Külpe, Bühler was the leading figure in the new psychology of thought that broadened and redefined experimental procedures. This psychology of thought was subsequently developed (beginning in 1919) into a psychology of speech.

During Bühler’s years in Bonn, however, he was primarily interested in the work of the Graz school, particularly that of von Ehrenfels on visual gestalten. As early as 1912—simultaneously with the first similar statements of the Berlin psychologists who founded gestalt theory—Bühler read a paper at the Fifth German Psychological Congress on the comparison of spatial gestalten with respect to their proportions. His first major opus, Die Gestalt-wahrnehmungen,which elaborated the initial “laws of gestalt,” followed in 1913. Bühler claimed to have developed these laws before the Berlin school had; to be sure, the experimental holistic-psychological researches in the field of sound begun by Felix Krueger in 1900 anticipated all of them. Bühler even claimed priority for the concept of physical gestalten, although he regarded the concept merely as a hypothetical possibility and later rejected it quite decisively. Bühler’s later work in the psychology of perception extended to optics and appeared in his Erscheinungsweisen der Farben (1922), which was announced as part 1 of a general theory of perception, though no further parts were published under this title. David Katz had earlier done such work on the appearance of colors. Bühler’s polemics against the Berlin school became even more heated in 1926, when he wrote a critique of Koffka’s new psychology (1926a).

By the early 1920s Bühler had progressed from the psychology of thought and of perception to his third major theme, developmental psychology. He wrote the first systematic exposition of this topic in 1919, following the work of William Preyer and William Stern, entitled The Mental Development of the Child (Die geistige Entwicklung des Kindes), which was followed in 1928 by a condensed version, or Abriss; both of these went through numerous editions. His investigations of the psychology of speech, which began at about that time, became part of the study of developmental psychology (1926b). In all of these areas, especially in developmental psychology, Bühler attacked the traditionally basic problem of the significance of feelings (or feeling tones) for motivation and action (1928). In sharp disagreement with Freud’s broad concept of a general “pleasure principle,” he made the concept only one of three such structures: he limited Freud’s mechanism to “the pleasure of satisfaction,” positing two others, “the pleasure of functioning” and “the pleasure of creating,” alongside or above it.

Bühler combined these theories with others within the framework of a major evaluation of psychological methodology, which was published in 1926 as “Die Krise der Psychologie” (1926c) and appeared as a book in 1927 (second edition, 1929, with an important addition to the preface). The title was similar to the subtitle of a book by Hans Driesch that was published at the same time (Grundprobleme der Psychologie: Ihre Krisis in der Gegenwart, 1926) as well as to Krisis der Geisteswissenschaften by Josef Strzygowski (1923). Biihler’s point of departure was the revolution caused by the victory of gestalt and holistic psychology over elementism and associationism, but he proceeded from this crisis in fundamental concepts to the crisis in methodology—in other words, to the plight of the psychology of consciousness, faced by behaviorism, on the one hand, and by humanistic psychology, on the other. Bühler found a solution in his doctrine of the three aspects of psychology: the three positions were not conceived as essentially antagonistic, nor was any one of them granted exclusive validity; rather, he demanded that all three be accorded equal validity and that they be treated as complementary. Bühler called his three aspects the experiential aspect, the behavioral aspect, and the cultural-achievement aspect. From the standpoint of methodology, the first proceeds from self-observation, or introspection, the second from the observation of others, and the third from humanistic analysis. These three aspects are the very substance of psychology—the stuff of cognition. They are “aspects” insofar as they define the possible bases of psychological cognition: points toward which one looks, rather than points from which one looks out.

In 1934 Bühler published Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Starting out from Plato’s Cratylus, he had, in 1918, already developed the concept of speech as an instrument (organon) of communication and had constructed a three-part “organon model” involving a transmitter, a receiver, and a designated object. These correspond to the threefold function of speech as utterance (symptom or sign), release (signal), and representation or information (symbol or sign of what is meant). In 1934 he chose new terminology: expression (by someone), appeal (to someone), and representation (of something). In this triad we again see the triad of the substance of psychology according to his doctrine of three aspects: expression has to do with experience, appeal with behavior, and representation with the object, the objective (das Objektive), the mental (das Geistige), and the cultural achievement. At the same time, the thetic nature of speech, as set agreement and construction, is emphasized, while its spontaneous and physiognomic nature, in the sense of coincidence of sign or symbol with what is designated or symbolized, is rejected. Accordingly, the physiognomies of speech, especially in the version of Heinz Werner (implicit also in that of Albert Wellek), is rejected or reduced to a “sound-painting,” accessory in the body, or the whole, of speech. As early as 1931 Bühler advocated “phonology” as a humanistic science of speech sounds (as distinct from phonetics as a natural science of the same subject). In this he was joined by Prince N. S. Trubetskoi, his Viennese colleague in Slavistics and general linguistics, and by the Prague Linguistic Circle stimulated by Trubetskoi (“Phonetik und Phonologie,” 1931).

After his enforced emigration in 1938, Bühler remained silent for a long time. His friends grieved as many of his profoundest interests appeared to have been extinguished, especially his interest in linguistics and phonology. At the age of 60 he was unable to establish himself firmly in the United States. His style of thought, his manner of lecturing, in fact his entire approach to psychology met with little understanding, and he was neither willing nor able to make an adjustment. His most famous pupil, Egon Brunswik, who had emigrated shortly before Bühler, had joined the Vienna Circle of Moritz Schlick and Rudolph Carnap while still in Vienna. In America Brunswik had come to advocate even more strongly a “unitary science” of operationism, of which he became the outstanding theoretician. Bühler regarded this as desertion, which in exile he found hard to bear.

Only in 1952 did he come forward again—hesitantly, only rarely, and without receiving much attention. He wrote several papers on spatial orientation in man and animals. His last book, Das Gestaltprinzip im Leben des Menschen und der Tiere, was published in 1960. Here he returned once again to large-scale (though no longer concise or even comprehensive) consideration of his old fundamental problem, the relationship between biology and psychology, between life and thought, “modernized” somewhat by investigations in the field of cybernetics. His final conclusion was that what is essentially human—thought and reason, gestaltic and holistic experience—is independent of the machine, or the mechanical principle, and also independent to some extent of what is merely biological in the animal kingdom.

This concept was consonant with the dual, in fact dialectical, underlying idea in all of Bühler’s work: the notion of the creative nature of human thought, notwithstanding its biologically governed foundation. He found the concept of homeostasis was not sufficient to describe psychic life in full. Thus, the creative nature of life follows from the creative nature of mind and vice versa; both are differentiated, however, from the inanimate, which is mindless.

Bühler’s Krise (1926Case Error), his most important book, remains timely. The core of the book, the doctrine of three aspects, has proved to be a bold departure. It bridges and eliminates spurious and unnecessary contradictions and conflicts. Leading psychologists have acknowledged the enduring fruitfulness of this doctrine. Increasingly, though implicitly, even psychologists in the United States have done so: only for a very short time did it seem possible that, as a final concession to behavioristic radicalism, the aspect of inner experience, the horribile dictu “subjective,” might be banished entirely from psychological science. Similarly, the cultural-achievement aspect (the cultural and ethnopsychological), the humanistic, is beginning to acquire more methodological importance. In the Old World, almost every psychologist of importance has acknowledged the need to integrate and synthesize aspects and methods and has followed Bühler in viewing such a synthesis as a means of avoiding a disastrous one-sidedness, even a crippling, of psychology as a science.

Albert Wellek

[For the historical context of Bühler’s work, seeGestalt Theory; and the biographies ofKatz; Koffka; Köhler; Külpe; Stern; Wertheimer. For discussion of the subsequent development of Bühler’s ideas, seeLanguage; Perception, article onspeech perception; Vision, article oncolor vision and color blindness; and the biography ofBrunswik.]


1907–1908 Tatsachen und Probleme zu einer Psychologie der Denkvorgänge. Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie 9:297–365; 12:1–123. → Part 1: Über Gedanken. Part 2: Über Gedankenzusammenhänge.

1912 Vergleichung von Raumgestalten. Pages 183–185 in Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie, Bericht über den V. Kongress für experimentelle Psychologie. Leipzig: Barth.

1913 Die Gestaltwahrnehmungen. Stuttgart (Germany): Spemann.

(1919) 1930 The Mental Development of the Child. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Die geistige Entwicklung des Kindes.

1922 Erscheinungsweisen der Farben. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

1926a Die “Neue Psychologie Koffkas.” Zeitschrift für Psychologie 99:145–159.

1926b Les lois générales d’évolution dans le language de I’enfant. Journal de psychologie 23:597–607.

(1926c) 1929 Die Krise der Psychologie. Jena (Germany): Fischer. → First published in Volume 31 of KantStudien.

1928 Displeasure and Pleasure in Relation to Activity. Volume 8, pages 195–199 in International Symposium on Feelings and Emotions, First, Wittenberg College, 1927, Proceedings. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1931 Phonetik und Phonologie. Cercle Linguistique de Prague, Travaux 4:22–53.

1934 Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

1952 The Skywise and Neighborwise Navigation of Ants and Bees. Acta Psychologica 8:225–263.

1953 Der Atemfaktor in tierischen Geruchsspuren. Jahrbuch für Psychologie und Psychotherapie 1:479–483.

1954a Essentials of Contact Navigation. Acta Psychologica 10:278–316.

1954b Menschliche Fernorientierung. Jahrbuch für Psychologie und Psychotherapie 2:242–258.

1960 Das Gestaltprinzip im Leben des Menschen und der Tiere. Bern (Switzerland): Huber.


Beiträge zur Problemgeschichte der Psychologie. 1929 Jena (Germany): Fischer. → A publication honoring Bühler on his fiftieth birthday.

Bühler, Charlotte 1965 Die Wiener psychologische Schule in der Emigration. Psychologische Rundschau 16:187–196.

Driesch, Hans 1926 Grundprobleme der Psychologie: Ihre Krisis in der Gegenwart. Leipzig: Reinicke.

Festschrift für Karl Bühler. With a dedication by Albert Wellek. 1959 Zeitschrift für experimentelle und angetuandte Psychologie 6:1–165.

Strzygowski, Josef 1923 Krisis der Geisteswissenschaften. Vienna: Schroll.

Wellek, Albert 1959 Ein Dritteljahrhundert nach Bühlers Krise der Psychologie. Zeitschrift für experimentelle und angewandte Psychologie 6:109–117.

Wellek, Albert 1965 Der Einfluss der deutschen Emigration auf die Entwicklung der nordamerikanischen Psychologie. Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien 10:34–58.