Course details


The mentality of apes by Wolfgang Köhler: One century later (Begleitseminar)

Interdisciplinary Course (Master)
WS 2022 Prof. Dr. Simone Pika OFFLINE
M.Sc modules:
CC-MP-IDC - Interdisciplinary Course
CS-MP-IDC - Interdisciplinary Course
Tue: 15-16

‘The mentality of apes by Wolfgang Köhler: One century later’ Re-reading and re-evaluating the seminal book of Wolfgang Köhler and linking it to our current knowledge on the cognition of great apes Wolfgang Köhler (21 January 1887– 11 June 1967) was a German Psychologist and phenomenologist. In 1913, he left his position at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt and became the director of the Prussian Academy of Sciences Anthropoid Research Station on the island of Tenerife, Canary Islands. He worked there for six years, during which he wrote his pioneering book “The Mentality of Apes” (1917), focusing on the cognitive aspect of problem solving. Köhler carried out behavioural experiments with four chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Chica, Grande, Konsul, and Sultan, involving for instance retrieving bananas when positioned out of reach. He showed that the chimpanzees stacked wooden crates to use as makeshift ladders, to retrieve the food, or if the bananas were placed on the ground outside of the cage, they used sticks to lengthen the reach of their arms. Köhler concluded that these results provided evidence for ‘insight’ and planning in chimpanzees. He thereby challenged the hypothesis of Edward Thorndike (American psychologist), who had claimed that trial-and-error learning is the basis of all animal learning. Köhlers’ research showed that the intellectual gap between humans and chimpanzees was much narrower than previously thought and was revolutionary when originally published in 1917 in German. However, it was largely ignored for decades because it violated the traditional view that animal behavior and cognition is simply the result of instinct or conditioning. In the first part of the study project ‘The mentality of apes by Wolfgang Köhler: One century later’ (WS 2022/2023, SS 2023), we will re-read the original book and re-evaluate the findings and its influence on studies of animal ‘insight’, ‘tool-use’ and ‘future planning’.