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Kurt Koffka

Cofounds Gestalt psychology, Applies Gestalt principles to child development

German-American experimental psychologist and a founder of the Gestalt movement.

Working with Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka helped establish the theories of Gestalt psychology. It was Koffka who promoted this new psychology in Europe and introduced it to the United States. He was responsible for systematizing Gestalt psychology into a coherent body of theories. He extended Gestalt theories to developmental psychology, and his ideas about perception, interpretation, and learning influenced American educational theories and policies.

The son of Emil Koffka, a lawyer and royal councilor of law, and Luise Levi (or Levy), Koffka was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1886. His early education was in the hands of an English-speaking governess, and his mother's brother, a biologist, fostered his early interests in philosophy and science. After attending the Wilhelms Gymnasium and passing his exams, Koffka studied at the University of Berlin with the philosopher Alois Riehl. In 1904-1905, Koffka studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, improving his English and becoming acquainted with British scientists and scholars. Upon returning to Berlin, he changed his studies from philosophy to psychology.

Koffka's first published research, an examination of his own color blindness, was carried out in the physiology laboratory of Wilibald Nagel. Koffka completed his doctoral research at Berlin, on the perception of musical and visual rhythms, under Carl Stumpf, one of the major experimental psychologists of the time.

Cofounds Gestalt psychology

Koffka moved to the University of Freiburg in 1909, as assistant to the physiologist Johannes von Kries, a professor on the medical faculty. Shortly thereafter, he became an assistant to Oswald Külpe and Karl Marbe at the University of Würzburg, a major center of experimental psychology. That same year, Koffka married Mira Klein, who had been an experimental subject for his doctoral research. It was Koffka's next move, in 1910, that was to prove the most fateful for his career. Koffka and Köhler both went to work as assistants to Friedrich Schumann at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt am Main. They shared a laboratory with Wertheimer, who was studying the perception of motion. Soon, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler were establishing the theoretical and experimental basis of Gestalt psychology. Their new approach rejected the mechanistic psychology of the nineteenth century, which had attempted to reduce experience and perception into smaller components or sensations. Instead, they favored a holistic approach to perception. Wertheimer had studied with the phenomenologist Christian von Ehrenfels, and the three scientists tried to combine this philosophy with experimental methods. Koffka left to take a position as lecturer at the

Kurt Koffka (Archives of the History of American Psychology. Reproduced with permission.)

University of Giessen in 1911, where he continued his experimental research on visual perception and began new studies on memory and thinking. However he maintained his close association with Wertheimer and Köhler.

In 1914, Koffka began studying hearing impairments in brain-damaged patients, with Robert Sommer, the director of the Psychiatric Clinic at Giessen. During the First World War, he also worked for the military on localization of sound. Koffka was promoted to a professorship in experimental psychology in 1918, a position that increased his teaching responsibilities but not his salary. In 1921, when he became director of the Psychology Institute at Giessen, he was forced to raise his own funds to set up his new laboratory. Nevertheless, Koffka and his students published numerous experimental studies over the next few years, including 18 publications in the Gestalt journal founded and edited by Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka.

Applies Gestalt principles to child development

Koffka's major work extending Gestalt theory to developmental psychology was published in 1921. He maintained that infants first perceive and respond holistically. Only later are they able to perceive the individual sensations that comprise the whole. Soon, Koffka was being invited to lecture in the United States, where his ideas were well received by psychologists. In 1922, he published his first English-language paper, on Gestalt theories of perception, in Psychological Bulletin. Robert Ogden, the editor of the Bulletin, translated Koffka's work on developmental psychology, and it was published in 1924 as The Growth of the Mind: An Introduction to Child Psychology. Translated into numerous languages, this work had a major influence on theories of learning and development. In 1923, Koffka divorced his wife and married Elisabeth Ahlgrimm, who had just finished her Ph.D. at Giessen. However, they were divorced in the same year and he remarried his first wife.

Gestalt psychology was strongly opposed by the traditional psychologists of German academia, and Koffka, as the public advocate for Gestalt, encountered many obstacles to advancement in Germany. Therefore, he spent 1924-1925 as a visiting professor at Cornell University and 1926-1927 at the University of Wisconsin. In 1927, Koffka was offered a five-year appointment as the William Allan Neilson Research Professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The non-teaching position included an equipped and funded laboratory staffed with assistants. He continued his research on visual perception, and his results were published in the four-volume Smith College Studies in Psychology (1930-1933), as well as in the German Gestalt journal that he continued to edit. Koffka remained a professor of psychology at Smith until his death. In 1928, he was divorced again and he remarried his second wife, Ahlgrimm.

Koffka undertook a research expedition to Uzbekistan in 1932, with funding from the Soviet Union. However an attack of relapsing fever, an infection transmitted by lice and ticks, forced him to return home. On the way back, he began writing his classic contribution to psychology, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, published in 1935. Drawing on his lifetime of experiments, he extended Gestalt theory to many areas of psychology, including memory and learning. In his later lectures and writings, Koffka applied Gestalt principles to a wide range of political, ethical, social, and artistic subjects. In 1939, as a visiting professor at Oxford, he worked with brain-damaged patients at the Military Hospital for Head Injuries. There, he developed the widely adopted evaluation methods for such patients. Although heart disease began to restrict his activities, Koffka continued teaching at Smith until a few days before his death in 1941 from coronary thrombosis.

See also Gestalt principles of organization

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. "Koffka, Kurt." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 12, pp. 861-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Henle, Mary. "Koffka, Kurt." In Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical and Critical Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Devine, Michael Held, James Vinson, and George Walsh, pp. 298. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

Wesley, Frank. "Koffka, Kurt." In Biographical Dictionary of Psychology, edited by Noel Sheehy, Antony J. Chapman, and Wendy A. Conroy, pp. 329-30. London: Routledge, 1997.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists