Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Charlotte Malachowski Buhler, Ph.D. (1893-1974)

by Samantha Ragsdale

In the humanistic tradition of Charlotte Buhler, this piece begins with a description of her person. It comes from a tribute made to her by a colleague and friend, James F.T. Bugental, with whom she worked at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.

"Charlotte Buhler was a very real and at times a very formidable person who knew her own mind and set about doing things the way she believed they should be done. She could be imperious, humble, tough, gentle, petty, generous, formal, companionable, creative, curiously blind, and a whole array of other ways. In short, Charlotte Buhler was a fully rounded human being. Yet not all of her attributes were as balanced as that list suggests. Charlotte was seldom boring, often courageous. She was usually on the move, active, doing, involved. She never seemed to have less than four important projects going at the same time. When she was in a room, you knew it; and when she was a part of a task group - be it a committee, a board of some kind, a group of authors - she was an influential part" (Bugental, 1975/76, pp. 48-49).

Charlotte Malachowski Buhler's contributions to the field of psychology are immense. This site includes a non-exhaustive list of 55 works, consisting of published journal articles, book chapters and books - that she wrote from the age of 25 to 80, the year she died. Her major contributions lie in the areas of life-span development and humanistic psychology. She also made significant contributions in the areas of education, family studies, child psychology, psychological testing, clinical psychology, projective tests, psychotherapy, values and life goals, and a number of other areas. She was not only a theorist and a researcher, but became a clinician later in life, practicing her humanistic therapy. She received a doctorate from the University of Munich, before and after which she immersed herself in her discipline and gained international recognition. Her work has been published in 16 languages (Bugental, 1975/76).

Charlotte Malachowski was born in on December 20, 1893 in Berlin, Germany, the first child of two, to Walter and Rose Malachowski. Her father was an architect and her mother an accomplished musician. Her parents were very encouraging of her early academic interests. Charlotte demonstrated broad interests, but from a young age contemplated the existence of God and the meaning of existence. She soon came to see Psychology as a pursuit that could at least shed light on these questions (Gavin, 1990). I have a quote that expresses her quest for knowledge:

The main question that interested me was, 'what is human life about?' I thought that psychology would give me the answer. I remember the sarcastic words of the psychology teacher in my last year of high school, when she became aware of my excited interest in psychology: 'What you think psychology is', she said 'it is not. It does not tell you about life. It just tells you about sensory reactions to stimuli and about learning. I was terribly disappointed, and I don't remember whether I just thought or murmured, well if it is not, I will make it a study of human life. I thought, with psychology we should be able to find out how to live life, what we are living for, and how to relate to other persons in life (Buhler, 1973/74, p.199).

She was a precocious young woman. While still in high school, she performed an original study of Human Thought Processes - an interest that would soon lead her to her future husband. She spent her early twenties, studying psychology at universities in Freiburg, Kiel, Berlin and Munich, when she learned of a Dr. Karl Buhler whose work on human thought seemed to her very similar to her own. She became desperate to meet him and as fate would have it, when her advisor at the University of Munich, Oswald Kulpe died suddenly, Dr. Buhler was called upon to supervise his student, of which Charlotte was one. Upon meeting Karl, "a whirlwind courtship led to the marriage of Karl Buhler and Charlotte Malachowski in 1916" (Gavin, 1990, p. 50). Charlotte was 23 years old at the time. Two years later, but only one year after giving birth to their first child, Ingeborg, Charlotte received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Munich in 1918. One year later, they had their second of two children, Rolf, in 1919 (Gavin, 1990).

Between 1920 and 1922, Charlotte worked for the Prussian government and school board, assisting with a project on adolescence, and gave lectures in Dresden at the Technische Hochschule. Then in 1923, she and Karl moved to Vienna when he received an appointment as Chair of the University of Vienna in addition to funding to conduct research through the newly founded Vienna Psychological Institute. Charlotte too received a position, but that of assistant professor. It was not until 1929, six years later, that she achieved the rank of associate professor. For most of the 1920s and 1930s, Charlotte and her husband Karl led one of the most important psychology departments in the world. Throughout this time, while upholding her positions in Vienna, Charlotte studied, traveled and consulted in various parts of Europe and the U.S. as well. She went to Columbia University's teachers college to study child and youth psychology with Edward Thorndike from 1924-25, spent a year as a guest professor at Barnard College as a Rockefeller Fellow in 1929 and had consulting and supervisory responsibilities at child guidance centers in England, Holland and Norway throughout this time (Ash, 1987, Gavin, 1990).

While in Vienna, between 1923 and 1938, Charlotte's research focused on psychological development from infancy through adolescence. Charlotte's domain within the university and the research institute was child and youth psychology; she and a child-care worker forged their research in a two-room suite in the city's Clearing House for Children or Adoption center. As the center had a capacity of more than 2,500 children, Charlotte was in an ideal position to study children's behavior. Charlotte directed her students, who were mostly women, to take "exact, minute-to-minute records of their observations" (Ash, 1987, p. 150). Other measures of development included: intelligence or development tests, interpretation of diaries, and experiment with free play -- all "with the aim of creating a unified scheme of psychological development from birth to early adulthood" (Ash, 1987, p. 151). Mitchell G. Ash notes that the basis of Charlotte's research program was taken from ideas expressed in her husband's earlier work, The Mental Development of the Child. He explained that it was Karl's work that informed her concept of development in terms of parallel and interacting biological and psychological aspects. Although she explored physical development to some extent, her research largely focused on cognitive and personality development (Ash, 1987). And while Karl Buhler's ideas may have inspired some of her research, I'm sure the same could be said for her ideas informing his. The extent to which they actually worked on projects together is unclear to me, but I do know that very few of her publications include him on the list of authors and it seems that her work with child development took its own, very distinct, direction and she is responsible for establishing the Institute's area of child and adolescent research as it was.

When Charlotte returned from her fellowship at Columbia in 1925, she received a ten-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund her on-going work at the Vienna Institute. Her research was also supported by the Ministry of Vienna or the school board, largely to a school reform movement occurring at the time, with her their work coincided quite well. However, as a result, her research was in some ways confined to the goals of the school board.

She and a colleague outlined three goals of the Vienna Research on Pedagogical Psychology:

  1. to produce psychological research that would be the basis of a practical and scientifically secure pedagogy
  2. to determine the extent to which pedagogical goals and the developmental characteristics of each stage could be coordinated
  3. to view development from the perspectives of biological function and cultural value, of society and the individual (Ash, 1987, p. 151).

Mitchell Ash notes that comparing the first two points already reveals a certain tension between the projected linkage of psychological research with pedagogy, (a goal of) the reformers' sociopolitical project, and more general research aims (Ash, 1987, p. 151). As testament to this conflict of interests, Charlotte's research seems to have more often than not strayed from pure pedagogical psychology. She was in fact criticized for misusing funds from the school board, as 46% of her research dealt with preschool children and diagnosing developmental problems in early childhood, not school-age children. A quote of Charlotte's reveals her resolve to expand child psychology to include the developing child's whole experience, including, but not limited to the realm of education.

"It is becoming clearer that we in youth psychology, as in psychology in general, cannot proceed from single investigations, but must ask ourselves: how does the growing person gradually gain his relationships to the world, its laws, tasks and possibilities? ... One sphere after the other open itself to them, some of them through the school; that is its psychological significance" (Buhler, 1929, p. 186).

In 1930, she said to a Rockefeller Foundation official that she felt "constrained by the (Vienna) Institute's political linkages" (Ash, 1987, p. 153). One thing that bothered her was that her sample was children from predominately working and middle class families. She was naturally curious about the differences between these children and children from upper-middle class families. Because it was part of her funding contract that she work at the Adoption center, it was difficult for her to observe more diverse populations (Ash, 1987).

In 1934, a dictator, Engelbert Dollfuss came to power in Austria, which resulted in school board policy changes that affected her research program. Although not completely, her funding was significantly cut. Not long after, the Rockefeller Foundation retracted its support, claiming the political instability in Austria and the meager contribution the Vienna Ministry was making to the program as reasons for their withdrawal. The Buhlers established a "friends of the Vienna Psychological Institute" patron group and managed to continue their work. However, in the following years, the fascist dictatorship was becoming more and more oppressive. Security police once searched the research center and arrested four staff members, sending two to jail. In March 1938, Charlotte's husband Karl was arrested. His name was on the first list of professors to be "dismissed" for political and worldview reasons. Not long after, Charlotte appeared on the list of professors to be let go for racial reasons. She had one Jewish parent. As evidence of the Nazi influence in the University's psychology department, Karl Buhler's successor replaced his scheduled courses with such courses as "Race and Character" (Ash, 1987).

At the time of his arrest, Charlotte had been away in England and the next year in Norway as a visiting professor, and soon began writing to universities in the US and England for positions for them. Because so many immigrants were seeking jobs in the US, there were few positions left. Finally, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Psychologists of the APA found a position for Karl in Minnesota and Charlotte followed in 1940. Ten days after Charlotte left for Minnesota, Nazi troops invaded Norway.

In her first year in the U.S., Charlotte Buhler held the position of professor of psychology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. Later in 1941, she moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, establishing and directing a child guidance clinic. In 1943, she then moved back to Minnesota for two years and worked as a clinical psychologist at the Minneapolis General Hospital. Although Charlotte's first years in the U.S. were active and mark the beginning of her long career as a clinical psychology, she and Karl apparently did not immediately adjust to American culture. She felt she was not well received by academic departments and speculated that others felt threatened by her accomplishments. She recalls not being able to write during that ten-year span, which can be noted on her list of works, between 1940 and 1950 (Gavin, 1990).

The Buhlers' next move was in 1945 to California, where Charlotte continued working as a clinical psychologist at the Los Angeles County Hospital from 1945 to 1953. She also served as assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California Medical School for a portion of those years. Around this time, she obtained U.S. citizenship and was becoming more and more satisfied with her professional life in the U.S.

In 1953, she began her private practice in Los Angeles, in which her humanistic psychology took form as she began to solidify her theoretical framework and therapeutic techniques. Over the years, she grew to immensely enjoy her colleagues in the US. She came to know psychologists such as Carl Rogers, Gordon, Allport, and Abraham Maslow, whose humanistic psychology was very much in accordance with her own. Although Maslow is often credited with being the "father of humanistic psychology", a review of her early work indicates that her ideas actually predate his (Gavin, 1990). As she herself remarks:

"We started the university's first department of experimental psychology in a way that I would describe today as being precursory to Humanistic Psychology. I once believed that I had been carrying out behavior experiments like Watson, whose work I was studying just then. Only later did it become clear to me that -- regardless of the design -- what I observed were persons, and not reflexes. In fact, these early studies were, in a sense, precursory to humanistic psychology's interest in the personal-as-a-whole" (Buhler, 1973/4, p. 199).

As early as the early 1920's, her studies and methods reveal her commitment to studying the whole person, the purposefulness of human beings. Her method of using diaries as data, revealed to her that by late adolescence people start raising the questions of "what is my purpose in life?" Even in infant research, before "intentional behavior and distinctive personal styles became commonly recognized in psychology Buhler found evidence of curiosity, social interest, delight in achievement and distinctive individual styles in activity of infants no older than a few months" (Gavin, 1990, p. 51). These early observations anticipated her later theory in 1959 that "in the course of self-fulfilling self-actualization even the newborn demonstrates adaptive, creative, and coordinative tendencies, long before reality and society force such goals upon him" (Buhler, 1968, p. 92). From the beginning Charlotte strove for naturalistic methods in her research. Her early work emphasized the importance of a natural, social setting in which to observe infant behavior. She drew on biographical data such as diary entries in her work with adolescents. Not to mention her later work, conducting intensive biographical and case studies. In this sense, she may be called the "mother" of humanistic psychology. Maslow is given credit in part because of his work towards forwarding humanistic psychology as a recognized discipline and establishing the American Association for Humanistic Psychology. However, Charlotte too, was very instrumental in this movement during the 1950's, which came to be known as the Third Force. And later she served as president from 1965 - 1966 (Gavin, 1990).


Her theory of life goals emphasizes the end goal of personal fulfillment, which is achieved through valid life goals that are organized according to individuals' gifts. People may "differ in choice of goals and way of life, but are alike in sharing goal orientations that do not tend toward quiescence, that generally elect growth over maintenance" (Gavin, 1990, p. 53).

She defined four basic human tendencies and a core self. These tendencies include:

  1. The tendency to strive for personal satisfactions in sex, love, and ego recognition
  2. The tendency toward self-limiting adaptation for the purpose of fitting in, belonging, and gaining security
  3. The tendency toward self-expression and creative accomplishments
  4. The tendency toward integration or order-upholding (Buhler, 1972, p. 48).

Although she acknowledged that fulfillment of these would not come without frustration and struggle (Buhler, 1972), she maintained that their "implicit ultimate intent is self-development, the establishment of contacts, the mastering of reality, and the fulfillment of life through an integrated actualization of the individual's potentials" (Buhler & Marschak, 1968, p. 93).

Eileen Gavin (1990) provides a succinct description of Buhler's concept of core self, as the "subconscious core system that integrates, directs, and actualizes the four basic tendencies; the self is the source of unique personality patterns," as each person adapts and strives toward tendencies in a unique manner (p. 53).

She explained that personal fulfillment results from living constructively and thoughtful in ways consistent with person's best gifts, living constructively involves profiting even from misfortune, and creative use of one's potential, aided by periodic assessment of the life course allowing person to progress toward achieving responsible, personally elected goals. Charlotte applied this theoretical conception to the clinical setting as well, noting that two processes emphasized by humanistic psychologists are the 1) establishment of a personal system of values and goals and (2) the creative process (Buhler, 1972, p. 48). Assisted by Andrew Comrey and William E. Coleman, she designed a Life Goals Inventory for clinical assessment as well (Gavin, 1990).

Charlotte Buhler emphasized the distinction between her humanistic psychology and the Freudian psychology that dominated the discipline earlier in her career. She notes that "Both Freud and Adler as psychiatrists, sought to explain the human mind from a starting point based on illness, while we, as psychologists, chose the healthy mind as our base line" (Buhler,1973/4, p. 199). She also points out the psychoanalytic concept of homeostasis as end goal as being sharply contrasted with the humanistic view of healthy persons having an end goal in life, that of self-realization or in Charlotte's terms, fulfillment (Buhler & Marschak, 1968, Buhler, 1972).

Later in her career, Charlotte observed what she considered the crisis of modern Western culture. She saw many human relationships as having fallen to falseness and hypocrisy. She notes that as abuses of relationships, as in the abuse of authority, inadequate leadership, exploitation, disrespect for and lack of opportunity by the individual, rise - people are discontented. They feel a sense of loneliness and failure in themselves and in their relationships. She relays that her clients come to her saying they don't know what they want, what they believe in. This she says, is a call for humanistic psychology, a psychology that guides people in defining what they think is healthy and meaningful living. It is through this clarification of goals that people become fulfilled. Charlotte did both individual therapy and group sessions, which she called "encounter groups." Encounter groups were organized not for people diagnosed with a disorder, but for those who feel the emptiness to which she is referring (Buhler, 1972).

After a long and productive career in the U.S., she returned to Germany in 1972 when she became ill. She wanted to spend the last years of her life with her son, Rolf. On February 3, 1974, she died in Stuttgart, West Germany. She continued to write and publish up until her last year of life, at the age of eighty. Her work was reissued in Germany after WWII and had a significant influence on German psychology, in the area of life-span development (Gavin, 1990, Ash, 1987).

Charlotte was continually impressed by humans "self-determination," their drive to fulfill their goals and she came to see this as central to human life. It is interesting to note the determination with which she herself pursued life and to consider the reciprocal influence her own personality may have had with her work. Her accomplishments are profound, as James F.T. Bugental said of her, she seems to never quit (1975/76). Although her personal motivation is undeniably remarkable, the question comes to mind, especially in light of this website's theme: How did she ever do it? Although she was part of what might be called the second generation of women psychologists and benefited from the much more liberal policies of the mid-twentieth century, her story is not typical. She had two children and was married in the midst of attaining her Ph.D. Unlike many women in academia, after her first child she did not take an extended leave from the University, did not postpone her degree and did not quit working. It was in 1920, with children ages 1 and 3, that she assisted the Prussian government and school board. I have found personal biographical information about her, which would likely fill in the gaps, difficult to find. An autobiography (see list of works) appears to have been published in German and awaits translation.

Any additional information about Charlotte Buhler that would clarify or correct this representation would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to e-mail.


The Works of Charlotte Malachowski Buhler, Ph.D.

Thanks to Dr. Elke M. Kurz and Dr. Boris M. Velichkovsky for their contribution of the photograph of Charlotte Buhler. Their website, the "Buhlers Kolloquium," offers a wealth of information about the lives of Karl and Charlotte Buhler.

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