Who Founded Structuralism?

One of Psychology's First "Schools of Thought"

Titchener founded structuralism
Edward B. Titchener. Public Domain

Structuralism was an early school of thought in psychology that involved breaking down mental life into the smallest possible parts. The structuralist school is most often associated with Wilhelm Wundt, who was famous for founding the very first lab devoted to experimental psychology.

Was Wundt really the founder of this early school of thought? While Wundt is often listed as the founder of the structuralist school of thought, he never actually used the term.

Instead, Wundt referred to his ideas as voluntarism. It was his student, Edward B. Titchener, who invented the term structuralism.

Titchener is often credited with introducing Wundt's structuralist position to America, but in reality he misrepresented much of what Wundt believed. Blumenthal (1979) clarified that Wundt was not a structuralist at all. Instead, Wundt believed that mental experiences needed to be studied more holistically in terms of both mind and body.

So if Wundt did not found the structuralist school of thought, then who did. It is Titchener who should be credited with the establishment of structuralism. Titchener took Wundt's experimental technique, known as introspection, and used it to focus on the structures of the human mind. Anything that could not be investigated using this technique, Titchener believed, was not the domain of psychology.

Titchener's Structuralism

Titchener's structuralism stressed three important tasks in the study of the human mind:

  1. To discover how many processes there were, identify the elements of these processes, and explain how they work together
  2. To analyze the laws governing the connections between the elements of the mind
  3. To evaluate the connections between the mind and nervous system

Titchener believed that the use of introspection, or utilizing observers who had been rigorously trained to analyze their mental experiences, could be used to discover the structures of the mind and he spent the bulk of his career devoted to this task.

Titchener's Influence

For approximately 20 years, Titchener dominated American psychology. He was also extremely prolific, publishing 216 books and papers during his lifetime. He also trained a number of influential psychologists, supervising the doctoral work of nearly 60 students including Margaret Floy Washburn and Edwin C. Boring. Yet today his work is rarely mentioned outside of a purely historical context. He maintained a powerful hold on American psychology during his lifetime, yet his influence began to wane following his death.

Structuralism may have enjoyed a brief period of dominance in psychology, but the school of thought essentially died out following the death of its founder.

"Structuralism was the dominant approach to psychology in the United States, but soon it was challenged and then supplanted by newer, broader, and more flexible movements which grew out of dissatisfaction with Titchener's system," explained author David Hothersall in his text History of Psychology.

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