Wilhelm Wundt Essay

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Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt born on August 16th, 1832 in the German State of Baden was a philosopher, physician, professor and psychologist, and is considered by many as the “founder of modern psychology” or the “father of experimental psychology”. His contribution to psychology on a whole is noted favourably among modern psychologists; however, his labeling hence contribution to psychology as a science has distinguished him from many other prominent figures in the domain of psychology.

He established the first laboratory committed exclusively to psychological research at the University in Leipzig, expanded experimental psychology as an established school of thought, developed the method of introspection which became the basis of the modern scientific method, wrote books and volumes of journals which channelled the spread of experimental psychology, and influenced different schools of thought such as structuralism and voluntarism.

These were the major results of his efforts to pursue the study of human behavior in a systematic and scientific manner and his goal to establish psychology as a unique categorical science. Wundt, raised in a suburb called Neckarau, was the son of a Lutheran minister and grew up in an environment in which there were many scholars and intellectuals as both his parents’ families were made up of scholarly individuals such as historians, theologians, physicians and scientists. He therefore had a studious childhood and his education became solely the responsibility of his father’s assistant.

His formal education began at the University of Tubingen, however, after staying for just one year he transferred to the University of Heidelberg where he became one of the top medical students in his class, graduated summa cum laude, and placed first in the state medical board examination (B. R. Hergenhahn, 2009). After graduating with his medical degree, he went on to the University of Berlin where he spent a year and after returned to Heidelberg where he became the lab assistant of famous physiologist Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz.

It was during this tenure with von Helmholtz that Wundt began to develop his theory that psychology was a natural science. This influenced him to give lectures on his scientific approach to psychology and write his first book called Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception which in essence paved the way for his journey in proving psychology to be a science. Wundt remained at Heidelberg until 1874 when he got an offer to be a Professor of inductive philosophy at Zurich University in Switzerland.

After staying there for a year he received an appointment to teach philosophy at the University of Leipzig back home in Germany which he accepted and stayed until his death in 1920. The scientific approach by Wundt had soon come to be known as ‘Wundtian psychology’ because of its difference from what is was known as before him. The roots of psychology are quite archaic and are in fact dated back centuries to the early Greeks such as Aristotle and Hippocrates who had contrasting views of whether the heart or the brain was the seat of the mind.

Glassman & Hadad (2009) believed that generally psychology emerged from two traditions: philosophy and the natural science. Philosophers were always interested in understanding the meaning of human experience and perception. This interest sparked several studies which “set the stage for the development of the sciences, including psychology, through their reliance on observation as a means of knowing their world” (Kasschau, 2003, p. 15). One such philosopher was John Locke who showed his interest in deliberating the role of learning in behaviour when he wrote his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was published in 1690.

Seventeenth century philosophers had introduced and popularized the idea of dualism, the concept that the mind and body are separate and distinct. Another famous philosopher Rene Descartes agreed with this idea; however he purported that there was still some interaction between mind and body. He had a mechanistic view of a human behaviour and reasoned that the mind and body influence each other to create a person’s experiences. He saw the mind as controlling the body’s movements, sensations, and perceptions.

The scientific interests of psychology can also be dated back thousands of years with physicians such as Galen and Hippocrates who propelled their views of brain function. One scientist who emphatically influenced psychology was Isaac Newton. His work in physics helped to develop a scientific ‘method’ “consisting of observation, the formulation of hypotheses designed to predict events and outcomes and the subsequent testing of these hypotheses through further observation” (Watts, 2010). These elements remain central to the scientific method that is generally used in psychology.

Also having great impact on psychology was Newton’s application of those methods and his theory of mechanical determinism. It was therefore believed that sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics and physiology had influenced aspects of psychology. Basically psychology was a combination or hybrid of different scientific fields and philosophy and was not seen as a distinct science. Philosophers such as Galileo, August Comte and Immanuel Kant rejected psychology as a science because they believed that it was outside the realm of science.

Comte is noted famously for his exclusion of psychology from the classification of sciences which he wrote about in one of his famous writings Course of Positive Philosophy. John Stuart Mill, who was deeply influenced by and admired by Comte and his writings, disagreed with this exclusion. Mill voiced his objection of this exclusion and was of the opinion that psychology could become a science which he stated in his System of Logic in 1843; however, it needed someone with the scholarship and knowledge of how observation and experiments are made.

Although Mill was of this position he did not go as far as to try to achieve this goal and only talked about doing psychological experiments; but Wundt took up the responsibility and actually did them. Therefore it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that was the time when psychology broke away from philosophy and became a separate field of study (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2011). Wundt believed that experimentation could be used to study only the simple processes of the mind but could not be used to study the more complex mental processes; however he did propose that it could help in the understanding of the higher mental processes.

George A. Miller (1998) states that “For Wundt, psychology involved the analysis of consciousness into elements, the determination of the manner in which these elements are connected, and the determination of the laws of connection. This conception he borrowed from the British empiricists. Just as chemists had analyzed matter into atoms and anatomists had analyzed living systems into cells, psychologists, he decided, must analyze mind into the elementary sensations and feelings that make it up”.

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