Wolfgang Kohler

Wolfgang Köhler (also Kohler) was born on January 21, 1887 in Revel (known as Tallinn today), Estonia, Russian Empire to German parents. He died on June 11, 1967 in Enfield, New Hampshire. Along with Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer, who were also prominent German psychologists, he created Gestalt psychology. The goal of this branch of psychology is to understand components of the mind as "structured wholes." ("Wolfgang Kohler," 2012). Kohler's studies on chimpanzee problem solving are also noteworthy. He discovered their capacity to produce and use basic tools and structures. He recorded his findings in Intelligenzprüfungen an Menschenaffen, which is more widely known as The Mentality of Apes (1917). With emphasis on insight, this work paved the way for major changes in learning theory and paved the way for future research in primates.

There were many psychological schools of thought competing with each other during the first half of the twentieth century: structuralism, behaviorism, functionalism, psychoanalysis, and Gestalt psychology. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler, its founders, saw themselves as "fighters against positivism, as humanistic scientists engaged in a life-and-death struggle against vitalism on one side and against a series of dreary mechanistic psychologies on the other." (Neisser, 2002). The main antagonists of Gestalt psychology were introspective psychology, behaviorism, and associationism. Most of Kohler's research was aimed at refuting the claims of these schools.

When he was six years old, Kohler's family moved back to Germany from Estonia. After studying at several universities, he obtained his Ph.D. from Carl Stumpf in 1909 with his thesis written on psychoacoustics. After earning his degree, Kohler moved to Frankfort from Berlin.It was here that he met Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer. Wertheimer was starting studies on apparent motion at this time.
In 1913, Kohler was given the position of director of the Prussian Primate Research Center on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. Oddly enough, he had no prior experience in animal research. The term of the previous director, Eugen Teuber (a graduate student), was about to expire (M. L. Teuber, 1994). Kohler was dropped off at the Center, along with his family, in December of 1913. They expected to stay on the island for one year. World War One hit around eight months later. According to Neisser (2002), Kohler sought passage back to Germany in order to enlist. However, he could not find a ship that would carry a German national through waters controlled by the British fleet. "The station at Tenerife was the first primate laboratory ever devoted to behavioral research, and Köhler's experiments there are justifiably famous." (Neisser, 2002). Kohler's goal from the beginning was to refute the belief that the apes were acting on simple trial and error and also that they were capable of insight. He succeeded at this: the apes in his experiments took shortcuts, constructed climbing towers, and disassembled boxes to use the materials for longer implements.

Kohler spent roughly five years at Tenerife. Despite this, almost all of his important experiments were finished before World War One.
Most of his time was devoted towards writing Die Physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im Stationaren Zustand (The Physical Gestalten at Rest and in Steady State, 1920). This book would show the basis for Gestalt psychology. It has two introductions: one "for philosophers and biologists" and one "for physicists." There was not one for psychologists. Kohler intended to point out that Gestalten may may occur in purely physical environments, primarilly in respect to the electrochemical systems he believed to be in the brain.

Key findings

"Kohler was one of the original Gestalt theorists, along with Wertheimer and Koffka. All of these "fathers of Gestalt" were Germans, but ended their careers in the US. Gestalt theory emerged as a reaction to the behaviorist theories of Pavlov and Watson which focused on mechanical stimulus-response behavior. The term "Gestalt" refers to any pattern or organized whole. The key concept in Gestalt theory is that the nature of the parts is determined by the whole - parts are secondary to the whole. When we process sensory stimuli, we are aware directly of a configuration or overall pattern which is grasped as a whole. For example, when listening to music, we perceive a melody rather than individual notes, or when looking at a painting, we see the overall image rather than individual brush strokes. Köhler emphasized that one must examine the whole to discover what its natural parts are, and not proceed from smaller elements into wholes.

Kohler proposed the view that insight follows from the characteristics of objects under consideration. His theory suggested that learning could occur by "sudden comprehension" as opposed to gradual understanding. This could occur without reinforcement, and once it occurs, no review, training, or investigation are necessary. Significantly, insight is not necessarily observable by another person." (Cooper, 2009).


Of his findings on insight learning: "In one famous test there were two bamboo sticks in a chimpanzee's cage, but neither of them was long enough to reach a banana outside the cage. After many attempts the chimpanzee pushed the thinner of the two sticks into the hollow inside the thicker one and then drew the banana toward himself. The animals also learned to use boxes as "clime-upon-ables" to reach desirable lures. However, Köhler's tests were not very well controlled. Often several chimpanzees were in the cage at the same time. His critics found a number of alternative explanations, and stated that animals might have learned from imitating one another." (Liukkonnen, 2008).

General criticism against Gestalt psychology: "Gestalt psychology has been widely criticized on the grounds that the whole could never be different from the sum of its parts." (Liukkonnen, 2008).

--Robert Radtke