Who Was Wilhelm Wundt?

Wilhelm Wundt was the Father of Psychology. Learn more about his life.

Wundt founded the first psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. His strength was in organization, not innovation. It should be said that he was not the only founder of psychology as a scientific discipline.

Other researchers, most notably Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) were also involved. Fechner believed that the human mind could be studied scientifically by manipulating the stimuli a person observed and watching and categorizing the resulting behavior.

For Wundt, the conscious experience of the intelligent adult was the all-important matter. He believed that higher-level thought was beyond scientific study and thus the term "˜introspection' was coined.

At this time, "˜introspection' required extensive training and did not refer to simply "˜looking inside yourself' and describing your thoughts and feelings as it does today. Wundts introspection technique involved well-trained, adult subjects reporting not just about a particular object they perceived (were aware of) but rather the specific sensory elements that were thought to make up that object. Thus specific aspects of light, shade, shape, color, texture, angle, line etc. of the given object the subject was observing was required.

There was one major flaw with this method of introspection - no one could agree on what the elements of perception were! Huge individual differences in ability to introspect also created difficulties when it came to interpreting the results.

Wundts psychology became known as "˜Structuralism' - the basic elements of perception, "˜searched for' using introspection was regarded by theorists at the time as a search for the structure of consciousness - what we were aware of in our environments. This school of thought eventually fell out of favor with the scientific community as it became apparent that no two observers could agree on what fundamental factors "˜made up' perception - how we "˜see' objects in our world.

Other thinkers at the turn of the century asked a different question - what function consciousness served. This school of thought - labeled "˜ Functionalism', was originally derived from the work of Charles Darwin and his theory of Evolution (1859), and focused on how differences among members of the same species (today referred to as the study of Individual Differences in Psychology), gave some members a better chance of survival than others (Darwin's theory "˜survival of the fittest').

Functionalism was to thrive in the United States principally under the direction of William James (1842-1910). The important factor here was the concept of individual differences, and so the science of psychology moved away from simply studying intelligent adults (Wundt) to the investigation of all populations including the young, the old, the mentally retarded, the psychotic etc., in an attempt to understand how the human mind worked in "˜all it's forms'

The schools of structuralism and functionalism still have their influences in psychology today, though they have largely been placed on the wayside in order to make way for more contemporary theories. However, the discipline of Psychology owes a great deal of gratitude to Wundt in that he forced the study of human behavior down the scientific route, he highlighted the importance of rigorous scientific study of human behavior and he began the tradition of studying behavior in a controlled, rather than in a haphazard way.

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