Wundt, Wilhelm (1832–1920)

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Wilhelm Wundt, the German philosopher and psychologist who founded the first psychological laboratory and won world fame as a teacher and scholar, was born in Neckarau, a suburb of Mannheim. After studying medicine at the universities of Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Berlin, he was a Privatdozent from 1857 to 1864 at the Physiological Institute founded by Hermann von Helmholtz in Heidelberg. At the age of twenty-four he became so severely ill that he was given up by his physicians and remained close to death for several weeks. In this time of crisis he developed his most essential religious and philosophical views, and also his ideas concerning the mental.

In a series of contributions to the theory of sense perception, published between 1858 and 1862, Wundt's interest in psychological problems, an interest derived from his physiological studies, becomes clear. He gave his first psychological lecture in 1862, and in 1863 his Vorlesungen über die Menschenund Tier-Seele (2 vols., Leipzig, 1863, translated by J. G. Creighton and E. B. Titchener as Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, London, 1896). A series of lectures given in 1864 on the fundamentals of physiological psychology was published at Leipzig in 1874 as Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (translated by E. B. Titchener as Principles of Physiological Psychology, New York, 1904), his chief work. In the same year Wundt was called to the professorship in inductive philosophy at Zürich. In 1875 he accepted a call to Leipzig, where he founded the world's first experimental laboratory in psychology, the Institut für Experimentelle Psychologie, in 1879. Students from many countries throughout the world became devoted disciples and returned home to found similar institutions.

As a young man in Heidelberg, Wundt was a member of the Baden Stände assembly and the presiding officer of the Heidelberg Society for Workingmen's Education; he was in favor of a patriotic socialism. During the Franco-Prussian War of 18701871 he served as an army doctor. As an old man he was rector of Leipzig University (1900) and was overwhelmed with national and international honors and titles. Although in his last years he was practically blind, he did not retire from his teaching position until 1917. A philosophical autobiography was prepared for publication in the year of his death in Grossbothen, near Leipzig.


As a philosopher Wundt was self-taught. He published a system of logic (Logik, 2 vols., Stuttgart, 18801883; 4th and 5th eds., 3 vols., 19191924), a system of ethics (Ethik, Stuttgart, 1886; 5th ed., 3 vols., 19231924), and a system of philosophy (System der Philosophie, Leipzig, 1889; 4th ed., 2 vols., Leipzig, 1919) during the 1880s. He later wrote on historical subjects (Die Nationen und ihre Philosophie, 1915; Leibniz, 1916). Wundt was a voluntarist and a follower of the German school of idealism; as such he was indebted to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in particular, and also to Arthur Schopenhauer and G. W. F. Hegel. He opposed sensationalism, materialism, and the relativity of values; nevertheless, he drew ideas from contemporary positivism, particularly in his eclectic historicism and his theoretical inclination to a sociological collectivism. This positivist tendency, noticeable until the middle of his career, especially as a kind of defense against metaphysics, was overcome late in his life. Wundt's main concern in logic was exactness in formal derivations; in ethics it was to secure the Leibnizian morality, based on duty, against contemporary utilitarianism and hedonism on the one hand and subjectivism and relativism on the other. Wundt also essentially followed Leibniz in his parallelist treatment of the mind-body problem.

General Psychology

If in his philosophy Wundt was primarily an eclectic and historical encyclopedist, he demonstrated his originality in psychology, where he achieved worldwide fame as the real founder of the science and its methodology. However, he was far from wanting to destroy the interconnection between psychology and philosophy. He regarded psychology as the common basis for all scientific and cultural knowledge and the bond uniting all the individual sciences, and therefore as the "science directly preparatory to philosophy."

Nevertheless, Wundt resisted "psychologism" as later formulated and criticized by Edmund Husserlthat is, the reduction of cultural organization and normative evaluations to mere mental processes and the relativization of the timelessly valid to the mere here and now in consciousness.

One of Wundt's main concerns was to investigate conscious processes in their own context by experiment and introspection. He regarded both of these as "exact methods," interrelated in that experimentation created optimal conditions for introspection. Where the experimental method failed, Wundt turned to other "objectively valuable aids," specifically to "those products of cultural communal life which lead one to infer particular mental motives. Outstanding among these are speech, myth, and social custom." Wundt's two main fields of investigation and his two main works, the Physiologische Psychologie and his Völkerpsychologie (Folk psychology, or Psychology of nations; 2 vols., Leipzig, 1904; 3rd ed., 10 vols., Leipzig, 19111920), correspond to this methodological division.

As a follower of Leibniz, Wundt maintained a strict psychophysical parallelism in his basic concepts and rejected any form of theory of reciprocal interaction (causation); however, he limited the mental to the realm of conscious events ("the actual"), in what F. A. Lange referred to as "psychology without soul." Experience should be investigated in its context, "as it is actually given to the subject." In contrast with the natural sciences, the subject matter of psychology is "the content of experience in its immediate nature, unmodified by abstraction and reflection." This claim, which in today's terminology is a strictly phenomenological one, was accompanied by a demand for explanations derived from strict necessity and based on as complete an analysis as possible of the direct, complex findings. Wundt modified the categories of explanation by assuming a unique "psychic causality," which he sought to distinguish from scientific or mechanical causality as including motivation. At this point in his thinking, again following Leibniz, he fought against British and French sensationalism and materialism.

Despite his stress on analytic observation, many notions of Wundt's psychology are transitional to the modern Ganzheitspsychologie (psychology of totalities, psychology of wholes) of Felix Krueger and others, among them the "principle of creative resultants or synthesis," which allows perception to transcend a mere addition of stimuli; the "unity of the frame of mind"; and the "value-grade of the total," or feeling and emotion. In his theory of the types of feelings Wundt went beyond the narrow dimensions of pleasure and displeasure, and developed the concept of "total feeling." Although Wundt sought to investigate the elements of conscious processes and their connecting forms, he cannot be counted among the classical sensationalist psychologists because his theory of actuality refers to constantly changing processes rather than to static elements.

Wundt designated the basic mental activity "apperception." Apperception is a unifying function that should be understood as an activity of the will. Feelings are attitudes adopted in apperception toward its individual contents. Thus apperception is simultaneously a descriptive and an explanatory concept. It remained for Krueger, Wundt's pupil and his successor at Leipzig, to remove the limitation to the "pure mental actuality" (structural psychology) and thereby pave the way for the psychology of personality.

Many aspects of Wundt's empirical physiological psychology are still fruitful today. Among them are his principles of mutually enhanced contrasts and of assimilation and dissimilation, for instance, in color and form perception, and his advocacy of "objective" methods of expression and of recording results, especially in language. Another is the principle of heterogony of ends, which states that multiply motivated acts lead to unintended side effects, which in turn become motives for new actions.

Social Psychology

Wundt believed that his principles of physiological psychology were provable and confirmable in the nonexperimental realm of social, developmental, or cultural psychology, which he called Völkerpsychologie. In this field sociological considerations, and particularly the encyclopedic presentation of materials from history and from the other Geisteswissenschaften (roughly, "cultural and social sciences," or "humanities"), became Wundt's main concern, overshadowing actual psychological questions. The "objective products of the collective intellect" in nationsspeech, myth (religion), and social custom (law)that were the original subjects of Völkerpsychologie came in practice to include social structures and the arts. In Wundt's analysis, which he applied to an incredible amount of material and which was necessarily modified by later progress in the cultural and social sciences, the principle of the social, prehistoric, collective determination of intellectual development dominated. Concern with the individual and with individual development was neglected for this sociogenetic problem. There is, besides, a methodological gap between phenomenological and experimental psychology and cultural psychology, as was emphasized by Wilhelm Dilthey and Eduard Spranger, wide enough to endanger the unity of psychology.

Despite the outmoded material it contains, Wundt's gigantic lifework still offers a powerful inspiration that has never been totally exhausted, at least partly because, since his time, psychology and the Geisteswissenschaften have continued to move further apart. Felix Krueger said at Wundt's grave, "In him faithfulness to fact was raised to the level of genius." Thoroughness and methodical acuity, combined with universal versatility, created something unique in his work. Wundt has been extolled as the last "polyhistor." Education and aesthetics were the only fields to which he made no contribution. E. G. Boring computed his total published output at 53,000 pagesan entire library. The complete list of his works, published by his daughter Eleonore Wundt in 1926, is a hefty brochure. In both philosophy and psychology Wundt's oscillation between idealistic and positivistic tendencies kept him bound to his time and caused a notable lack of consistency. He was a major pioneer of both scientific and cultural psychology, even though he was unable to integrate them. The unity of all sciences through psychology and the development of philosophy out of psychology remain as transient theoretical postulates unrealizable and unrealized by developments since his death.

See also Apperception; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Geisteswissenschaften; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von; Husserl, Edmund; Idealism; Introspection; Krueger, Felix; Lange, Friedrich Albert; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Materialism; Mind-Body Problem; Phenomenology; Positivism; Psychology; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Sensationalism; Spranger, (Franz Ernst) Eduard; Voluntarism.


additional works by wundt

Erlebtes und Erkanntes, Selbstbiographie (Things experienced and perceived, autobiography). Stuttgart, 1920.

Wilhelm Wundts Werk, ein Verzeichnis seiner sämtlichen Schriften (Wilhelm Wundt's work, a list of his complete writings). Edited by Eleonore Wundt. Munich: Beck, 1927.

works on wundt

Boring, E. G. A History of Experimental Psychology, 2nd ed., 318347. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950.

Heussner, A. Einführung in Wilhelm Wundts Philosophie und Psychologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1920.

Hoffmann, Arthur. "Wilhelm Wundt, eine Würdigung." Beiträge zur Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus 2 (1922).

König, Edmund. W. Wundt, Seine Philosophie und Psychologie. Stuttgart: Frommann, 1901; 3rd ed., 1912.

Nef, Willi. Die Philosophie Wilhelm Wundts. Leipzig: Meiner, 1923.

Peters, R. S., ed. Brett's History of Psychology, 479488. London, 1953.

Petersen, Peter. Wilhelm Wundt und seine Zeit. Stuttgart. 1925.

A Wilhelm Wundt Archive, established by his daughter in his house at Grossbothen, was transferred to the Psychological Institute of the University of Leipzig at her death and is administered by the institute.

Albert Wellek (1967)

Translated by Tessa Byck