Wolfgang Kohler

Researched and written by:  Ron Dahl

I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..


 "We were excited by what we found, and even more by the prospect of finding further revealing was not only the stimulating newness of our enterprise which inspired us.  There was also a great wave of relief- as though we were escaping from a prison.  The prison was psychology as taught at the universities when we still were students." (cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2004, p. 369).

“Two years of apes every day; one becomes chimpanzoid oneself...and no longer notices something about the animals as easily” (cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2004, p. 368).

“We all had great respect for the exact methods by which certain sensory data and facts of memory were being investigated, but we also felt quite strongly that work of so little scope could never give us an adequate psychology of real human beings.” (cited in, “Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.)



Childhood/Family Life

Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967), a German educated American Psychologist, co-founded a school of psychology known as Gestalt during a time when psychology in the United States was dominated by behaviorism (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).  Little information seems to exist about Köhler’s childhood and family life.  However, soon after Köhler’s birth in Reval, Estonia in 1887, his family moved to Wolfenbuttell, Germany, as his parents were of German decent (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).  Academics were central to the family; his father was a schoolmaster, his sisters were educators and nurses, and his older brother (Wilhelm) was a prominent scholar (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.).  Besides an interest in science, Kohler enjoyed classical music, the piano, and the outdoors (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.).  He attended such universities as Tubingen (1905-1906), Bonn (1906-1907), and Berlin (1907-1909).  While at Berlin he earned his Ph.D. under Karl Stumpf (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).  At the latter he studied physics and psychology under the tutelage of Max Planck and Karl Stumpf respectively (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  His dissertation was on psycho-acoustics (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  Obviously, physics was an inspiration to Köhler, as can be seen in how he transferred many its ideas to psychological aspects (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

Adult Life

Kohler married while in his mid-twenties and fathered four children with his wife.  Few details exist on their marriage but later events suggest that all was not well.  While in his thirties, Kohler divorced his first wife and married a student.  However, no further information could be found on the length of his first marriage or details of his second marriage.  Possibly connected with these stressful events was a noticeable hand tremor that manifested around the same time as his divorce and second marriage (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

After earning his doctorate, Köhler worked at the Psychological institute in Frankfurt (1910-1913) with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, and this is where the they spawned Gestalt psychology (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).  The trio used a loose translation of the German word “Gestalt,” meaning “whole,” to frame their ideas (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  He soon pursued these perceptual ideas through his research with chimpanzees as director of the Canary Island Anthropoid Station in 1913.  He was involved in this research until he returned to Germany in 1920 (Cook, 2001; “Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  More information regarding his ideas on perceptual phenomena as well as animal research will follow.  He was a professor at the University of Berlin from 1920 to 1935, taking the place of Carl Stumpf, his original mentor (Zawidzki, 2004).  Kohler fled to the United States in 1935 due to harassment from publicly criticizing the Nazi movement.  He vehemently spoke out against the Nazis and their persecution of Jews.  Köhler then took a position at Swarthmore College, where he stayed until 1955.  He became an American citizen in 1946 (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).  In 1956 he went to Dartmouth College as a research professor, and became president of the American Psychological Association in 1959 (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).

Professional Accomplishments

Kohler contributed substantial literary work to the field of psychology.  He wrote and lectured extensively on his animal research and on the understanding of human perception (Schultz & Schultz, 2004; “Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  The following is a list of Köhler’s professional accomplishments and published works:

- Intelligenzenprufungen an Menschenaffen, 1921 (revised edition of Intelligenzenprufungen an    
         Anthropoiden)-  The Mentality of Apes (researched the role of insight in learning with apes from a 
         Gestalt perspective)

- Die Physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im Stationaren Zustand, 1920 (this title translates into English as “The  
         Physical Gestalten at Rest and in Steady State,” and is partly translated in a Source Book of Gestalt 
         Psychology by W.D. Ellis, [1938].  Interestingly, it had an introduction for philosophers and biologists, and  
         one for physicists, but none for psychologists.)

- Co-founded the Psychologische Forschung (a Gestalt psychology journal in the 1920s, published in German)

- Intelligence in Apes, 1925 (covers his experimental studies with apes in regards to their learning, their behavior,  
         and imitation in problem solving)

- Gestalt Psychology, 1929 (written for Americans, it addressed the reductionistic ideologies of structuralism and  

- The Place of Value in a World of Fact, 1938 (this was an adaptation from one of the many William James  
         lectures that Kohler had done at Harvard University, and where his term “isomorphism” debuted)

- Dynamics in Psychology, 1940 (rev. 1965) (addresses perception and memory specifically, as well as research  
         and theory in psychology)

- ‘On the nature of associations’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84. 1941 (covers neural 
         trace memories as the basis of associations of contrast, contiguity, but mainly similarity)

- ‘Figural after-effects: an investigation of visual processes’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical  
         Society 88. 1944 (focused on how extended visual exposure to a stimuli impacts visual accuracy afterward)

- Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 1947

- Received APA’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, 1956

- Elected president of the American Psychological Association, 1959

- Gestalt psychology today, 1959 (background of Gestalt psychology, its use of phenomenal and physical   
         concepts, and comparison to Behaviorism)

- The Task of Gestalt Psychology, 1969 (a review of the achievements and oppositions that Gestalt Psychology  
         faced to that point)

- Awarded the Warren Medal (a Society of Experimental Psychologists achievement medal)

- Awarded the Wundt Medal (a German Society for Psychology achievement medal)

This list (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.; Schultz & Schultz, 2004; “Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004) demonstrates Köhler’s dedication to the popularization of Gestalt psychology and to perceptual issues in general.  His writings, awards, and personal life seem to reflect his dignified and creative character as a physicist, a philosopher, and a psychologist.

Contributions to Psychology

Köhler’s main contribution to the field, Gestalt psychology (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004), has made a lasting impact.  Gestalt psychology was a rebellion against Wundt and Titchener’s structuralism theories of perception where experiences were reduced to individual parts, and against behaviorism’s reduction of experiences to simple stimulus-response reflexes (Schultz & Schultz, 2004; “Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  With roots in Husserl’s phenomenology and Kant’s philosophy, Gestalt psychology viewed the perceptual process as the joining of perceptual elements together to form a holistic interpretation of a stimulus, a synergistic collaboration where the parts were far less important than the whole (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  There was considerable excitement in the prospects of leaving behind the other German psychologies (structuralism, functionalism, and psychoanalysis) for something new.  A famous quote by Köhler during that time period reflected the energy that he and his colleagues experienced in the founding of Gestalt psychology as it was a revolution in perceptual theories.  Kohler and his colleagues felt that there was something lacking in the field of psychology; that something was needed that was more applicable than structuralism and functionalism.  Köhler was the right person at the right time to help to bring this about.

One Gestalt idea is perceptual constancy; the inclusiveness and perpetuation of an objects parts in a perceptual experience (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).  Other Gestalt ideas include the perceptual organization principles of proximity, continuity, similarity, closure, simplicity, and figure/ground (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).  Proximity suggests that objects seen close together will be perceived as being part of a single object.  Similarity suggests that objects that have the same appearance will be perceived as a single object.  Continuity suggests that perceived patterns will be continued.  Closure suggests that an automatic process will complete gaps in an object to perceive a solid object.  Pragnanz suggests that parts will be perceptually joined to make a recognizable form with observer input.  Figure/ground suggests that perception will separate an object from its background (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).  These principles are heuristics, or short cuts, that people employ during perception to increase speed and efficiency in recognition of an object.

Many of these perceptual ideas have influenced the areas of cognitive, social, and clinical psychology.  While Gestalt ideas can now be found in the counseling approaches of Gestalt Therapy, they bare only a conceptual relation to Kohler’s original work.  Additionally, his perceptual ideas have contributed to the understanding of learning, memory, and the nature of associations (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.).  The premise of Gestalt Therapy (created by Fritz Perls) is that mental health problems might be the result of a lack of integration of personality parts into a whole by an individual (Rathus, 2000).

Köhler’s other significant contribution to psychology came through his animal research (Cook, 2001).  He began his work on The Mentality of Apes after his time as director of the Canary Island Anthropoid Station, and it was later published in 1917 (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  While at this research station during WWI, he focused nearly all of his time on a group of nine chimpanzees caged there for research purposes.  One of which, named Sultan, exceeded in intelligence and was rumored to be his favorite subject (Cook, 2001; “Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).  Köhler primarily tested the chimps with problem solving tasks involving food as the motivation (Cook, 2001).  In one instance, Sultan was observed joining together bamboo polls, using them as tools, to retrieve fruit placed far outside of his cage (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.).  In another situation, an ape was observed solving a problem of reaching bananas attached to the cage ceiling by stacking and climbing up several crates (“Kohler: In the beginning,” n.d.).  Kohler proposed that the apes used “insight,” not trial and error or chance to accomplish these tasks, an idea that he would later develop into a theory of learning (Cook, 2001).  The amount of time he spent conducting animal research may not have been as appealing to Kohler as one might think.  In reference to the considerable amount of time that he had spent studying chimpanzees, he related that he grew tired of being around them and that this negatively impacted his ability to focus on the research.  Interestingly, the majority of his important experiments were completed in the first six months he was on the island despite being there for roughly seven years (Cook, 2001).

Kohler also experimented with chickens but to a lesser extent than with the apes.  He trained chickens to peck at a gray board when shown with a black board, then observed them peck at a white board when shown with a gray board.  He reasoned that they were able to see the relationship between the stimuli, instead of simply learning a single task.  Kohler called this process “transposition,” which can be seen in humans when one transfers the knowledge from one situation to another (Zawidzki, 2004).  His experiments were criticized as less than rigorous and poorly controlled (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.).  Nonetheless, the information he generated proved useful in understanding animal and human learning (Cook, 2001; Schultz & Schultz, 2004).  Köhler wrote extensively on his research, much of which was published through the journal that he co-founded.  He was a pioneer in understanding thought processes and the errors within, such as with judgments and associations.  His numerous contributions won him recognition from several psychological associations.  On June 11, 1967, Wolfgang Köhler died in New Hampshire (“Wolfgang Köhler,” n.d.; Zawidzki, 2004).



Cook, R. (2001).  Köhler’s research on the mentality of apes.  Retrieved April 5, 2005, from Tufts University,  
          Animal Cognition & Learning Web site:

Kohler: In the beginning. (n.d.).  Retrieved May 5, 2005, from 

Rathus, S. A. (2000).  Psychology: The core.  Orlando, TX: Harcourt, pp. 17-18-C.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, E. S. (2004).  A history of modern psychology (8th ed.).  Belmont, CA:  
          Wadsworth/Thomson, (pp. 363-378).

Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) – Name also written : Wolfgang Kohler-.  (n.d.).  Retrieved April 5, 2005, from 

Zawidzki, T. (2004).  Köhler, Wolfgang.  Retrieved April 5, 2005, from Washington University in St. Louis,  
         Philosophy of Mind Web site, Eliasmith, C. (Ed.): 



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