Wolfgang Köhler was born on January 21, 1887, in Rivel, Estonia. He was educated at the Universities of Tübingen and Bonn, and at the University of Berlin where he received his PhD in 1909. His doctoral dissertation was on psychoacoustics. Köhler is best known for his research in comparative psychology on the intellectual and problem-solving abilities of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), and for his involvement with Gestalt psychology.
From 1913-1920, Köhler was the director of the Anthropoid Research Station on Tenerife, Canary Islands. The research station was established by the Prussian Academy of Sciences to study the behavior of various primate species in hope of ascertaining where they fell along the evolutionary continuum, especially in comparison to humans. Köhler’s observations and studies of the nine chimpanzees housed on Tenerife were summarized in The Mentality of Apes (1925).
Köhler recognized that chimpanzees are intelligent creatures, and that their behavior in natural settings resembles that of humans. On Tenerife, he observed chimpanzees interacting with one another during contrived problem-solving tasks. Some tasks involved using items such as sticks, boxes, and ropes to access food that was out of reach. The chimps attempted to obtain the food in various ways, using mostly trial-and-error methodology. Köhler noted that the chimpanzees appeared to survey the scene, think of a possible solution to the problem, and then act upon it. It seemed to Köhler that the chimpanzees suddenly came upon solutions, evidence for the chimpanzees doing the trial-and-error learning in their minds rather than outwardly, which Köhler believed was suggestive of insight learning.
Köhler and colleagues believed that the mind perceives things in the most organized and simplistic way possible. Along with fellow theorists such as Kurt Koffka and Max Wertheimer, Köhler believed that the whole of a system could be greater than the sum of its parts. With this theory, they created a new branch of psychology known as Gestalt psychology. Although Max Wertheimer is usually attributed with being the founder of Gestalt psychology, some people also credit Köhler; however, the theory itself dates back to Christian von Ehrenfels’ Über Gestaltqualitäten (1890). The word Gestalt is of German origin and literally means pattern or organized whole.
After leaving Tenerife in 1920, Köhler became director of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Berlin. He was a visiting professor at Clark University (1925-1926), a William James lecturer at Harvard University (1934-1935), and a visiting professor at the University of Chicago (1935). By 1935, there was mounting pressure and social change from the Nazi regime that eventually affected the University of Berlin. Köhler publicly criticized Nazism, and his clinic was raided twice by Nazi supporters; as a result, Köhler decided to accept a research professorship at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed until 1958. Köhler remained an active researcher and lecturer for the remainder of his life. On June 11,1976, at the age of 80, Köhler passed away at his home in Enfield, New Hampshire.
- Ash, M. G. (1995). Gestalt psychology in German culture, 1890-1967. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Ellis, W. D. (1974). A source book of Gestalt psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Henle, M. (1971). The selected papers of Wolfgang Köhler. New York: Liveright Publishing.
- Köhler, W. (1925). The mentality of apes. Trowbridge, UK: Redwood Press.
- Köhler, W. (1969). The task of Gestalt psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Köhler, W. (1992). Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. New York: Liveright Publishing.
- Murray, D. J. (1995). Gestalt psychology and the cognitive revolution. New York: Wheatsheaf Books.