Textbook authors frequently refer to Wilhelm Wundt as the father of modern, scientiﬁc psychology. This is due to his establishment at Leipzig, Germany, of the world’s ﬁrst psychological laboratory. Other scientists had begun to study the mind and the nervous system prior to this, but Wundt’s program, begun in 1879, was the ﬁrst degree granting laboratory science program devoted exclusively to psychology. Some authors make a case for William James (1842–1910) as the real founder of psychology, as he also established a psychology lab in 1879, but his was used primarily for classroom demonstrations rather than as part of a degree program in psychological research, so Wundt generally gets the credit.
In his lab Wundt devoted himself to the study of conscious experience, through the use of introspection. Introspection was approached very formally at Leipzig, with extensive training in self-observation and self-report required before a subject participated in Wundt’s experiments. The early psychologists were inspired by nineteenth-century progress in chemistry and the physical sciences, and so Wundt hoped to train his subjects to analyze their own conscious experiences into more basic elements. Wundt believed that once these elements were identiﬁed and the processes by which they were related and integrated became understood, the structure of conscious experience would no longer be a mystery. Because of this philosophical underpinning, Wundt’s approach to psychology became known as structuralism. Structuralist methods were applied primarily to the study of sensation and perception.
Wundt’s greatest contribution to psychology may be through the ideas and research he inspired in those who disagreed with him. His methods came to America with his student, E. B. Titchener, where they immediately came under ﬁre from James, who insisted that to break down conscious experience into its component parts was to remove the continuous, ﬂowing nature that is a deﬁning feature of consciousness. Meanwhile, back in Germany, a group of psychologists who became known as the Gestalt school made a similar argument, pointing out that the whole conscious experience was more than just the sum of its component parts. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) went in a different direction a few years later. Believing that much of what goes on in the human mind and motivates us to action is below the level of consciousness, Freud saw the method of introspection as incapable of truly illuminating the human mind, as it assumes that the subject is aware of his or her own thoughts and feelings and is able to articulate them.
Wundt’s ideas and methods have long since faded from psychology, but his status in the history of the discipline remains secure, thanks to his major contribution towards establishing psychology as a legitimate scientiﬁc discipline.
- Rieber, R. W., and Robinson, D. K., eds. Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientiﬁc Psychology. New York: Kluwer, 2001.