Oswald Külpe

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Oswald Külpe
Born August 3, 1862
Kandau, Courland
Died December 30, 1915
Nationality Baltic German
Fields Psychologist
Doctoral advisor Wilhelm Wundt

Oswald Külpe (German: [ˈkylpə]; August 3, 1862 – December 30, 1915) was one of the structural psychologists of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Early life[edit]

In August 1862, Oswald Külpe was born in Kandau, Courland, one of the Baltic providences of Russia. He never married and lived with two of his cousins for the vast majority of his life. Throughout the years he devoted an immense amount of his time to his work.[1] He learned Russian during his training at the Gymnasium at Libau, where he graduated in 1879. In 1881 he enrolled in the University of Leipzig. He focused his studies mostly on history, however he attended the lectures of Wilhem Wundt. In these he became familiar with the blossoming field of psychology, the area upon which his life work eventually would be focused.[2]

From 1881 to 1887 Külpe studied first at the University at Leipzig, then at the University of Berlin, followed by a year and a half at the University of Göttingen under G.E. Müller. In 1887 Külpe returned to the University of Leipzig, where he was awarded his Ph.D under Wundt.[3] Though Külpe and Wundt differed on matters of principle, Külpe regarded Wundt highly and published three tributes to him.[2] Külpe helped run the laboratory at Leipzig until 1894 when he received an appointment at the University of Würzburg.[3]

Laboratory at Würzburg[edit]

By 1896 Külpe had founded a laboratory at the University of Würzburg and remained there for fifteen years.[3] He received a private endowment and he managed to make it one of the foremost psychological institutes second only to the University of Leipzig. At the Würzburg School, a key area of focus was the development and formation of concepts. Abstraction experiments were especially important in distinguishing relevant features of objects for individuals in differing stages of development.[4] Throughout his time at Würzburg he acted as a devoted teacher and administrator. In fact, most of his prestige comes from his dedication to his students and the hard work he directed towards his teaching duties.

Though he published many of his own personal works, Külpe never penned any of the traditional Würzburg papers. However, in many of his personal works he often anticipated notions that were later discussed by his students.[1] Külpe managed to exert his influence on the field of psychology via his students. Max Wertheimer, the founder of Gestalt psychology was undoubtedly his most famous student. However other noteworthy students include Kaspar Ach and Henry Watt, both of whom worked on the concept of mental set; Robert Morris Ogden, who played a major role in introducing Gestalt psychology to the United States; and Kurt Koffka, one of the founders of the Gestalt school.[3]

Imageless thought[edit]

Perhaps the most famous psychological contribution to come out of the Würzburg Laboratory was related to Külpe’s philosophical realism beliefs. The work focused on the idea of imageless thought, which is the belief that there is an objective significance that can be found within experiences that are not necessarily associated with specific words, symbols or signs.[3] Külpe anticipated the notion of imageless thought in his early work as evidenced in Gundriss der Psychologie. He used an experiment to demonstrate that our ability to recognize something one has seen before is unrelated to whether or not we can remember an image of it. In his demonstrative experiment he took participants into a darkened room and asked them to visualize colors as he called them out. In all situations but one participants were able to visualize the colors. The participant that was unable to visualize the colors had no cognitive deficits, which lead Külpe to his conclusion that recognition is independent of remembrance[1]

Abstraction and attention[edit]

In the early 1900s Külpe performed experiments on the concept of abstraction at the Würzburg School. Külpe defined abstraction as a process in which one focuses on certain aspects of reality while ignoring others.[1] In one famous experiment Külpe instructed participants to observe a display of numbers, letters, colors, and shapes. For example, if he told the participants beforehand to report on the numbers observed, then they were unable to describe the letters, colors, or shapes with any accuracy after the experiment. If he told participants to describe the colors, then with subsequent questioning they were unable to describe the letters, numbers, or shapes.[5] The item people could describe with the highest level of accuracy was always the item they were instructed to observe.

As a result of his experiment, Külpe determined that visual perception is determined not only by external stimulation but also by Aufgabe, which is another word for the task or directive.[2] Since he varied the Aufgabe (task) slightly in each session of the experiment, he was able to find a correlation between the range of attention and degree of consciousness. He found that the wider one’s span of attention, the lower one’s degree of consciousness is to any specific aspect, and vice versa. He concluded that there is a limited amount of energy driving attention and that this limitation is constant.[1]

Mental set[edit]

Külpe and his Würzburg associates also used his abstraction experiments to reject associationism as the elementary thinking method. For example in situations where participants were asked to provide a superordinate category, or superior group within a classification system, for birds, they were more likely to respond by saying, ‘Animal’ than a specific bird such as a ‘hummingbird.’ As a result Külpe and the students at the Würzburg laboratory concluded that behavior such as the above example could not be explained according to associationistic logic. They determined that the actual task, instead of the stimulus directs the thinking process. This mechanism became known as the mental set.[4] Specifically the mental set refers to an innate tendency to respond a certain way. Eventually the mental set was seen as a factor that could account for a large portion of the variation in the ways that people solve problems.[3]

Major works[edit]

Oswald Külpe’s books and published works cover a variety of subject matter, which impacted his interest in psychology. Examples of his publication topics include logic, aesthetics, philosophy, and epistemology. His first major book, published in 1893, was Grundriss der Psychologie. In this book he defined psychology as, “the facts of experience.” He also once wrote to a colleague that the concepts behind the book were, “ the source of the investigations in the psychology of thinking.[1]” He anticipated the idea of imageless thought in this publication. Die Realisierung, a three-volume text composed of Külpe’s lectures, was published from 1912 through 1923. In his Einleitung in die Philosophie he explored topics such as epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. This was a basic text for German university students in standard philosophy classes. The book is less than 350 pages and went through seven editions and four translations. Other notable publications include the publication of a monograph, Zur Katagorienlehre, which was presented in the year of his untimely death, 1915, before the Bavarian Academy of Science.[2] Other books by Külpe include the 1912 publication of Psychologie und Medizin and Philosophie der Gegenwart.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lindenfeld, D. "Oswald Külpe and The Würzburg School". The Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 1978
  2. ^ a b c d Ogden, R.M." Oswald Külpe and the Würzburg School". The American Journal of Psychology. 1951
  3. ^ a b c d e f King, D.B., Viney, W., and Woody, W. D. "A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context." Pearson Education. 2009. pg. 262-263.
  4. ^ a b Eling, P., Derckx, K., & Maes, R. "On the historical and conceptual background of the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test". Brain and Cognition. 2008
  5. ^ Pratt, C. C. "The Stability of Aesthetic Judgments". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 1956

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