Külpe Oswald

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Külpe Oswald



Oswald Kiilpe (1862–1915), founder of the “Wiirzburg school” of psychology, was born in Kandau, Courland (now Latvia), the son of a notary public. He attended the Gymnasium in Libau and for two years was privately tutored. After he began his university education he had considerable difficulty deciding whether his major interest lay in history or in psychology. In 1881 he registered at the University of Leipzig to study history, but once he was there his interests were directed toward psychology and philosophy by Wil-helm Wundt, whose laboratory had been established just two years previously. After a year at Leipzig, Kiilpe left for a semester of study at Berlin, undecided whether to throw in his lot with the Berlin historians Theodor Mommsen, Johann Kirchhoff, and Hermann Diels, or with Wundt. When he left Berlin he did study more psychology but not immediately with Wundt; instead he went to study with G. E. Miiller at Göttingen and during his three semesters there began a dissertation on the theory of sensual feelings. Once more he was drawn to history and studied that subject for a year at Dorpat, but in 1886 he returned to Wundt. The following year he obtained his doctorate under Wundt, with the dissertation he had first worked on under Miiller (1887).

Külpe remained in the Leipzig laboratory for eight years. He wrote his habilitation thesis on the doctrine of the will in recent psychology (1888), was appointed to the faculty as a docent, and after the departure of James M. Cattell became Wundt’s assistant. He continued to be immersed in the experimental work of Wundt’s laboratory and published an article on simultaneous and nonsimultaneous motion (1891–1892).

As Wundt himself became more and more involved in ethnopsychology (Völkerpsychologie), it fell to Külpe to write a systematic exposition of experimental psychology. He discussed the book, chapter by chapter, with Ernst Meumann, James R. Angell, and Edward B. Titchener, then students at Leipzig; it was published as Grundriss der Psychologic in 1893. There is nothing in the Grundriss concerning thinking, which was then not accessible to experimentation; rather, following Richard Avenarius, Külpe defined psychology as the science of those experiences that are dependent upon an experiencing individual and outlined the experimental findings of that science.

Once Külpe had been appointed full professor at Würzburg in 1894, he proceeded, with all the energy and tenacity at his command, to set up an institute for psychological experimentation. He was supported by Karl Marbe, who had become a docent at Würzburg in 1894. After two years Kiilpe was granted the use of a few rooms by the library, and it was there that he and Marbe began to experiment, without assistants, staff, or funds. It was only after Külpe had declined appointments both to Minister and Stanford that he was able to secure government grants, and he then hired Ernst Dürr as his first assistant. Five years later, in 1909, Kiilpe accepted an appointment at Bonn, and his assistant Karl Bühler wentwith him. His successor at Würzburg was Marbe, and Marbe’s first assistant was Kurt Koffka.

The Wiirzburg school . There is little in Külpe’s own writings that would lead one to associate him with the Würzburg school, so clearly identified with the psychology of thinking. Except for a brief article (1912a), he wrote nothing on this subject, and yet there is no doubt whatever that he was the founder of the Würzburg school. He inspired all the work that made Würzburg famous in psychology, and when he left for Bonn, no further work was done at Würzburg on the experimental psychology of thought processes. Until then Külpe was both the intellectual leader of the Würzburg institute and its most willing experimental subject. During his 13 years at Würzburg more than fifty experimental investigations were published. His aim was to develop an experimental approach to the problem of thought, equivalent to that which Hermann Ebbinghaus had developed for memory.

The findings that Mayer and Orth published in 1901 on the qualitative nature of associations suggested that thought consists of a course of associations and that it is a process that permits description. The method by which it was to be made experimentally accessible was introspection: the description of thought. At about the same time Marbe published his investigation of judgment (1901), and it excited much attention. It showed that the sources of judgment lie concealed beneath all the known phenomena of consciousness and that sensation, imagination, and feeling are not involved in judgment. The individual does not know how he comes to make a judgment; a rational conclusion may follow an irrational process of thought. These Würzburg findings began basically to undermine Wundt’s concept of consciousness.

The implication of the investigations was that thought is imageless and that it depends on such conscious attitudes (Bewusstseinslagen) as doubt, certainty, etc., rather than on images and sensations.

Another member of the Würzburg group, H. J. Watt, obtained related results with constrained associations, which he investigated by the method of fractionation. He found that a task does not stimulate an “intention” to perform it, but that the “decision” to perform the task produces a quasi-unconscious “determining tendency.” Narziss Ach appreciated the significance of this determining tendency in everyday life, and he subjected it to systematic experimental observation, seeking to measure the intensity of an act of will by the strength of the associations that have to be overcome. August Messer, who had previously been at Giessen, and Karl Bühler, who had worked in the laboratory of Carl Stumpf at Berlin, came to Würzburg in 1905 and 1907 respectively and developed the theory of imageless thought. Bühler’s introspective method, in particular, exposed the experimental study of thought processes to criticism and thereby aroused the world-wide interest of psychologists.

During his years at Bonn Külpe wrote important works on philosophy. In 1913 he accepted a call to the University of Munich, where his sudden death two years later broke off his work on a new systematic exposition of experimental psychology.

W. J. Revers

[Forthe historical context of Kulpe’s work, see the biographies ofMÜller, Georg Elias, andWundt. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeGestalt theory; Thinking; and the biography ofBÜhler.]


1887 Zur Theorie der sinnlichen Gefühle: Inaugural Dissertation.Altenburg: Geibel.

1888 Die Lehre vom Willen in der neueren Psychologic: Habilitationsschrift. Leipzig: Engelmann.

1891–1892 Über die Gleichzeitigkeit und Ungleichzeitigkeit der Bewegungen.Philosophische Studien 6:514–535; 7:147–168.

(1893) 1901 Outlines of Psychology, Based Upon the Results of Experimental Investigation. 2d ed. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Grundriss der Psychologic: Auf experimenteller Grundlage dargestellt . ..

(1895) 1901 Introduction to Philosophy: A Handbook for Students of Psychology, Logic, Ethics, Aesthetics and General Philosophy. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Einleitung in die Philosophic.

(1902) 1913 The Philosophy of the Present in Germany. London: Allen. → First published as Die Philosophic der Gegenwart in Deutschland: Eine Charakteristik ihrer Hauptrichtungen, nach Vortrdgen, gehalten in Ferienkurs für Lehrer 1901 zu Würzburg.

1910 Erkenntnistheorie und Naturwissenschaft. Leipzig: Hirzel.

1912a Über die moderne Psychologic des Denkens. Pages 297–331 in Oswald Külpe, Vorlesungen über Psychologic. Edited by Karl Bühler. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Leipzig: Hirzel.

1912b Contribution to the History of the Concept of Reality. Philosophical Review 21:1–10.

1912c Psychologic und Medizin. Leipzig: Engelmann.

1912–1923 Die Realisierung: Ein Beitrag zur Grundlegung der Realwissenschaften. 3 vols. Leipzig: Hirzel.


Ach, Narziss 1905 Über die Willenstätigkeit und das Denken; eine experimented Untersuchung mit einem Anhange: Uber das Hippsche Chronoskop. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See especially pages 396–410 on “Külpe Before Wiirzburg” and pages 433–435 for a bibliography.

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

Flugel, John C. (1933) 1964 A Hundred Years of Psychology: 1833–1933. With an additional part: 1933–1963, by Donald J. West. New York: Basic Books.

Marbe, Karl 1901 Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen über das Urteil: Eine Einleitung in die Logik. Leipzig: Engelmann.

Mayer, A.; and orth, J. 1901 Zur qualitativen Untersuchung der Association. Zeitschrift für Psychologic und Physiologic der Sinnesorgane 26:1–13.

Messer, August 1906 Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen iiber das Denken. Archiv für die gesamte Psychologic 8:1–224.

Murphy, G,ardner (1929) 1949 Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Harcour → See especially pages 225–233 in the 1949 edition on the Würzburg school.

Orth, Johannes, 1903 Gefiihl und Bewusstseinslage: Eine kritisch-experimentelle Studie. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard.

Watt, H. J. 1905 Experimentelle Beiträge zu einer Theorie des Denkens. Archiv fiir die gesamte Psychologie 4:289–436.