Kurt Koffka

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Kurt Koffka
Born March 18, 1886 (1886-03-18)
Berlin, German Empire
Died November 22, 1941 (1941-11-23) (aged 55)
Northampton, Massachusetts
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Main interests
Social psychology
Gestalt psychology

Kurt Koffka (March 18, 1886 – November 22, 1941) was a German psychologist. He was born and educated in Berlin. Along with Max Wertheimer and his close associates Wolfgang Kohler they established Gestalt psychology. Koffka’s interests were wide-ranging, and they included: Perception, hearing impairments in brain-damaged patients,[1] interpretation, learning, and the extension of Gestalt theory to developmental psychology.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Kurt Koffka was born on March 18, 1886 in Berlin. His father Emil Koffka was a lawyer and royal Councilor of Law.[2] His mother Luis Levy was of Jewish descent but listed herself as Protestant.[2] Koffka’s younger brother Friedrich later became a judge.[2] In 1909, Koffka married Mira Klein, who was an experimental subject in his dissertation research. In the space of one year, 1923, he divorced Klein, married Elisabeth Ahlgrimm who had recently finished her Ph.D at Giessen, then divorced Ahlgrimm and remarried Klein.[1][3] He then redivorced Klein again in 1928 and remarried Ahlgrimm in the same year.[3]

Academic career[edit]

Early in Koffka’s life, his uncle, a biologist whose interests were in the fields of Philosophy and Science helped to educate him.[1] He learned how to speak English from an English governess and from 1892 to 1903[4] was educated at the Wilhelms-Gymnasium, considered one of the best-known schools in the city.[1] He spent the year 1903-1904 at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland[4] where he developed a strong fluency in English.[1] From 1904-1907 Koffka was enrolled in the University of Berlin as a psychology student and earned his PhD there in 1909 as a student of Carl Stumpf. His thesis was entitled Experimental Untersuchungen zur Lehre vom Rhythmus (1909; Experimental Investigations of Rhythm).[5]

Koffka's skill in English later served him well in his efforts to spread Gestalt psychology beyond German borders and familiarizing himself with British psychology. Koffka was already working at the University of Frankfurt when Max Wertheimer arrived in 1910 and invited Koffka to participate as a subject in his research on the Phi phenomenon.[1]

In 1911 Koffka moved to the University of Giessen and in 1914 became Privatdozent.[4] During the First World War, he worked for the military in a position that later lead him to a professorship[1] in Experimental psychology.[6] In 1924 Koffka travelled to the United States, where he was a visiting professor at the Cornell University from 1924 to 1925, and two years later at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

In 1927, he accepted a position at the Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, which he retained until his death in 1941 from Coronary thrombosis[1] In 1932 he made an expedition to Uzbekistan during which he was ill with what was eventually diagnosed as relapsing fever.[4] He spent the year 1939-1940 visiting Sir Hugh Cairns at the Nuffield Institute in Oxford.[4]

Contributions to psychology[edit]

In the early 20th century, Koffka worked with Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer as a representative of the gestalt movement. He helped to establish the theories that gave rise to the school of Gestalt psychology. He is known today as the chief spokesperson of Gestalt psychology.[5]

In 1913, Koffka began editing a series of publications entitled Beiträge zur Psychologic der Gestalt (Contributions to the Psychology of the Gestalt). American psychologists were exposed to Gestalt psychology in 1922 in his article entitled: Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie, which appeared in the Psychological Bulletin. One of Koffka’s major contributions was The Growth of the Mind in 1921. Koffka wanted to provide some sort of evidence supporting Gestalt psychology to the field of developmental psychology. This book was later translated into English in 1928. Fourteen years later in 1935 he wrote: Principles of Gestalt Psychology. This book helped members of the Gestalt group and their students bring their Gestalt point of views together. It is also most notable for topics such as, Perception, Learning, and Memory.

Koffka believed that most of early learning is what he referred to as, "sensorimotor learning," which is a type of learning which occurs after a consequence. For example, a child who touches a hot stove will learn not to touch it again. Koffka also believed that a lot of learning occurs by imitation, though he argued that it is not important to understand how imitation works, but rather to acknowledge that it is a natural occurrence. According to Koffka, the highest type of learning is ideational learning, which makes use of language. Koffka notes that an important time in children's development is when they understand that objects have names.[7]


  • (1921) Die grundlagen der psychischen entwicklung.Osterwieck am Harz, A. W. Zickfeldt
  • (1922) Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt Theorie.
  • (1924) Growth of the Mind
  • (1935) Principles of Gestalt Psychology

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i [1], Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed. Gale Group, 2001.
  2. ^ a b c [2].
  3. ^ a b "Kurt Koffka". "American National Biography Online. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ a b c d e Kurt Koffka: an unwitting self-portrait. 
  5. ^ a b [3],
  6. ^ Berlin School of experimental psychology.
  7. ^ A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context. King, Viney, and Woody, 2009.


1. Koffka, Kurt. Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed. Gale Group, 2001. [4]

2. History of Psychology: Ideas and Context. King, Viney, and Woody, 2009.

3. Kurt Koffka Kurt Koffka-Cofounds Gestalt psychology, Applies Gestalt principles to child development

4. Koffka, Kurt. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968.[5]

5. Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Ash, G. Mitchell, 1998 [6]

External links[edit]