Köhler, Wolfgang, 1887-1967

Alternative names
Birth 1887-01-21
Death 1967-06-11
English, German

Biographical notes:

Wolfgang Köhler was a psychologist and was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology.

From the description of Papers, 1914-1967. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 173465786

Wolfgang Köhler was an internationally recognized leader in experimental psychology. Along with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, he was a founder of Gestalt psychology, which strongly affected the development of psychology for more then half a century.

Wolfgang Köhler was born in Reval, Estonia on January 21, 1887 to German parents. His parents returned to Germany when Köhler was six, settling in Wolffenbuttel. Köhler remained in Germany for his education, attending the University of Tubingen (1905-1906), University of Bonn (1906-1907), and the University of Berlin (1907-1909) where he earned his Ph.D. While at Berlin, Köhler studied psychology under Carl Stumph and field physics with Max Planck. His work with Planck would lead Köhler to begin applying field theory in physics to psychology, a step fundamental to the development of Gestalt psychology.

After receiving his doctorate, Köhler became an assistant to Friedrich Schumann at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt am Main in 1909. Here he met Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, collaborators in the creation of Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology developed in Germany during a period known as the Crisis of Science. Science seemed to lack the ability or interest to deal with human problems. Wertheimer and Köhler saw the problem not with science itself, but with the conception of natural science among psychologists.

Work with Wertheimer and Koffka was interrupted in 1913 when Köhler was appointed Director of the Anthropoid Station on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, established in 1912 by the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Köhler's one year stay on the island was extended to seven with the outbreak of World War I. During his extended stay Köhler was able to develop his thinking in significant and original directions. An important outcome of Köhler's stay on Tenerife was his study of the problem-solving capabilities and other intelligent behavior of Apes. His work resulted in the book Mentality of Apes, published in 1917, which became a classic and described as a turning point in the psychology of thinking. While on Tenerife Köhler also worked on Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationaren Zustand (published in 1920), in which he begins to work out his relations between Gestalt psychology and physics.

When Köhler returned to Germany in 1920, he became acting director of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. The following year he took the position of professor of experimental psychology and philosophy in Gottengen. In 1922 Köhler returned to Berlin to become professor of philosophy and director of the University's psychological institute. With his return to Berlin, Köhler was able to renew his work with Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin on Gestalt psychology. In the following years Berlin became a center for the study of Gestalt psychology, drawing a number of extraordinary students. Additionally, the publication Psychologische Forschung was founded, which records much of the early development for Gestalt psychology. During this period Köhler made his first visit to the United States as a visiting professor at Clark University (1925-1926). Köhler 's close collaboration with Wertheimer and Lewin ended when they left Berlin in 1929 and 1932 respectively.

Köhler departed Berlin in 1935 in the face of Nazi oppression. Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Nazi party began to target the administration and activities of German universities. At the psychological institute Köhler had assistants dismissed and appointed without his consent. Köhler protested this interference only to receive empty promises from the Nazis. After the dismissal of Jewish professors Köhler took a public stand in April 1933 with "Gespräche in Deutschland." Published in Die Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung this was the last anti-Nazi article published openly in Germany, and Köhler expected to be arrested soon afterwards. In 1934 Köhler made his second trip to the United States to teach as the William James Lecturer at Harvard University (1934-1935), and as Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago (1935). At the end of his time in Chicago, Köhler decided to formally emigrate to the United States and accepted a position as professor of psychology (later becoming research professor of philosophy and psychology) at Swarthmore College.

In 1958 Köhler retired from Swarthmore in order to continue his scientific research and writing, moving to New Hampshire where he conducted his experimental work at Dartmouth College as a visiting professor. Köhler was very active in experimental research (working up to the time of his death), and is recognized as one of the most outstanding experimenters in psychology. A key to his work was the simplicity of his experiments, something he passed on to many of his students. Unlike other experimenters in psychology, Köhler did not take measurements for the sake of taking them. As such, his work stands as a meeting place between physics, biology, and psychology. Köhler 's examination of the theory of evolution clarified for many psychologists the relation between its principle of invariance and that of change. His work also placed psychology in its relation to philosophy. Additionally, his work on transformed the fields of perception and of thinking. Köhler was equally impressive as a personality. He was open to good scientific criticism of his work, acknowledging any errors that were pointed out and trying to settle the issue by new experimentation. Equally, if a colleague was in error he would review the evidence, ask key questions, and deal with the issues objectively.

Köhler was well respected internationally, with his works being translated into numerous languages, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. He was also sought after as a lecture in both American and Europe. He maintained a close relationship with the Free University of Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s, and was bestowed the honor of Ehrenburger. Köhler was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ between 1954 and 1956. He had the honor of delivering the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1958, and the Herbert S. Langfeld Memorial Lecture at Princeton in 1967. Köhler was also honored with membership in the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received honorary degrees from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Chicago, Freiburg, Munster, and Uppsala; as well as Swarthmore and Kenyon Colleges.

Wolfgang Köhler died in Enfield, MA on June 11, 1967.

From the guide to the Wolfgang Köhler Papers, 1862-1976, (American Philosophical Society)


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Ark ID:


  • Gestalt psychology
  • Prussian Academy of Science. Anthropoid Station
  • Germany--History--1933-1945
  • Senses and sensation
  • Anti--Nazi movement
  • Apes
  • Psychology
  • Memory
  • Chimpanzees
  • Psychophysiology
  • Attention
  • Perception
  • Anti--Nazi movement--Germany
  • Animal intelligence
  • Figural aftereffects


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  • Germany (as recorded)