Titchener, Edward B.

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Titchener, Edward B.



Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927), a psychologist, was born in England, reared in the German (Wundtian) tradition, and spent his adult, professional years in America. He spent his early years in Chichester, an ancient Roman city about seventy miles south of London, as the elder of two children and the only son of John and Alice Field (Habin) Titchener. He died in Ithaca, New York, from a cerebral tumor.

Titchener was a precocious and studious lad, and it was well for him that he was, because his father’s early death meant that there was no financial assistance forthcoming for his education. After his elementary training at the prebendal school in Chichester, of which his grandfather was at one time headmaster, he had to rely for his further education upon scholarships and other academic awards won by his own efforts.

In 1881, when he was 14 years old, Titchener went to Malvern College in Worcestershire on such a scholarship. He did well there, for, as the story goes, James Russell Lowell, who one year distributed the prizes at the school, remarked, after he had presented the youthful Titchener with several prizes and saw the lad advance for still another, “I am tired of seeing you, Mr. Titchener.”

After Malvern, Titchener went in 1885 to Brasenose College, Oxford, on a senior scholarship in classics and philosophy and as Hulman “exhibitioner”—a supplementary scholarship awarded on the basis of need as well as excellence. Near the end of his classical training, he elected a course in physiology under John Scott Burdon-Sanderson, regius professor of medicine at Oxford, and became so absorbed in that subject that he delayed his graduation one year, until 1890, to devote himself to it. During this time he translated into English the third edition of Wundt’s huge two-volume Grundziige der physiologischen Psychologie (1873-1874). He was attracted by Wundt’s combination of philosophy and psychology and by his promise of a new experimental science of psychology; in the fall of 1890 he went to study in Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig.

Titchener received his PH.D. degree after only two years’ study at Leipzig. In that short period he assimilated Wundt’s system and completed two experimental researches: his doctoral dissertation on the binocular effects of monocular stimulation and a study on the chronometry of cognition. At Leipzig he was also permanently influenced by the positivism of Ernst Mach and Avenarius.

At that time, psychology was not recognized as a science in England, and although Titchener would have preferred to remain in his homeland, he had to go elsewhere to obtain a position in psychology and a laboratory. In the fall of 1892 he accepted an assistant professorship at Cornell and became head of the newly established laboratory of psychology there. His advancement at Cornell was rapid: in 1895, when he was only 28 years old, he was promoted to the Sage professorship of psychology, and in 1910, when he was offered the chairmanship of the department of psychology at Clark University, Cornell made him a professor in the graduate school, thus relieving him from undergraduate teaching. (After a short time, he missed the contacts with the undergraduates, and after receiving an additional appointment in the arts college, he resumed his popular undergraduate lectures and his direction of the undergraduate laboratories.)

Titchener represented the Wundtian point of view in America. He insisted that psychology is a science and that as a science it is concerned with description, not with use or application. He stood throughout his life for the scientific study of the generalized, normal, adult human mind. In 1898, in an article called “The Postulates of a Structural Psychology,” he accepted James’s differentiation between the structural and functional points of view of mind, and thereafter he was known as the leader of the “structural school,” which stood in opposition to the more popular “functional school” led by Dewey, James, and Angell. When behaviorism superseded functional psychology in America, Titchener opposed it on the grounds that behaviorism is biology, not psychology, and that it ignores the very problems that are the proper concern of psychology: the study of experience as dependent on an experiencing individual, that is, on a nervous system. He was deeply interested in the experimental results of gestalt psychology and readily accepted them, but not their interpretation. He maintained that the gestalt approach was too narrow, being concerned only with “perception” and with only one aspect of it, that is, “form.”

Titchener saw it as one of his first tasks in America to make the “new” German psychology available in English. He published translations of three successive editions of Kiilpe’s Outlines of Psychology; with his colleague J. E. Creighton, he translated three editions of Wundt’s Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, and with his colleague J. H. Gulliver, he translated two editions of Wundt’s Ethics. Also, with his student W. B. Pills-bury, he translated Kiilpe’s Introduction to Philosophy. Titchener’s translations of Wundt’s Physiologische Psychologie could never quite keep up with Wundt’s new editions of the work.

The first book that Titchener wrote, An Outline of Psychology (1896), was patterned after Kiilpe’s Outlines and thus also served to introduce German psychology into American universities. It went through many printings and three editions, as did his second book, A Primer of Psychology (1898fa). In a further effort to make the teaching of psychology comparable to that of other scientific subjects, Titchener put together his famous two-volume work Experimental Psychology: A Manual of Laboratory Practice. It was patterned after manuals used in chemistry: one volume (1901) dealt with qualitative experiments and one (1905) with quantitative ones, and each of these volumes was further divided into two parts—a Student’s Manual and an Instructor’s Manual. In the Student’s Manual, Titchener presented a number of classical experiments that had “disciplinary value to the undergraduate student” the Instructor’s Manual gave the instructors a wealth of background information about the selected experiments. The publication of Quantitative Experiments was delayed by the appearance in 1904 of G. E. Muller’s Gesichtspunkte und Tatsachen der psy-chologischen Methodik, which covered much the same subject matter. Titchener was sorely tempted, as he explained in the Preface to the Instructor’s Manual, “to leave my text as it stood and to take account of Muller’s book simply in footnote references …but the better counsel prevailed” (1901-1905, vol. 2, part 2, p. iii). He embodied Muller’s new results in his exposition.

Titchener then turned to problems of attention, feeling, and thought. In 1908 he published Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention. He sought to give the concept of feeling an independent, elementary status and to enhance the scientific validity of the concept of attention by relating it to specific aspects of the sensory experience. From among the various terms that had historically been used to describe change in the attentive consciousness, Titchener chose “clearness.” It was an unfortunate choice because of the word’s many connotations. Later he changed the term to “vividness” and still later to “attensity,” but the confusion persisted, and his concept of attention, although widely discussed, was not widely accepted.

The following year, Titchener published Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-processes (1909a). This work constituted an attack on the theory of Külpe and the Wiirzburg school that thought is “imageless.” Kiilpe and his students were unable to analyze the thought processes and therefore concluded that thought is a separate, conscious element, comparable to sensations. Titchener repeated Kiilpe’s experiments at Cornell, corroborating most of the results but drawing very different conclusions from them. He asserted that these results did not warrant the abandonment of the view that thought is imaginal and sensory, and he provided a theory to explain the apparently imageless character of “imageless thought.” Accepting N. Ach’s concept of the determining tendency and the premise of the Wiirzburg school that thought may be unconscious, he offered the context theory of meaning, according to which “meaning is the conscious sensory or imaginal context that accrues (associatively, it would seem) to the initial sensory core of a perception or the initial imaginal core of an idea” (Boring [1929] 1950, p. 415). This theory sought to account for the lack of analyzable content in the results of the Wiirzburg experiments on thought.

Titchener wrote two more textbooks. A Textbook of Psychology (1909b) was too systematic and too sophisticated for elementary courses in psychology. In 1915 he published A Beginner’s Psychology, which was more suitable as an introductory text. Since he was never able to complete a projected three-volume work on systematic psychology, his textbooks are the only systematic accounts of his psychology that he left.

Titchener was elected a charter member of the American Psychological Association but soon with drew: he resented the association’s failure to take action against a member who had plagiarized his translation of Wundt. Since, however, he missed the contacts with his colleagues that the annual meetings provided, he invited the heads of ten of the most prominent laboratories in the country to attend a conference on experimental psychology at Cornell in the spring of 1904. The group, unofficially known as “The Experimentalists,” thereafter met annually; after Titchener’s death, it became a more formal organization, the Society of Experimental Psychologists.

The list of Titchener’s honors is long, including honorary degrees from Oxford, Wisconsin, Harvard, and Clark, and memberships in the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Medicine in England. He was coeditor of the American Journal of Psychology from 1895 to 1920 and sole editor from 1921 to 1925. From 1894 to 1920 he was also the American editor of Mind. His own list of publications was long (216); many other works (176) came from his students in the Cornell laboratory. Clearly, he was one of the most respected and influential figures in the development of the discipline of psychology in America.

Karl M. Dallenbach

[For the historical context of Titchener’s work, see the biographies of James; KÜlpe; MÜller, Georg Elias; Wundt; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Attention; Psychophysics; Senses.]


(1896) 1902 An Outline of Psychology. New ed., enl. New York: Macmillan.

1898a The Postulates of a Structural Psychology. Philosophical Review 7:449-465.

(1898b) 1925 A Primer of Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan.

1901-1905 Experimental Psychology: A Manual of Laboratory Practice. 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → Volume 1: Qualitative Experiments, 2 parts. Volume 2: Quantitative Experiments, 2 parts.

1908 Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention. New York: Macmillan.

1909a Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-processes. New York: Macmillan.

(1909b) 1910 A Textbook of Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

1910 The Past Decade in Experimental Psychology. American Journal of Psychology 21:404-421.

1915 A Beginner’s Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

1929 Systematic Psychology: Prolegomena. New York: Macmillan.


Angell, Frank 1928 Titchener at Leipzig. Journal of

General Psychology 1:195-198. Boring, Edwin G. 1927 Edward Bradford Titchener.

Journal of General Psychology 38:489-506.

Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Dallenbach, Karl M. 1928 Bibliography of the Writings of Edward Bradford Titchener: 1917-1927. Journal of Psychology 40:121-125.

Foster, William S. 1917 A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Edward Bradford Titchener: 1889-1917. Pages 323-337 in Studies in Psychology. Worcester, Mass.: Wilson.

KÜlpe, Oswald (1893) 1909 Outlines of Psychology, Based Upon the Results of Experimental Investigation. 2d ed. Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Macmillan → First published as Grundriss der Psychologie, auf experi-menteller Grundlage dargestellt. Titchener was also the translator of the 1895 and 1901 English editions.

Pillsbury, W. B. 1928 The Psychology of Edward Bradford Titchener. Philosophical Review 37:95-108.

Studies in Psychology. 1917 Worcester, Mass.: Wilson.→ A volume presented to Titchener by his colleagues and former students in recognition of the 25th anniversary of his doctorate.

Warren, Howard C. 1927 Edward Bradford Titchener. Science 66:208-209.

Wundt, Wilhelm (1873) 1905 Principles of Physiological Psychology. Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener and J. E. Creighton. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Volume 1 of Wilhelm Wundt’s Grundzilge der physiologischen Psychologie. Titchener and Creighton were also the translators of the 1894, 1896, and 1901 editions.