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Kurt Koffka: biography of this Gestalt psychologist

Kurt Koffka: biography of this Gestalt psychologist

July 18, 2024

The German psychologist Kurt Koffka he is widely known for helping, together with Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer, to establish the foundations of the Gestalt school, which in retrospect would be a fundamental antecedent to modern cognitive psychology as we understand it.

We briefly review his career and contributions to the history of psychology, paying special attention to his figure in the genesis of the Gestalt movement, inseparable from his other two companions but with their own personality, and the importance that this was due to the reductionism in force at the time .


Biography of Kurt Koffka

Koffka was born in Berlin in 1886, in the bosom of a wealthy family known for being a long line of lawyers and legal scholars. From a young age, Koffka breaks with the traditional and, instead of opting for a law degree, studies Philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Koffka feels that he belongs to this field and ends up doctoring in 1908 . His thesis, entitled "Rhythm Experimental Research", is conducted under the tutelage of Carl Stumpf, an important representative of phenomenological psychology. During this time he lives in Edinburgh, which allows him to improve his English and obtain an advantageous position with respect to his colleagues to be able to introduce their theories in the English-speaking countries before anyone else.


After working in different psychology laboratories that question the dominant German elementarism, Koffka travels to Frankfurt and Main where he associates with Köhler and a newly arrived Wertheimer with thousands of ideas about perception that could be tested in numerous experiments. These works would give their first fruit in 1912, when Wertheimer published an article on the perception of the movement that gives birth to the movement that constitutes the Gestalt school.

Several years later, after the First World War, he moved to the United States as a university professor and participated, together with Köhler in 1925, as representative of the gestalt movement in the conferences of Clark University, conferences in which years ago figures had also participated. as Freud and Jung.

Koffka remained active as a university professor, researcher and writer until the last of his days in 1941.


The contribution of Koffka from the Gestalt

It is impossible to speak of the contribution of Koffka without taking into account the unique collaboration that gave birth to the gestalt movement. The three names originally associated with this form an indissoluble triumvirate and, up to a point, it is difficult to attribute particular aspects of the theory to each one.

However, each of the three played a differentiated role in the group and made their own contribution, always from a common base and respect for the work of the other two.

In the context of a Gestalt psychology that breaks with reductionism, which postulated that if psychology was a science then it should be able to reduce phenomena to constituent elements, Koffka is credited with a large body of empirical work .

Probably his most famous contribution is the systematic application of gestalt principles in his two best-known works: The Growth of the Mind (1921) and Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).

The infantile mind

In The Growth of the Mind, Koffka argues that early childhood experiences are organized as "all", rather than the chaotic confusion of stimuli that William James perceives newborns. As they get older, Koffka says, children learn to perceive stimuli in a more structured and differentiated way, rather than as an "all".

Koffka devotes much of this book to arguing against trial-and-error learning. He, through the investigations of Köhler, defends the insight. That is true learning occurs through the understanding of the situation and the elements that make it up , not to find the solution of a problem by pure chance. This revolutionary concept contributed greatly to the North American pedagogical approach shifting from rote learning to learning by comprehension.

Perception and memory

In Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Koffka continues with the line of research from which the gestalt movement was originally born: visual perception . In addition, it gathers the enormous amount of work carried out by the members of the gestalt group and its students and delves into topics such as learning and memory.

Koffka gives great importance to works on perceptual constancy, through which humans are able to perceive the properties of an object as constants, although conditions such as perspective, distance or illumination change.

When speaking of learning and memory, Koffka proposes a theory of the traces. It assumes that every physical event experienced gives rise to a specific activity in the brain, which leaves a trace of memory in the nervous system although the stimulus is no longer present.

Once the memory trace is formed, all subsequent related experiences will involve an interaction between the memory process and the memory trace. This circularity where the old traces affect the new processes recalls the theories of Piaget, who together with Lev Vygotsky would become the foundation of constructivism.

Likewise, following this theory also explains oblivion. It gives a very important role to the availability of the traces, an idea that surprises by the similarity with the explanations that we have today about the memory.

It is undeniable that Koffka, as an individual and as the founder of Gestalt, is a fundamental pillar of modern psychology . Both through cognitivism and constructivism, we see his legacy reflected.


Gestalt Psychology - Ch12 - History of Modern Psychology - Schultz & Schultz (July 2024).


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