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Klaus Holzkamp (November 30, 1927 – November 1, 1995) was a German psychologist. He worked as a professor at the Free University of Berlin. He took a central role in defining critical psychology based on the works of Karl Marx.[1] Holzkamp's main message is that mainstream psychology serves the interest of the power elite by disregarding the ability of humans to change their life circumstances. In a standard scientific study in the field of psychology the test setting is taken as a given, unchangeable fact, while in real life people may organize themselves and transform society.

One of the most important and sophisticated books in the field of critical psychology is the Grundlegung der Psychologie[2] (Foundations of Psychology) by Klaus Holzkamp, who might be considered the theoretical founder of critical psychology. Holzkamp, who had written two books on theory of science[3] and one on sensory perception[4] before publishing the Grundlegung der Psychologie in 1983, thought this major work provided a solid paradigm for psychological research, as he viewed psychology as a pre-paradigmatic scientific discipline (T.S. Kuhn had used the term "pre-paradigmatic" for social science).

Holzkamp mostly based his sophisticated attempt to provide a comprehensive and integrated set of categories defining the field of psychological research on Aleksey Leontyev's approach to cultural–historical psychology and activity theory. Leontyev had seen human action as a result of biological as well as cultural evolution and, drawing on Marx's materialist conception of culture, stressed that individual cognition always is part of social action which in turn is mediated by man-made tools (cultural artifacts), language and other man-made systems of symbols, which he viewed as a major distinguishing feature of human culture and, thus, human cognition. Another important source was Lucien Séve's theory of personality,[5] which provided the concept of "social activity matrices" as mediating structure between individual and social reproduction. At the same time, the Grundlegung systematically integrated previous specialized work done at Free University of Berlin in the '70s by critical psychologists who also had been influenced by Marx, Leontyev and Seve. This included books on animal behavior/ethology,[6] sensory perception,[4] motivation[7] and cognition.[8] He also incorporated ideas from Freud's psychoanalysis and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology into his approach.

One core result of Holzkamp's historical and comparative analysis of human reproductive action, perception and cognition is a very specific concept of meaning that identifies symbolic meaning as historically and culturally constructed, purposeful conceptual structures that humans create in close relationship to material culture and within the context of historically specific formations of social reproduction.

Coming from this phenomenological perspective on culturally mediated and socially situated action, Holzkamp launched a devastating and original methodological attack on behaviorism (which he termed S–R (stimulus–response) psychology) based on linguistic analysis, showing in minute detail the rhetorical patterns by which this approach to psychology creates the illusion of "scientific objectivity" while at the same time losing relevance for understanding culturally situated, intentional human actions.[9][10] Against this approach, he developed his own approach to generalization and objectivity, drawing on ideas from Kurt Lewin in Chapter 9 of Grundlegung der Psychologie.

His last major publication before his death in 1995 was about learning.[11] It appeared in 1993 and contained a phenomenological theory of learning from the standpoint of the subject. One important concept Holzkamp developed was "reinterpretation" of theories developed by conventional psychology. This meant to look at these concepts from the standpoint of the paradigm of critical psychology, thereby integrating their useful insights into critical psychology while at the same time identifying and criticizing their limiting implications while (which in the case of S–R psychology were the rhetorical elimination of the subject and intentional action, and in the case of cognitive psychology which did take into account subjective motives and intentional actions, methodological individualism). The first part of the book thus contains an extensive look at the history of psychological theories of learning and a minute re-interpretation of those concepts from the perspective of the paradigm of critical psychology, which focuses on intentional action situated in specific socio-historical/cultural contexts. The conceptions of learning he found most useful in his own detailed analysis of "classroom learning" came from cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave (situated learning) and Edwin Hutchins (distributed cognition). The book's second part contained an extensive analysis on the modern state's institutionalized forms of "classroom learning" as the cultural–historical context that shapes much of modern learning and socialization. In this analysis, he heavily drew upon Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Holzkamp felt that classroom learning as the historically specific form of learning does not make full use of student's potentials, but rather limits her or his learning potentials by a number of "teaching strategies." Part of his motivation for the book was to look for alternative forms of learning that made use of the enormous potential of the human psyche in more fruitful ways. Consequently, in the last section of the book, Holzkamp discusses forms of "expansive learning" that seem to avoid the limitations of classroom learning, such as apprenticeship and learning in contexts other than classrooms.

This search culminated in plans to write a major work on life leadership in the specific historical context of modern (capitalist) society. Due to his death in 1995, this work never got past the stage of early (and premature) conceptualizations, some of which were published in the journals Forum Kritische Psychologie and Argument.[12]

Selected works

German books:

  • Kritische Psychologie - Vorbereitende Arbeiten (1972)
  • Grundlegung der Psychologie (1983)
  • Lernen. Subjektwissenschaftliche Grundlegung. (1993)
  • Klaus Holzkamp in the German National Library catalogue


  1. Loren R. Graham, Wolf Lepenies and Peter Weingart (1983). Functions and Uses of Disciplinary Histories, Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company. ISBN 9027715203.
  2. Klaus Holzkamp (1983): Grundlegung der Psychologie. Frankfurt/M.: Campus
  3. Klaus Holzkamp (1964), Theorie und Experiment in der Psychologie. Berlin: de Gruyter (Theory and Experiment in Psychology); Klaus Holzkamp (1968): Wissenschaft als Handlung. Versuch einer neuen Grundlegung der Wissenschaftslehre. Berlin: de Gruyter (Science as Action – A new Approach to the Theory of Science)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Klaus Holzkamp (1973): Sinnliche Erkenntnis. Historischer Ursprung und gesellschaftliche Funktion der Wahrnehmung. Frankfurt/M.: Athenäum (Sensory Perception: Historical Origins and Social Functions of Perception
  5. Lucien Seve
  6. Volker Schurig (1975): Naturgeschichte des Psychischen 1: Psychogenese und elementare Formen der Tierkommunikation. (Natural History of the Psyche 1: Psychogenesis and Elementary Forms of Animal Communication. Frankfurt/M.: Campus; Volker Schurig (1975): Naturgeschichte des Psychischen 2: Lernen und Abstraktionsleistungen bei Tieren (Natural History of the Psyche 2: Learning and Abstraction Capabilities in Animals. Frankfurt/M. Campus; Volker Schurig (1976): Die Entstehung des Bewußtseins (The Emergence of Consciousness). Frankfurt/M.: Campus; . Frankfurt/M.: Campus;
  7. Ute Osterkamp (1975/1976): Grundlagen der Psychologischen Motivationsforschung (Foundations of Psychological Research of Motivation, Frankfurt/M: Campus (2 Volumes)
  8. Rainer Seidel (1976): Denken. Psychologische Analyse der Entstehung und Lösung von Problemen. (Cognition. Psychological Analysis of Formulating and Solving Problems. Frankfurt/M.: Campus
  9. Klaus Holzkamp (1987): Die Verkennung von Handlungsbegründungen als empirische Zusammenhangsannahmen in sozialpsychologischen Theorien: Methodologische Fehlorientierung infolge von Begriffsverwirrung (Mistaking Reasons for Causes in Theories of Social Psychology: Methodological Errors as a Result of Conceptual Confusion), Forum Kritische Psychologie 19, Berlin: Argument Verlag, pp. 23–59.
  10. Klaus Holzkamp (1993): Lernen: Subjektwissenschaftliche Grundlegung. Frankfurt/M.: Campus, Chapter 1: "Hinführung auf das Verfahren der Problementwicklung" (Introduction to the Sequence of Presentation), pp. 17–39
  11. Klaus Holzkamp (1993): Lernen: Subjektwissenschaftliche Grundlegung ("Learning: Subject-Scientific Foundations"). Frankfurt/M.: Campus
  12. Klaus Holzkamp (1995): Alltägliche Lebensführung als subjektwissenschaftliches Grundkonzept (Everyday Life Leadership as Basic Concept of a Scientific Theory of the Subject). Das Argument, 37. Jahrgang, Heft 6, November/December 1995

de:Klaus Holzkamp ru:Хольцкамп, Клаус