The Founding of Experimental Psychology: Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was a German physiologist and Psychologist who made Psychology a field of its own. He was the first person in history to be called a “psychologist,” as well as the first person to teach a course in Physiological Psychology at Heidelberg in 1867. Wundt established psychology as a unique branch of science with its own questions and methods. “Wundt set out purposively to establish a new science. As founder he took it as his right to redefine the first paradigm in Psychology, Structuralism.” (Hevern, 2003) Wundt is a problematic figure at many levels; he established the first laboratory in Psychology, even though his research was ignored for a majority of the last century, he attracted some of the most important students of early psychology in which many of his students rejected his ideas, and most importantly he spent a majority of his life working intensively on a culturally sensitive approach to psychology and almost having complete rejection of his approach while he was alive. (Hevern, 2003)
Wundt was born in Neckarau in southwest Germany on August 16, 1832. He was an average student who eventually trained professionally in medicine under his uncle who was a noted physiologist. Once Wundt received his medical degree in 1855, he spent a semester in Berlin with 2 pioneer physiologists. Between the years 1858 and 1864, he assisted Herman Helmholtz, in Heidelberg. During his years with Helmholtz, he began writing several important books based on his new vision of Psychology. (Hevern, 2003)
In the winter of 1867, Wundt lectured on physiological psychology, which five years later he used the course title when writing his book he proclaimed to be a “new domain of science.”(Rieber, 64) Wundt was the first person to take all of the nineteenth century’s sproutings of the new psychology onto the old and creating his new science, and published a book on physiological psychology. The books reviews were positive saying that Wundt had “defined the scope and tasks of physiological psychology to come, and that his book would be influential in directing the work of many younger psychologists who shared the same objective.” (Rieber, 60) Wundt continued to write and ended up with several important volumes based on his new science, his first called Contributions Towards A Theory Of Sense Perception, which created a vision of psychology as a field of its own containing three general subdivisions. In the first division of his book, psychology would follow the principles of the physical sciences and be conducted as an experimental science. The main focus of this psychology would involve mental processes, which were important to experimental observation, and manipulation such as reaction time to stimuli. The second edition, Wundt pictured psychology paired with the tradition of the social sciences. This involved the higher or more complex mental processes. These could no be brought under direct control in the laboratory. Example of these metal processes he is referring to would be religion, social practices, and language. This study of psychology required other methods of investigation such as historical records and naturalistic observation in the field. This was termed the comparative historical approach. The final form of psychology Wundt called scientific metaphysics. This form of psychology would be used to integrate the empirical work in the lab with other scientific findings. (Boring, 310-335)
After Wundt worked in Helmholtz lab in Heidelberg, he became a tutor in physiology, which he eventually stopped doing in 1875 because of his move to his “final academic home” in Leipzig. (Hevern, 2003) Here he took up a chair in philosophy at the University. While at Leipzig, the university allowed Wundt to use one of their rooms to store his instruments and equipment that he used for demonstrations in his lectures. In 1879, he began using the room to conduct experiments that did not have anything to do with his lectures at the time. This day in 1879 has come to be regarded as the day the first experimental laboratory in psychology was founded. It did not become an official laboratory until 1885 when the university recognized it in the schools catalogue. It had been done, Wundt redefined the first paradigm in psychology, structuralism. “In the beginning of the Wundtian laboratory, experimental psychology was no more nor less than the results that the laboratory yielded …For all this, there is mere evidence that the historical weight of Wundtian psychology has, because of its priority, been more influential than the mere mass of its discovered facts would require.” (Boring, 340) As seen Wundt’s ideas regarding his new science were not widely accepted. There was not much positive talk about his discoveries. (Hevern, 2003)
Continuing his research due to his belief that “the mind is a creative, dynamic, and volitional force…must understood through an analysis of its activity-its processes,”(Hevern, 2003) Wundt published ten volumes entitled Volkerpsychologie, translated as “folk psychology.” Wundt stated the folk psychology “traces the lawful development through cultural participation, or higher human mental processes.” (Hevern, 2003) Within these volumes written by Wundt, he shared a belief with other theorists that the movement of human societies follows historical stages. The description of these stages, according to Wundt, was very similar to the forms and complexity of language and its development. His classification of historical development identified four stages: the age of primitive man, the Totemic age, The Age of Gods and Heroes, and The Present Age. To get the information to create these stages which serve to portray developmental stages seen across diverse human cultures and to provide and understanding of the cultural influences put upon individuals within different national communities, Wundt gathered data from social scientists. Once again Wundt’s ideas seen in Volkerpsychologie were ignored. In 1915 Wundt retired from his academic chair at Leipzig, but continued writing in hopes to be accepted until his death in 1920 at the age of eighty-eight. (Hevern, 2003)
Structuralism has its earlier roots in physiology where there was success studying sensory perception by manipulating stimuli and having subjects report about their experiences. Wundt took this background psychology and redefined psychology as “the study of the structure of conscious experience. The goal was to find the atoms of conscience experience, and from there to build a knowledge of how the atoms combine to create our experience.” (Hevern, 2003) Psychology being defined as the study of experiences, Wundt turned to introspection as the tool for gathering data, since outside observers could not gather information on a subjective experience. Structuralism attempted to study the mental world with introspection. “It attempted to use that data to fit into the mechanical realm of science.” (Hevern, 2003) It ended up not being successful due to the fact that the “introspectors” could not agree on the data gathered, therefore the necessary scientific conformation of results found in other laboratories could not be met. In 1927, this first paradigm of psychology, structuralism, basically ended with the death of Wundt’s most devoted follower, E.B. Titchener, who gave Wundt’s theory on the method of psychology a precise systematic expression. Wundt was a major influence to the study of psychology as a whole, and from his discoveries we have and will continue to build a better view on the study of psychology. “Structuralism sought to analyze the adult mind (defined as the sum total of experience from birth to the present) in terms of the simplest definable components and then to find the way in which these components fit together in complex forms.”(Structuralism, Britannica) From the information Wundt provided for us, the field of experimental psychology was able to grow and develop even more. (Hevern, 2003)
Blumenthal, Arthur. Wilhelm Wundt and the Making of a Scientific Psychology. Ed. R.W. Rieber. New York: Columbia University, 1980.
Boring, Edwin. A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: The Century Company, 1929.
Narrative Psychology: Internet and resource guide. Ed. Vincent W. Hevern. July 2003. <http://web.lemoyne.edu/~hevern/nr-theorists/wundtwilhelm.html>.
Structuralism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Feb. 2004.