Wolfgang Köhler (January 21, 1887 – June 11, 1967) was a German psychologist. He was a key figure, together with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, in the development of Gestalt psychology. Wertheimer was the instigator of the revolutionary approach, and it was Kohler and Koffka who served as his first experimental subjects and through whose lifelong collaborative efforts the foundations were laid. Their radically different approach regarded perception, learning, and cognition as structured wholes rather than the sum of individual components connected by association. This new school of psychological research emerged in opposition to the atomistic approach of Wilhelm Wundt and to the Behaviorism of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner, providing an experimental way to approach the study of human perception and cognition that allowed for the greatest complexities and interdependencies without abandoning scientific method.
Köhler gained fame with The Mentality of Apes, in which he argued that his chimpanzee subjects, like human beings, were capable of insight learning, leading to a radical revision of learning theory. Although Gestalt theory has been overtaken by other approaches in developmental psychology, cognition, and artificial intelligence, Köhler's work remains innovative and challenging to all who seek to understand the complexity of the human mind.
Wolfgang Köhler was born on January 21, 1887, in Reval (now Tallinn) in the Russian Empire (now Estonia). His father was the headmaster of a local school for the children of Germans working in that area. When he was six, the family returned to Germany where Wolfgang and his siblings received the typical German education that well prepared them for professional careers and cultured society. Wolfgang in particular developed a love of classical music.
Köhler attended the universities of Tübingen, Bonn, and University of Berlin, where he received a thorough scientific training in physics, chemistry, and biology. In Berlin he studied with the famous physicist Max Planck, whose teachings influenced his approach to psychology. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Berlin in 1909, with a dissertation on psycho-acoustics under the direction of Carl Stumpf.
After receiving his doctorate, Köhler began work at the Psychological Institute at the Frankfurt Academy. His early work in psychology involved the psychological analysis of audition, combining his training in science with his love of music.
In 1910, Kurt Koffka moved to Frankfurt, and that year Köhler and Koffka began as Max Wertheimer's first subjects in the earliest experiments of the work that laid the foundation for Gestalt psychology.
This work was interrupted in 1913, when Köhler was appointed director of the Anthropoid Station on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Due to World War I, he remained in that position until 1920, conducting numerous experiments on animal perception, cognition, and learning. There he wrote his acclaimed book, The Mentality of Apes (1917).
There is a possibility that his appointment in Tenerife was not entirely for academic purposes, but that he was employed by the German government as a spy. Since the apes at the station were not native to the island, but it was strategically placed to monitor naval traffic, the accusation is not unreasonable, although it was not made until after Köhler's death.
In 1920, Köhler returned to Berlin, as acting director of the Psychological Institute, becoming chair and director from 1922 until 1935. He also held the position of professor of philosophy at the university of Berlin. Wertheimer was also in Berlin, and they maintained close collaboration with Koffka who was in Giessen. They continued their work, applying Gestalt principles to a wide variety of psychological issues, attracting students from all over the world.
While in Berlin, Köhler wrote Gestalt Psychology (1929), which described various aspects of Gestalt theory based on the series of investigations conducted at the Institute. With his colleagues, Köhler founded the Psychologische Forschung, a journal that provided a forum for publications of research and discussion in Gestalt psychology. One of his colleagues, and sometimes rival, in Berlin was Kurt Lewin, who applied Gestalt principles in the areas of motivation and social dynamics. Another was Kurt Goldstein, a neurologist who applied Gestalt ideas to cognitive processes.
When the Nazis began their rise to power in Germany, removing Jewish professors from their positions, Köhler was shocked and outraged. He wrote a letter to a Berlin newspaper protesting, and arguing that many of the greatest contributions to German culture had come from Jewish citizens. This may have been the last openly anti-Nazi opinion published during the Third Reich.
With Nazi intimidation and threats to his work increasing, in 1934, Köhler accepted a position as William James lecturer at Harvard University and a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1935. When Köhler did not sign an oath of personal loyalty to Adolf Hitler, his position in Berlin was filled and his assistants dismissed. In the summer of 1935, he resigned his position in Berlin and moved permanently to the U.S., taking a position at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he worked until his retirement in 1958.
He edited his William James lectures from 1934, publishing them in 1938, as The Place of Value in a World of Facts, and continued to pursue his application of ideas from physics, such as vector forces in the psychological and ethical context.
In 1956, Köhler was elected the president of the American Psychological Association.
Wolfgang Köhler died on June 11, 1967, in Enfield, New Hampshire.
Together with Wertheimer and Koffka, Köhler is one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. His early work was as Wertheimer's subject in his foundational experiments. When World War I interrupted their collaboration, Köhler spent his time studying problem solving in apes. Later he returned to work with Wertheimer and Koffka on the development of Gestalt theories.
During his time at the Anthropoid Research Station in the Canary Islands, Köhler conducted numerous experiments on chimpanzees. He was interested in how chimpanzees were able to retrieve bananas suspended from the top of their enclosure. He observed them standing on boxes, and even stacking boxes on top of each other, to get closer to the food.
Köhler's work with chimpanzees led him to believe that animals, like humans, are capable of problem-solving. His studies revealed that apes are capable not only of trial-and-error learning that Edward Thorndike had asserted was the basis of all animal learning, but are also capable of what Köhler called "insight" learning—the "aha!" solution to problems. In this extract from, The Mentality of Apes, he described the behavior of the chimpanzee Sultan employing a stick that was too short to reach a piece of fruit as a tool to reach a longer stick, which he then used to retrieve the fruit:
Sultan tries to reach the fruit with the smaller of the two sticks. Not succeeding, he tears at a piece of wire that projects from the netting of his cage, but that too is in vain … He suddenly picks up the little stick once more, goes up to the bars directly opposite the long stick, scratches it towards him with the "auxiliary," seizes it, and goes with it to the point opposite the objective (the fruit), which he secures. (Köhler 1917)
It has been pointed out, however, that Köhler did not control well for prior experience or the possibility that the animals imitated each other's behavior. Thus, it is difficult to be sure that some trial-and-error learning had not occurred before the apparent "insight" giving the solution to the problem.
The key argument in Gestalt psychology is that the nature of the parts and the whole are interdependent—the whole is not just the sum of its parts. For Köhler, the whole must be examined to discover what its part are, rather than trying to abstract the whole from analyzing the parts. For example, when one listens to music he hears the melody instead of separate notes. We are directly aware of the configuration as a whole structure, its properties are perceived subsequent and secondarily to the perception of the whole.
In this way Köhler, and the Gestalt movement, argued that complexities of perception and cognition cannot be understood by an "atomistic" approach—analyzing components separately and then combining them through some form of association. For Köhler, the mental processes involved in bringing meaning are of a qualitatively different nature than the individual responses to discrete stimuli. In fact, he believed that we interpret the parts based on our understanding of what the whole means.
Köhler also attempted to derive a theory of values, including aesthetic value, on the basis of the objective gestalt quality of "requiredness." This quality can be understood as the demand that one portion of a perceptual field has for another. For example, a circle missing a small segment tends to be perceived as a complete circle—the missing piece is "required" by the whole. Köhler extended this notion to evaluation, arguing in his William James lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1934 (The Place of Value in a World of Facts) that what is right or ought to be is but a special case of this perceptual requiredness.
As one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology together with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, Köhler's work forever changed the way psychology and the general public has approached human perception and cognition. The Gestalt approach emerged in opposition to the approach of Wilhelm Wundt, analyzing the components of human consciousness like the elements of a chemical compound, and to the Behaviorism of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner, providing an experimental, (scientific) way to approach the study of human perception and cognition that allowed for the greatest complexities and interdependencies.
Köhler gained fame with The Mentality of Apes, in which he argued that his subjects, like humans, were capable of insight learning, leading to a radical revision of learning theory. The ape cognition research facility in Leipzig was named after Köhler in honor of his contributions.
After Köhler retired from Swarthmore College, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in sciences, acknowledging him as a "broad humanistic scholar who is informed in history, politics, the arts, and philosophy and who uses all to further his insights into the human mind." Indeed, Köhler's work was significant in opening the way to greater understanding of human nature.
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