Niels Bohr Archive
History of Science Seminar
Thu 12 February 2015, 14.15
Aud. A, Niels Bohr Institute
Blegdamsvej 17, Copenhagen

Jörgen L. Pind
Faculty of Psychology, University of Iceland, Reykjavík

Rubin’s vase and early psychology in Denmark

“Rubin’s vase” is probably one of the best known figures in psychology. It is shown in almost every introductory textbook of psychology, accompanied by a discussion of the figure-ground problem which Edgar Rubin (1886–1951) was the first to elucidate in his doctoral dissertation Synsoplevede Figurer [Visually Experienced Figures] from 1915. Rubin was educated at the University of Copenhagen finishing his MA in philosophy with psychology as his major in 1910 (and well-known to Bohr scholars as the convener of the Ekliptika student group). In his studies, Rubin was primarily influenced by two of his teachers, the philosopher Harald Høffding (1843–1931) and the experimental psychologist Alfred Lehmann (1858–1921). Following his MA, Rubin spent two years in the laboratory of Georg Elias Müller in Göttingen. Here Müller asked him to look into the memorization of nonsense figures. This project, as Rubin wrote in a letter to his cousin Niels Bohr, he considered an unfruitful one — and thus abandoned it — but it did form the impetus for his celebrated study of the figure-ground problem. After Rubin’s thesis was translated into German in 1921, it gradually became widely known among psychologists, especially Gestalt psychologists. Some possible reasons for the fascination which Rubin’s vase continues to hold will be discussed in the talk.

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