Memoir Wolfgang Köhler

(Text: K. Jensen)

“We wished to ascertain the degree of relationship between anthropoid apes and man in a field which seems to us particularly important, but on which we have as yet little information.” (Köhler, 1925, p. 1)

The work for which Wolfgang Köhler is most likely to be remembered, and for which the Primate Research Centre is a tribute, was on the mental abilities of apes.

Wolfgang Koehler

Köhler was born in Reval, Estonia on January 21, 1887. His family moved to Germany when he was six years old, and he was raised in Wolfenbüttel. Köhler attended university in Tübingen, Bonn as well as Berlin. In Berlin, he did his PhD research on psycho-acoustics, and studied under the likes of Max Planck (physics) and Karl Stumpf (psychology).

After completing his PhD, Köhler worked at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he met Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka. Together, they formed a new branch of psychology called Gestalt. They opposed the structuralist view and argued that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. While generally thought of in relation to perception (e.g., figure-ground illusion and phi phenomena), the ideas of Gestalt had applications in other areas of psychology.

After WW I, Köhler became the director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. He also worked at the American universities of Clark, Harvard and Chicago. As an outspoken critic of the National Socialist Party in Germany, he felt compelled to move permanently to American where he worked at Swarthmore College, Princeton, then Dartmouth College. In 1956 he was the President of the APA. He died on June 11, 1967.

Koehler study

It was during WW I that Köhler produced his most enduring work. He took what must have seemed an unusual approach to the study of the Gestalt phenomenon when he became the director of the Anthropoid Station of the Prussian Academy of Science in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. From 1913-1917 he studied nine Chimpanzees. Back then, Apes were not typical subjects for psychological research. Psychology, a very young discipline at the time, had turned to dogs (Pavlov) and cats (Thorndike) and would later, when not looking at humans, become enamoured with pigeons and rats. Ethologists, while interested in apes, wanted to understand animals in their own right. Köhler was one of the pioneering psychologists (along with R. M. Yerkes) who took the ideas of Darwin – that humans are part of the continuity of life – and examined our closest living relative for clues to understand human – as well as animal – mental processes.

His two chief goals for this work on Chimpanzees was to find out in what ways humans and apes were similar and to find out how humans differed.

“Even assuming the anthropoid ape behaves intelligently in the sense in which the word is applied to man, there is yet from the very start no doubt that he remains in this respect far behind man, becoming perplexed and making mistakes in relatively simple situations; but it is precisely for this reason that we may, under the simplest conditions, gain knowledge of the nature of intelligent acts.” (Köhler, 1925, p.1)

Koehler study

The psychological phenomenon that most interested Köhler was insight or intelligence (“Einsicht”). Contrary to Thorndike and Pavlov who stated that learning by association (e.g., trial-and-error) was the only way animals could solve problems, Köhler believed that Chimpanzees could find solutions to problems that were “…complete whole which may, in a certain sense, be absolutely appropriate to the situation.” The work of Thorndike and Watson, which in effect showed the learning process – and animals – to be dumb, was a reaction to overly generous interpretations of the problem-solving abilities of animals by naturalists at that time. Köhler’s work was in turn a reaction to the associationists’ dumbing-down of animals and mental processes. He applied the experimental method to the questions of animal intelligence; unlike the behaviourists to follow, he provided naturalistic problems for the animals to solve.

Koehler study

Köhler’s most well-known work on chimp cognition was in the use of tools to gain access to food. A chimp would have to stack boxes to reach a banana that was suspended out of reach, or insert a narrow stick into a thicker one to produce a tool long enough to reach food. While Köhler’s star chimp, Sultan, did not immediately put two shorter sticks together to make one long one, he worked on the sticks for over an hour. When they had fitted together, Sultan immediately used the new tool to retrieve the bananas. This solution demonstrates insight – recognizing the “problem space” – rather than foresight.

Köhler’s work on apes was published as "Intelligenzenprüfungen an Anthropoiden" in 1917. The English version, "The Mentality of Apes" was published in 1925. This work was revolutionary although it was ignored for decades under the behaviourist tradition. With the new cognitive revolution, the mental capabilities of animals and their relationship to those of humans are again being compared. His contribution to psychology – comparative psychology in particular – has not been forgotten.


The ape cognition research facility in Leipzig was named after Köhler in honour of his contributions.

quote from Intelligenzprüfungen an Menschenaffen, 1921

portrait from The selected papers of Wolfgang Köhler, Wolfgang Köhler in 1957

chimpanzee images from: Wolgang Köhler: The Mentality of Apes 1926 Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., New York