Wilhelm Wundt Biography (1832-1920)

Wilhelm Wundt
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Wilhelm Wundt was a German psychologist who is generally referred to as the founder of modern psychology. He established the very first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879, widely recognized as the formal establishment of psychology as a science distinct from biology and philosopher.

Among his many distinctions, Wundt was the very first person to refer to himself as a psychologist. He is often associated with the school of thought known as structuralism, although it was his student Edward B.

Titchener who was truly responsible for the formation of that school of psychology. Wundt also developed a research technique known as introspection, in which highly trained observers would study and report the content of their own thoughts.

Let's take a closer look at his life, theories, and major accomplishments.

Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

  • Wilhelm Wundt was born August 16, 1832
  • He died August 31, 1920

Wilhelm Wundt's Career in Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt graduated from the University of Heidelberg with a degree in medicine. He went on to study briefly with Johannes Muller and later with the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. Wundt's work with these two individuals is thought to have heavily influenced his later work in experimental psychology.

Wundt later wrote the Principles of Physiological Psychology (1874), which helped establish experimental procedures in psychological research.

After taking a position at the University of Liepzig, Wundt founded the first of only two experimental psychology labs in existence at that time. (Although a third lab already existed - William James established a lab at Harvard, which was focused on offering teaching demonstrations rather than experimentation.

G. Stanley Hall founded the first American experimental psychology lab at John Hopkins University).

Wundt is often associated with the theoretical perspective known as structuralism, which involves describing the structures that compose the mind. Structuralism is regarded as the very first school of thought in psychology. He believed that psychology was the science of conscious experience and that trained observers could accurately describe thoughts, feelings, and emotions through a process known as introspection.

However, Wundt made a clear distinction between introspection, which he believed was inaccurate, and internal perception. According to Wundt, internal perception involved a properly trained observer who was aware when a stimulus of interest was introduced. Wundt's process required the observer to be keenly aware and attentive of their thoughts and reactions to the stimulus and involved multiple presentations of the stimulus. Of course, because this process relies on personal interpretation, it is highly subjective. Wundt believed that systematically varying the conditions of the experiment would enhance the generality of the observations.

While Wundt is typically associated with structuralism, it was actually his student Edward B. Titchener who influenced the structuralist school in America.

Many historians believe that Titchener actually misrepresented much of Wundt's original ideas. Instead, Wundt referred to his point of view as volunteerism. While Tichener's structuralism involved breaking down elements to study the structure of the mind, Blumenthal (1979) has noted that Wundt's approach was actually much more holistic.

Contributions to Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt is best known for establishing the first psychology lab in Liepzig, Germany, generally considered the official beginning of psychology as a field of science separate from philosophy and physiology. In addition to this accomplishment, Wundt also established the psychology journal Philosophical Studies.

In a 2002 ranking of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth-century, Wundt was ranked at number 93.

Wilhelm Wundt's Influence

The creation of a psychology lab established psychology as a separate field of study with its own methods and questions. Wilhelm Wundt's support of experimental psychology also set the stage for behaviorism and many of his experimental methods are still used today.

Wundt also had many students who later became prominent psychologists, including Edward Titchener, James McKeen Cattell, Charles Spearman, G. Stanley Hall, Charles Judd and Hugo Munsterberg.

Selected Publications

  • W. Wundt, (1862) Beiträge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung.
  • W. Wundt, (1893) Vorlesungen über die Menschen und Thierseele.
  • W. Wundt, (1900-1920) Völkerpsychologie, 10 volumes.

Biographies of Wilhelm Wundt

  • Blumenthal, Arthur L. (2001) A Wundt Primer: The Operating Characteristics of Consciousness.
  • Reiber, Robert W. and Robinson, David K. Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology.

Final Thoughts

Wundt was not only the very first person to refer to himself as a psychologist, he also established psychology as a formal discipline separate from philosophy and biology. While his introspective method does not meet the empirical rigor of research today, his emphasis on experimental methods did pave the way for the future of experimental psychology. Thanks to his work and contributions, a whole new field was established and inspired other researchers to explore and study the human mind and behavior.

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