Wolfgang Köhler: biography of this German Gestalt psychologist

Research into how humans learn and are 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 we also find great interest in understanding the animal’s ability to adapt to the environment and solve problems with whom they meet.

In this sense, a large number of analyzes and comparative experiments with different species have been carried out throughout history, one of the closest to man being that of chimpanzees.

One of the most important and famous researchers in this field, who became one of the main pillars of the school of gestalt, described learning through insight and who would go on even to lead the American Psychological Association. Wolfgang Köhler, the biography can be found in summary below.

    Brief biography of Wolfgang Köhler

    Wolfgang Köhler was born on January 21, 1887 in the port city of Reval (now known as Tallinn), in an Estonia that was then part of the Russian Empire. Her family was of Germanic descent, her parents being Franz Köhler and Wilhelmine Girgensohn (school principal and housewife, respectively) and having one brother and several sisters.

    Köhler would live his first years of life in Estonia, but at the age of six he moved with his family to his parents’ home country of Germany, settling in the town of Wolfenbüttel. Having been a principal of a school, education was a very important thing in his family and at the Köhler School. he would begin to discover a keen interest in science, fieldwork and classical music.


    Köhler’s university education took place at several universities. He was first accepted at the University of Tübingen in 1905, studying at this institution until a year later. After that, he continued his studies at the University of Bonn between 1906 and 1907, and eventually entered the final year at the University of Berlin.

    At the latter university, he would study subjects like biology, physics and chemistry, be influenced by figures as important as Planck and Nernst in the field of physics, And meet and study alongside what would be her thesis professor, Carl Stumpf. He received his doctorate in psychology from the University throughout 1909 with the thesis “Akustische Untersuchungen”, a thesis on psychoacoustics.

      Some nice contributions

      Shortly after receiving his doctorate, more precisely in 1910, Köhler he would go to work at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt, Where first he would act as assistant and later he would get to exercise professors. He would work with Wertheimer and Kofka in different experiences related to perception, a work that would converge in the creation of the famous school of Gestalt, which focused on the study of forms and considered the whole to be more than the sum of the parts. .

      In October 1912 he married the artist Thekla Achenbach, and a year later he was recommended and hired as director of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Tenerife, in what is known as the Yellow House. There, Köhler would play different research with chimpanzees, Analyze their cognitive abilities and come and discover what we would call insight learning. From there, he would write books such as The Mentality of the Apes, developing different theories regarding the learning and existence of intelligence in non-human apes.

      World War I

      During the stay of Köhler and its family in Tenerife different events were developed between which emphasizes World War I. While initially Köhler he wanted to participate in the military service of his countryThis was not possible due to the inability to navigate in waters under British control. He will remain on the island during the war.

      However, there are different theories and suspicions arose that Köhler was acting as a spy for his government regarding British activity on the island. These suspicions eventually provoked protests from the British consulate, which ultimately allowed the activity of the Yellow House to be relocated. After that, Köhler returned to Germany in 1920.

      Returning to 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 remarried Lily Hårleman in 1927.

      He would also work as a professor of philosophy and participate directly in research on Gestalt theory, Re-contact Koffka and Wertheimer. During these investigations, he came to analyze and criticize introspection because of its subjectivity and seek to use more empirical and objective methodologies.

      However, it would also not be conducive to behaviorism to rely solely on directly observable behavior and to avoid covert behavior. He would also travel and work in the United States, alongside William James and at Harvard and Chicago universities, even if he returned to his home country.

        The arrival of the Nazis and emigration to the United States

        The rise to power of the Nazis marked another turning point in Köhler’s life. If he did not openly manifest his opposition to the regime at first, he ends up publishing a review (in fact, it is considered the last review published in Germany of his regime until its fall) after forcing Planck’s resignation and would begin to act much more critically.

        However, although he has apparently not been arrested, the regime it imposed more and more restrictions in the academic field and he lost more and more autonomy at 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 Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Where he will practice until his retirement in 1955. He will also conduct various research in Hanover, at Dartmouth College.

        Köhler, because of his many contributions to psychology during his career, was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1959. He had previously received an award from the same institution in 1956.

        Death and inheritance

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

        The legacy of this important psychologist remains valid 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 school of gestalt.

        In addition, the analysis and study of the cognitive abilities of primates allowed them to develop and reformulate. different theories of learning and taking into account the cognitive capacities of apes and other animals (including chickens as well). Finally, it would also contribute to the investigation of cortical processes, in aspects such as visual or auditory perception.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Schultz, DP and Schultz, SE (2016). A history of modern psychology. Eleventh edition. Learn Cengage.

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