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Institute of Psychology

A short summary about the history of the psychological institute

Founding years with Oswald Külpe

Already in 1896, the Institute for Psychology of the University of Würzburg was founded by Oswald Külpe, two years after he had accepted a call for a professorship in philosophy and aesthetics. During the founding years he was supported to a great extent by Karl Marbe who moved from the University of Bonn to Würzburg due to his friendship with Külpe. In Würzburg he habilitated and became a private docent. It was Marbe, together with his doctoral students August Mayer and Johannes Orth, who initiated and published the first experiments in Denkpsychologie (psychology of thought) which later became famous as part of the Würzburg School. When Marbe accepted a call from the Academy of Commercial and Social Sciences in Frankfurt in 1905 (where he later established the still remaining psychological institute of the University of Frankfurt), Külpe proceeded his studies on the psychology of thinking together with his assistant Karl Bühler. An open dispute between young Bühler and the 75-years old Wilhelm Wundt caused a rising publicity of the Würzburg School – a term that was used for the first time by Albert Michotte in 1907. However, the psychology of the Würzburg School was not set to the school’s location in Würzburg and was continued by Külpe even after his appointment to the University of Bonn in 1909. This also explains why Otto Selz counts to the Würzburg School although he had never worked at Würzburg University. Next to Karl Bühler and Otto Selz, several important psychologists had been practicing in Würzburg, such as Narziß Ach, Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, Henry Jackson Watt, Richard Pauli, Albert Michotte and even Charles Spearman.

In his last year of his life, Külpe held and published a speech about “the ethic and the war” (1915). Taking nowadays standards into account, this speech may raise the question whether it is still appropriate to designate awards and streets with Külpe’s name. Therefore, in 2020 the Institute of Psychology convened an interdisciplinary Commission to address this question.

The Commission has studied Külpe's work about the ethics and the war in detail. In Külpe's explanations, the Commission sees the attempt, typical of the time, to make a general assessment of acts of war in a philosophical-historical context. From today's perspective, not all of his statements can be accepted, especially with regard to his legitimation of war based in part on Social Darwinism. Nevertheless, Külpe is in contrast to many polemics by intellectuals of all war parties by warning against hatred and contemptuousness of the enemy.

In view of his very important philosophical and psychological publications and the founding of the Institute for Psychology in Würzburg, the Commission speaks against changings to the names associated with Oswald Külpe.

Marbe’s time in Würzburg

Karl Marbe returned to Würzburg as Külpe’s successor on the faculty’s special request in the winter term of 1909/10. He stayed there until he became professor emeritus in 1935, and overall he worked longer for the institute than any other member before and after him. Those days Marbe’s research interests laid mainly in applied psychology, he worked as a forensic expert for the court, published studies about advertisement and consumer psychology, developed aptitude diagnostics for dentists, gave high attention to industrial accidents and conducted research on industrial product design, such as discussing the question whether customers prefer lathering or non-lathering toothpaste. Through his work, Marbe successfully established a center for applied psychology in Würzburg. However, he did also work on theoretical sciences and developed an extensive theory on uniformity, which explained suggestion, mind reading and crowd psychology phenomena. 

The institute during the NS-period under Jesinghaus

When Marbe had to retire in 1935, the recently from Argentina returned former doctoral student of Wilhelm Wundt and Ernst Meumann, Carl Jesinghaus, took over the chair. This happened against the Faculty’s will but due to pressure from the “Reichsleitung” (government) of the NSDAP. Jesinghaus succeeded in maintaining research work at the institute which was in danger of being shut down when the war began. During his ten years in Würzburg, he never published any work and was finally discharged by the military government in 1945.


The build-up period after the war under Kafka and Arnold

After the war there first was no institute left as nearly the whole city of Wuerzburg was destroyed during a devastating air raid on 16 March 1945. It was Gustav Kafka who built-up the psychological institute under most difficult circumstances. Until his death in 1953, he successfully re-established the institute. Beyond that, he became known as re-founder of the German Psychological Society (DGPs) after World War II, together with Johannes Allesch.

Wilhelm Arnold who had worked at the federal employment agency in Nuremberg took over Kafka’s position after his death. In some parts, he resumed Marbes research work and under his supervision the institute became a firm component of the University of Würzburg. Arnold’s position as president of the university from 1964 until 1966 surely didn’t harm the institute’s progress to its today’s importance. 

The still ongoing expansion phase

From Arnold’s time in Würzburg on, the institute’s expansion and differentiation began. First, Ludwig Pongratz filled the position as head of chair II, followed closely by Otto Heller who accepted a call for chair III and this way lightened the work load from chair I and II occupying the fields of General Psychology and methodology. Heller’s main research focus laid on frame of reference research, on psycho-acoustics and on the psychological diagnosis of hearing impairment in later years. In 1982, the same chair was additionally supported by a professorship in methodology, with Hans-Peter Krüger as successful researcher within the field of traffic psychology. 

In the same year, Wilhelm Janke became Arnold’s successor. Amongst other achievements, he successfully established a research focus for pharmacological psychology in Würzburg. Only one year after his call, he expanded chair I with a professorship for Differential Psychology filled by Wilfried Hommers who made important contributions to the field of forensic psychology. Further differentiation was achieved through the nomination of Heiner Ellgring in 1991 who was in charge of the students’ education in intervention psychology. 

Considering the foundation of the Paedagogische Hochschule (Higher education institution for pedagogy) in Würzburg 1972, chair IV presents an even longer tradition: It was established early in 1959 first ran by Wilhelm Salber and later by Ludwig Pongratz. From 1969 on, Heinz Alfred Müller was in charge of this chair. It became incorporated into the faculty of educational studies in 1972 and became part of the university in 1977. In 1989, Wolfgang Schneider accepted a call for the chair and he became its representative until 1991 when he was finally announced full professor. Schneider’s research foci were memory, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. He has further done pioneering work in the diagnosis and promotion of highly talented people by introducing the Fruehstudium at the University of Wuerzburg, that is, allowing young people to attend lectures before their high school graduation. In 1994, the chair was supported through a professorship in Developmental Psychology, which was first filled with Beate Sodian. 

In a similar way Joachim Hoffmann did become a new representative for Cognitive Psychology as successor of Otto Heller in 1994. Thanks to his work, a very successful research group with a focus on cognitive aspects of human behavior arose in Würzburg.

When Pongratz became emeritus professor in 1982, it was difficult to find someone to fill his position. It was not until Fritz Strack became full professor in 1995 that the research work at the chair for Social Psychology gained international recognition. 

This expansion and differentiation period of the Würzburg institute for psychology still continues and is concomitant with a continuous growth in research, publications, externally funded projects, and last but not least students. Today, just like decades ago, the institute for psychology counts among the most acknowledged departments in Germany. 

literature recommendation: 

W. Janke & W. Schneider (1999). Hundert Jahre Institut für Psychologie und Würzburger Schule der Denkpsychologie. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

W. Schneider & A. Stock (2020). Würzburg – Die Entwicklung des Instituts für Psychologie der Universität Würzburg seit dem späten 19. Jahrhundert. In: Armin Stock & Wolfgang Schneider (Hrsg.). Die ersten Institute für Psychologie im deutschsprachigen Raum. Göttingen: Hogrefe