Oswald Külpe (1862-1915)

Külpe was born in Latvia, then part of Imperial Russia, but his family’s language and traditions were German. He matriculated at the University of Leipzig in order to study history but after meeting Wundt developed an interest in psychology as well. It took him a while to finally select psychology as his life’s work. He studied history and psychology at several other universities before returning to Leipzig to complete his PhD under Wundt. During his time away he also studied psychology under G. E. Müller at Göttingen. Külpe remained at Leipzig for eight years and became Wundt’s second assistant (after James McKeen Cattell). Unlike Wundt, he became an adherent of positivism. Titchener, a student at Leipzig at the time, shared that interest. Slowly, Külpe began to form his own ideas about psychology. Influenced by Ebbinghaus’ research on memory, he began to wonder if thinking itself might be accessible to introspective research. Wundt, however, believed that thinking and memory were beyond the reach of experimental psychology and were topics only accessible through his own völkerpsychologie. Külpe was called to Würzburg shortly thereafter; it was there that he and his faculty began to investigate the psychology of thought.

In the early years of the 20th century the psychologists at Würzburg developed an interest in what people were thinking about while they introspected. More precisely, they were interested in what happened in between the presentation of a stimulus and the formation of introspectable mental content. The answer surprised them. They discovered that subjects could introspect reliably but they could not say how or why they did so. Their first experiments were timed word associations where the stimulus might be the word “fire.” Subjects were asked to say the first thing that entered their minds (e.g., “house”) but then were asked why they had completed the word association in that way they could not say why they had given the answer they had. The Würzburg researchers believed they had discovered that introspectively unknowable thoughts existed. Eventually, they called these “imageless thoughts.” Later research by Narziss Ach provided even stronger support for imageless thinking. Ach discovered what he called in German the einstellung or determining tendency. In modern psychology that concept is known as set.

Take a look at the examples below:

Complete the following simple sums:

5 + 4 =

7 + 2 =

4 + 3 =

6 + 2 =

8 + 2 =

What number are you now thinking of when you see:

5 2

You should have said “7” when you saw the 5 and 2 next to each other.

But suppose someone else saw this box instead:

Complete the following simple subtractions:

5 - 4 =

7 - 2 =

4 - 3 =

6 - 2 =

8 - 2 =

What number are you thinking of when you see:

5 2

What do you think they would say? Most likely they would say “3.”

What if the numbers in the box were multiplied?

Then the “correct” answer would be “10.”

Of course, there is no correct answer. Ach argued that the preconditions to the problem, the operands (+, -, or x) caused subjects to either add, subtract, or multiply the next pair of numbers presented. Furthermore, the subject could not say why they had done so. Ach called his technique “systematic self observation” and claimed that it demonstrated imageless thought.

Karl Bühler developed further techniques asking questions such as: “Was the theorem of Pythagoras known in the Middle Ages?” When he posed questions like that to the graduate students and professors who served as subjects they could not introspectively account for all of their thinking. They reported some aspects of their thinking as having no sensory properties but, nevertheless, still being in consciousness as a kind of vague awareness.

Wundt and Titchener were profoundly opposed to the idea of imageless thought. Wundt saw it as a case of poorly conducted experimentation while Titchener saw it as a classic example of the stimulus error. The main issue, however, was not imageless thought as it was introspection itself.

The premise of the new science of psychology had been that contents of the mind were analyzable through introspection. The imageless thought controversy, as it came to be called, called that assumption into question. If psychology was to be a science it must have a method that all of its practitioners could agree upon. The imageless thought controversy caused them to doubt each other’s data. Angell (1911, p. 322) demonstrates the depth of the controversy when he wrote:

I find the doctrine of imageless thought open to suspicion on the following points:...the method...is at least not wholly satisfactory in meeting the demands of ordinary experimental procedure...imageless thought seems...to be a sporadic and occasional phenomenon...it seems almost impossible to describe it, save in negative terms

The controversy itself died down after Külpe moved to the University of Bonn and then to the University of Munich. Despite their intellectual disputes, Külpe and Wundt remained on friendly terms personally. The “Würzburg school” of psychology faded away but the problems it had brought up did not.

Thomas (2010, n.p.) sums it up nicely, “The irresolvable dispute contributed significantly to a growing sense of intellectual crisis within psychology, leading to a deep loss of confidence in the scientific value of introspection.” It took some time, however, before psychologists completely dispensed with introspection. It’s time to see how psychology crossed the Atlantic and took root in the United States. The path psychology took there was markedly different than its European parent.

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