Wilhelm Wundt was a German philosopher, physiologist, physician, and professor who is widely considered to be the “father of experimental psychology.” He played a major role in establishing psychology as a discipline that is independent of philosophy and was the first person to study the mind using the scientific method. Wundt wrote the first textbook on experimental psychology, established the first laboratory for psychology research, founded the first academic journal for psychology research, and was the first person to refer to himself as a psychologist. He is universally recognized as one of the most eminent and influential people in the history of psychology.
Wilhelm Wundt's Childhood
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was born on August 16, 1832 in Neckarau, a suburb of Mannheim, Germany. His parents were Maximilian Wundt and Maria Friederike Arnold Wundt. Wundt was his parents’ fourth child. He had two older brothers and an older sister.
Although he had siblings, Wundt grew up much like an only child. One of his three siblings died before he was born and another died when he was very young. Wundt’s surviving older brother, Ludwig, was sent away at the age of ten to live with an aunt in Heidelberg so that he could continue his schooling. Wundt was two years old when Ludwig left home.
Wundt’s father, Maximilian, was a Lutheran minister. However, the occupation was somewhat forced upon him as his older brother did not pursue theology. This left Maximilian with the obligation of carrying on the family’s long history in pastoral life. Interestingly, the Wundts who had previously served as pastors had also been heavily involved in higher education.
Despite his family history, Maximilian was described as a man who lacked ambition and was not a high achiever. This is perhaps due to the fact that he never managed to reach the academic and professional heights of his predecessors. However, Maximilian did have many fine qualities that his family appreciated. Wundt remembered his father as a very loving and jovial man who was often generous to a fault.
Wundt’s mother, Maria, came from a family of modest wealth. When she was a child, she had a governess who taught her French. Wundt recalled that his mother was the person who managed the family’s meagre expenses and took charge of his education. Wundt had a vivid memory of getting disciplined by his mother before being lovingly consoled by his father.
When Wundt was between the ages of four and six, his family moved to the more rural town of Heidensheim. Wundt attended the local village school for two years before his education was taken over by his father’s vicar, Friedrich Müller. He became so attached to his tutor that when Müller moved to a nearby village in Münzesheim, Wundt’s distress caused his parents to allow him to live with his teacher so that he could continue his education. Müller taught Wundt until he was thirteen years old.
As a boy, Wundt did not have many friends who were in his age group. He had a timid personality and preferred to spend his free time doing useful tasks around the house rather than playing. The only friend he seemed to have was a young boy who was described as “mentally retarded with a defective speech.” However, Wundt was often surrounded by adult family members, several of whom took an interest in his education and development.
Wundt loved to read and had a voracious appetite for the books in his father’s library. By the time he was ten years old, he was already reading Shakespeare. As Wundt spent much of his time alone, he often engaged in daydreaming. He also developed a keen awareness of his own mental and emotional processes.
At age thirteen Wundt was sent to boarding school at the gymnasium at Bruchsal. While he was there he was extremely homesick, made no friends, and got very poor grades. One teacher kindly suggested that becoming a postman would be an appropriate career choice for a child of Wundt’s abilities. Wundt felt so overwhelmed that he once ran away from school, but his mother brought him back soon after.
At the end of the school year, Wundt’s parents made the decision to send him to the gymnasium at Heidelberg to study with his more serious-minded older brother Ludwig. Sadly, Wundt’s father passed away roughly one year later. Although Wundt was deeply affected by the death of his father, he managed to make a few friends at school and started participating in extracurricular activities. He enjoyed his years at the gymnasium in Heidelberg and felt as if he had been reborn.
When Wundt left the Heidelberg gymnasium as a nineteen year old, he knew that he needed to decide what type of career he would pursue. Many men in his family had served as pastors, but that career choice was not to his liking. He didn’t want to become a teacher either because he strongly disliked the school environment. He considered a literary career, but he decided against it because he felt that such a career was too uncertain and he would need significant financial aid that his widowed mother could not afford.
Wundt recognized that if he wanted to go to college and eventually pursue a professional career, he would need financial assistance from his mother’s family, the Arnolds. He was also very aware that he had to suggest a university and a career that the Arnold family approved of if he hoped to get their help. Many of Wundt’s family members attended the University of Heidelberg and a few of them had even served on the faculty. However, Wundt dreaded the idea of going there because he did not want to be compared with his other family members who had also attended that university.
Much to Wundt’s delight, there were two occurences that helped him to escape Heidelberg. The first is that his grades were so mediocre that he did not qualify for state financial aid to attend the local university in Heidelberg. Had he qualified, he would have had little choice but to go. So while his mother may have been disappointed at this seemingly negative outcome, Wundt was secretly overjoyed by it.
The second circumstance that helped Wundt to leave Heidelberg is that his uncle, Freidrich Arnold, was teaching physiology and anatomy at the University of Tübingen. Wundt reasoned that if he chose to study medicine, the Arnolds would approve of his career choice and it would seem natural that he would want to study at the institution where his uncle was already located. He eventually declared his intentions and his family accepted his decision. Unknown to the Arnolds, Wundt had concocted the perfect excuse to get away from them while still receiving their financial assistance.
Freidrich Arnold had a positive influence on Wundt. With his help and guidance, Wundt became a serious student who had a passion for anatomy. After one year, however, Freidrich Arnold accepted a position as director of Heidelberg’s Anatomical Institute. This meant that Wundt had little choice but to follow his uncle to the University of Heidelberg despite his earlier efforts to put some distance between himself and the rest of the Arnold family.
Although Wundt was now a diligent student, he had to make up several courses in science and mathematics when he transferred to the University of Heidelberg. The primary reason for this is that he had neglected these subjects while he was a teenager at the gymnasium. He acquired a private tutor to help him with mathematics while he did lab work and attended lectures in chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and physics.
The arrival of chemistry professor Robert Bunsen (after whom the Bunsen burner was named) increased Wundt’s love for chemistry. He was so enthused by Bunsen that he briefly considered switching his career path from physiology to chemistry. Interestingly, Wundt’s first published paper in 1853 was on the chemistry of urine.
Despite the allures of chemistry, Wundt decided to keep his focus on medicine. In 1855, he passed his state exams for admission to the practice of medicine. In addition to the state exams, there were three separate exams in surgery, obstetrics, and internal medicine. Incredibly, Wundt received the highest test score in each examination.
Once Wundt passed his exams, the Arnold family suggested that he should press forward with his medical career and help support his elderly mother. However Wundt doubted his ability to practice medicine long-term. He would have been happy to become a military doctor as it was peace time and he didn’t think he could cause much harm to healthy young soldiers. However, no such positions were available.
Wundt eventually agreed to work at a local hospital in place of a colleague who needed to study for his medical exams. He worked long hours to gain as much practical experience as he could. On one occasion, a sleep-deprived Wundt mistakenly administered iodine to a patient who needed narcotics. Although the patient was not harmed, the experience haunted Wundt and made him hesitant about entering medical practice full time.
A second event occurred at the hospital that made Wundt question his future as a medical practitioner. It occurred during the hours he spent observing patients who had sensory paralysis due to leg injuries. Wundt recognized that some of the issues these patients had could not be completely accounted for by a physiological hypothesis. He concluded that a psychological explanation was needed and he wanted to go search for it.
Before long, Wundt was itching to leave medical practice and become a research physiologist. However, the Arnolds were unwilling to keep paying for his education. Wundt decided to scrape together his own meagre resources and pay for one semester of schooling in Berlin. At the University of Berlin he studied physiology under Johannes Müller, who is considered to be the father of experimental physiology.
In 1856, Wundt earned his doctorate in medicine at the University of Heidelberg. He then joined the faculty in 1857 and became an assistant to renowned physiologist and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1858. Wundt was given the position of associate professor for anthropology and medical psychology in 1864. He continued to work as Helmholtz’s assistant until 1865.
When Helmholtz moved to Berlin in 1871, Wundt was overlooked as his replacement. So in 1874, Wundt accepted the position as chair of inductive philosophy at the University of Zürich. One year later, he became the first-class chair of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. In 1876, the university provided Wundt with a lab to store equipment he had brought with him from Zurich.
Within three years, Wundt’s little equipment room developed into a bonafide laboratory for psychological research. It was officially recognized by the University of Leipzig in 1879. Soon after, students from all over the world began to flock to Wundt’s classes. Enrollment in his courses doubled every 15 years and reached a peak of 620 students in 1912.
Between 1885 and 1909, Wundt had up to 15 graduate students serving as his assistants. The lab, now referred to as the Psychological Institute, grew until it encompassed eleven rooms. It was not long before the lab had to be moved to a new building. Wundt spent the rest of his professional career conducting research at the University of Leipzig.
Wundt’s Psychological Model
Wundt wanted to study the human mind in a more structured manner than was offered by philosophy. His focus was on things that he could control and measure. His lab attracted students from Germany, Britain and the United States. As a result, most early psychology labs around the world mimicked Wundt’s original design.
According to Wundt, psychology involved the scientific study of conscious experience. He believed that the field could be separated into two major categories:
Experimental psychology - which included the study of sensation, perception, attention, feelings, and reaction time
Cultural psychology - which included the study of customs, language, and myth
Wundt’s goal was to record sensations and thoughts before dismantling them into smaller elements that could be better understood. He was a believer in reductionism—that a person’s consciousness could be broken down into smaller pieces without losing any features of the whole.
In his research, Wundt distinguished between immediate and mediate experiences. Immediate experiences are based on pure, unbiased sensory input. An example of an immediate experience is → “I see something that is round and red.”
Mediate experiences rely on an interpretation of sensory input. An example of a mediate experience is → “I see an apple.” (note: the sensory inputs “round” and “red” have been interpreted to mean “apple.”
Just as there is a periodic table of elements in chemistry, Wundt wanted to catalog all the basic immediate experiences that he could. He believed the best way to learn about consciousness was through introspection. Introspection means “to look within” and it involves observing the operations of one’s own mind in order to find out how the mind works.
To collect the data he needed, Wundt observed simple processes under careful conditions that he could replicate. For example, he would expose trained observers to lights, sounds, or other stimuli and ask them to report their sensations, feelings, and thoughts. To determine how complex a certain mental operation was, Wundt measured and tracked the reaction times of his observers. Observers had to make 10,000 observations before they were considered fully trained.
In his model of psychology, Wundt claimed that the basic components of consciousness (the immediate experiences) could be organized into more complex thoughts. The process by which the human mind puts new information in context is called apperception. Apperception involves associating perceptions (information from the eyes or other sense organs) with ideas and experiences you had before. For example, seeing moldy cheese in the fridge is a perception; knowing that moldy cheese will make you throw up if you eat it is an apperception.
Although Wundt reasoned that immediate experiences could be organized into higher-level thoughts, he did not think that this process occurred mechanically. Rather, he claimed that the human will is vital to the organizing process. According to Wundt, will is the aspect of humans that allows them to direct their attention wherever they wish. As Wundt believed that the process of apperception is an act of will or free choice, his psychological school of thought was referred to as voluntarism.
Applications of Wundt’s Approach
Wundt’s greatest contribution to the field of psychology was his clear demonstration that the human mind could be studied using scientific methods. He also set new standards in research by emphasizing that psychology experiments should be conducted in carefully controlled settings. Wundt’s methods encouraged other researchers—particularly supporters of behaviorism—to take the same scientific approach when conducting their studies. Over time this helped to establish psychology as a valid experimental science.
In his experiments, Wundt focused on three aspects of mental functioning: images, thoughts, and feelings. These three areas are still being investigated by modern day researchers in fields such as cognitive psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, economics, and linguistics. Therefore, it can be said that Wundt pioneered scientific exploration into these areas.
Wundt’s work also influenced other psychological schools of thought. One of his most famous students, Edward Bradford Titchener, established Structuralism after he became a professor at Cornell University. According to Titchener, Structuralism was a refined extension of Wundt’s work. Functionalism soon appeared as a psychological school of thought that was in opposition to Structuralism.
Criticisms of Wundt’s Approach
One of the main criticisms of Wundt’s approach is that he paid little attention to parts of psychology that he did not find appealing. For example, while Wundlt studied consciousness extensively, he largely ignored the unconscious mind. He also showed little interest in other branches of psychology that were coming to the fore such as educational psychology and child psychology.
While Wundt laid the foundation for future researchers by encouraging a scientific approach to the study of psychology, many of his own theories are no longer accepted today. For example, introspection was largely discarded as a tool of psychology experimentation in the 1920s. Behaviorists such as Skinner argued that introspection produced subjective results that cannot be verified as the results changed depending on who was being tested. According to Skinner, behavior must be seen in order for it to be objectively measured.
Titchener (Wundt’s former student) criticized Wundt’s methodology as he felt it was too confusing. Other critics claim that Wundt could have put greater effort into getting more accurate results. Wundt’s belief in reductionism has also been challenged by other researchers. For example, gestalt psychologists argue that the mind cannot be broken down into individual elements.
Wilhelm Wundt's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Wundt authored several books on physiology, philosophy, and psychology. Some of his most well-known works are:
- Textbook of Human Physiology, 1864
- Principles of Physiological Psychology, 1874
- System of Philosophy, 1889
- Logic. An investigation into the principles of knowledge and the methods of scientific research, 1886
- Ethics, 1886
- Outline of Psychology, 1896
- Cultural Psychology. An investigation into developmental laws of language, myth, and conduct, 1900
In addition to his doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg, Wundt received honorary doctorates from the University of Leipzig and the University of Göttingen.
Wundt’s other awards and accomplishments include:
- Pour le Mérite for Science and Arts
- Honorary membership in 12 Scientific Societies
- Membership in 13 Academies in Germany and foreign countries
- The asteroids 635 Vundita and 11040 Wundt are named after Wilhelm Wundt to honor him.
Wilhelm Wundt married Sophie Mau on August 14, 1872. They had three children together—Eleanor, Louise, and Max. Louise died in 1884 when she was only four years old. Eleanor grew up to become an assistant to her father. Max enjoyed a career as a professor of philosophy.
Wundt retired from teaching in 1917 so that he could focus on his scientific writing. Three years later, he commented that he felt as if his vitality was waning. Wilhelm Wundt died on August 3, 1920. He was eighty-eight years old. He is buried alongside his wife Sophie in Südfriedhof, the largest cemetery in Leipzig.
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