Wilhelm Wundt

As a child, Wundt was shy, awkward, and didn’t do well in school (including flunking a year of high school). Yet thanks in no small measure to Wundt’s efforts, psychology was transformed from a subsection of philosophy into its own independent science.

In contrast to Freud, Wundt’s major contribution was practical, rather than theoretical. His intent was to create a new science and he approached the matter systematically. First he established experimental psychology. Wundt began the first laboratory exclusively dedicated to the experimental study of psychology. Although others (Weber, Fechner, Fritsch & Hitzig) had conducted psychological experiments, Wundt’s program was composed of interlocking studies, held together by his theory of volition.

Second, Wundt developed a non-experimental psychology (what today would be called social psychology or cultural anthropology). He called it Volkspsychology (folk psychology). It included the nonexperimental study of higher thought processes, art, myths, rituals and stages of development.

Although Wundt clearly intended to integrate the two branches, he never achieved his goal. He didn’t delineate how the two areas interact and his followers emphasized only the experimental branch. They ignored Wundt’s more global theoretical work, including his articles on philosophy, logic, ethics and metaphysics.

For folk psychology, Wundt used historical analysis and naturalistic observation. In contrast, his experimental studies of simple mental processes used introspection, reaction-time, and word association experiments. For Wundt, introspection was systematic observation. Trained observers reported the sensations they experienced; personal interpretation was not allowed. Within the context of the procedure, Wundt emphasized the objective, internally consistent, replicable study of psychology. Like Muller and Helmholtz, Wundt tried reaction time to study the stages of a perception but discarded the procedure as too unreliable.

Wundt proposed a tri-dimensional theory of emotion that places subjective feelings on three dimensions: excitement-calm; pleasure-displeasure; and tension-relaxation. These feelings and sensations can be clustered together in compounds and compounds form the apperceptive mass. When feelings cause action, it is called volition or will.

For more background, check out this video on Psychology and Experimental Physiology. And here’s one on Wilhelm Wundt.

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