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Wundt, Wilhelm

Wundt, Wilhelm



Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) played such a major role in the emergence of the new scientific psychology as a discipline separate from philosophy and physiology that he has been called the “founder,” or the “father,” of experimental psychology. This new science was deeply rooted in philosophy—in the tradition of Aristotle, Descartes, and the British empiricists (from Locke to Hume to John Stuart Mill). In addition, the philosopher Hermann

Lotze in the 1850s contributed a book on the physiology of the soul and acted as mentor to Franz Brentano, Carl Stumpf, and G. E. Müller, who were later to become three of the great men of psychology. The roots in physiology were not so deep, although Hermann von Helmholtz, after astonishing scientists in 1850 by measuring the speed of the nervous impulse, had turned in the next two decades to the study of the psychophysiology of visual and auditory sensation. Helmholtz could have become the “founder” of the new psychology had his interests spread far enough beyond these topics, but he was destined instead to become a great physicist. There was also G. T. Fechner, once a physicist, who in 1860 published his classical text on psycho-physics, a book that established psychology as a quantitative science, but Fechner’s ultimate goal was philosophical—to win the battle against materialism—and psychophysics was for him only a means of showing how science can establish the relationship between body and mind.

Wundt was a true entrepreneur. He would never have succeeded without the relevant philosophical tradition and the recent discoveries in nerve physiology, nor without the contributions of his contemporaries—Lotze, Fechner, and Helmholtz. But the new psychology needed an eponym, and Wundt supplied not only a name but also all the supports that a new science needs for recognition—a basic philosophy, a program, a systematic handbook to demonstrate its nature, a laboratory and the research that issues from it, and a journal for the publication of the new findings. All this was provided by Wundt between 1862 and 1883. He built on this base with more research and texts well into the present century, while other new laboratories and journals and books, especially in Germany and America, multiplied not only by virtue of Wundt’s immediate influence but also because Wundt was the timely agent of what was to be the next development in the approaching scientific age.

Wundt was born in Neckarau, a suburb of Mannheim, in Baden, Germany, on August 16, 1832. He was christened Wilhelm Max, but he never used his middle name in any publication, and few psychologists have ever heard of it. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Wundt led the life of an only child, for he was still very young when a brother and sister died and an older brother left home for school. When he was six, his father moved to a new pastorate at Heidensheim, also in Baden, and for two years Wundt attended the local school. After that, his education was taken over by his father’s vicar, who shared a room with Wundt and became for the boy an object of such great admiration and affection that when the vicar moved to a neighboring village, Wundt’s parents allowed their son to live with his teacher and so to continue his education. Wundt seems to have had few friends at this time; he was a serious boy who did not know how to play and spent his time in useful tasks about the house while awaiting the vicar’s return from his parish duties.

At 13 Wundt was sent for a year to the Gymnasium at Bruchsal and then to the Gymnasium at Heidelberg, where he made friends and developed habits of intensive reading that were to last him all his life and ultimately to gain him his vast erudition. When he was 19 his parents sent him to the university at Tubingen. His father died while he was at the university, and Wundt, faced with the need to earn a living, chose to study physiology, thus deferring a final choice between science and medicine. In order to pursue this plan he returned to Heidelberg.

Wundt took four years to obtain his doctorate in medicine. During the first year he studied science —physics, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology— which he liked. The second year he received practical training in the art of medicine, instruction that had the paradoxical effect of increasing his interest in physiology, especially the research of Johannes Müller at Berlin and of Carl Ludwig at Leipzig. Wundt’s first publication—a paper on the chemistry of urine (1853)—came out at this time. In his third year he was made an assistant in a medical clinic and published a paper on the effect on respiration of the cutting of the vagus nerve (1855). In his fourth year he studied in Berlin for a semester and was enormously stimulated by the intellectual atmosphere there. Back at Heidelberg in 1856 he received his medical degree and in the next year was habilitated as Dozent in physiology, a post that he held for seven years.

Wundt spent 17 years at Heidelberg. During his tenure as Privatdozent he became the assistant who, under a new law, was to give laboratory instruction in physiology to all would-be physicians— a tedious task that Wundt relinquished as soon as he could. In 1864 he was promoted to ausserordent-licher Professor. He was compulsively productive. His reading led him to a systematic reorganization of his material and often to creative thinking, and that in turn compelled him to clarify his thought in new lectures that emerged shortly in a new book or, as he grew older, in a revision of one of his old books.

In 1858 Wundt published a book on muscular movement and the first of the six sections of his Beitrage zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung(1858-1862), an important little volume that he finally completed in 1862. In alternate years he lectured on the natural history of man, which he called Volkerpsychologie, and on the nature of the natural sciences, with an eye to establishing “physiological psychology” among the natural sciences. All the while he was collecting facts of human, animal, individual, and social psychology and instances of how psychological factors influence human thought and action; these were published in 1862 as 57 lectures (in two volumes) of Vorlesungen über Menschen- und Thierseele (1864-1865; an English translation, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, appeared in 1907). When he revised these lectures thirty years later, he called them the intellectual “wild oats” of his youth. In any event, he was still playing the role of physiologist, and in 1864 he published a textbook of physiology (revised twice in the next ten years) and three years later a handbook of medical physics. Gradually, however, he turned toward philosophy and the new science of psychology. His Beiträge had mentioned an experimental psychology that lay between philosophy and physiology, and Wundt, physiologist as he still was, chose “physiological psychology” as the best name for it. In 1867 his lectures began to center upon this new science, and ultimately Wundt’s conception of it emerged in his great systematic contribution, Gründzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (1873-1874), a single volume of 870 pages when it appeared in 1874 and eventually three volumes totaling 2,317 pages in the sixth and final edition dated 1908-1911. This was the new psychology that Wundt had ushered into being, and the six editions were in effect the history of experimental psychology’s first forty years.

From 1858 to 1871, Helmholtz, who was 11 years Wundt’s senior, had occupied the chair of physiology at Heidelberg. The relationship between these two men was cordial but not close. Helmholtz was concerned with his own research on vision and hearing and with the publication of his great classics in these two fields. Wundt was teaching, writing, and clarifying his ideas. Fechner was then in Leipzig, although not at the university, but Wundt benefited more from Fechner’s psycho-physics than from Helmholtz’ psychophysiology. Although Wundt was an ausserordentlicher Professor, when Helmholtz went to Berlin in 1871, Wundt was passed over. The first half of the Gründziige der physiologischen Psychologie came out in 1873 and the whole of it in 1874, while Wundt was still at Heidelberg, but shortly thereafter he accepted a call to Zurich to teach “inductive philosophy,” a term that may have been a philosopher’s euphemism for experimental psychology. That arrangement, however, lasted only a year, for then Wundt was called to Leipzig, where the university had split the chair of philosophy in order to accommodate Wundt and his new ideas. Thus, for the next 35 years, from 1875 to 1910, Leipzig was the center for the new science, to which young Germans and Americans, and a few French and Russians, flocked to learn how philosophy could measure the mind and describe the activities of consciousness by the experimental method of introspection.

The laboratory. When he arrived in Leipzig in 1875, Wundt was given an old, unused auditorium as a place where he could arrange experimental demonstrations for the students of his seminar and perhaps conduct some experiments of his own. Was this the world’s first psychological laboratory? Wundt himself said that the date of his “founding” of the Psychologische Institut at Leipzig was 1879, a date familiar to every student of the history of psychology, but at the time the founding was quite unnoticed. It was years later that Wundt, looking back on the history of psychological research at Leipzig, saw that the first experiment by a member of his seminar—research that was ultimately published—was begun in 1879 and that research by other students followed immediately. Only then did Wundt choose 1879 as the date of the founding, and it is only fair to accept his choice. What was founded then was the de facto institute; the de jure founding did not come until 1894, when the institute was already in full swing and had published the results of some forty experimental researches.

In 1879, with the laboratory beginning to produce a steady stream of publishable papers, an outlet for these papers had to be found. Until that time the physiological journals had been accessible to physiological psychology, but the new stream had considerable volume, and the indomitable Wundt wanted control of the journals that were to present the new psychology and eventually to supply material for his continually updated Physiologische Psychologie, the second edition of which appeared in 1880. Wundt therefore founded his own journal, calling it Philosophische Studien. The first number appeared in 1881 and the first volume in 1883. It may be surprising that Wundt used the term philosophische in the title, but he was, after all, a professor of philosophy and had come to believe that the new psychology must remain the handmaid of philosophy. He deplored the brash Americans who struggled to free psychology from philosophy. In the first five volumes of his Studien, about one paper in five was philosophical—about Leibniz or Locke or Kant, and quite often written by Wundt himself—whereas the remaining four-fifths dealt with the business of the new psychology—the results of experiments, discussions of methods and theory, and criticism of results and views.

Philosophy and culture history. The world knows Wundt as a psychologist because it was in this field that he won his fame, but he also thought of himself as a philosopher and, later, as a historian of culture, a special kind of social psychologist. He was an extremely busy man. From 1880 until his death in 1920 he was writing his Logik (1880-1883), expanding it into three volumes and revising it in four editions. It contained almost fifteen hundred pages and included some discussion of the psychology of thinking. From 1886 to 1912 he authored four editions of Ethik, the later volumes of which were well over five hundred pages each. From 1889 to 1919 there were also four editions of his System der Philosophie, a compendious work, equal in size to the Ethik, that made good his promise in the Introduction to the Beitrage (1858-1862) to deal with the problem of the metaphysics of psychology.

All the while the laboratory continued to produce PH.D.’s and papers. But Wundt was also writing in a quite different field, for he had promised himself and the world to deal with the natural history of man and did so in the ten volumes of his Völker-psychologie (1900-1909; five of the volumes were already being expanded and revised while the others were still being written). The work contained systematic discussions of language, myth, religion, art, society, law, culture, and history. It is by studying the history of human culture, Wundt insisted, that one can achieve an understanding of the nature of thinking, a mental activity which cannot be examined by introspection in the laboratory. The Physiologische Psychologie has no chapter on thought, and in a way Wundt was right. When his junior associate, Oswald Kiilpe, tried to study thought in the laboratory by introspection, he failed (it became clear after Sigmund Freud’s conceptual innovations had been accepted that the method of introspection could not deal with the factor of the unconscious). Wundt faced the problem of the group mind, preferring to call it the Volksseele, a less objective term than the more commonly used Volksgeist. It seems odd that all this systematized erudition has had so little effect upon the subsequent history of social psychology, but this field was less ready to accept the weight of Wundt’s scholarship than was the mainstream of psychology, which ever since Descartes and Locke had been getting itself ready for Wundt.

Productivity. It has been noted that from 1853 to his death in 1920 Wundt averaged, per annum, seven excursions into print of 110 pages each and that altogether in this period he wrote or revised 53,735 pages, an achievement which averages nearly one word every two minutes, day and night.

By 1920 Wundt had rounded out the program that he had vaguely anticipated in 1862. He had established experimental psychology as an independent science in the world of learning. He had published the first systematic and encyclopedic handbook for the new science and had kept it up to date through six editions in the course of forty years. He had founded the first laboratory for experimental research in psychology and had proved that it could continue to be productive. He had begun a journal of theoretical and experimental psychology and had maintained it for twenty years. He had published and revised a logic, an ethics, and a scientific metaphysics, all three written as a psychologist would write them. He had completed his systematic exposition of the nature of the human mind by producing ten volumes on the natural history of man, that portion of psychology that lay, as he thought, beyond the reach of the experimental laboratory. All this made up a complete life. In 1920 he wrote a book of his professional reminiscences, and on August 31 of that year he died.

Experimentalism. Wundt himself prescribed the topics of the experimental research done in his laboratory. There were two principal fields of investigation : (1) sensation and perception, studies which made use of Fechner’s psychophysical methods and eventually involved each of the five senses; and (2) the measurement of reaction times, with the use of what was called “the subtractive procedure.” For example, a quick muscular reaction was thought to require attention but not apperception, whereas a slower sensorial reaction would seem to require apperception as well as attention. Subtracting one from the other, the Wundtians arrived at 0.1 second as the time needed for apperception, and in similar fashion they figured the times required for cognition, association, discrimination, and choice. The method, which created great excitement at the end of the nineteenth century, was, however, discredited in the twentieth. There were also experiments on the range of attention and on the duration of a single act of attention and other experiments that tended to support the new tridimensional theory of feeling that Wundt proposed in 1896, the theory that feeling is described in respect to three parameters: pleasantness-unpleasantness, strain-relaxation, and excitement-calm. Of course, the laboratory did not attack the supposedly impossible problem of thought, and it failed to find the means for measuring learning and memory, a contribution of Hermann Ebbing-haus in 1885. Wundt never became involved in this new work.

Psychology. Wundt held that psychology deals with experience that is immediate, whereas physics treats the same experience as mediated by certain rules of inference. An example of optical illusion shows the difference: a stick in water appears, according to introspection, to be bent, although according to inferences from certain laws of physics, it is straight. Introspection is the immediate observation of subjective experience without inferential adjustments.

Introspection reveals mental elements, which are sensations possessing specific qualities and intensities, and shows how they are compounded into more complex perceptions and ideas. Wundt was a convinced elementarist and a sensationist, and this pattern which he imposed on the new experimental psychology formed an orthodoxy against which other schools reacted, notably act psychology and, later, gestalt psychology in Germany and behaviorism in America. This kind of dissent is generally a source of progress. In Wundt’s scheme perceptual wholes are compounded by fusion, as with tones that make a chord; by assimilation, as with lines that set up an optical illusion; or by complication, like a sweet and sour taste, a fruity odor, a yellow appearance, and the tinkle of ice that together make up the perception of lemonade.

Besides the sensations, there are the elements of feeling: at first only pleasantness and unpleasantness, but later the multiplicity of feelings that the tridimensional theory introduced into Wundt’s system. Apperception, an event at a higher level than attention, makes the compounds of sensations and feelings secure. Images are centrally excited sensations and not a new class of elements.

The elements in Wundt’s system are called mental processes because they are thought to be in flux, never fixed. This conception did much to meet the objections of the critics of this mental chemistry of Wundt’s, but it was difficult to understand. Can introspection bring to science descriptions of specific compounds whose very elements are in perpetual change? Nevertheless, Wundt spoke appropriately for his time and supported his views with strong arguments. Psychology has continued to change, but the basic character of modern psychology was established by Wundt.

Edwin G. Boring

[For the historical context of Wundt’s work, see the biographies ofFechner; Helmholtz; Lotze; MülLer, Johannes; for discussion of the subsequent development of Wundt’s ideas, seeAttention; Hearing; Psychology, article on Physiological Psychology; Psychophysics; Senses; Vision; and the biographies ofEbbinghausandTitchener.]


1853 Über den Kochsalzgehalt des Harns. Journal fur praktische Chemie 59:354-359.

1855 Versuche üiber den Einfluss der Durchschneidung der Lungenmagennerven auf die Respirationsorgane. Archiv für Anatomie, Psychologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin[1855]: 269-313.

1858 Die Lehre von der Muskelbewegung. Brunswick: Vieweg.

1858-1862 Beiträge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung. Leipzig: Winter. → Issued in parts.

(1864-1865) 1907 Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology. New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

(1873-1874) 1908-1911 Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie. 6th ed., rev. 3 vols. Leipzig: Engelmann. → The physiological part of Volume 1 was translated into English as Principles of Physiological Psychology and published in 1905 by Macmillan.

(1880-1883) 1919-1921 Logik. 4th ed. 3 vols. Stuttgart: Enke. → Volume 1: Allgemeine Logik und Erkenntnisslehre. Volume 2: Logik der exakten Wissenschaften. Volume 3: Logik der Geisteswissenschaften.

(1886) 1897-1901 Ethics: An Investigation of the Facts and Laws of the Moral Life. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan. → First published in German. Volume 1: Introduction: The Facts of the Moral Life. Volume 2: Ethical Systems. Volume 3: The Principles of Morality and the Departments of the Moral Life. A fourth German edition was published in 1912 by Enke.

(1889) 1919 System der Philosophie. 4th ed. 2 vols. Leipzig: Kröner.

(1896) 1907 Outlines of Psychology. Rev. ed. Leipzig: Engelmann. → Translated from the seventh revised German edition.

(1900-1909) 1911-1929 Volkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte. 10 vols. Leipzig: Engelmann.

1920 Erlebtes und Erkanntes. Stuttgart: Kröner.


Ben-David, Joseph; and Collins, Randall 1966 Social Factors in the Origins of a New Science: The Case of Psychology. American Sociological Review 31:451-465.

Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See especially pages 316-347, “Wilhelm Wundt.”

Boring, Edwin G. 1965 On the Subjectivity of Important Historical Dates: Leipzig, 1879. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1:5-9.

Eisler, Rudolf 1902 W. Wundts Philosophie und Psychologie in ihren Grundlehren. Leipzig: Barth.

Hall, G. Stanley 1912 Founders of Modern Psychology. New York: Appleton. → See especially pages 309-458, “Wilhelm Wundt.”

Herrnstein, Richard J.; and Boring, Edwin G. 1965 A Source Book in the History of Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → See especially pages 399-406 and 595-596.

Höffding, Harald (1905) 1915 Modern Philosophers. London: Macmillan. → First published in German. See especially pages 3-37, “Wilhelm Wundt.”

In Memory of Wilhelm Wundt. 1921 Psychological Review 28:153-188.

Konig, Edmund 1901 W. Wundt: Seine Philosophie und Psychologie. Stuttgart: Frommann.

Murphy, Gardner (1929)1949 Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt. → See especially pages 149-173, “Wundt and Experimental Psychology.”

Passkönig, Oswald 1912 Die Psychologie Wilhelm Wundts: Zusammenfassende Darstellung der Individual-, Tier- und Volkerpsychologie. Leipzig: Siegismund & Volkening.

Ribot, Theodule (1879) 1886 German Psychology of To-day: The Empirical School. New York: Scribners. → First published in French. See especially pages 188-249, “Wundt: Physiological Psychology.”

Ross, Dorothy 1967 On the Origins of Psychology. American Sociological Review 32:466-469. → A discussion of Ben-David and Collins 1966. See also pages 469-472

for a “Reply to Ross,” by Joseph Ben-David and Randall Collins.

Titchener, E. B. 1921 Wilhelm Wundt. American Journal of Psychology 32:161-178, 575-580. Pages 575-580 contain a review of Wundt’s Erlebtes und Erkanntes 1920.

Titchener, E. B. et al. 1908-1922 A Bibliography of the Scientific Writings of Wilhelm Wundt. American Journal of Psychology 19:541-556; 20:570; 21:603-604; 22:586-587; 23:532; 24:586; 25:599; 33:260-262.

Watson, Robert I. 1963 The Great Psychologists: From Aristotle to Freud. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott. → See especially pages 241-251, “Wundt: Introspection and Experiment.”

Wundt, Eleanore 1927 Wilhelm Wundts Werk: Ein Verzeichnis seiner sämtlichen Schriften. Munich: Beck. → A bibliography containing over 500 items, prepared by Wundt’s daughter.

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Wundt, Wilhelm


(b. Neckarau, Baden, Germany, 16 August 1832;

d. Grossbothen, Germany, 31 August 1920), psychology. For the original entry on Wundt see DSB, vol. 14.

In studies of the history of psychology, nothing could likely be more illustrative of how dynamic, fluid, and changing the study of history can be than the topic of Wilhelm Wundt and his system of psychology. In one generation, scholars such as Edward Titchener and E. G. Boring were caught up in looking through historical filters that created a particular view of that individual and his time. Then in a later generation, those filters began to dissolve as scholars such as Kurt Danziger and Arthur Blumenthal began critical reexaminations that saw that past in a radically different light.

A Theoretician. Wundt has been consistently described in introductory textbooks as the father of modern experimental psychology because he created the first major laboratory for that enterprise, doing so by adapting instruments from physiology laboratories for use in tests and measurements of mental processes. Because physiology laboratories were the source of instrumentation, experimental psychology in Germany was for that reason originally called “physiologische Psychologie” (from the title of Wundt’s major work, Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie[1902–1903] ). But the great majority of Wundt’s efforts were in theoretical psychology; he devoted relatively little effort to experimenting. His students were the ones who carried experimental psychology forward. And when many of them grew increasingly focused on the design and precision of laboratory instruments, he faulted them for losing sight of the big picture, namely, the major historical questions that confront the explanation of psychological processes.

Wundt’s systematic and gradually unfolding psychological theory was his true and distinctive contribution. His theoretical system was logically enough an example of a trend of thought that had been prominent in central Europe and at the end of the nineteenth century was resurfacing under the titles of neo-idealism and neoRomanticism. But it was about to be overwhelmed by the revitalization of positivism and the parallel development of behaviorist psychology. Those forces were largely responsible for the subsequent obliteration of Wundt’s system from the minds of many.

Though Wundtian psychological theory was little mentioned in twentieth-century writings in which Anglo-American influences were superseding the Germanic ones in psychology, his prominence as a founding father of psychology was remembered, so homage of some sort had to be paid to him in textbooks. Since he was the arch mentalist who stood in opposition to the antimentalistic trends of the following era, historical accounts often focused negatively on his personal mannerisms, alleged character flaws, and points of inconsistency, or merely on tangential information about his personal life.

Views on Consciousness. Wundt’s psychological system was first and foremost the science of consciousness. It was predicated on the view that consciousness is a natural phenomenon as distinct and real as any other natural phenomenon and that it could in principle be studied scientifically. Wundt studied it because it was there, it was interesting, and a better understanding of it could be beneficial to humanity. This was all proposed in steadfast opposition to Cartesian materialistic dualism that had suggested a separate “mind stuff” distinct from other forms of matter. Wundtian theory starts with the definition of consciousness as a flowing process, not an alternative substance, and as not being understandable by approaching it through neurology or brain chemistry in which it is not observable. The extensive study of emotion at Leipzig in the 1890s, where the investigations of Alfred Lehmann were dominant, concluded that the course, the fluctuations, and the colorations of emotion are not understood by attributing them to those bodily responses that may occur during variations of emotion. Instead, and in the tradition of Fechnerian psychophysics, the Leipzig approach involved early efforts at multidimensional scaling of subjective judgments of feelings, along with techniques for timing and analyzing the course of subjective emotional processes.

American histories of psychology focused on Wundt’s earlier studies of selective attention (then called “apperception”) that dominated his theorizing during the first years of his Leipzig Psychological Institute as well as his earlier research at Heidelberg. The experimental methodology used in those early studies employed primarily reaction-time measurements, which encouraged a prolific development of a delicate time-measurement technology by Wundt’s students. Later American textbooks mislead-ingly referred to this effort as “research on reaction time.” Reaction time, however, was only a research methodology. It was not the subject of the research, which should have been described as “research on central self-controlled mental processes in the analysis of judgment and decision making.”

A central control process was the key concept, and it led Wundt’s school to be named “voluntarism” (or voluntaristic psychology) in contrast to another school of thought that was later to be associated mistakenly with Wundt. That other school was Edward Titchener’s “structuralism.” Titchener was an Englishman transplanted to the United States. The greater part of his education was at Oxford University and was based in British associationist mental philosophy, with James Mill’s writings on associationism and systematic introspection having the most influence on Titchener. With no graduate program in psychology available in Great Britain, he was forced to go to Leipzig to obtain his doctorate with Wundt. While there, he came under the influence of Wundt’s arch opponents, the new positivists, such as Ernst Mach. But later, in the United States, Titchener was to be interpreted erroneously as the representative of Wundtian psychology, which led to major distortions in subsequent historical descriptions of Wundt particularly in the English-speaking world.

Opposition to Mechanistic Approaches. Wundt had consistently opposed the classic Enlightenment mental philosophies (particularly mechanistic associationism), so well rooted in British and French intellectual history. He disputed that tradition of thought in his basic psychological theory as well as in his large body of research on psycholinguistics (then known as Sprachpsychologie) and on Voelkerpsychologie, which is correctly translated for Wundt’s meaning as “cultural psychology.” Later American historians translated it as “folk psychology” (as if from Volkspsychologie). It seems clear that American historians for most of the twentieth century seldom if ever read Wundt’s cultural psychology, except for one relatively shorter speculative work on historical processes: Elemente der Völkerpsychologie. Grundlinien einer psychologishen Entwicklungsgeschichte der Menschheit (1912), translated as Elements of Folk Psychology (1916). The German subtitle could be rendered as Outlines of a psychological developmental history of humanity. That book was quite different in content from his other multivolume Voelkerpsychologie.

Beginning in the 1880s, Wundt began to publish a series of diatribes against introspection as a source of psychological data. His own research methodology was named selbstbeobactung, in retrospect an unfortunate choice of terminology. Superficial translations easily rendered selbstbeobachtung into the English term introspection. However, that translation ignores the specialized meaning Wundt gave to his German term. He used his term in opposition to traditional Introspektion because his method was to involve publicly replicable objective laboratory procedures for assessing the fluctuations of mental processes. Yet American history texts were later to discredit Wundt as an “introspectionist.” Wundt’s apparently unnoticed refutations of introspection research methodology were first directed at British mental philosophers, then at Titchener and his school, then at the Würzburg psychologists in their early-twentieth-century introspective studies of thought processes.

Opposition to Herbart. Wundt’s psychological system arose in reaction against earlier mechanistic conceptions of mental processes that had been highly influential in the psychological thought of the nineteenth century. The Anglo-American intellectual world had often been receptive to such views but took little notice of their prominent manifestation in the early-nineteenth-century German works of Johann Herbart. In the English literature Herbart is cited primarily as an educational theorist and a speculative mental philosopher who attempted unsuccessfully to apply a discursive mathematics to the description of mental processes. But Herbart’s voluminous primary work, Psychologie als Wissenschaft (2 vols., 1824, 1825; Psychology as science), was never translated into English.

Its mechanical mental associationism is nothing less than elaborate and exotic. It inspired a century of theorizing in all of the social sciences in the German literature. Wundt rose to prominence at the end of that century by effectively refuting the Herbartian system in the eyes of many of his followers in the German universities.

In Herbart’s descriptions, psychological processes are mechanical elements flowing across the stage of consciousness. He described how dominant elements (sensations or impressions) can create a central focus in consciousness. He established thresholds of consciousness, processes of repression, and numerous forms of the association or blendings and fusions of elementary ideas into mental schemas. Emotion in Herbart’s view is a secondary factor, a spark, a tension, which occurs as a by-product of other mental events, as when opposed ideas collide. Wundt referred to this picture of mental objects and events as Herbart’s billiard-ball-table description of the mind. Wundt found, in contrast to Herbart, that emotion, or urges and feelings, are primary in mental processes, not secondary side effects. Emotional feelings, he argued, form a system that supports what Herbart’s theory most basically lacked—a central process of self-control, which came to be the primary process in Wundt’s theory. As Wundt reputedly showed, that central process has consistent temporal characteristics and a developmental capacity for creating automatic control schemas that take over the guidance of formerly deliberate or voluntary thoughts and actions. Rules that govern alternations between conscious, self-controlled actions and automatic actions were the focus of considerable Wundtian theorizing.

At the heart of Wundt’s system is his seminal principle, from which a set of interlocking principles evolved. It was that of schöpferishe Synthese, or“creative synthesis.” It states that mental processes are generative, meaning they create qualities not found in the physical sciences nor in other sensory elements in mental processes. That principle first appeared in Wundt’s writings in 1862, and it supported the derivation of a branching set of related principles in all of his subsequent writings.

Most of the Wundtian corpus never appeared in the Anglo-American theater of psychological theory owing to the rise of behaviorism, the world wars, tedious terminological barriers, translation problems, and other cultural differences. More space in American textbooks was devoted to describing tangential aspects of Wundt’s life, manners, work habits, lecturing style, counts of books published, numbers of pages in those books, and ad hominem polemics against him than was devoted to explaining his research and theories.


Blumenthal, Arthur L. Language and Psychology: Historical Aspects of Psycholinguistics. New York: John Wiley, 1970.

———. “A Reappraisal of Wilhelm Wundt.” American Psychologist 30 (1975): 1081–1088.

———. “Wilhelm Wundt: Psychology as the Propadeutic Science.” In Points of View in the Modern History of Psychology, edited by Claude E. Buxton. New York: Academic Press. 1985.

———. “A Wundt Primer: The Operating Characteristics of Consciousness.” In Wilhelm Wundt in History, edited by Robert W. Rieber and David K. Robinson. New York: Plenum, 2001.

Danziger, Kurt. “The History of Introspection Reconsidered.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 16 (1980): 241–262.

———. “The Unknown Wundt: Drive, Apperception, and Volition.” In Wilhelm Wundt in History, edited by Robert W. Rieber and David K. Robinson. New York: Plenum, 2001.

Kusch, Martin. Psychologism: A Case Study in the Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Leahey, Thomas H. A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2004.

Robinson, D. K. “Wilhelm Wundt and the Establishment of Experimental Psychology, 1875–1914: The Context of a New Field of Scientific Research.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1987.

Arthur L. Blumenthal

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Wundt, Wilhelm


(b. Neckarau, Baden, Germany, 16 August 1832; d.Gross Bothen, Germany, 31 August 1920)


Wundt described his father, a Lutheran pastor, as cheery and impractical, and his mother as more aggressive. His earliest memories were painful: falling down a flight of cellar stairs, and being roused from fantasy by a paternal box on the ear. Play with other children was rare; visits to sympathetic oldsters frequent; daydreaming a passion. Father, mother, and maternal grandfather (who resided at Heidelberg) all had a hand, not infrequently heavy, in his early education. At the age of eight he acquired as tutor a kindly young vicar with whom he shared a room, and to whom he was soon more he shared a room, and to whom he was soon more arrached than to his parents. when the vicar obtained his own parish, heartbroken Wundt, now twelve years of age, was permitted to go with him. At thirteen Wundt endured a traumatic year at a Catholic Gymnasium, where he was advised to seek some honorable calling–such as the postal service–which did not require an education. Transferred to Heidelberg, sharing a room with a much older brother and a cousin, he at last acquired friends and the effective work habits that were to distinguish his adult life.

Because his scholastic record remained too poor to qualify for a scholarship, Wundt’s first university year was at Tübingen, where an uncle was brain anatomist. Thus accidentally he was pointed toward medicine. Completing his studies at the University of Heidelberg, he passed the state examinations with distinction. Apprehensive about medical practice, he spent six months as assistant at a hospital, then a semester at Berlin under Johannes Muller and du Bois–Reymond. In 1857 Wundt finally attained academic shelter as Privatdozent at Heidelberg, and the following year he published Die Lehre von der Muskelbewegung, begun under du Bois–Reymond. Ominously, the mentor to whom the work was dedicated did not even acknowledge it.

Also in 1858 Wundt published the first of six experimental reports on sensory perception, which became the Beiträidge of 1862, and was appointed assistant to Helmholtz, just called to Heidelberg. Helmholtz largely ignored and evidently disdained his assistant, assigning him to supervise a routine laboratory course. In 1863 Wundt resigned the unrewarding post, started lecturing on psychology, and published the Vorlesungen. The following year he became ausserordentlicher Professor.

In the introduction to the Beiträge Wundt calls for an inductive psychology, but E. B. Titchener points out that in this he leans on Mill’s Logic. Wundt mainly emphasizes social data–reflecting the influence of Steintal and Lazarus, and current interest in moral statistics–but sees experiment as essential because unconscious determinants of thinking are not accessible to introspection (see Helmholtz on “unconscious inference”). Insistence that philosophy must reflect the findings of science foreshadows his later Logik and Ethink. Finally, there is the immodest claim to a great discovery revealed more fully in the Vorlesungen: experimental determination of the “natural unit of time” as the duration of the “swiftest thought,” along with experimental determination of the unity of consciousness. Wundt found that an observer cannot precisely note the position of a moving pointer at the instant when a click is heard–a problem arising out of the concern of astronomers with errors in fixing the moment of transit for a star. (Later, without confession of error, Wundt wrote disdainfully of the outdated “needle’s eye theory of consciousness.”) It is problematic whether, by his bold interpretation, Wundt perhaps sought to place himself alongside Helmholtz, who had measured the speed of the nerve impulse, and Fechner, whose Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) opened the era of quantitative psychology.

Helmholtz left Heidelberg in 1871. Although Wundt had published prolifically (despite four years in the Baden legislature) and since 1867 had been lecturing on “physiologicalk psychology,” he was passed over in the selection of a successor. Soon, however, he was developing those lectures into his magnum opus, the Grundzuge der physiologischen, which attempted “to define the limits of a new science.” The preface of the work is dated March 1874, and in that month he was surprised by a call to Zurich as professor of inductive philosophy, offering an escape from his humiliating post at Heidelberg. Wundt had been recommended by Friedrich A. Lange, who had held the post previuosly, and whom he had met once long before at a conference on workers’ education. (Lange must have read the first half of the Grundzuge when it appeared in 1873. He refers approvingly to it in his Geschichte des Materialis mus [1874]; Wundt was not mentioned in the 1866 edition, which already contained the famous phrase “eine Psychologie ohne Seele,” which is sometimes falsely attributed to Wundt.)

This election to a post in philosophy facilitated the more important call to Leipzig in 1875, whcih Wundt owed to the enthusiasm of Zöllner (later an adherent of the medium Henry Slade) and, as Wundt relates, to the readiness of an indifferent faculty to hire two obscure candidates for the price of one man of distinction. Thus did Wundt arrive at the post in which he would attain international renown.

The flow of books continued, and Wundt became the most popular lecturer of the University of Zurich. At forty–three, the ugly–duckling physiologist had become a resplendent swan philosopher. Wundt’s fame, however, is rooted in what has been called the first psychology laboratory the first, indeed, in which the instrumentation familiar to physiologists was domiciled in halls of philosophy, and called upon to monitor controlled introspections. It started as a demonstration laboratory, but in the winter semester of 1879-1880 a student, Max Friedrich, performed an experiment on “apperception time,” which was reported in the first issue of Wundt’s new journal, Philosophische Studien. It was the start of an avalanche. The immense influence of Wundt’s laboratory can be traced in three ways: first, in successive revisions of the Grundzuge (1880, 1887, 1893, 1902, 1908-1911) which, as it fattened, provided more and more information, including detailed illustrations of experimental apparatus, constituting virtual manuals for those aspiring to found new centers of “brass instrument psychology” second, in the increasingly cosmopolitan authorship of reports in the Studien, as Wundt attracted foreign, and most conspicuously American, students; and third, in the dozens of new laboratories, again especially in the United States, directed by his former students. In 1903 Cattell found eighteen Wundt students among fifty leading psychologists in the United States. Most would have subscribed to H. C. Warren’s sentiment “Coming to him as I did from an atmosphere of philosophical speculation, the spirit of his laboratory was a God–send. I owe much to Wundt for the change he wrought in my lifeideals” (Psychological Review,28 , p. 169).

Not everyone admired Wundt. Carl Stumpf, who suffered some of Wundt’s intolerant diatribes, deplored his influence in a letter to William James, who replied consolingly in 1887:

He aims at being a sort of Napoleon of the intellectual world. Unfortunately he will never have a Waterloo, for he is a Napoleon without genius and no central idea…Cut him up like a worm, and each fragment crawls; there is no noeud vital in his mental medulla oblongata, so that you can’t kill him all at once…He has utilized to the uttermost fibre every gift that Heaven endowed him with at his birth, and made of it all that mortal pertinacity could make. He is the finished example of how much mere education can do for a man [R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James,II (Boston, 1935), 68f.].

The diffuseness of Wundt’s thought, and his practice of changing his views without specific acknowledgement other than to warn against reliance on earlier editions, make it impossible to give a brief synopsis of his system. For example, in 1874 he wrote that physiological psychology “cannot sidestep” the question “how internal and external existence are ultimately related.” In 1902, however, he dismissed this view as one which “has been mistakenly asserted,” and declared that physiological psychology does not seek to “derive or explain the phenomena of mental life from those of physical life.” Wundt alos had little tolerance for results not conforming to his own theories, G. S. Hall wrote that Wundt “seems to wish to be the last in fields where he was the first, instead of taking pleasure in seeing successors arise who advance his lines still further” (Founders of Modern Psychology, p. 419). When L. Lange discovered in 1888 the important distinction between sensorial and motor attitudes in reaction time experiments, Wundt, still aspiring to measure by the “subtractive method” the duration of the supposed psychic component of a voluntary act, dictated an absurd interpretation in terms of “complete” and “incomplete” reactions, thus rejecting as invalid all research in which reactions were too fast. When Oswald Kulpe and his Wurzburg group made advances in experimental analysis of the thought process, Wundt rejected their work, and his own early commitment, to insist that these processes could be studied only in the history of social institutions. (The ten–volume “folk psychology,” which Wundt devoted to this problem, is cited only as a monument to his industry.) Wundt’s later views tended to alienate his followers. Ever faithful to the Wundtian method, Titchener could find no empirical basis for the tridimensional theory of feeling, and many rejected Wundt’s theory of apperception as not merely mistaken, but as a betrayal of scientific principles.

At an opportune moment of history, Wundt proclaimed himself the commander of a crusade, and enthusiasts flocked to his banner. Socially shy and intellectually arrogant, he often confused the defense of his command with advancement of the cause. His name is linked to no significant finding, no theory that did not prove to be flagrant error, no problem freshly defined. Yet Wundt constituted an important rallying point for the generation of young men who saw experimental psychology as a new avenue to man’s self–understanding.


I. Original Works. For a complete bibliography of Wundt’s writings. see Eleonore Wundt, ed., Wilhelm Wundts Werk, ein Verzeichnis seiner samtliches Schriften (Munich, 1927).

His early works include Die Lehre von der Muskel bewegung (Brunswick, 1858); Beiträage zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung (Leipzig–Heidelberg, 1862); Vorlesungen über die Menschen–und Thierseele, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1863; 6th ed., Leipzig, 1919); Lehrbuch der Physiologie des Menschen (Erlangen, 1865; 4th ed., Stuttgart, 1878); Handbuch der medicinischen Physik (Erlangen, 1867); Untersuchungen zur Mechanik der Nerven und Nervencentren, 2 vols. (Erlangen, 1871-1876); Grundzuge der physiologischen Psychologie (Leipzig, 1873-1874; 6th ed., 3 vols., Leipzig, 1908-1911); Logik, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1880=1883; 5th ed., 3 vols., 1923-1924); Philosophische Studien, 20 vols. (1881-1903); Essays (Leipzig, 1885; 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1906).

Subsequent writings include Ethik (Stuttgart, 1886; 4th ed., 3 vols., Stuttgart, 1912); System der Philosophie (Leipzig, 1889; 4th ed., 2 vols., 1919); Grundriss der Psychologie (Leopzig, 1896; 11th ed., Lezipig, 1913): Völkerphychologie (Leipzig, 1900; 2 vols., 1904; 10 vols., 1911-1920); Einleitung in die Philosophie (Leipzig, 1901; 9th ed., Leipzig, 1922); Einführung indie Psychologie (Leipzig, 1911); Elemente der Volker psychologie (Leipzig, 1912); Reden und Aufatze (Leipzig, 1913); Sinnliche und ubersinnliche Welt (Leipzig, 1914); Die Nationen und ihre Philosophie (Leipzig, 1915); and Erlebtes und Erkanntes (Stuttgart, 1920), his autobiography.

II. Secondary Literature. On Wundt and his work, see E. G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York, 1950), 316–347; R. Eisler, Wundt’s Philosophie und Psychologie (Leipzig, 1902); G. S. Hall, Founders of Modern Psychology (New York–London, 1912), 311–458; A. Heussner, Einführungen in Wilhelm Wundts Philosophie und Psychologie (Göttingen, 1920); Arthur Hoffmann, ed., “Wilhelm Wundt, eine Würdigung,” which is Beitröge zur Philosophie des deutschen ldealismus, 2, nos. 3–4 (1922); E. König, W. Wundt, seine Philosophie und Psychologie (Stuttgart, 1901); Willi Nef, Die Philosophie Wilhelm Wundts (Leipzig, 1923); Peter Pestersen, Wilhelm Wundt und seine Zeit (Stuttgart, 1925); E. B. Titchener, “Wilhelm Wundt,” in American Journal of Psychology,32 (1921), 161–178; W. Wirth, “Unserem grossen Lehrer Wilhelm Wundt in unausloschlicher Dankbarkeit zum Gedachtnis,” in Archiv fur die gesamte Psychologie,40 (1921), i–xvi; and “In Memory of Wilhelm Wundt,” in Psychological Review,28 (1921) 153–188, which includes reminiscences by seventeen of his American students.

Solomon Diamond

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Wundt, Wilhelm

Wundt, Wilhelm (1832–1920) German psychologist. In 1879, Wundt established the first laboratory for experimental psychology at Leipzig. He did much to convince early psychologists that the mind could be studied with objective, scientific methods. His major publication is Principles of Physiological Psychology (1873–74).

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