A glimpse into the past: The Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna

Like living organisms, academic departments change and evolve. They are shaped by their members’ personalities, but also by internal and external circumstances. This is particularly true of the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna. Its history stretches back to the dawn of psychology as an academic discipline. About 140 years ago, Franz Brentano (1838-1917), a crucial figure in both the phenomenological movement and the tradition of analytic philosophy, envisioned the establishment of psychology as an empirical and even experimental discipline during his time in Vienna. Accordingly, his students set up experimental psychology laboratories in Graz (Alexius Meinong, 1894) and Innsbruck (Franz Hillebrand, 1897), and in 1899 Alois Höfler held the first lecture on experimental psychology at the University of Vienna.

The foundation of the Wiener Institut für Psychologie, however, had to await the October 1922. It was funded by the city of Vienna, and its foundation is marked by Karl Bühler’s (1879-1963) appointment as Professor of Psychology at the University of Vienna. Together with his wife Charlotte Bühler (1893-1974), and with financial support from the Rockefeller foundation, they managed to establish an internationally recognized research group within only a few years. During their time in Vienna, Charlotte Bühler accomplished groundbreaking contributions to developmental psychology, whereas Karl Bühler was a leading Gestalt-psychologist, renowned for his Organon-model of communication. Many students travelled from around the world to attend psychology lectures in Vienna: More than a thousand were registered for Karl Bühler’s main lecture in the Kleine Festsaal! Prominent names, such as Egon Brunswick (1903-1955), Karl Popper (1902-1994), and Paul Lazarsfeld (1901-1976), were among the long list of PhD students and collaborators in the Bühler research groups. In 1938 the Gestapo closed their institute, and the couple was forced to emigrate to the US.

 After 1938, the history of academic psychology in Vienna continued with Hubert Rohracher (1903-1972) who finally was appointed Professor of Psychology in 1943. In February 1945, the third floor of the building at Liebiggasse 5, which had housed the Institute of Psychology since 1934, was completely destroyed after being hit by an aircraft bomb. In 1947, Rohracher published his influential book Einführung in die Psychologie, written in the last years of WWII, and established Vienna’s reputation as an experimental psychology stronghold. Until today, Rohracher’s influence is also reflected in the many later university professors that he taught and trained throughout his career.

Ten years after WWII, Walter Toman (1920-2003) and Erich Mittenecker (born in 1922) were among the first psychologists in German-speaking countries to critically reflect upon and adopt American psychology, introducing inferential statistics and standardized experimental procedures and tests. In 1952, Mittenecker published one of the first books in German on planning and analyzing experiments. After the Rohracher era, the Institute grew steadily under Giselher Guttmann, Gerhard Fischer and Brigitta Rollet, with a constantly increasing number of students. The Institute was turned into the Faculty of Psychology in 2004, which currently consists of three departments hosting national and international researchers who educate more than 4000 students. Additionally, the Faculty of Psychology successfully contributes to the University of Vienna’s endorsement of a strong focus on research. In line with the University’s guidelines, it also thrives on interdisciplinary collaboration among different departments, and has an active role in the Cognitive Science Research Platform, founded in 2011. These facts attest to the Faculty of Psychology’s determination to live up to the positive legacy of academic psychology in Vienna.




Portrait von Karl Bühler

Karl Bühler

Portrait von Charlotte Bühler

Charlotte Bühler

Portrait von Egon Brunswik

Egon Brunswik