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Term paper on Wolfgang Kohler
Wolfgang Kohler


Learning affects an individual’s behavior through cognition in many ways. One of the most obvious ways is the acquiring of a skill. Kohler, a Gestaltist, was a believer in the value of perception and insight in terms of our cognition and how we are more than our behavior… that we actually have mental processes that govern our capacity to solve problems and make decisions in regards to learning and behavior. Kohler performed many experiments with chimpanzees to assist his theory about perception and insight. Although, we cannot confine our learning to solely abiding in Kohler’s theory, he was still able to allow room for the reflective places in cognition and how we go about using these tools.


Learning is defined in Compton’s Online Encyclopedia as “the lifelong process of acquiring skills, information, and knowledge.” Many scientists now define learning as the organization of behavior based on experiences. There are many other definitions of learning because there are many other theories about how humans and other animals learn. But, all learning involves an interaction between an individual’s brain, and the rest of the nervous system, and the environment…the surrounding world. Some theorists insist that learning takes place by organizing one’s perceptions in certain useful ways. In a famous demonstration of learning by insight, the German-American psychologist, Wolfgang Kohler, showed that chimpanzees fit several sticks together in a makeshift pole to obtain food that was otherwise out of reach. Their behavior suggested a sudden understanding of how to solve the problem rather than achieving their goal by trial and error. This is an example of the cognition theory of learning…that is, learning by perceiving and using insight or knowledge.

Wolfgang Kohler was born in Reval, Estonia, as the son of German parents. When he was six, the family moved to Germany and settled in Wolfenbuttell. Kohler attended the universities of Tubingen, Bonn and Berlin, receiving his PhD in 1909. In the same year, he started to work at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt-am-Main. There he met Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, with whom he lay foundations of the Gestalt psychology. It was born as a reaction to the behavioristic theories of Watson and Pavlov and focused mainly on the nature of perception. In 1913, Kohler became director of the Anthropoid Station of the Prussian Academy of Sciences on the Island of Teneriffe. He remained there through WWI and started to work on The Mentality of Apes. After his return to Germany, Kohler became director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. He founded with his colleagues discussion forum about Gestalt Psychology. Because of the Nazi interference with his work, Kohler immigrated to the United States in 1935 (Lefrancois 2000). He continued to write books in the United States, engaging in fierce battles with behaviorists such as Hull and Watson. He was awarded the scientific contribution award by the American Psychological Association and served as president of that association. From 1958 until his death, he was research professor of psychology at Dartmouth College. Kohler died on June 11, 1967 in New Hampshire.

His contributions to Gestalt theory are widely acknowledged. The German word “Gestalt” usually means shape or form, but Kohler gave it new dimensions: “In the German language—at least since the time of Goethe, and especially in his own papers on natural science, the noun “gestalt” has two meanings: besides the connotation of shape or form as a property of things, it has the meaning of a concrete individual and characteristic entity, existing as something detached and having a shape or form as one of its attributes. Following this tradition, in gestalt theory the word “gestalt” means any segregated whole” (on-line). The key argument to Kohler is that the nature of the parts is determined by, and secondary to, the whole. Kohler underlined that one must examine the whole to discover what its natural parts are …what it consists of..its very makeup.

Here we can begin to apply the concept of insight and perception. What is insight? In the strict sense of the word, it refers to the fact that, when we are aware of a relation, of any relation, this relation is not experienced as fact by itself, but rather as something that follows from the characteristics of the objects under consideration (on-line). Now, when primates try to solve a problem, their behavior often shows that they are aware of a certain important relation. But when they now make use of this “insight” and thus solve their problem, their perceptions begin to change.

While marooned in the Canary Islands of the first World War, Kohler had access to a large outdoor pen and nine chimpanzees of various ages. The pen, described by Kohler as a playground, was provided with a variety of objects including boxes, poles, and sticks, with which the primates could experiment. Kohler constructed a variety of problems for the chimps, each of which involved obtaining food that was not directly accessible. In the simplest task, food was put on the other side of a barrier. Dogs and cats in previous experiments had faced the barrier in order to reach the food, rather than moving away from the goal to circumvent the barrier. The chimps, however, presented with an apparently analogous situation, set off immediately on an opposing and rewarding route to the food. In a typical sequence, a chimp jumps fruitlessly at bananas that have been hung out of reach. Usually, after a period of unsuccessful jumping, the chimp apparently becomes angry or frustrated, walks away in seeming disgust, pauses, then looks at the food in what might be a more reflective way, then at the toys in the enclosure, then back at the food, and then at the toys again. Finally, the animal begins to use the toys to get at the food (Gould, 1971).

The details of the chimps’ solutions to Kohler’s food-gathering puzzle varied. The theme common to each of these attempts is that, to all appearances, the chimps were solving the problem by a kind of cognitive trial and error, as if they were reflecting in their minds before manipulating the tools. These indications seem to point to insight and planning the very crux of Gestalt theory.

Intelligence is questionable, however. Two sets of interests lead us to test the intelligence of the higher apes. We are aware that it is a question of beings which in many ways are near to man. These beings show so many human traits in their “everyday” behavior that the question naturally arises whether they do not behave with intelligence and insight under conditions which require such behaviors (Kohler, 1925).

These proposed experiments by Kohler have made significant contributions to the world of Gestalt Psychology. Perhaps he gave us a means of questioning the possibilities involving animal cognition as well as human cognition, and our capabilities of insight and perception and how those two characteristics dramatically change the way we see our world.



Compton’s Encyclopedia On-line. Retrieved March 22, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.optonline.com/comptons

LeFrancois, Guy R. (2000). Theories of Human Learning, What the Old Man Said (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Psychology Links. Retrieved March 23, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kirjastosci.fi

Gould, C. G. (1971). The Animal Mind. Tucson, AZ: Pritchard Print.

Kohler, Wolfgang (1925). The Mentality of Apes. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
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