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Wolfgang Köhler: biography of this German Gestalt psychologist

Wolfgang Köhler: biography of this German Gestalt psychologist

April 20, 2024

Research on how human beings learn and is able to understand the world has led a large number of researchers to develop different models and theories. Not only in the human being, but also we find great interest in understanding the animal's ability to adapt to the environment and solve the problems with those who are.

In this sense, a great amount of analysis and comparative experiments with different species have been carried out throughout history, being one of the closest to the human being that of the chimpanzees.

One of the most important and renowned researchers in this area, which became one of the main pillars of the Gestalt school, describing learning by insight and which would even lead the American Psychological Association was Wolfgang Köhler, whose biography you can find in summary form below .

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Brief biography of Wolfgang Köhler

Wolfgang Köhler was born on January 21, 1887 in the port city of Reval (today known as Tallinn), in an Estonia then part of the Russian Empire. His family was of German origin, being his parents Franz Köhler and Wilhelmine Girgensohn (school director and housewife, respectively) and having a brother and several sisters.

Köhler would live his first years of life in Estonia but when he was six years old he moved with his family to the country of origin of his parents, Germany, settling in the town of Wolfenbüttel. Having been his father, director of a school, education was very important in his family, and in the Köhler school I would begin to discover a great interest in science, field work and classical music .


The university education of Köhler passed through various universities. In the first place he would be accepted at the University of Tübingen in 1905, studying in that institution until a year later. After that he would go on to study at the University of Bonn between 1906 and 1907, and finally he would enter this year at the University of Berlin.

In this last university he would study subjects such as biology, physics and chemistry, being influenced by such important figures as Planck and Nernst in the field of physics , and knowing and studying together with his thesis tutor, Carl Stumpf. He received his doctorate in psychology at this university in 1909 with the dissertation "Akustische Untersuchungen", thesis referring to psychoacoustics.

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Some great contributions

Shortly after his doctorate, in 1910, Köhler I would go to work at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt , where he would first become an assistant and later become a professed. He would work with Wertheimer and Kofka in different experiments linked to perception, a work that would come together in the creation of the well-known Gestalt school, which focused on the study of forms and considered that the whole was more than the sum of the parts .

In October 1912 he would marry the artist Thekla Achenbach, and a year later would be recommended and hired as director of the Academy of Sciences of Tenerife, in the known as Yellow House. There Köhler would carry out different investigations with chimpanzees , analyzing their cognitive abilities and discovering what would come to be called insight learning. From this he would write works as The Mentality of Apes, developing different theories regarding learning and about the existence of intelligence in non-human apes.

The first World War

During the stay of Köhler and his family in Tenerife, different events were developed, among which the First World War stands out. While initially Köhler he wanted to participate in the military service of his country This was not possible due to the impossibility of navigating through waters controlled by the British. He would stay on the island during the war.

However, there are theories and different suspicions arose about the possibility that Köhler acted as a spy for his government regarding the activity of the British on the island. These suspicions ended up provoking the protests of the British consulate, which would finally get the activity of the Yellow House moved to another place. After that, Köhler he returned to Germany in 1920 .

Back in his home country, Köhler was hired at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Berlin, where he would be appointed director in 1921. He divorced his first wife and would remarry Lily Harleman in 1927.

I would also practice as a professor of philosophy and participating directly in the research on the Gestalt theory , coming back in contact with Koffka and Wertheimer. During these investigations he would come to analyze and criticize the introspection due to his subjectivity and would seek the use of more empirical and objective methodologies.

However, it would not be favorable to behaviorism because it is based on directly observable behavior and obviates covert behavior. He would also travel and work in the United States, along with William James and at the universities of Harvard and Chicago, although he would return to his homeland.

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The arrival of the Nazis and the emigration to the United States

The coming to power of the Nazis was another turning point in the life of Köhler. Although initially he did not show his opposition to the regime in an open manner, he would end up publishing a criticism towards him (in fact, it is considered the last criticism published in Germany towards his regime until his fall) after having forced the resignation of Planck and would begin to act in a much more critical way.

However, although apparently it was not stopped, the regime was imposing more and more restrictions in the academic field and he was losing more and more autonomy in the university, to the point that he had to resign and emigrate to the United States in 1935.

Once in North America, He worked as a professor of psychology and researcher at the Swarthmore College of Pennsylvania , where he would practice until his retirement in 1955. He would also carry out various investigations in Hannover, at Dartmouth College.

Köhler, due to his multiple contributions to psychology during his career, would be elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1959. Previously he would have received an award from the same institution in 1956.

Death and legacy

Wolfgang Köhler died on June 11, 1967. His death occurred at his home in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

The legacy of this important psychologist remains today and is part of many current theories. The concept of insight, for example, is still present , as well as his important participation in the Gestalt school.

In addition, the analysis and study of the cognitive abilities of primates allowed them to be developed and reformulated different theories of learning and the consideration of the cognitive abilities of the apes and other animals (including chickens). Finally, it would also contribute to the investigation of cortical processes, in aspects such as visual or auditory perception.

Bibliographic references:

  • Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2016). A History of Modern Psychology. Eleventh Edition. Cengage Learning

Wolfgang Köhler Gestalt psychologyઅંત:સુઝ દ્વારા અધ્યયન_શિક્ષણના મનોવૈજ્ઞાનિક @Vasant Teraiya (April 2024).

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