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Human Problem-Solving: Standing on the Shoulders of the Giants

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Human problem-solving is a fundamental yet complex phenomena; it has fascinated and attracted a lot of researchers to understand, and theorize about it. Modeling and simulating human problem-solving played a pivotal role in Herbert Simon’s research program. Herbert Simon (along with Allen Newell and Cliff Shaw) was among the pioneers of artificial intelligence, by interlinking cognitive psychology, economics, philosophy, and computer science through the research work on human problem-solving. His curiosity and work focused not on replicating the brain but to understand and replicate human problem solving techniques (which he often referred to as programs/algorithms). The main aim of this article is to trace the origins and paths that enabled Simon (Newell and Shaw) to further develop his (their) original ideas.

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  1. Wilhelm Wundt—the father of experimental psychology, was given a lab, in the University of Leipzig, in 1876, to conduct experiments for the course he was teaching. By 1879 Wundt began various experiments that were not part of his course work, which marked the start of what was to become one of the first and famous experimental psychology laboratories. Wundt’s contemporary at the time was Franz Brentano—whose work inspired and led to Gestalt psychology. For detailed study on theories of Brentano and Wundt, see Titchener (1921).

  2. Aster (1908: 62) a contemporary critic, commented “Bühler’s... experiments... are an attempt to check and confirm Husserl’s phenomenology in an experimental way”.

  3. The distinction between the works of Würzburg school and Gestalt school, as pointed out by Simon (1999, p. 3), “the Würzburgers, by and large, were reductionists who sought explanations in the form of mechanisms and thought of themselves as biologists; the Berliners [Gestalt psychologists] were much more holistic in their outlook, and often anti-mechanistic in their language.”

  4. Carl Stumpf—the “grandfather of Gestalt psychology”, played a pivotal role in establishing the Berlin School of experimental psychology. His students include Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler, and others. Stumpf was a student of Franz Brentano; Brentano’s other students include Edmund Husserl, Christian von Ehrenfels, Sigmund Freud, and others. It is also interesting to note both Ehrenfels—who first formulated notions of Gestalt qualities (see von Ehrenfels 1890), and Husserl—founder of phenomenology, seem to have been inspired by Ernst Mach’s Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations, 1886), in formulating their very similar concepts of gestalt and figural moment, respectively. For more, see Humphrey (1951) and Smith (1988).

  5. Wertheimer got his doctoral degree under the supervision of Külpe at the University of Würzburg in 1904. His observation and study of phi phenomena (see Wertheimer 1912) is considered to be the origin of the Gestalt School. Wertheimer’s other pioneering work was with children in class (see Wertheimer, Productive Theory, 1945).

  6. Productive Thinking is a process involving understanding the phenomenal structure of the problem and the creation of new solutions; while, Reproductive Thinking is more of a mechanical application of associative thoughts that has been learnt from the past experience used to carry out routine tasks.

  7. Otto Selz wrote a postdoctoral thesis titled: “Über die Gesetze des geordneten Denkverlaufs” (On the laws of the ordered thought process) and worked under the guidance of Oswald Külpe in Bonn, 1910–1915.

  8. Selz’s model became a basis for de Groot’s Study on Chess, Karl Duncker’s Thinking and Newell–Simon’s Human Problem Solving research (cf., Newell and Simon 1972, p. 874).

  9. Newell (1967, pp. 803–804; Italics added) describes,

    Written as history a science gives the appearance of orderly movement performed to a stately dialectical minuet. Prior to the turn of the century psychology emerged from its subordination to philosophy. It was experimental, viewed itself as the science of the contents of the mind, and held to a theory of the association of ideas. Then occurred the reactions. Behaviorism kept the mechanistic flavor but rejected the mentalism, especially the use of introspection as an experimental technique. Gestalt theory, contrariwise, rejected the mechanistic analysis. This makes a rather pat picture of German and American psychology. But of course the diversity was in fact much greater; history simply trims it away.

    Otto Selz was one who was trimmed....

  10. In 1943, Selz though distinguished with the Iron Cross for his service in the World War I was arrested in Amsterdam and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Selz’s life ended tragedically even before reaching Auschwitz, on 27th August 1943.

  11. Selz’s and Duncker’s theories had a lot in common, so much in common that Selz read Duncker’s Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens, and wrote on April 4, 1935, to Bahle,

    You must read Dunker’s book on the psychology of productive thinking. His terms are often confessedly translations of mine. He sticks close to me even when he claims to diverge. So apparently my whole Work, parts of it somewhat watered down, is now taken over by the Berliners. On the whole, he has behaved fairly, but did not send the book to me. (See Simon 1999, p. 9)

    Though Selz felt Duncker’s theory was much closer to his theory than he claims, he thought Duncker was fair in quoting this work appropriately. In fact Selz had the second highest reference in Duncker’s book, only next to his mentor Köhler.

  12. Newell, in 1945, as a freshman at Stanford University attended Polya’s Mathematical methods in physical science—“[t]he course turned out to be Polya’s How to Solve It course”, and later recollects that Polya surely influenced him in all his early work (see Newell 1981, p. 2).

  13. Polya in his How to Solve It book “wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness and express his gratitude to a few modern authors, not quoted in the article on HEURISTIC. They are the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, the mathematician Jacques Hadamard, the psychologists William James and Wolfgang Köhler. He wishes also to quote the psychologist K. Duncker and the mathematician F. Krauss whose work (published after his own research was fairly advanced, and partly published) shows certain parallel remarks.” (1945: pp. 122–23)

  14. It is important to trace and understand the roots but it is more important to move forward as well. For which, one heuristic that has been of the first importance to Simon’s work which he enthusiastically recommends is,

    [t]o make interesting scientific discoveries, you should acquire as many good friends as possible, who are energetic, intelligent, and knowledgeable as they can be. Form partnerships with them whenever you can. Then sit back and relax. You will find that all the programs you need are stored in your friends, and will execute productively and creatively as long as you don’t interfere too much. Simon (1991, p. 387).


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Correspondence to Dharmaraj Navaneethakrishnan.

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I’m ever thankful to my mentor, and dear friend, Prof. K. Vela Velupillai for inspiring and guiding me through various aspects of this paper—including the central idea! Alas, even he is not responsible for the remaining mistakes and infelicities in the paper, which is all mine.

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Navaneethakrishnan, D. Human Problem-Solving: Standing on the Shoulders of the Giants. Comput Econ 57, 857–868 (2021).

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