Wilhelm Wundt: The Father Of Psychology
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Wilhelm Wundt: The Father Of Psychology


We all have heard about Wilhelm Wundt, who is famously called the “Father of Psychology.” He could also be one of those very few psychologists that some of us may even know. The first information we may all know about Wilhelm Wundt is that he was the first to build a laboratory exclusively for psychological research in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. Not many of us, however, may have an idea about Wundt’s early life, his education, his academic research, and many other elements of his personal and professional life. Through this article, let us delve deep into the not-most-known life of Wilhelm Wundt.

Early Life and Career

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was born in Neckarau, a neighbourhood of Mannheim’s business centre, on August 16, 1832. When he was 4, he and his family relocated to the little village of Heilsheim. He was born as the fourth and final child of a Lutheran priest.  Despite growing up in an intellectually stimulating environment, Wundt remained shy reserved, and mostly introverted. Wundt’s lone surviving sibling was an eight-year-old brother who left to attend school. When Wundt was around eight years old, his education was handed over to a young priest from his father’s church, who later became his closest friend in life.

Wundt’s first year in high school was disastrous. The following year, he resumed high school in Heidelberg and performed well in academics although his performance was far from anything extraordinary. After graduating from high school, Wundt enrolled in the University of Tübingen’s pre-med program. He stayed for a year before transferring to the University of Heidelberg. In 1855, Wundt received his medical degree and moved to Berlin to study under Johannes Müller. Müller’s influence led him to pursue a career in experimental physiology rather than medicine.  Wundt taught psychology as a natural science and published his work in 1862.

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Wilhelm Wundt’s journey in Experimental Psychology:

His first book was titled “Contributions to the Theory of Sense Perception.” Wundt taught in Heidelberg until 1874, when he acquired a position in inductive philosophy at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. The next year, he was offered a position to teach scientific philosophy at the University of Leipzig.  In 1875, Wundt was unable to teach experimental psychology in Leipzig due to a lack of space for his equipment. The following year, he secured the necessary room and started teaching experimental psychology. By 1879, his laboratory was fully operational. He even began supervision of research works done by his students. Wundt named his laboratory the Institute for Experimental Psychology.

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The university administration initially did not support Wundt’s institute, which was not included in the university catalogue until 1883. The Institute, however, became popular and Wundt’s classes had a grand number of students attending them. In 1881, Wundt founded the journal Philosophical Studies, the first dedicated to experimental psychology. The publication’s title, Psychological Studies, was already used by another journal that focused on spiritualism and parapsychology.  Wundt then renamed his journal Psychological Studies to better reflect its content. By 1897, Wundt dominated experimental psychology and continued the feat for about 30 years. During his time in Leipzig, Wundt supervised 186 doctoral dissertations, including 70 in philosophy and 116 in psychology. His psychology students pioneered experimental psychology around the world.

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Nuances of Academic Life

1. Voluntarism

As Wundt’s new psychology became known, Voluntarism focused on the unique subject of an adult’s immediate conscious experiences, which were explored through rigorous introspection. According to Wundt, our immediate conscious experience comprises sensations related to “external things” (stimuli) and affect or feelings. Ideas are formed by combining senses based on memory or previous associations of sensations. In Wundt’s laboratory, the active combination of these conscious components was known as apperception. This school of study later influenced the rise of structuralism, which was mostly pioneered by Edward Titchener. 

2. Mediate & Immediate experiences

Wundt, through his early years in psychology, differentiated between two types of experiences and propagated that just like how other sciences are based on experiences, scientific psychology is also based on experiences. He categorized experiences into mediate and immediate ones. He believed that while other scientific disciplines are based on mediate experiences, scientific psychology is based on immediate experiences. According to Wundt, the subject matter of psychology was human consciousness, which he believed must be recorded as it occurred, translating into immediate experiences.

3. Volkerpsychologie

While Wundt agreed that experimental psychology can be utilized to understand immediate consciousness, however, to analyze and comprehend higher mental processes, the same would not work well. For the latter, analysis and comprehension can be best done through historical analysis and naturalistic observation. These topics were thoroughly researched during the last 20 years of Wundt’s life and his conclusions were brought together into Volkerpsychologie, a 10-volume culmination of all his research.

4. Introspection

Introspection has always been a matter of curiosity for everyone when they first get to know the concept. Wundt’s psychology was also heavily criticized, questioning the science of introspection. But what exactly was Wundt’s introspection? He had divided the concept into 2 types- pure and experimental introspection. Also, he was totally against the usage of pure introspection which was an unstructured form of introspection used by philosophers. He propagated the usage of experimental introspection which made use of laboratory apparatus to improve the accuracy of internal perception, similar to the psychophysical research initiated by Helmholtz. Typically, simply stating “yes” or “no” to an occurrence was sufficient, with no need for a detailed account of interior happenings. Occasionally, the individual replied by pressing a telegraph key. Ideally, introspection should be as precise as exterior perception.

Wilhelm Wundt played a significant role in the development of psychology.  Wundt made significant contributions to psychology by making it into a genuine discipline.  Most notable, and maybe most important, was his analysis of experimental psychology and its relationship to physiology. The scope of Wundt’s work is far too large to completely analyze in this brief review.  Wundt’s prolific nature earns him respect in psychology, philosophy, and many other related fields.  Wilhelm Wundt’s life is significant since it contributed significantly to the current and future success of psychology.

References +
  • Voluntarism and Structuralism | 14 | A History of Psychology | Robert (taylorfrancis.com)
  • introduction to the history of psychology- BR Hergenhahn

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