Buhlerís Program



Karl Buhler (1879-1963) 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 Buhler's work has not yet been fully
fathomed. Although there are probably few who seriously treat linguistic
problems who have never heard of Karl Buhler, 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 'Buhler'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
consitututes 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.

As Wettersten explained, Buhler'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 Buhler, at the
height of his powers (age 58) ceased to be able to conduct or direct significant research. Not only did this severly 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 Buhler'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. Buhler 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 undersand 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 Buhler 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. Buhler
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 antiqity 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 a logic of the humanities.


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