Kurt Koffka

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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.


  • The general aim of my book has been but to point out a way in which a solution of these numerous problems (behavior and development) can be attained. The nature of mental development as it has been revealed to us is not the bringing together of separate elements, but the arousal and perfection of more and more complicated configurations in which both the phenomena of consciousness and the functions of the organism go hand in hand.
    • Kurt Koffka. Growth of the Mind. An Introduction to Child Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1924. p. 388 (2013 edition)
  • To apply the category of cause and effect means to find out which parts of nature stand in this relation. Similarly, to apply the gestalt category means to find out which parts of nature belong as parts to functional wholes, to discover their position in these wholes, their degree of relative independence, and the articulation of larger wholes into sub-wholes.
    • Kurt Koffka (1931), self-cited in: Kurt Koffka. Principles of Gestalt Psychology, 1935, p. 22

Principles of Gestalt Psychology, 1935[edit]

Kurt Koffka. Principles of Gestalt Psychology, 1935; 1955, 1999, 2001

  • Conduct, of course, is possible without science. Humans carried on in their daily affairs long before the first spark of science had been struck. And today there are millions of people living whose actions are not determined by anything we call science. Science, however, could not but gain an increasing influence on human behaviour. To describe this influence roughly and briefly will throw a new light on science. Exaggerating and schematizing the differences, we can say: in the prescientific stage man behaves in a situation as the situation tells him to behave. To primitive man each thing says what it is and what he ought to do with it: a fruit says, "Eat me"; water says, "Drink me"; thunder says, "Fear me," and woman says, "Love me."
    • p. 7
  • We have discussed quantity, order and meaning with regard to their contributions to science in general and to psychology in particular. We extracted each of our categories from a different science, but we claimed that despite their different origins, they are all universally applicable. And as a matter of fact, in our treatment of the issues involved in each of our three categories we have found the same general principle: to integrate quantity and quality, mechanism and vitalism, explanation and comprehension or understanding, we had to abandon the treatment of a number of separate facts for the consideration of a group of facts in their specific form of connection. Only thus could quantity be qualitative, and order and meaning be saved from being either introduced into the system of science as new entities, the privileges of life and mind, or discarded as mere figments.
Do we then claim that all facts are contained in such interconnected groups or units that each quantification is a description of true quality, each complex and sequence of events orderly and meaningful? In short, do we claim that the universe and all events in it form one big gestalt?
  • p. 21-22
  • Psychology is a very unsatisfactory science. Comparing the vast body of systematised and recognised facts in physics with those in psychology one will doubt the advisability of teaching the latter to anybody who does not intend to become a professional psychologist, one might even doubt the advisability of training professional psychologists. But when one considers the potential contribution which psychology can make to our understanding of the universe, one's attitude may be changed. Science becomes easily divorced from life. The mathematician needs an escape from the thin air of his abstractions, beautiful as they are; the physicist wants to revel in sounds that are soft, mellow, and melodious, that seem to reveal mysteries which are hidden under the curtain of waves and atoms and mathematical equations; and even the biologist likes to enjoy the antics of his dog on Sundays unhampered by his weekday conviction that in reality they - are but chains of machine-like reflexes
  • Things look as they do because of the field organization to which the proximal stimulus distribution gives rise. This answer is final and can be so only because it contains the whole problem of organization itself.
    • p. 98
  • Even these humble objects reveal that our reality is not a mere collocation of elemental facts, but consists of units in which no part exists by itself, where each part points beyond itself and implies a larger whole. Facts and significance cease to be two concepts belonging to different realms, since a fact is always a fact in an intrinsically coherent whole. We could solve no problem of organization by solving it for each point separately, one after the other; the solution had to come for the whole. Thus we see how the problem of significance is closely bound up with the problem of the relation between the whole and its parts. It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.
    • p. 176
  • Why We See Things and Not the Holes Between Them. We can now attempt an answer to the question why we do so. Two of the factors of organization which we have so far discussed seem to me to be the most important causes of this effect. In the first place, the segregation and unification which occurs will separate areas of different degrees of internal articulation, and according to our law, the more highly articulated ones will become figures, the rest fusing together to form the ground. Look at any landscape photograph. You see the shape of the things, the mountains, and trees and buildings, but not of the sky.
    • p. 208-9
  • The second factor, equally important, is that of good continuation and good shape. The things which we see have a better shape, are bounded by better contours, than the holes which we might see but do not. Therefore, when in exceptional circumstances these conditions are reversed, we see the hole and not the things, as the shape of a gap between two projecting rocks with sharp profiles, which may look like a face, an animal, or some other object, while the shape of the rock disappears.
    • p. 209
  • A complete theory would have to answer, among others, the following questions, given two adjoining retinal areas of different stimulation, under what conditions will the corresponding parts of the behavioural (perceptual) field appear of different whiteness but equal brightness (or "illumination"), when of different brightness but equal whiteness? A complete answer to this question would probably supply the key to the complete theory of colour perception in the broadest sense.
    • p. 260
  • In our theory the total field of excitation is divided into two major sub-systems, each containing numerous sub-systems of its own: the Ego and the environment. And the trace field which is created by the excitation field contains the same dichotomous organization.
    • p. 520-521
  • If an environmental trace is in close connection with the Ego system it will not only be in communication with the particular time structure of that system with which it communicated at the time of its formation; but because of the coherence of the whole temporal Ego system it will be in communication with later strata also.
    • p. 522

Quotes about Kurt Koffka[edit]

  • In his major work, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Koffka (1935) devoted over 60 pages to the hypothesized role of ego in memory... Koffka distinguished between self and ego, the former being defined as a central subsystem of ego, but his analysis of memory was given in terms of the broader system, ego.

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