Carl Stumpf

From New World Encyclopedia

Carl Stumpf (April 21, 1848 – December 25, 1936) was a German philosopher and psychologist, famous for his research on the psychology of music and sound. He founded the Berlin School of experimental psychology. Stumpf left a strong impact on Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology, and is credited with the introduction of the concept of state of affairs (Sachverhalt), which was later popularized through Husserl's works. Stumpf also influenced Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, the famous founders of Gestalt psychology, challenging Wilhelm Wundt's mechanistic approach to experimental psychology, which had long dominated German psychological research. The Gestalt psychologists forever transformed the way not only psychologists but also the general public viewed perception.


Carl Stumpf was born in Wiesentheid, Lower Franconia, Bavaria (today’s Germany), the son of Eugen Stumpf, a local physician, and Marie Adelmann Stumpf. His family had a long history of scholars and academics, so Stumpf became acquainted with science at a very young age. His main interest however, was music, and by the age of ten Stumpf was already composing. He could also play six instruments.

Stumpf attended local gymnasium, after which he begin his college studies at the University of Wurzburg, studying esthetics and law. At the university, he met phenomenologist Franz Brentano, who influenced Stumpf to change his major toward philosophy and science. Brentano also encouraged Stumpf to continue his doctoral studies at the University of Gottingen. In 1868, Stumpf was granted his doctoral degree from Rudolph Hermann Lotze.

In 1869, Stumpf entered Catholic seminary, studying for the priesthood. He left the seminary a year later, deeply disappointed with the dogmatism of the Church. Instead, he became an instructor at Gottingen, in the Department of Philosophy. There he met Wilhelm Weber and Gustav T. Fechner and together with them collaborated in numerous psychological experiments.

In 1873, Stumpf succeeded Brentano as professor of philosophy at the University of Wurzburg. There he started his research on sound and perception, publishing the first volume of his Tonpsychologie in 1883. In 1978 he married Hermine Biedermann. A year later he accepted a position at the University of Prague, as professor of philosophy. In 1884 he stated to teach at the University of Halle, and in 1889 in the University of Munich.

In 1894, Stumpf finally settled at the University of Berlin, where he became the director of the Berlin Psychological Institute, previously founded by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Stumpf reorganized the institute and established his own laboratory, which became famous throughout the country. The institute became the principle rival to the Wilhelm Wundt’s psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig. Stumpf stayed in Berlin for the rest of his career.

In 1896, Stumpf was in charge of the Third International Congress of Psychology.

In 1904, Stumpf was the head of a panel of 13 eminent scientists, known as the Hans Commission, to study the claims that a horse named Clever Hans could count. Psychologist Oskar Pfungst eventually proved that the horse could not really count.

By the end of his career, Stumpf created the Berlin Association of Child Psychology. At the same time he continued to write about music. In 1915, Stumpf and several other eminent philologists around Germany opened a facility that housed the Phonogram Archive, the records with music from different parts of the world.

Stumpf retired in 1921, but continued to lecture afterwards. He died on December 25, 1936, in Berlin.


Stumpf was one of the earliest students of Brentano and always remained quite close to his early teachings. Brentano’s influence can be seen in Stumpf’s belief that phenomena were the primary data for psychology. Stumpf also taught that “the whole is greater that the sum of its parts” (Bowman & Brownell, 2000).

Stumpf above all, considered himself a psychologist. He studied how different visual or auditory phenomena, such as tones, colors and images, are interpreted in human mind. He believed that these phenomena can be either sensory or imaginary—sensory being as received by our senses and imaginary as interpreted by our mind.

Studies in tone and music

Later in his life Stumpf became more and more interested in empirical methods in experimental psychology and effectively became one of the pioneers in this discipline. He started experimenting with tone and music. In his seminal experiment he investigated tonal fusion, consonance, and dissonance. He observed that some sound combinations have the tendency to cohere into a single sound image, the phenomena he called Tonverschmelzung or tonal fusion. The subjects in the experiment heard two concurrent tones and were asked to judge whether they heard a single tone or two tones. Stumpf concluded that tonal fusion is mostly encouraged by the pitch interval named unison, the second most fused interval being octave, while the third is the perfect fifth. By the end of his career Stumpf abandoned this theory because he was not satisfied with it.

In order to test the universality of his theories, Stumpf made an extensive study of non-Western music. He collected music from different parts of the world. In 1886 he published his "Lieder der Bellakula Indianer," a musicological study that combined nine transcriptions of songs performed by a group of Bella Coola Indians who visited Germany in 1885. In the paper he described the repertoire of the performers and included transcriptions into Western notation with an accompanying analysis. At the end of the work Stumpf discussed the cultural context of the music. This work is considered one of the origins of ethnomusicology.

Opposition to Wundt

Stumpf was known to be one of the major rivals of Wilhelm Wundt, then the most prominent figure in German experimental psychology. Stumpf opposed pure introspection, which reduced experience to elementary elements. Rather he examined the experience as it occurred. Wundt and Stumpf engaged in a series of literary battles over the psychology of audio tones and introspection. Stumpf was a good friend and frequent correspondent with the American psychologist and philosopher William James, who also had issues with Wundt.


During his tenure at the University of Berlin, he founded the Berlin School of experimental psychology, which was later to become the base of operation for Gestalt psychology.

Stumpf left strong impact on Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology. Stumpf is credited with the introduction in current philosophy of the concept of state of affairs (Sachverhalt), which was later popularized through Husserl's works. Stumpf also influenced Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, famous founders of Gestalt psychology. The student of Stumpf was Curt Sachs, who published influential system of instrument classification "Systematik der Musikinstrumente" (1914).


  • Stumpf, Carl. 1873. Über den psychologischen Ursprung der Raumvorstellung. Leipzig, DE: S. Hirzel.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1886. Lieder der Bellakula Indianer. Stumpf, Carl. 1898. Beiträge zur akustik und musikwissenschaft. Leipzig, DE: J. A. Barth.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1908. Die wiedergeburt der philosophie. Leipzig, DE: J.A. Barth.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1911. Die anfänge der musik. Leipzig, DE: J.A. Barth.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1911. Konsonanz und Konkordanz. Beiträge zur Akustik und Musikwissenschaft 6, 116-150.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1926. Die sprachlaute experimentell-phonetische untersuchungen nebst einem anhang über instrumentalklänge. Berlin, DE: J. Springer.
  • Stumpf, Carl. 1997. Schriften zur Psychologie. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Psychologie. Frankfurt am Main, DE: P. Lang. ISBN 3631313675
  • Stumpf, Carl. 2003 (original published 1883 and 1890). Tonpsychologie (2 Volumes). Boston, MA: Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 0543957381
  • Stumpf, Carl. 2004 (original published 1910). Philosophische Reden und Vorträge. Boston, MA: Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 0543984087

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bowman, C., and P. Brownell. 2000. Prelude to contemporary gestalt therapy Gestalt 4. 3. Retrieved January 7, 2008.
  • Brentano, Franz C. 1989. Briefe an Carl Stumpf, 1867-1917. Graz, DE: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt. ISBN 3201015067
  • Kimble, G.A., M. Wertheimer and C. White. 1991. Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 0805806202

External links

All links retrieved November 27, 2023.


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