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Wolfgang Felix U. Kohler, a leading German–US psychologist in the twentieth century, was born to Franz E. Kohler, a German gymnasium (high-school) teacher and his wife Wilhelmine on January 21, 1887 in Reval (today, Tallinn), Estonia, at that time a part of the Russian Empire. Kohler’s experiments with apes made him internationally renowned early during his long scientiﬁc career. As a cofounder of a school called Gestalt psychology, together with Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) and Kurt Koﬀka (1886– 1941), he became an inﬂuential scholar many years before he left Europe to join the faculty of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania in the USA.
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1. Major Events In Wolfgang Kohler’s Life And Work
The development and highlights of psychology at the University of Berlin during the ﬁrst decades of the twentieth century are strongly associated with the name of Wolfgang Kohler (see Table 1). Major dates and events in his life include his time in Frankfurt (the birth-place of Gestalt psychology), his research years on the island of Tenerife during World War I, his professorship in Berlin, and his emigre years in the USA (1935–67).
1.1 Kohler’s Assistantship At Frankfurt’s Institute Of Psychology
After his graduation from high school in 1905, Kohler undertook university studies in philosophy, history, and natural science in Tubingen, Bonn, and then Berlin, where he concentrated on psychology under Carl Stumpf’s (1848–1936) supervision. Besides his studies in experimental psychology, especially in psychoacoustics with Stumpf, he continued to pursue his interests in natural science and physics under Max Planck (1858–1947) and Walther Nernst (1864–1941). In his doctoral dissertation, which he ﬁnished in 1909, he combined physical acoustics with psychoacoustics. This research, published in the same year in the Zeitschrift fur Psychologie, demonstrated his great talent as a scientist. His ﬁndings forced his teacher Carl Stumpf to revise and do further research on his own psychoacoustical theories.
As an assistant at Frankfurt’s institute of psychology (1909–1913) under its director Friedrich Schumann, Kohler worked with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koﬀka, who also had been trained in natural science and experimental psychology. This cooperation lead to a life-long exchange among these three men, each of them involved in the advancement of psychological theory and research. Kohler worked on the then widely-accepted ‘constancy hypothesis,’ continued his psychoacoustical investigations in Frankfurt, and in his paper on ‘unnoticed sensations and errors of judgment’ (1913) merged his individual line of research with that of Max Wertheimer’s pioneering Gestalt work.
1.2 Kohler’s Research On Tenerife
From 1913 to 1920, Kohler conducted research on the mentality of apes, chickens, and children at an anthropoid research station of the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Tenerife, Canary Islands. He began his investigations with perceptual and problem-solving tasks, demonstrating the ape’s and the chicken’s size constancy and their transposition of perceived stimulus relationships. He also demonstrated the chimpanzee’s fabrication and use of simple ‘tools.’ Most famous became the success of one of his apes named Sultan in ﬁtting together two sticks to make them long enough to reach the goal object, a banana. Kohler (1917, 1921) also did extensive work on the chimpanzees’ ability to solve a problem by stacking boxes on top of each other, thus demonstrating, once again, ‘insightful’ animal behavior. Kohler (1920; see Table 1) expanded the Gestalt-theoretical perspective when he wrote his treatise on ‘Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationaren Zustand ’ (‘The physical conﬁgurations at rest and in stationary states’), a book in which he aimed to integrate basic principles in psychology and physics in a new psychoneural solution to the mind-body problem (Sect. 2.1 below). He became a professor at Gottingen’s psychology institute for a short time (1921) before he followed Carl Stumpf in the chair at Berlin.
1.3 Kohler’s Professorship At The University Of Berlin
In 1922 Kohler became full professor of philosophy and director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, where he worked together with other eminent scientists like Max Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin (1890–1947). Here the international fame of the Berlin School of Gestalt psychology grew until its peak during the early 1930s. It was during this time that the Gestalt principles of the organization of perception were published and extended to new research issues (Wertheimer 1923) like memory, cognition, motivation, and aesthetics.
During these years Kohler also lectured abroad several times, in the USA at Clark University (1925–6) and at Harvard University (1934–5), in South America in Uruguay (1930), as well as Brazil and Argentina (1932). When Kohler encountered the harassment of university scholars by the Nazi government in 1933, he fought racial discrimination and struggled against the political authorities of those days; he may have been the only psychology professor in Germany who protested in public against the totalitarian system (Henle 1978). When in 1935 his assistants were ﬁred, he left Germany and followed his colleagues into exile in the USA.
1.4 Kohler’s Emigre Years In The USA (1935–67)
In 1935 Kohler became a psychology professor at a small but prestigious undergraduate college, Swarthmore, near Philadelphia. There he continued his research, but on a smaller scale since his eﬀorts were hampered by the absence of advanced facilities and the lack of a doctoral program at this institution (Ash 1995, Sarris 1995).
Nevertheless, Kohler, together with his American colleagues and students, published important new ﬁndings on ﬁgural after-eﬀects and on related perceptual phenomena; he also studied the cortical activity associated with pattern vision (Sect. 2.2 below), and wrote three further books on Gestalt psychology, all in English (Kohler 1938). After World War II, Kohler received worldwide recognition for his life work, including several honorary doctorates from American and European universities. He was a recipient of the APA’s (American Psychological Association) Distinguished Scientiﬁc Contribution Award and was elected a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was also named an ‘honorary member’ (Ehrenburger) of the Free University of Berlin, where he lectured several times, ﬁrst as a visiting professor. He was elected president of the APA for the 1958–9 term, an unusual honor for an emigre scientist in the USA.
2. Kohler’s Accomplishments And His Impact On Psychology
Gestalt theory had begun after the turn of the twentieth century as a scientiﬁc revolt, ﬁrst against Wilhelm Wundt’s (1832–1920) ruling elementaristic (‘atomistic’) approach, and later opposed to John Broadus Watson’s (1878–1958)—then dominant— behaviorism. It took several decades before Gestalt theory became a fully acknowledged perspective in psychology.
2.1 Kohler’s Work On Cognition, Perception, And Memory
Cognition and ‘Insight’ in the Chimpanzee: Kohler’s ideas about thinking were opposed strongly to those of the other schools of psychology. Some of his research was speciﬁcally directed against E. L. Thorndike’s (1874–1949) inﬂuential behavioristic interpretation of learning and problem solving in animals. According to the latter view, a correct behavioral response occurs in the course of blind trial-and-error activity; on repeated trials the correct response is reinforced and thus strengthened simply by associations in an ‘automatic’ way (Thorndike’s ‘law of eﬀect’). Kohler, in sharp contrast to that approach, argued that Thorndike’s puzzle-box task did not allow any perceptual-cognitive insight into the whole procedural arrangement and thus represents no possibility of real problem solving; ‘insight’ requires a situation which is completely ‘natural’ and ‘visible’ to the animal (Kohler 1921).
According to Kohler (1951), problem solving is based on the organization of meaningful relations. It begins with a situation and a goal that cannot be directly reached (the so-called ‘detour’ problem). The process of problem solving requires a re-examination of the situationally given materials which must be ‘reorganized,’ quite analogously to the reversal of perceptual patterns. Kohler was criticized by his opponents for not considering the inﬂuence of past experience on problem solving. He did not deny the role of past experience in principle, but considered it of minor signiﬁcance in insightful learning. This issue has still not been fully resolved today.
2.1.1 Human Perception And Psychophysical Theory. Basic to Kohler’s perceptual research was the study of stimulus relationships, starting with his comparative work on transposition in apes, chickens, and children (Kohler 1917); for example, a chicken is presented with two gray samples, a darker one, A, and a lighter one, B (the positive stimulus): after successful discrimination training the chicken is tested with a new pair of samples, B and C (C being lighter than B). The majority of Kohler’s hens chose C over B, thus showing relative choice behavior (‘transposition’). Kohler obtained similar experimental results with his chimpanzees as subjects, using size as well as brightness as stimulus dimensions, thereby demonstrating the priority of ‘structural’ properties in perception and learning. From the perspective of Gestalt-theory, the eﬀective stimulus for a given perception or perceptual choice is always relational in character; what is perceived and reacted to is fundamentally a given ‘pattern,’ which is conceived of as the interaction (relation) between a particular stimulus and its surround. This idea, although challenged by the behaviorist school, has been proved to be accurate, by and large; it ﬁts with the Gestaltists’ emphases on the importance of frame of reference in perception (cf. Sarris 1994).
Kohler’s interest in the physical processes in the brain, which dates back to his years on Tenerife (or even before), generated an inﬂuential book on a special psychoneural theory of perception. This monograph (1920) dealt with the neurophysiological processing during a given experience, in an attempt to relate the laws of physics to the brain’s physiochemical characteristics. It was to this end that he later directed his research on ﬁgural after-eﬀects and so-called satiation (Kohler and Wallach 1944). His explanation oﬀered for these much—investigated phenomena was based on the notion that direct electric currents are generated in the cortex, resulting in diﬀerent active ‘ﬁelds’ for various perceptual phenomena (Kohler and Held 1949). However, this theory was not accepted widely by the scientiﬁc community; on the contrary, it was later refuted on both experimental and theoretical grounds in criticisms of Kohler’s speculative psychophysical isomorphism.
2.1.2 Memory And Learning From A Gestalt Perspective. Kohler expanded the Gestalt principle of perceptual and cognitive organization to the province of memory and learning by assuming that recognition and recall are functionally another case of grouping. When a form or pattern is perceived it tends to be subsequently recognized and recalled in a well-structured, organized way; memory traces in the brain are conceived of as neurophysiological correlates of recognition and recall.
Kohler (1947) developed several criticisms of classic associationist psychology. For instance, he attacked the ‘law’ of association by contiguity as being merely a mechanistic principle:
Two processes A and B happen to occur together and, whatever the nature of A and B may be, a bond is formed between them! I do not know a single law in physics or chemistry which could in this respect be compared with the law of contiguity (Kohler 1947).
Kohler argued that meaningful pairs of words are always associated more readily than are pairs of nonsense elements since the former can more easily (‘naturally’) be organized into a uniﬁed pattern (‘Gestalt’). According to this account, recognition and recall depend on an interaction between the assumed memory traces that are relationally determined (Kohler 1951; see the reference details in Murray 1995).
2.2 The Impact Of Kohler’s Work On Psychology
Kohler’s and his followers’ work gradually inﬂuenced the direction and content of modern psychology. Gestalt psychology turned out to oﬀer an important alternative to behaviorism and its related perspectives, especially in the ﬁelds of perception and cognition, since the 1960s in the twentieth century.
2.2.1 Kohler’s Lasting Research Contributions. Kohler was a research-oriented scientist aiming at an integrative and multidisciplinary development of psychology as a science. Today his research is acknowledged widely by mainstream psychology as a major contribution to the advancement of psychology as a science. His work is seen as a theoretical and experimental breakthrough in animal problem solving and in human perception and cognition. Nowadays modern psychophysical and neurobiological theory are being used to re-examine the classic Gestalt issues.
Some of the central tasks of the brain—such as ﬁgure-ground coding, perceptual organization, object identiﬁcation, and the formation of object memory— concern the integration of separately coded stimulus features into coherent and meaningful object representations. These fundamental problems in explaining the basis of perception and cognition, namely the under- standing of the computational or informational signiﬁcance of neurobiological activity, have not been solved. Nowadays these issues are approached by the concerted eﬀorts of diﬀerent disciplines (notably, psychophysics, neurobiology, and neurocomputing).
2.2.2 Kohler On Ethics And Human Values. Kohler also envisioned the science of psychology as an expanding area to be developed according to an ethical understanding (Kohler 1969). His analysis of values and human ethics led Kohler to reject the commonlyheld assumption that values are merely subjective; on the contrary, his position oﬀers an alternative to the relativism that seems to dominate discussions of values in science and life.
3. Final Notes
Kohler died on June 11, 1967, at the age of 80 at his home in Enﬁeld, NH, USA. There has been a Wolfgang Kohler Society on Tenerife, Spain, since 1992; and the Wolfgang Kohler Memorial Lectures are organized biannually by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Psychologie, Germany’s national psychology association. The Wolfgang Kohler Archives are housed in the Archives of the Philosophical Society of America in Philadelphia. The complete Bibliography: of Kohler is published in Henle (1971).
- Ash M G 1995 Gestalt Psychology in German Culture 1890–1967. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
- Henle M (ed.) 1971 The Selected Papers of Wolfgang Kohler. Liveright, New York
- Henle M 1978 One man against the Nazis—Wolfgang Kohler. American Psychologist 33: 939–44
- Kohler W 1917 Die Farbe der Sehdinge beim Schimpansen und beim haushuhn (The color of visual objects in the chimpanzee and in the chicken). Zeitschrift fur Psychologie 77: 248–55
- Kohler W 1921 Intelligenzprufungen an Menschenaﬀen (Intelligence testing of apes). Springer, Berlin (trans. into English, 1925 The Mentality of Apes. Harcourt, Brace, New York)
- Kohler W 1947 Gestalt Psychology. H Liveright, New York Kohler W 1951 Relational determination in perception. In: Jeﬀress L A (ed.) Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior. Wiley, New York
- Kohler W 1958 Perceptual organization and learning. American Journal of Psychology 71: 311–15
- Kohler W 1969 The Place of Value in a World of Facts. Liveright, New York
- Kohler W, Held R 1949 The cortical correlate of pattern vision. Science 110: 414–19
- Kohler W, Wallach H 1944 Figural after-eﬀects: An investigation of visual processes. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 88: 269–357
- Murray D J 1995 Gestalt Psychology and the Cognitive Revolution. Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York
- Sarris V 1994 Contextual eﬀects in animal psychophysics: Comparative perception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17: 763–64
- Sarris V 1995 Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt: Beginn und Aufbaukrise der Gestalt psychologie (Max Wertheimer in Frankfurt: Beginnings and foundational dilemmas of Gestalt psychology). Pabst, Lengerich
- Wertheimer M 1923 Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt (Investigations concerning the theory of Gestalt’ patterns). Psychologische Forschung 4: 301–50