Karl Bühler (1879-1963)

Bühler was born near  Heidleberg into a poor family and and the intervention of  the parish priest was required to ensure that he went on to high school.  At first he planned to study theology, then his interest shifted to mathematics and eventually he graduated from Frieburg with a doctorate in medicine in 1903. The topic was of his dissertation was colour perception.

He next graduated from Strasbourg in philosophy and worked in the Institute for Psychology until he moved to Wurzburg n 1905 to work with Kulpe on complicated thought processes. In 1909 they both moved to Bonn.  By that time three of the pillars of his intellectual interests were clearly established - language, developmental psychology and Gestalt theory.

During the war Bühler worked as a surgeon on the western front until Kulpe died unexpectedly at the age of 53. Called back to Munich, Bühler took over the supervision of a young student who had come from Berlin to work with Kulpe. Her name was Charlotte Malachowski and after a short courtship, they married in April 1916. They had two children, a son and a daugher, both of whom became successful professionals.

Bühler 's first professorship was at the Technical University of Dresden, and then in 1921 they moved to a chair of philosophy at Vienna, on the understanding that this would bring strengths in psychology and experimental studies in education to the position. The university did not have a psychological laboratory and to overcome this, the Bühler s occupied some rooms in the office of Otto Glockel, the Viennese school supervisor and education reformer. This became the Vienna Institute of Psychology. In return, Bühler conducted extremely popular courses for elementary schoolteachers.

The Institute gained worldwide renown due to sixteen years of immensely fruitful work guided by the Bühler s, aided by a ten-year Rockefeller grant. Both Karl and Charlotte Bühler pursued important and fundamental studies with many colleagues and students, including some visitors from overseas such as the American Tolman. Their work included major scholarly landmarks such as Charlotte Bühler 's book "From Birth to Maturity: An Outline of the Psychological Development of the Child" which was published in English in 1935. As an indicator of the amount of research in progress, during that time Buhler supervised some 130 dissertations with each of two colleagues in psychology and 40 with the philosopher Moritz Schlick (one of these students was Karl Popper).

Bühler spent a year in the US during 1927-8 as a visiting professor at Stanford, John Hopkins, Harvard and Chicago. He was offered a post at Harvard which he declined. As the political strains of the 1930s intensified the Institute suffered and the Rockefeller funds diminished after the first ten-year period of the grant. The final catastrophe came in 1938 when the Germans occupied Austria and Karl was kept in "protective custody" for six weeks (no good reason has been found). Upon release he put his library and papers into storage, hoping to have then sent on, then he walked over the border with a backpack of possessions to start a new life in the US.  This venture did not work out because the best positions were already taken by that time and his research program was out of step with the behaviorist spirt of the times.


He and Charlotte moved from one minor appointment to another until they came to rest in California. Charlotte became a pillar of the 'third force' or 'humanistic psychology' and she also established a thriving psychotherapy practice in Hollywood where it appears that Karl did much of the "back room" analysis and case records.

Karl died in 1963 at the age of 84. Charlotte moved to Europe to be near her son, and died in 1974.

Karl Bühler’s Program

Karl Bühler is probably best known nowadays as Karl Popper's most important teacher. This aspect of his career is described in the article by John Wettersten reproduced here. His contribution to the early scientific study of language is not so well know, certainly not in the English-speaking world, because his master work was not published in English until 1990 although it first appeared in 1934, the same year as Popper's Logik der Forschung.

The Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language was
translated by Donald Fraser Goodwin in the Foundations of Semiotics series under the editorship of Achim Eschbach at the University of Essen, published by the John Benjamins Publishing Company Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1990.

Eschbach wrote:

        The breadth and depth of Karl
Bühler 's work has not yet been fully fathomed. Although there are probably few who seriously treat linguistic problems who have never heard of Karl Bühler, many of Buhler's lasting insights are so much a matter of course in science that they are detached
from the name of their author. Fonagy writes '
Bühler 's theories quickly became fundamental elements of our linguistic thought, which are regarded as "innate" or as a part of an ancient heritage that is as anonymous as folklore'....examples are his famous organon model of language, which
constitutes an elementary statement of semiotic, communication-theoretical
and linguistic principles; his lifelong concern with the Gestalt principle in human and animal life; his idea of the aha-experience, which has become proverbial; his cybernetic model of the control of community life; or his discussion of deixis.

Bühler contributed in many ways to the social and cognitive sciences. At the beginning of his career, he worked on the psychology of thinking. Next, he studied human perception and developed a new notion of Gestalt psychology, which he understood as a competitor to the Berlin school's view of Gestalt, as exemplified by Koffka and Wertheimer. Another important part of Bühler's work in collaboration with Charlotte Bühler was developmental psychology. Bühler wrote the most read German textbook on the issue, titled "Die geistige Entwicklung des Kindes" (1918). Bühler's treatment of the mental development of the child shows a strong concern for the cognitive aspects of language. This research perspective developed into Bühler's "Sprachtheorie" (1934), which is one of the most important forerunners of semiotics and contemporary cognitive linguistics.


Bühler’s most remembered contribution to linguistics is his organon model. See the illustration below, adapted from "Sprachtheorie" (1934):


Communication takes place between the speaker (sender) and the listener (receiver), and it is about the objects around us. In Bühler’s view, language is an "organum“ or tool for one person's communicating with another about the world. The three main functions of language Bühler distinguishes in his organon model are Darstellung (representation, of states of affairs), Ausdruck (expression, of the sender’s feelings), and Appell (appeal, to the receiver). All functions exist in every single utterance. However, usually one prevails. When the focus is on the feelings of the sender, the expressive function of communication dominates. An object-oriented communication is very neutral or representative. If the focus is on the receiver, we deal with an appeal. The circle in the middle of the illustration above symbolizes the concrete, sensibly given sound. The overlapping triangle symbolizes meaning of the sound and its Gestalt-like features. In those places where the circle is bigger than the triangle, the sound (circle) contains information that lacks meaning (triangle). Where the triangle is bigger than the circle, there is a meaning (triangle) lacking an expression in sound (circle). Both phenomen occur all the time in every day’s communication. The linguistic sign itself is a symptom, a signal, or a symbol. If it is a symptom, it reveals the interiority or consciousness of the sender. If the sign is a signal, it is directed to the behavior of the receiver. Signs that are mere bearer of information about the states of affairs are symbols, just representing the objects themselves. Roman Jakobson expanded Bühler’s model and assumes six functions of language, adding the poetic, phatic, and metalingual function to Bühler’s three functions. Karl Popper, who was a student of Bühler’s in Vienna, proposes an additional argumentative function.


According to Bühler, the lexicon of a language can be split up into the field of symbol words and the field of deictic words. As for deixis, Bühler points out that the listener starts an orientation procedure when the speaker uses a deictic expression. Bühler shows that the reference is not only based on a sensual perception (when seeing the pointing finger, e.g.) Bühler says that the pointing finger is the natural instrument of the demonstratio ad oculos, but it may be replaced by other pointing aids. However, some pointing needs to be done. Even anaphora, which is, according to Bühler, a deictic procedure, needs some pointing help. Bühler’s analysis covers the deixis of pronouns (“I”, “you”, “he”) and the deixis of time and place expressions (“now”, “here”, “there”). The other field of language, the symbol field, differs radically from deixis. The symbol field is the place for the representational function of language. A symbol bears an invariable content, a content that is independent of the actual situation. The denotation of a deictic (or indexical) expression like “I” varies from speaker to speaker and from situation to situation. That is the reason why Roman Jakobson calls these expressions “shifters”. The denotation of a symbolic expression does not vary or shift. Instead, it rigidly denotates always the same thing, like for instance “Downing Street 10”.

Karl Bühler’s Sprachtheorie is an important work of twentieth-century linguistics. A historical reevaluation of his work as a whole has started in the seventies. His unpublished works (lectures, manuscripts) are also collected now and edited. It is striking how Bühler’s work still stimulates recent linguistic research.


As Wettersten explained, Bühler’s approach did not fit with the paradigms (the research programs) of the times and on top of that, his career was effectively closed down by the Nazi takeover in 1938 so that Bühler, at the height of his powers (age 58) ceased to be able to conduct or direct significant research. Not only did this severely curtail his own career but the Nazi interlude in Austria divided the intellectual community of the world for many years before, during and after World War 2. Eschback suggested that this


 "...led to a rupture of tradition in the discourse of the community of researchers which to this day has not been overcome. After the Second World War there was no fundamental change to this situation because in the US there was no reason to alter the course of 'normal', successful (sic) science so as to take notice of approaches that were developed long ago in German-speaking countries".

According to Eschbach, Karl
Bühler’s efforts to found a new psychology began with the insight that the two great paradigms of psychology, the Aristotelian and the Cartesian, failed because of systematically false assumptions. One is based on religious ideas about a soul, the other on the assumption that man is a machine. Bühler proposed a number of principles which he called

"maxims of  life-research". These defined his research program.

1. The situational model of action, emphasising that the individual is not
passive but participates in the formation of the environment. "For this reason it is not possible to proceed on the basis of sense data, images, feelings, reflexes or the like; this basis does not make it possible to understand the meaningful behaviour of the individual". This case was made later by Hebb (The Organization of Behavior, 1948), a work that was regarded as path-breaking. The "meaningful behaviour of the individual" has the ring of the Austrian school of economics, and Buhler drew a further analogy with
the marketplace, speaking of a balance of supply and demand in psychological

To put it bluntly, there are markets in the psychophysical system of the
acting individual, and there is a specific class of experiences in which this measuring and evaluating becomes evident.

2. Actions are oriented in relation to space and time. Temporal considerations
include the daily rhythm of sleeping and waking, and the longer-term activity of planning. In the US, Bühler wrote on various aspects of space and time in papers like "The skywise and neighbourwise navigation of ants and bees" and "Human orientation at a distance". He also studied the migration of birds and a described a series of studies under the title "The clocks of living beings".

3. The inventiveness of the acting individual and creative behaviour.
Bühler emphasised the intimate relationship of psychology with biology and medicine on one side (the science of men and animals) and with the human and social sciences on the other side, including custom, law, art and religion.

4. The transcendence of individualism that is manifest in procreation and the changes in behaviour that ensue to raise the young.

5. The transcendence of individualism that is required for life in a community.

6. The problem of form, noted by Aristotle in antiquity and taken up as the
conceptual core of Gestalt psychology. Eschach claims that Buhler rejected both the historical and the modern Gestalt-theoretical solution to the problem of form, and demanded a renewed treatment of the foundations of the task.

7. The challenge of "significative exchange" that is to say, the use of language,
especially in its higher forms which makes it possible to have community life and especially the life of an intellectual community. Eschbach wrote that Buhler envisaged three books on language to deal with each of the three functions that he identified (expression, representation and appeal). Only one of the three books was written, and just before the time of his exile he was planning to work on a second volume that would represent a general sematology or a doctrine of signs in the sense of logic of the humanities.




http://web.uni frankfurt.de/fb10/rathert/publikationen/downloads/Buchbeitraege/Lexikonartikel/Buehler.pdf