Karl Bühler

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Karl Bühler (born May 27, 1879 in Meckesheim , † October 24, 1963 in Los Angeles ) was a German thought and language psychologist and language theorist . He is considered a representative of the so-called Würzburg School of Thinking Psychology, a holistic psychological approach that is related to Gestalt psychology .


Bühler was the son of the railway employee Ludwig Bühler and his wife Berta. He attended the Matthias-Grünewald-Gymnasium in Tauberbischofsheim and passed the Abitur there in 1899. In the same year, Bühler began studying medicine at the University of Freiburg . During his studies he became a member of the KDStV Arminia Freiburg im Breisgau in the CV . In Freiburg, he was in 1903 when Johannes von Kries Dr. med. PhD (“Duplicity Theory” of seeing (according to Helmholtz and von Kries)). He continued to work as an assistant and began a second degree in psychology . In 1904 he received his doctorate from Clemens Bäumker at the University of Strasbourg. phil. PhD in Psychology (Studies on Henry Home ). In 1906, Bühler worked as an assistant at the University of Freiburg at von Kries and at the same time as an assistant at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg with Oswald Külpe .

Bühler completed his habilitation in Würzburg in 1907 with the text Facts and Problems on a Psychology of Thought Processes . The text is considered fundamental for the Würzburg school and sparked a heated controversy with Wilhelm Wundt (Bühler-Wundt controversy). In 1909 Bühler moved to Bonn , where he became Oswald Külpe's assistant.

From 1913 to 1918 Bühler worked as an associate professor in Munich . From 1914 to 1918 he did military service as a doctor during the First World War in military psychology. In 1918 he became a full professor for philosophy and education at the Technical University of Dresden .

In 1922 Bühler became professor of psychology and head of the psychological institute at the University of Vienna . The Vienna Psychological Institute was founded through the efforts of the City of Vienna to reorganize the school system on the basis of the new scientific findings on the child's level of development . Karl Bühler was appointed head of the Psychological Institute in Vienna. From 1928 to 1931 he was President of the German Society for Psychology .

On March 23, 1938, Bühler was briefly imprisoned by the National Socialists and then emigrated to the USA via Oslo and London in 1940 . There he worked from 1940 to 1945 as a professor in Minnesota and from 1945 to 1955 as a professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

His wife Charlotte Bühler followed him to Vienna, where she also received a lectureship. Both taught in Vienna until they emigrated together . Charlotte Bühler, with whom he worked closely, became known in the field of youth psychology. The two had two children, Ingeborg (* 1917) and Rolf (* 1919). The latter later became professor for space travel at the University of Stuttgart.


Bühler has made significant contributions to speech, thought, and developmental psychology as well as gestalt psychology . In 1913, Bühler's work Die Gestaltwahrnehmungen appeared . In the field of developmental psychology , his 1918 work The Spiritual Development of the Child attracted attention. As a result, a Viennese school of developmental psychogy was formed . In linguistics, Bühler's language theory from 1934 is received as a classic. Karl Popper studied and did his doctorate with Karl Bühler. Alongside de Saussure , Jakobson and Chomsky, Bühler is considered one of the most important language theorists of the 20th century (classic: “Language Theory”, 1934). In particular, his methodological pluralism and his interdisciplinary and international orientation accompanied his research work, as can be followed on the basis of his work " The Crisis of Psychology " (1927).

After its first publication in 1934, the language-psychological and -philosophical, sign- theoretical work Sprachtheorie. The representation function of language has developed into a standard text in linguistics since the 1960s . In it, Bühler develops a theory of linguistics that combines empirical-psychological with philosophical , linguistic and communication-scientific questions and methods. Bühler developed his model of the basic principles that constitute language, which are a prerequisite for the academic study of language, in particular in the examination of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl .

Almost at the same time as Wittgenstein, he founded an action-theoretic conception of language that sees language as a shaped “tool”, not just as an instrument. The “ Organon model ” is known, which represents the “expression, appeal and presentation function” as fundamental, but also includes the necessary addition and abstraction from knowledge that is necessary in every communication. Based on this, innumerable variants of four-, five- and six-part communication models have been formulated. Active speaking is viewed as action and the “work of language” (the text) as a situation-resolved product of action. Bühler's analysis of the “display field” of language is innovative, based on the I-now-here-Origo. With “here” one orientates towards something in the vicinity of the speaker, with “I” speakers point to themselves, with “now” to the current speaking time. Bühler's field theory was further developed by Konrad Ehlich within the framework of “functional pragmatics”. Bühler's theory is also used in grammars such as the grammar of the German language by Zifonun / Hoffmann / Strecker and others. a. (1997) received.

The Bühler School was widely recognized in the German and Anglo-Saxon language areas. This can be seen in the many guest professorships that Karl Bühler received at various American universities over the years before he emigrated to the USA. However, after his emigration to the USA in 1938 , he was unable to establish himself properly in the scientific discourse of the USA, which was already following behaviorist currents. During this time he mainly devoted himself to questions of behavioral biology , which were only appropriately received and appreciated after his death.

His best-known student was Karl Popper , who received his doctorate from him in 1928 on the subject of "On the question of methods in thought psychology".

Development of thought psychology

The Würzburg School (1901–1909) was the actual birthplace of thought psychology . The investigation of thought processes before this time was based on philosophical ideas and their conception of thinking. Already in Aristotle (384–322 BC) a separation of the content of perception from the content of spiritual representation can be observed. The mental representations are also described as ideas that arise from connected associations.

"Associations are connections between memory contents that are related to each other according to the temporal sequence or according to the similarity, according to the contrast or according to the spatial and temporal proximity." (Spada: 1992)

The philosophy sat down very early on with the theme of thinking apart and the adoption of internal representations remained until the 19th century theme of philosophy ( Descartes , John Locke , David Hume , David Hartley ). Due to the closeness to philosophy and its argumentation of associations, the psychologists began with investigations into the conditions of formation and the properties of associations. The experimental psychology therefore first built on the philosophy and remained in their frame of thought adhere to the beginning of the Würzburg school. Here one turned away from the association-psychological framework and directed interest to people and which processes are active in thinking. The first qualitative study of associations followed, in which the subjects had to describe their thought process through self-observation. It was found that in the thought process, non-observable processes must also be effective.

Karl Bühler used the method of introspection to investigate thought processes . He came to the conclusion that the thought process or the thoughts consist almost exclusively of non-observable processes and cannot be described with a sequence of sensual ideas. The so-called aha experience and its description, that the thoughts cannot be followed, go back to Karl Bühler. His research led to a phenomenology of thought. Wilhelm Wundt strongly criticized the method of untrained introspection and the questioning method according to Bühler, which led to the "Wundt-Bühler controversy". According to today's view, this criticism was justified (Massen & Bredenkamp, ​​2005).

Further research broke away more and more from philosophical associative ideas and focused on the process of solving problems. Here the individual moved more and more into the center and is recognized as an independently thinking individual. Gestalt psychology had a decisive influence on the psychological considerations and research of thought psychology and its search for the thought processes in solving problems and tasks Otto Selz (1913, 1922), Karl Duncker (1935), Max Wertheimer (1945), Wolfgang Köhler (1921 ), Edward Tolman (1932).

Most of the work was stopped by National Socialism and only resumed after the Second World War in the 1950s. 

Philosophy in the 20th Century

Karl Bühler is one of the philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Century ( philosophy of the 20th century ). This time was shaped by certain philosophical schools of thought and philosophers who ultimately influenced Karl Bühler and his research.

At the beginning of the 20th century, phenomenology turned away from the dualistic worldview that had prevailed up until then and founded philosophy in the sense of a strict science (Husserl). Behind the phenomena (appearances) no further beings are stated, no transcendence and no metaphysical supersensible, but it is about "the things themselves". The starting point of philosophy is the content of consciousness that is considered to be immediately given and absolute. It is important here that the phenomena may well be hidden. “And precisely because the phenomena are initially and mostly not given, phenomenology is required. Concealment is the opposite of 'phenomenon' (Heidegger, 1889–1976) ”(Spierling, p. 246). The question of being is of Heidegger taken: for him is not the person the subject that I as a form of consciousness in the foreground, but man as existence. "Man submits to everything through a thinking that wants to control and calculate." (Spierling, p. 247) Existential philosophy understands man from his existence. The point is that people become aware of their existence. With Jaspers , for example, this takes place in borderline human situations such as death, suffering, pain.

Sartre grants the individual an abundance of possibilities to become “existent”. The individual himself is responsible for his being. The philosophical anthropology , however, sees man as a deficient being , the artificial nature creates itself through culture. Humans compensate for missing instincts by setting up permanent social institutions. The critical theory (also called the Frankfurt School ) is skeptical of the emancipatory people. “A certain type of reason, reduced to identification, predictability and usefulness, has developed historically and over the millennia has served as an instrument to establish mastery over nature as well as over human nature. 'People pay for the increase in their power with alienation from what they exercise power over.' ”(Spierling, p. 251). The structuralism speaks to the subject's autonomy, and describes him as an embedded in structures being. The structure consists of a set of elements that are subject to certain relationships. The human being is no longer subject and object at the same time, but a product of anonymous rules.

The 20th century is also the century of the philosophy of language , under which Karl Bühler could be classified. The language becomes the central object of reflection, which is known as the " linguistic turn ". Wittgenstein , as the main exponent of analytical philosophy , assigns the philosophical problems to language. He asks the question about the conditions that have to be met for meaningful language to come about.

“The correct method of philosophy would actually be this: to say nothing but what can be said, that is, statements of natural science - that is, something that has nothing to do with philosophy - and then whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to him to prove that he gave no meaning to certain signs of his sentences. "

- L. Wittgenstein : Quoted from Spierling, p. 249

Philosophy of language

In developing his theory of language, Karl Bühler repeatedly resorts to philosophical approaches such as Plato , John Stuart Mill or Husserl , and psychological approaches that he incorporates into his theory and questions. His experiments on animals are also the basis for further considerations with regard to humans.

The organon model

The theory of language

With the Organon model, Karl Bühler would like to develop a model that appropriately records a full-blown concrete speech event with the living conditions. The organon (Greek for instrument or tool) functions as something that transports a message from one to the other. Verbal communication is the richest manifestation of the concrete speech event. Bühler differentiates between three relationships that exist between those involved in the speech event: sender, recipient and the “message”. As a fourth, Bühler can also specify the acoustic phenomenon (sound phenomenon), which also has an influence on the speech situation and thus also contributes to understanding. The language signal transmitted by the transmitter fulfills three functions: symbol , symptom and signal . The language sign functions as a symbol by assigning it to objects and facts. It can be called a symptom insofar as it depends on the sender who wants to communicate and is looking for an expression for his thoughts. The speech sign can be regarded as the form of a signal , since it is addressed as an appeal to the recipient. In this way, Bühler defines three functions of human language: expression , appeal and representation .

“They (sender, recipient) are not simply a part of what the message is about, but they are the exchange partners, and that is why it is ultimately possible that the media product of the sound has its own symbol relation to one and the other. "(Bühler 1934, p. 31)

By delimiting the individual relations, an independent linguistic investigation of the individual phenomena of expression, appeal and representation according to Bühler is given.

Bühler further distinguishes speech acts from speech work. Speech actions are conceptually based on the word action. Every human action has a goal for which the action is carried out. Bühler transfers this phenomenon to communication by assuming that a speech act is performed to achieve a specific goal. “So this is a feature which must be underlined in the term 'speech act' and which cannot be ignored, that speaking is 'done' (fulfilled) to the extent that it fulfills the task of solving the practical problem of the situation has. ”(Bühler 1934, p. 53). The work of language, on the other hand, is lifted out of the individual speech situation. At the language work, achievements and traits of the Creator can be examined using the theory of language. “Whether a material is an external event or something else, the linguistic consideration of the work always aims at the version and design as such.” (Bühler 1934, p. 55).

The display field of the language

Within the speaking event, Bühler was able to identify another phenomenon - the display fields. A pointer is a symbol for a way or direction sign. Like a signpost at a crossroads that shows the direction, such "signposts" can be made out in the language - so-called pointing words. Pointer words are e.g. B. "here", "you", "now" or "there". The decisive difference to the signpost at the intersection is that the pointer words are used in a speaking event, i.e. in an action, i.e. H. a complex human act. The problem that arises in a speaking situation lies in the position of the transmitter and the receiver, which must first be coordinated with one another, i.e. H. a common horizon of meaning must be found.

“But even if you name things (etc.), a fixed assignment of word symbols and designated cognitive content is not far off. Linguistic psychological experiments have shown that one not only names a thing very differently, but that this difference also follows fixed rules: One names things in such a way that they cannot be confused with other things (context objects) by the communication partner. The same thing, which is the content of our consciousness, is named very differently if its context objects, which are also represented in our consciousness, are correspondingly different. "(Spada 1992, p. 292)

The index words can also function as signals , which are then interpreted according to their sound quality and according to their spatial quality of origin. For example, people recognize other people, such as relatives or friends, by their voice. Optical interpretation aids are sometimes also used for the origin, in which a person points to himself or raises his hand when he is called (position signal or individual signal). The function of appeal can also be implemented by means of index words. They express themselves in the "Her" or in the Her-Steering. The 'now' serves as a time guide. The here-now-I system is the subjective orientation of the display field of language in direct speech traffic. Sender and receiver live from this orientation and shape the speaking situation.

The symbolic field of language

In addition to the three services of language, expression, appeal and representation as well as the display field, the symbol field serves as a further aid to communication during the speech event. The symbol field is used to interpret the speech situation and represents the context of the situation. The linguistic symbols need a frame of reference in which they are used. Karl Bühler calls this frame of reference the symbol field . In doing so, Bühler refers to the latest findings in thinking psychology and applies them to his model of language. He is also based on the Kantian idea of ​​the schema. The linguistic display field can best be understood from the speech act and the symbol field best from the language work.

“Today I would formulate it like this: That speech thinking and with it every other operation with object symbols carried out in the service of cognition requires just as much a symbol field as the painter of his painting surface, the cartographer of his line network of latitudes and longitudes and the note writer of him again differently prepared paper surface or, generally speaking, like any two-class system of representational characters. "(Bühler 1934, p. 254) 

The mental development of the child

As a basis for the mental development of a child, Karl Bühler experimented with animals, in particular with monkeys . From around the age of three, Bühler speaks of a spiritual being in a child. His research is focused on the development processes during this time. He pays particular attention to the development of language, the development of thinking and the ability to imagine. He later expanded his research to include older children and wrote a small treatise on The Future of Psychology and School.

The human being is related to the animal and only differs in the ability of the intellect . Buhler makes three stages of development: instinct , dressage and intellect . The instinct is the lowest level and form as it were the breeding ground for further developments. The dressage fancy a higher quality and enrich the individual the ability to adapt to environmental conditions and to learn. Both skills, instinct and training, can be observed in animals as well as humans. The term dressage is also referred to by Bühler as associative memory. The intellect combines the advantages of training and instinct. The intellect enables ideas to be conceived on the basis of reflection and insight. Insight is the quality that an animal lacks that only reacts on the basis of its instinct and / or training.

“We take up the traditional distinction between the finished, rigid genetic makeup of the instincts and the cuddly, individual adaptability of trainable animals and, based on our general knowledge of human behavior, add the results of the psychology of thinking and the results of tests on human-like apes that best match them a third facility, namely the ability to make inventions. "(Bühler 1930, p. 27)

The child's physical development

Karl Bühler states that there is a close relationship between body and soul . Without knowledge of the body's functions, one cannot fully understand the mental processes. Its aim is to capture the great phases and laws of development. He looks for the structural laws of development and the driving forces that modify development. Bühler sees strictly regulated dependencies in the development process that arise between the respective development phases. In addition to physical development, Bühler also divides mental development into growth phases that go hand in hand with physical development. He refrains from researching diseases and concentrates on examining healthy children. However, the development of the child is not only dependent on his physical and mental growth phases , but also the living conditions and surroundings play a special role.

“There are the unintended effects of the milieu with its social, national, religious, coloring, and then the intended effects of education. It takes a special look and training to read the common traits of 'the child' from the confusing, rich lines of the individual picture; but it will become easier as the general problems emerge clearly, and then it will be time to include the factors that were initially switched off, but now systematically, in the investigation. "(Bühler 1930, p. 54)

Bühler also provides a definition for the term development. For him, development means, on the one hand, defining a starting point and, on the other, a goal of becoming. With regard to intellectual development, he distances himself from the philosophical system of Hegel or Spinoza , who placed the logical development in the foreground and placed the ratio as identical with the causa . Bühler frees himself from this assumption and relies on experience.


Bühler uses the method of observation and experiment . The observation is particularly effective when it takes place under natural environmental conditions. The experiment makes use of artificially created situations and, at Bühler, is based on the experiments with animals. He uses the performance experiment , whereby the aim is to determine what a child can manage at a certain age. Physical and psychological abilities play a role here. Then there is the triggering experiment and the expression experiment . The trigger experiment focuses on the newborn's reflexes , for example how a child reacts to different tastes. Expression is understood to mean facial expressions and other accompanying movements that allow conclusions to be drawn about the mental state. Two other methods used are self-observation and the process of psychological interpretation . In the process of psychological interpretation, Bühler relies on Wundt's ethnic psychology and uses the "interpretation and explanation of the so-called objective mental structures, language, art, custom and law that the human spirit has created." (Bühler, 1930, P. 62). Self-observation plays a subordinate role and remains an exception, since children cannot describe their own mental processes to the same extent as adults. Alfred Binet carried out such experiments on children. 

Psychology and philosophy

When asked about the subject of psychology, Bühler can point to three answers. Firstly, psychology is the "teaching of life". Here he is based on Aristotle and his philosophical view: "The soul is the principle of life, which we can observe in a graduated form in plants, animals and people." (Bühler 1936, p. 3) Second, he leans on this the Cartesians and speaks of the “soul as a principle of consciousness”, d. H. the soul is res cogitans and nothing else. And thirdly, psychology is the "theory of the processes of consciousness". Bühler defends itself against the new ideas of body and soul, which understand humans as a body machine and assume the seat of the soul in the body. He takes up Aristotle and tries to develop his thoughts into a meaningful behavior of living beings.

Bühler worked in an interdisciplinary manner, which was based on his ideas about psychology. Psychology draws its knowledge from various disciplines such as medicine, biology and the humanities.

For Bühler, the development of language forms the basis for the further development of people up to the perfection of being human. The school offers the child the development of humanity and the development of logic, which was to formulate definitive only through language. "The young person becomes the perfect homo sapiens to the extent that he is able to gain insight into the structure of the symbolic systems of the type and be able to control them practically." (Bühler 1936, p. 5) However, the logos is only an addition to being human and not the determining factor. Another step towards human existence is achieved through the use of tools, which goes beyond the use of the tool, as can be observed in animals. 


See also


  • Facts and problems on a psychology of thought processes. About thoughts. 1907.
  • The gestalt perceptions. Experimental investigations for the psychological and aesthetic analysis of the view of space and time. Spemann, Stuttgart 1913.
  • The mental development of the child. Publishing house Gustav Fischer, Jena 1918.
  • The crisis of psychology. Publishing house Gustav Fischer, Jena 1927.
  • Phonetics and Phonology. In: Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague. 4, 1931, pp. 22-53.
  • Axiomatics of Linguistics. Klostermann, Frankfurt 1933.
  • Expression Theory. The system shown in history. Publishing house Gustav Fischer, Jena 1933.
  • Language theory. The representation function of the language. G. Fischer, Jena 1934. (2nd, unchanged. Edition. With a preface by Friedrich Kainz , G. Fischer, Stuttgart 1965; 3rd edition. (= UTB für Wissenschaft. 1159). G. Fischer, Stuttgart et al. 1999)
  • The future of psychology and school. (= Writings of the Pedagogical Institute of the City of Vienna. Issue 11). German publishing house for youth and people, Vienna / Leipzig 1936.
  • The gestalt principle in the life of humans and animals. Publisher Hans Huber, Bern 1963.
  • The clocks of living beings and fragments from the estate. Publishing house Böhlau, Vienna / Cologne / Graz 1969.


  • Elisabeth Ströker (Ed.): Karl Bühler, The Axiomatics of Linguistics. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1969.
  • Franciscus Johannes Maria Vonk: Gestalt principle and abstractive relevance. A historical study of the language axiomatics of Karl Bühler. 1992.
  • Achim Eschbach : Bühler Studies I / II. Suhrkamp 1984.
  • Carl Friedrich Graumann, Theo Herrmann: Karl Bühler's Axiomatics: 50 Years of Axiomatics d. Linguistics. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1984.
  • Ludwig J. Pongratz: The controversy between Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Karl Bühler (1879-1963): Analysis of a turning point in psychology. In: Brentano studies. 7, 1998, pp. 255-266.
  • Cristina Massen, Jürgen Bredenkamp: The Wundt-Bühler Controversy from the Point of View of Today's Cognitive Psychology. In: Journal of Psychology. 213, 2005, pp. 109-114.
  • Achim Eschbach: Karl Bühler and the Würzburg School. In: Brentano studies. 7, 1998, pp. 237-254.
  • Veronika Hofer: Konrad Lorenz as a pupil of Karl Bühler. Discussion of the newly discovered sources on personal and content-related positions between Karl Bühler, Konrad Lorenz and Egon Brunswick. In: Contemporary History. 28, 3, 2001, pp. 135-159.
  • Dieter Krallmann, Andreas Ziemann: The language theory of Karl Bühler. In: Ders .: Basic course in communication science. Fink, Munich 2001.
  • Peter Auer: Expression - Appeal - Presentation (Karl Bühler). In: Ders .: Linguistic interaction: An introduction based on 22 classics. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1999, pp. 18-29.
  • Thomas Städtler: Lexicon of Psychology. Dictionary, manual, study book. Kröner, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-520-83501-0 .
  • Hans Spada: General Psychology. Hans Huber, Bern 1990.
  • Brigitte Schlieben-Lange : Ernst Cassirer and Karl Bühler. In: Marianne Hassler (ed.): The exodus from Nazi Germany and the consequences. Jewish scientists in exile. Attempto, Tübingen 1997, ISBN 3-89308-265-4 .
  • Karl Bühler. ( Memento from February 22, 2013 in the web archive archive.today ) Biography. In: Koloss, online learning software system of the University of Duisburg-Essen

Web links

Commons : Karl Bühler  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Complete directory of the CV The honorary members, old men and students of the Cartell Association (CV) of the cath. German student associations. 1912, Strasbourg i. Els. 1912, p. 117.
  2. ^ A b c d e f g Archives for the history of sociology in Austria: Karl Bühler . online at agso.uni-graz.at. Retrieved June 24, 2016.
  3. Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna: History of the Faculty ( Memento from March 16, 2010 in the Internet Archive )
  4. See Thomas Sturm: Bühler and Popper: Kantian therapies for the crisis in psychology. In: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 43, 2012, pp. 462-472.
  5. Hans Spada: General Psychology. Verlag Hans Huber, Bern 1990, pp. 192–194.
  6. Volker Spierling: Brief history of philosophy. Great thinkers from ancient times to the present. Piper Verlag, Munich 2004.
  7. ^ Karl Bühler: Language theory. The representation function of the language. Publishing house by Gustav Fischer, Jena 1934.
  8. Karl Bühler: The mental development of the child. 6th edition. Publishing house Gustav Fischer, Jena 1930.
  9. Karl Bühler: The future of psychology and the school. German publishing house for youth and people, Vienna / Leipzig 1936.