Wilhelm Max Wundt

The German psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Max Wundt (1832-1920) was the founder of experimental psychology. He edited the first journal of experimental psychology and established the first laboratory of experimental psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt was born on Aug. 16, 1832, in Baden, in a suburb of Mannheim called Neckarau. As a child, he was tutored by Friedrich Müller. Wundt attended the gymnasium at Bruschel and at Heidelberg, the University of Tübingen for a year, then Heidelberg for more than 3 years, receiving a medical degree in 1856. He remained at Heidelberg as a lecturer in physiology from 1857 to 1864, then was appointed assistant professor in physiology. The great physiologist, physicist, and physiological psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz came there in 1858, and Wundt for a while was his assistant.

During the period from 1857 to 1874 Wundt evolved from a physiologist to a psychologist. In these years he also wrote Grundzüge der physiologischen psychologie (Principles of Physiological Psychology). The two-volume work, published in 1873-1874, stressed the relations between psychology and physiology, and it showed how the methods of natural science could be used in psychology. Six revised editions of this work were published, the last completed in 1911.

As a psychologist, Wundt used the method of investigating conscious processes in their own context by "experiment" and introspection. This technique has been referred to as content psychology, reflecting Wundt's belief that psychology should concern itself with the immediate content of experience unmodified by abstraction or reflection.

In 1874 Wundt left Heidelberg for the chair of inductive philosophy at Zurich, staying there only a year. He accepted the chair of philosophy at the University of Leipzig, and in 1879 he founded the first psychological laboratory in the world. To Leipzig, men came from all over the world to study in Wundt's laboratory. In 1879 G. Stanley Hall, Wundt's first American student, arrived, followed by many other Americans. From this first laboratory for experimental psychology a steady stream of psychologists returned to their own countries to teach and to continue their researches. Some founded psychological laboratories of their own.

In 1881 Wundt founded Philosophische Studien as a vehicle for the new experimental psychology, especially as a publication organ for the products of his psychological laboratory. The contents of Philosophische Studien (changed to Psychologische Studien in 1903) reveal that the experiments fell mainly into four categories: sensation and perception; reaction time; time perception and association; and attention, memory, feeling, and association. Optical phenomena led with 46 articles; audition was second in importance. Sight and hearing, which Helmholtz had already carefully studied, were the main themes of Wundt's laboratory. Some of the contributions to the Studien were by Wundt himself. Helmholtz is reported to have said of some of Wundt's experiments that they were schlampig (sloppy). Comparing Wundt to Helmholtz, who was a careful experimentalist and productive researcher, one must conclude that Wundt's most important contributions were as a systematizer, organizer, and encyclopedist. William James considered Wundt "only a rather ordinary man who has worked up certain things uncommonly well."

Wundt's Grundriss der Psychologie (1896; Outline of Psychology) was a less detailed treatment than his Principles, but it contained the new theory of feeling. A popular presentation of his system of psychology was Einführung in die Psychologie (1911; Introduction to Psychology). His monumental Völkerpsychologie (1912; Folk Psychology), a natural history of man, attempted to understand man's higher thought processes by studying language, art, mythology, religion, custom, and law. Besides his psychological works he wrote three philosophical texts: Logic (1880-1883), Ethics (1886), and System of Philosophy (1889). Wundt died near Leipzig on Aug. 31, 1920.

Further Reading on Wilhelm Max Wundt

Virtually all histories of psychology report on Wundt. George Sidney Brett, Brett's History of Psychology, edited and abridged by R. S. Peters (1953; 2d rev. ed. 1965), is a standard account. A longer one, written by Wundt's first American student, is G. Stanley Hall, Founders of Modern Psychology (1912). J. C. Flugel, A Hundred Years of Psychology (1933; rev. 1965), which includes a good account of the development of experimental psychology from its systematic and philosophic antecedents, contains a chapter on Wundt's work. A more scholarly treatment of the same development is Edwin G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (1929; 2d ed. 1950). Recommended among the more recent works are Henryk Misiak, History of Psychology: An Overview (1966), and Benjamin B. Wolman, Historical Roots of Contemporary Psychology (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Wundt studies: a centennial collection, Toronto: C.J. Hogrefe, 1980.

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