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Wilhelm Wundt and Experimental Psychology Essay Example

The Historical Background of Experimental Psychology

Psychology deals with concepts that have attracted the human interest throughout the history of human civilization. In the early stages, psychology was developing as a part of philosophy. According to Baker (2012), philosophical studies that dealt with subjects typical for psychology developed in such countries as Persia, China, India, Egypt, and Greece. Many famous Greek philosophers, for instance, Plato, Thales, and Aristotle, addressed the issue of human mind. Hippocrates stated that mental disorders had physical causes and not supernatural as it was commonly believed at that time. In China, psychology developed from the philosophies of Confucius and Laozi, as well as from the ideas of Buddhism. Indian doctrines influenced by Hinduism affected Western and American thinking in the fields of philosophy and psychology. Psychology gained special popularity at the period of Enlightenment in Europe. According to Baker (2012), Gottfried Leibniz was trying to apply some scientific principles to the functions of human mind; he compared the human mind with the principles of calculus. Christian Wolff was an author of some works where he named psychology a science. Immanuel Kant considered psychology to be a part of anthropology, but underestimated the value of experimental psychology. This branch of psychology was also undervalued in Prussia where psychology was established as a mandatory discipline and in England where phrenology attempted to solve social issues. In modern psychology, experimental psychology is just one of the vast variety of fields, but in fact it is the one, which has laid the foundation of psychology as a science. A significant role in establishing experimental psychology has been played by a famous scientist Wilhelm Wundt and in this paper his legacy and its considerable effect upon the establishment of modern psychology will be described.

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Wilhelm Wundt was an outstanding German physiologist, philosopher, physician, and professor. He distinguished psychology from biology and philosophy and therefore is considered to be one of the founders of this science. Besides, according to Zalta (2012), Wundt is often called the “father of experimental psychology”. He achieved this by creating the first formal laboratory for psychological research, which had a significant value in the history of psychology. The variety of scientific interests of Wundt is amazing. His ideas are still popular in the spheres of psychology, physiology, and philosophy. The size of Wundt’s legacy is amazing. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

His writings, totaling an estimated 53,000 pages, include: articles on animal and human physiology, poisons, vision, spiritualism, hypnotism, history, and politics; text- and handbooks of “medical physics” and human physiology; encyclopedic tomes on linguistics, logic, ethics, religion, a “system of philosophy;” not to mention his magna opera, the Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie and the Völkerpsychologie (in ten volumes). (Zalta, 2012, p. 167)

The Scientific Findings of Wilhelm Wundt

In the field of psychology, Wundt is the author of many interesting ideas and concepts and not all of them are widely recognized. He disagreed with Kant that it was impossible to study and investigate mental processes through experiments because Wundt accepted the Spinozan theory of psychophysical parallelism, which stated that physical and mental processes in human body were tightly connected and depended on each other. At the time when Wundt conducted his research, it was common to believe that sensations were something that took place outside the mind. For this reason, Wundt called his experiments of observation introspection. According to Wundt and his students, this method must include the following features: the observer must be aware of the beginning and the end of the experiment, keep the attention strained; every unusual case found in the process of experiment must have the option of repetition and be capable of variation. In fact, nowadays this method is not considered to be scientific because of its subjectivity and unreliability resulting from its non-empirical nature. Through the experiments Wundt investigated such concepts as sensation and perception and this actually laid the foundation of experimental psychology. Wundt and his students also dealt with such things as feelings, associations, attention, and reaction time. The experimenters defined seven characteristics of sensations: visual, cutaneous, auditory, organic, gustatory, kinesthetic, and olfactory. Some of them had their own features, for instance, vision might possess different saturation, value, and hue. All sensations might have unequal duration, intensity, extension, and vividness. Wundt and his students described such mental processes as attention, short-term memory, and others. They even measured the capacity of short-time memory, which was revolutionary for that time. Scientists noticed the results of this Wundt’s research only centuries after it had been made. Wundt’s ideas became the foundation of the concept of structuralism in psychology, but the concept of functionalism was more popular in the American psychology and nowadays structuralism is spread mainly in the European science.

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In his works, Wundt often applied the principle of actuality, which claimed consciousness to be reality. Wundt considered consciousness to be the subject of psychology. He believed that consciousness and mental activities had no connections to physical laws. Nevertheless, the fact that psychology appeared from biology, physics, and chemistry resulted in the issue of creative synthesis, which was, according to Wundt, a feature of consciousness. He also believed that consciousness consisted of two parts: the first one is working memory and the second part is a thing that might be called selective attention. This attention is controlled by one’s will and operates within the first part of consciousness. Wundt’s idea about selective attention had a significant influence upon the development of psychological science, for instance, in Kraepelin’s findings about schizophrenia as an attention disorder.
Another important part of the Wundt’s legacy is his ideas in the sphere of psycholinguistics, which is another area that is growing in popularity in modern science. Wundt stated that sentence was a fundamental unit of language. Words, sounds, and morphemes are processed by human mind only if they are a part of a sentence. Wundt, in fact, invented the tree diagram of syntax, which includes the subject and the predicate as subdivisions of a sentence. Moreover, Wundt and his students investigated the language of small children and presumed that language originated from emotional sounds and gestures. This theory is quite popular in the contemporary linguistics.

Besides, Wundt dealt with the concept of emotions in his works. He believed that a human being is an emotional creature and emotions are a part of all mental activities. Wundt operated the same terms as psychologists use now to describe human emotional experiences: feelings, moods, emotions, and motivations. He believed that motivations influenced the human behavior. Wundt found it impossible to classify emotions, but identified three pairs that could help to describe them: high and low arousal, pleasure and displeasure, as well as strained and relaxed attention.
Furthermore, Wundt understood the importance of volition and invented the theory, which he called voluntaristic psychology. Volition is a person’s will and it influences taking decisions and making choices. Volitional acts can be very simple such as impulses and reflexive act and more complicated, for instance, decisions. Very often, a complex act that requires a lot of control turns into a simple habitual action after being repeated many times.

In his scientific findings, Wundt concentrated not only on the experimental psychology. He understood clearly that it was only a part of the range of fields that psychology might include. Wundt was also interested in social or cultural psychology. Applying psychology to clarifying the nature of social problems and finding their solutions is not Wundt’s invention. It was quite popular at that time and earlier in many European scientific communities. Moreover, Wundt paid a lot of attention to the connection between psychology and culture, which is still very popular nowadays as a field of study. He realized that there is some connection between the human mind and the products of culture such as mythology, art, literature, various rituals, and cultural practices. He even included ideas about the stages of cultural development in his works.

Influence of Wundt on the Development of Psychology

Wundt’s contribution to psychology is not limited to his experiments alone. He also made efforts to promote psychology as a science among his students, assisted them in their psychological researches, supervised doctoral dissertations in psychology, and began university courses of experimental psychology. Besides, he established the journal Philosophische Studien.
Wundt was a teacher to such widely known scientists as Oswald Külpe and Hugo Munsterberg, Russian researches Bekhterev and Pavlov who worked in the field of behaviorism, and Americans such as Hall who is considered to be the “father” of developmental psychology in the US, James McKeen Cattell, Lightner Witmer who established the first psychological clinic in America, and E. B. Titchener who translated Wundt’s works from German into English, misinterpreting them and changing the text wrote by Wundt for his needs.

The influence of Wundt’s legacy on the development and establishment of psychology is apparent although many of his ideas are very controversial. Schultz (1975) wrote: “That so much of the history of psychology following Wundt consisted of opposition to his view of psychology does not detract from his achievements and contributions” (p. 53). Nowadays, Wundt’s ideas are becoming more and more popular and widely-known, especially in the US. In the previous century, Wundt’s works remained in the shadow because they were poorly represented by American students who studied in Germany. The translation of Wundt’s work from German into English and their presentation to the scientific communities were very difficult because many of the Wundt’s ideas were revolutionary and relatively complicated. Another drawback was that the most recognized person who represented the ideas of Wundt to the English-speaking community was the Wundt’s one-time student Edward Bradford Titchener. He is famous mostly for creating such version of psychology as structuralism. Titchener’s theories were significantly influenced by Wundt’s works, especially by the concept of voluntarism and suggestions about the parts of consciousness. Titchener is responsible for mistranslations of Wundt’s works, which supported his ideas. Moreover, Titchener was trying to lessen the value of Wundt’s works by stating that he was subjective in his researches and neglected important data and theoretical constructions if they contradicted with his ideas or theories. However, despite all this, Titchener (1921) agreed that Wundt’s contribution to psychology was extremely significant:

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And for that reason I believe that when Wundt’s special theories have utterly perished his fame will still endure; it will endure because for all the hampering influence of the past, he established a new point of view and from it surveyed the whole scientific and philosophical domain. In this sense I am prepared to say that Wundt is the founder, not of experimental psychology alone, but of psychology. (p. 177)

Famous American historian of psychology Boring wrote that “before him (Wundt) there had been psychology enough but no psychologists” (p.287). English-speaking scientific community needed many years to obtain proper translations of Wundt’s works and become familiar with his ideas. Nowadays, psychology is very different from what it used to be in the time when Wundt wrote his works and many scientists found some of his theories to be doubtful. Nevertheless, his major work Physiological Psychology is considered to be a classical and fundamental source in psychological studies. Titchener (1921) also claimed that he and his peers could not judge Wundt and his legacy because they lived and work at the same time and knew each other: “we stand to near to Wundt to see him in a just perspective” (p. 176). Unlike Titchener and his colleagues, the current generation is more unbiased in estimating the significance of the Wundt’s legacy.


To sum up, psychology has been developing as a part of philosophy virtually all over the world in different historian periods and in various religious systems, but as a science it appeared only in the 19th century when the first laboratory of experimental psychology was established by Wilhelm Wundt. Apart from creating the first psychological laboratory, Wundt also did a lot to promote psychology as a separate science, established the first journal of psychology, and assisted scientists who wrote their doctoral dissertations in psychology. Wundt was a teacher of many famous psychologists. Size of the Wundt’s legacy is huge because of the wide variety of subjects that he investigated. They include philosophy, physiology, physics, linguistics, art and culture, politics, history, biology, and others. Nowadays, Wundt’s ideas are valued not only in psychology, but also in philosophy and linguistics.

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Wundt accepted the theory of psychophysical parallelism and believed that every mental process had its physical counterpart. He claimed it was possible to investigate the nature of consciousness through various experiments made in laboratory. Wundt called his method introspection, but in fact it was observation. In the contemporary science, this method is not considered to be scientific because of the lack of objectivity. Wundt and his students investigated such mental activities as perception, sensations, attention, memory, and others. They defined and described characteristics of sensations and the capacity of short-term memory. Wundt’s ideas about the multiple nature of consciousness laid the foundation of structuralism. He defined consciousness as a subject of psychology and claimed that it had dual nature. His theory about selective attention has also become very influential. Wundt is also famous for his findings in the sphere of linguistics; he stated that a sentence was a fundamental unit of language. Wundt also suggested that language appeared from emotional sounds and gestures after watching the language of small children. He also wrote about emotions, motivation and invented the theory, which was named voluntaristic psychology whereby he presumed how human habits appeared. Many people think that in his works Wundt was only concentrated on experimental psychology, but the reality is quite different. He also paid a lot of attention to social psychology, which was relatively common for that period of time and for cultural psychology. Wundt believed that the products of human culture reflected common features of human mind. He included the list of stages of cultural development in his works.

For many years, Wundt’s works were not commonly known in the US for a range of reasons. The first of them is the lack of adequate translations and interpretations. Titchener who was the author of such theory as structuralism misrepresented Wundt’s works and lessened the value of his research even though Titchener’s ideas were based on Wundt’s findings. Another reason why Wundt was not very known in America is the prevailing of functionalism, which contradicts with structuralism. Wundt’s works have become recognized only nowadays and they are becoming more and more popular. Some scientists argue about the accuracy of Wundt’s ideas, but his considerable influence upon the development of psychology and its establishment as a science remains beyond doubt.


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