Kurt Koffka: Biography of this Gestalt psychologist

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

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

Biography of Kurt Koffka

Koffka was born in Berlin in 1886, to a wealthy family known to have a long line of lawyers and jurists. From an early age, Koffka broke with tradition and, instead of pursuing law studies, studied philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Koffka feels he belongs to this field and ends up receiving his doctorate in 1908. His thesis, entitled “Experimental Rhythm Research”, is being conducted under the tutelage of Carl Stumpf, an important representative of phenomenological psychology. During this time, he lives in Edinburgh, which allows him to perfect his English and gain an advantage over his peers so that he can introduce his theories in English-speaking countries before anyone else.

After working in different psychology labs challenging the dominant German elementarism, Koffka travels to Frankfurt and the Main where he joins forces with Köhler and a newcomer Wertheimer with thousands of ideas on perception that could be tested in many experiments. This work will bear their first fruits in 1912, when Wertheimer publishes an article on the perception of movement which gives light to the movement which constitutes the school of Gestalt.

Several years later, after World War I, he moved to the United States as a university professor and participated, with Köhler in 1925, as a representative of the Gestalt movement, in the Clark University lectures, conferences they had also attended years ago. characters like Freud and Jung.

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

Koffka’s contribution to the Gestalt

It is impossible to talk about Koffka’s contribution without considering the singular collaboration that gave birth to the Gestalt movement. The three names that were initially associated with it form an indissoluble triumvirate, and to some extent it is difficult to attribute to each particular aspect of the theory.

However, each of the three played a differentiated role in the group and made their own contribution, always on common ground and with 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 had to be able to reduce phenomena to constitutive elements, Koffka is credited with a large number of empirical works.

His most famous contribution is probably the systematic application of the principles of Gestalt in his two best-known works: The growth of the mind (1921) i Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).

The child’s mind

In The Growth of the Mind, Koffka argues that early childhood experiences are organized as “everything,” rather than the chaotic confusion of stimuli that William James believes newborns perceive. As they age, says Koffka, children learn to perceive stimuli in a more structured and differentiated way, rather than as a “whole.”

Koffka devotes much of this book to arguing against learning by trial and error. He, through Köhler’s research, champions insight. Which means real learning involves understanding the situation and the elements that make it up, Do not find the solution to a problem by pure chance. This revolutionary concept greatly contributed to the shift of the American pedagogical approach from memorizing learning to learning comprehension.

Perception and memory

In Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Koffka pursues the line of research at the origin of gestalt movement: visual perception. In addition, it brings together the enormous amount of work done by members of the Gestalt group and their students and explores topics such as learning and memory.

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

Speaking of learning and memory, Koffka proposes a theory of traces. It assumes that each physical event experienced gives rise to a specific activity in the brain, which leaves a trace of memory in the nervous system even if 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 old traces affect new processes recalls the theories of Piaget which, with Lev Vygotsky, would become the foundation of constructivism.

Likewise, following this theory also explains forgetting. It gives a very important role to the availability of traces, an idea which surprises by its resemblance to the explanations we have today on memory.

It is undeniable that Koffka, as an individual and as the founder of Gestalt, is a fundamental pillar of modern psychology.. Through cognitivism and constructivism, we see their heritage reflected.

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