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Kurt Lewin 


Kurt Lewin


"In the future history of our psychological era there are two names which, I believe, will stand out above all others: those of Freud and Lewin. Freud will be revered for his first unraveling of the complexities of the individual history, and Lewin for his first envisioning of the dynamic laws according to which individuals behaveā€¦" (E. C. Tolman, 1948, p. 4)


Kurt Lewin was born in Prussia in 1890 and died in Massachusetts in 1947.

Lewin's studies were initially focussed in medicine and philosophy, then biology, finally psychology (though, it is said, always with a philosophical bent, ref). He earned his Ph.D. in Berlin at the tender age of 24. During World War I he earned the Iron Cross for his service in the German army. His major academic appointments included positions in Berlin (1921-1933), Iowa (1935-45), and, at the end of his life, MIT (1945-47). In addition, he held visiting appointments at Stanford, Cornell, Berkeley, and Harvard. In the years surrounding World War II, he was a consultant to a number of governmental organizations, including the Department of Agriculture, the Office of Strategic Services, the Public Health Service, and the Office of Naval Research. He was a member of many scientific organizations, and a founder of at least one, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

Lewin is the single most important figure in the history of social psychology, and has been called the "George Washington" of the field (Oskamp, 1992). Historians of psychology typically describe the impact of important figures in one of two ways - some great figures can be said to found a psychological system, a single coherent approach to theory and experiment, while others impact the field in a less direct but often more lasting way by founding a school of psychological thought. Lewin's greatest impact on psychology was probably in the second of these. His impact on his students would be found in disparate strains of social psychology ranging from the descriptive (Barker, 19) to the experimental (Festinger, Schachter).

Those around him characterized Lewin as both childlike and charismatic. In his early years in America, Lewin could barely speak English, but was an energetic, excited communicator. In Allport's (1947) obituary, he described Lewin as an original genius, one whose discourse was characterized more by completeness than by internal consistency, as a hard worker, and as deeply devoted to making the world a better place. Lewin is said to have had "a sense of musical delight in ideas" (Eric Trist, in Marrow, p. 69). He was "playful," and "able to transmit to others a little of his own enormous creativity" (French, 1992). He infused others with his energy as well. He was, however, not a great listener, and became known for his accented dissent from the claim of a student "I sink absolute ozzer!" Taken literally, this suggests that Lewin can be seen as "disagreeable." But for me, this well-known quote illuminates a very different aspect of Lewin's character, and that is the teasing, playful relationship he maintained with his students. (One would be hard pressed to imagine a similar quote from a student of Titchener or MacDougall, for example).

Lewin's life can be understood, finally, from a more dialectic stance, as a tension between opposing forces, even as a balancing of these forces (Marrow, 1969). Lewin has been called "Autocratic in his insistence on democracy." His famous formula for framing behavior, that behavior is a function of the person and the environment, seems self-evident, but in fact is an attempt to reconcile two competing strains of modern psychology. He worked with brilliant and influential minds, yet was unable to obtain a prestigious position in the United States until 1945. He was energetic, congenial and hopeful, yet suffered terrible personal hardships, including his experience as a soldier in World War I, his failed first marriage, the distress of German reconstruction, and finally Nazism. And his best known quote is "there is nothing so practical as a good theory."


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