Dr JacksonMaru Landscapes
maru logo
Lecture 4.....
Instructor:  Jeremy Jackson   |    Jan 4, 2017

Location:    Online    |   Blackboard

Lecture 4

The Beginnings of Psychology


 Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

As your book says, Wundt is considered the founder of psychology because he intended to and actually succeeded in founding a new discipline. It is very important to understand that Wundt did not discover a new scientific technique or new phenomenon. As your book puts it, he PROMOTED the IDEA that the techniques of Fechner and Weber SHOULD be developed into a new scientific discipline called psychology. Your book even goes so far as to say that Wundt was more of a salesman than inventor or discoverer of any new scientific method or technique.

Your book gives a good account of Wundt’s life and early years so I will not duplicate it here. What I would like to do is go over parts of chapter 4 very carefully so that we have a very clear view of Wundt’s work. Specifically, I’d like to look at Wundt’s experimental psychology of consciousness.

Now, I’m going to categorize the content of pages 96-101 in to three different types of subject matter/problem. Your book does not do this, but I find it very helpful too make this distinction.

Although they are not specifically identified as such, your book actually describes 4 distinct aspects of Wundt’s work. They are:

1) Wundt’s theory of consciousness - In this category we have Wundt's philosophical theory about what consciousness is. As you will see, a school of thought in psychology is defined as a particular view on what the subject matter of psychology should be and how that subject matter should be studied. Wundt was the inventor of the first school of thought in psychology, called voluntarism. The history of psychology is a history of a series of different schools of thought. In Chapter 1, your authors suggest that we have not yet settled on a single school of thought within psychology.

* NOTE: Please go back to Lecture 2 where I discuss Aristotle. Remind yourself that Aristotle developed a theory about what the soul is. Wundt's method here is exactly the same as Aristotle's method. They are both theorizing about what something is. The reason that you learned about Aristotle is that he was one of the first philosophers to use this method. That is, the method of theorizing about how things should be defined. Now, this may not look like much of a method to you but it certainly is. There are people that have argued that it makes no sense to theorize about what things are. That is, that the method of theorizing about how something should be defined is logically flawed.

2) Wundt's view about how consciousness should be studied - In this category we have the methods Wundt thought were appropriate to the study of consciousness. Obviously, Wundt believed in studying consciousness scientifically, but is method was more specific than this.

3) The actual research that was conducted by Wundt - In this category we have all things to do with what Wundt actually did in his lab and what his findings actually were.

4) Wundt’s philosophy of science - In this category we have anything to do with how Wundt thought science in general should be conducted.


Now, in the following, I’m going to assume that the textbook gives an accurate description of Wundt’s work and philosophical views. To be sure, we would need to go back to Wundt’s original works and read them carefully. As they were written in German, this would be rather difficult. BUT, understand that I’m trusting the text. I don’t actually know if the text is right about the details.


Wundt’s Theory of Consciousness

The following diagram is a depiction of what your text says are Wundt’s “beliefs”, “ideas”, and “claims” about the nature of consciousness. It is important to note that these are ideas, beliefs and claims, not discoveries made in a lab! Your book is suggesting that these are more like philosophical assertions about what consciousness is like not discoveries made in a lab!



Wundt held that the science of experimental psychology should only take an interest in immediate experience. So it appears as if he felt that experimental psychology should not deal with any form of personal interpretation.

Now this is important. Lets look at some of the ways your book describes a mediate experience. The books says of mediate experience:

  • It involves thinking about or reflecting on a stimulus
  • It includes descriptions of objects (but not descriptions of features of objects)
  • It is the usual form of experience in which we acquire knowledge about the world
  • It involves our own interpretation of a stimulus
  • So you see that Wundt’s view of consciousness is a rather odd one. He speaks of a form of consciousness that is very unlike our own everyday notion of consciousness.

    Our everyday notion of consciousness is that it is a state of self-awareness. If you are in a heightened state of consciousness you are highly aware of your thoughts, feelings, needs, desires, etc. We do not speak of consciousness as if it is something that does not involve one’s own reflection about how one feels, thinks, etc.

    But lets look at some of the other implications of Wundt’s view of the nature of consciousness.

    Wundt is implying that consciousness is:

  • Made up of things – mental elements.
  • Something that can synthesize, it has powers of synthesis
  • It contains compounds – psychic compounds
  • It has processes in it
  • It is active
  • Now....

    are these discoveries about consciousness?

    Think carefully. This has to do with the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. Recall that in Chapter 1 your book makes a big deal about psychology beginning with Wundt because this was the beginning of the empiricist or scientific era of psychology. The implication is that Wundt’s methods were different to those of the philosopher. The idea is that Wundt was not using rationalist methods but scientific or empiricist methods.


    Did Wundt look into a microscope, telescope, brain imaging device, etc., and discover mental elements where no one had seen them before?

    When he says that the perception of red when looking at a red apple is an element and the perception of a red apple is not a mental element, did he discover the existence of the mental element red?

    Did Wundt locate the synthesizer in the mind? Did he see a synthesizer where no one had seen one before? Could he show you what the apperceptive synthesizer looks like?

    Did Wundt discover that when I look outside and say I see a tree that the perception of the tree is a psychic compound? Did he show how psychic compounds were actually formed out of elements by the synthesizer?

    Did he make any empirical observation at all of any of the phenomena that he says consciousness is made-up of?


    Did he do what the Mill's did when they theorized about the nature of the mind?

    Did he do what Aristotle did when he theorized about the nature if the soul?

    I don’t think your book gives us any indication at all that Wundt's speculation is anything more than philosophical theorizing about the nature of consciousness. The use of words like “idea”, “claim”, “belief”, by your book to describe Wundt's theory is telling I think. It seems to me that all of the above is very much a rationalist style theory, not an empirical theory tested by recourse to specific, explicit observations of any of the phenomena Wundt “claimed” to exist.

    One can not see the synthesizer, there is no explicit definition of it, there are no pictures of it, there are no clear statements of exactly what it must AND must not be like, there are no specific statements about what we should and should not observe if the synthesizer is or is not there, and so on.

    Now think back to Karl Popper and his criteria for a good scientific theory. I want to know what you think here. Is Wundt’s theory a good scientific theory according to Popper’s criteria? Is it falsifiable? What specific test does the book speak of that would show that Wundt’s theory is right or wrong?

    Exercise: Read the text chapter on Wundt carefully and see if your book mentions any explicit empirical test of the truth or falsity of Wundt's theory of consciousness.

    Wundt's Method of Study

    Wundt also supported a particular method of studying consciousness. He believed that introspection should be the fundamental method of psychology.

    Now, from time to time I’m going to ask you to use different definitions than the one in the book. This is one of those occasions. There is a logical reason for this. Let me show you. The book says that:

  • Introspection should be used to study consciousness
  • According to Wundt, consciousness does not involve thinking or personal interpretation
  • Introspection is defined in the book as the inspection of ones personal thoughts or feelings
  • Do you see that the definition of introspection in “3” above could not be right if “1” and “2” are right?

    So I am going to ask you to give a slightly different and more specific definition of introspection at this point:

    Introspection is a procedure in which a person responds to a stimulus with a reaction or description of features of the stimulus that does not involve any form of personal interpretation, thought or reflection.

    So, if I show you an apple, you would be introspecting about the apple if you were to respond with a description of your perception of the features of the apple but not any interpretation of what the thing I have shown you actually is.

    If you were to say: "Red", "oval", "shiny", you would be introspecting because you would be describing your perception of features of the apple. These features as you experience them would be mental elements.

    If you were to say: "Apple", "tasty", "lunch", you would not be introspecting because, according to Wundt, these experiences/perceptions involve interpretation.

    The idea is that we want to get at the immediate experience of the individual perceptual features of objects (the mental elements) so that we can then determine how the apperceptive synthesizer combines these features in order for you to derive the mediate interpretation that the object is an apple or cricket ball or whatever.


    Now lets move on to the actual research that Wundt did.


    Wundt’s Research and Research Findings

    Interestingly, given the book is supposed to be a history of scientific psychology, the book does not say much about what Wundt actually did in his lab. Pretty much all it says is that Wundt did mostly reaction time studies. Let me give you two explicit examples:

    Study 1

    The purpose of this study is to determine the length of time a simple judgment takes.

    In this experiment words are presented to the subject and the subject is asked to press a button as soon as they can if they see the word “twig”. The subject would be presented with numerous different types of words but the word “twig” would be the only word that they would respond to by pressing the button.

    Now, the purpose of this part of the study is to determine how long it takes to identify a word. In the next part of the study, words are presented as before but the word “twig’ is presented in different colors. The subject is instructed to press a button as soon as they see the word “twig” printed in green.

    Suppose on average it takes the subject .5 seconds to recognize the word “twig” but .75 seconds to recognize that the word is “twig” and it is printed in green.

    According to Wundt this means that simple color judgments take .25 seconds.

    Of course, this is a finding about mental elements to Wundt because it requires no personal interpretation about the nature of the stimulus. All that is required of the subject is a simple judgment about a feature of the object – that it is green. Above we saw that experience of features of objects are mental elements (remember that the experience of red is a mental element whereas the experience of a red apple is not).


    Study 2

    Suppose the following stimulus is flashed quickly on a screen (perhaps for 5 seconds).

















    Now suppose we ask the subject how many letters they recall. Suppose the average is 5 for all the subjects.

    Now suppose we flash the following set of letters on the screen for 5 seconds.



















    Now suppose we ask subjects how many letters they recall and on average they recall 16 letters.

    This result shows how many elements consciousness holds (5) and that consciousness holds fewer simple elements than mediate experience (16). Mediate experience holds more information because of the interpretation we make of the stimulus. We recognize the words when the letters are placed in a meaningful order.


    Now it’s important to understand the role that Wundt’s theory of consciousness is playing here. Without the theory, these findings are relatively unimpressive. They show:

  • How much more time it takes to recognize the word twig in green than when it’s not in green
  • The number of letters we can recall when shown a series of scrambled letters for 5 seconds
  • That we remember more letters when they are organized into words than when they are scrambled.
  • These findings to most people are probably not that fascinating.

    BUT, as soon as the findings have something to do with the nature of consciousness, they seem much more impressive. It is as if we are discovering something deeper than how many letters we can recall or that recognizing green takes .25 seconds.

    It seems as if we are discovering what consciousness really is!

    The reason I mention this is that it has something to do with an idea we loked at in a previous lecture about the philosophy of science - logical positivism (or just positivism for short). Your book discusses this idea quite extensively. We will spend a fair bit of time on it now and some time on it later in the course.

    I’d like to introduce this idea by first considering Wundt’s philosophy of science.


    Wundt’s Philosophy of Science

    Your book says:

    “When sufficient objective data had been accumulated, Wundt drew inferences from them about the elements and processes of conscious experience(pp. 100)

    You can see from the above research that Wundt was using his findings to say something about the bigger question of the structure of consciousness.

    He was drawing conclusions about consciousness that were going well beyond his data.

    He did not actually discover mental elements; he actually discovered that it takes .25 seconds to recognize that the word twig is in green.

    So Wundt is drawing conclusions about things he has not identified, seen, discovered and so on. And this certainly makes his science seem much more impressive than the “objective findings” he made in his lab.

    Recall that Fechner did the same. Fechner actually discovered a mathematical relationship between the perceived intensity of a stimulus and the actual intensity of a stimulus for different kinds of stimuli. But he wrote that he had discovered the nature of the interaction between the mind and the body. This was a somewhat philosophical claim that went well beyond the actual data he had.

    The positivist does not think that this practice is sound scientific practice. They think that:

    scientists should be very skeptical of any claim that goes beyond the data.

    We will come back to this idea later in the course. But for now, just take a look at what the 87 year old Bertrand Russell (one of the greatest philosophers of the last century....a genius that wrote the profound mathematical work....Principia Mathematica) had to say on this. It is admittedly not technical, but he does express the sentiment of the idea that theorizing, hypothesis, conjecture, stipulation, belief, etc., are undesirable because they do not express facts of nature. They are all, in some sense, "going beyond the data".

    PS. I left in a bit at the end about moral advice for future generations. I just thought you might find it interesting that the notions of interconnectidness, tolerance, respect for others, are not new. We did not just realize yesterday that bullying, prejudism, racism, etc., are vices to be avioded.





    Structuralism and Functionlism

    Again, your text does a very good job of discussing these schools of thought in the history of psychology so I wiill not repeat it. There are just a few things I would like to bring your attention as a kind of critical analysis of aspects of these schools of thought.

    Titchener was the inventor of structuralism and James was the inventor of functionalism. Structuralism followed Wundt’s voluntarism and functionalism followed structuralism.

    Structuralism was a school of thought in which the subject matter of psychology was the consciousness of normal adults and the method of study was introspection. Functionalism was a school of thought in which the subject matter was much broader than structuralism (the consciousness and behavior of normal and abnormal animals and humans) and the methods of study were much broader than in structuralism (introspection, study of individual differences, comparative psychology, applied psychology, abnormal psychology, etc).

    Structuralism was founded on the idea that consciousness was structured in the same way as objects are structured. That is, made up of mental elements that were combined into complex mental compounds. So the focus of study was on the structure of consciousness. In 1898 Titchener wrote:

    "We find a parallel to morphology in a very large portion of 'experimental' psychology. The primary aim of the experimental psychologist has been to analyze the structure of mind; to ravel out the elemental processes from the tangle of consciousness, or (if we may change the metaphor) to isolate the constituents in the given conscious formation. His task is a vivisection, but a vivisection which shall yield structural, not functional results. He tries to discover, first of all, what is there and in what quantity, not what it is there for."

    Functionalism, on the other hand, was founded on the idea that conscious was not at all like an object. In 1892 William James said:

    "No doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic sort of way, and to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were all built out of unchanging simple ideas which 'pass and turn again.' It is convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A permanently existing 'Idea' which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades."

    Instead, James used the analogy of a stream to describe what consciousness is really like:

    "Most books adopt the so-called synthetic method. Starting with 'simple ideas of sensation,' and regarding these as so many atoms, they proceed to build up the higher states of mind out of their 'association,' 'integration,' or 'fusion,' as houses are built by the agglutination of bricks. This…. commits one beforehand to the very questionable theory that our higher states of consciousness are compounds of units ... The first and foremost concrete fact which every one will affirm to belong to his inner experience is the fact that consciousness of some sort goes on. 'States of mind' succeed each other in him... Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described."

    The focus of study in functionalism was on the way in which consciousness helped humans adapt to their surroundings. Or perhaps more broadly, the role that consciousness plays in our lives.

    The school of thought that followed functionalism was behaviorism. A debate between functionalism (McDougall) and behaviorism (Watson) is the subject of the online readings in the next week of the course.


    Notes from the Text on Titchener and Structuralism

    I thought it might be useful for you all just to see my own notes from the text organized by the four features of important scientists we discussed earlier in this lecture when we looked at Wundt.


    1) Titchener’s Theory of Consciousness

    1) Consciousness is made up of elements (pp 122).
    2) Consciousness has a structure (pp 123).
    3) Consciousness is the sum of our experiences, as they exist at a given time (pp 131).
    4) Mind is the sum of consciousness over a life-time (pp 131).
    5) The elements of consciousness are compounded into complex phenomena (pp 134).
    6) There are 3 states of consciousness (we can classify mental elements into 3 types): a) Sensations b) Images c) Affective states (pp 134).
    7) Sensations are the basic elements of perception (so perception is a complex phenomenon) (pp 134).
    8) Images are the basic elements of ideas (pp134).
    9) Affective states are the basic elements of emotion (pp134).
    10) Mental elements have attributes. Sensations and images have the attributes of: a) Quality b) Intensity c) Duration and d) Clearness (pp 134).

    Once again, just as in the case of Wundt, these do not consitute empirical discoveries about consciousness made in Titchener's lab. The above is a metaphysical style theory about the nature and structure of consciousness.

    What is the nature of consciousness according to Titcehener....

    It's ANALAGOUS to an oject! It is made up of things....elements. These elements are combined in to compounds, etc.

    Think about this for a minute.....

    Where did the analogy come from do you think?

    Well ofcourse, it came from chemistry. It came from the great discoveries that were being made at the time in the hard science of chemistry.

    2) Titchener’s Method of Study

    Introspection: A mechanical, non-subjective state in which a NORMAL ADULT individual observes the elements of conscious experience without reflection (pp 132).

    Experimentation: Introspections must be made using an experimental approach in which observations are repeated, isolated from extraneous factors and varied according to factors within the control of the experimenter (pp 133).

    Repetition: We must be able to present the same stimulus to the same subject twice and receive the same report about what elements of consciousness were experienced.

    Isolation: The stimulus and only that stimulus must be presented to the subject at any given time.

    Variation of factors: The experimenter must systematically vary the amount, intensity and duration of the stimulus to determine their effects on the identified elements of consciousness.

    3) Titchener’s Laboratory Research

    The text gives no real specifics here. Just says that graduate students were trained to introspect and identified thousands of elements. On page 133 there are about 5 or 6 sentences about specific results.

    This, by the way, is an indication of the philosophical leanings of the text. The text emphasizes theories of consciousness, methods of study, and philosophy of science but says very little about the actual observations that were made in the lab.

    4) Titchener’s Philosophy of Science

    He was a reductionist, mechanist (pp 132), and empiricist (book says experimentalist) (pp 133). It appears he may have changed his views later in his career.


    Notes from the Text on William James and Functionalism:

    1) James’ Theory of Consciousness

    1) Elements of consciousness are alleged (pp188).
    2) Chemical analogy not appropriate.
    3) Consciousness can not be broken down in to parts.
    4) Consciousness is in continuous flow.
    5) No thought/feeling/etc. happens twice.
    6) Mind=Consciousness
    7) The mind is: a) Continuous b) selective c) Active
    8) The mind: a) filters b) combines c) knows what is relevant.

    2) James’ Method of Study

    1) Introspection – but not Wundt or Titchener’s kind. A broader definition: looking in to the mind and repeating what we find (pp 191).
    2) Experimental methods such as reaction time and psychophysics type studies.
    3) Comparative methods: use of animals, children, degenerates, etc.
    4) Other methods such as mental testing (pp 205) and applied psychology (pp 205)

    3) James’ Laboratory Research

    Nothing said except that he wasn’t interested in it much.

    4) James’ Philosophy of Science

    1) Pragmatist (pp 191).
    2) Not an experimentalist (pp 187).
    3) Thought psychology is not a science (pp 186).
    4) Left psychology for philosophy in the end (pp187).


    The following is an example answer to the SA question:

    Distinguish between structuralism and functionalism. Name the very basic differences between the two positions and what might have motivated the development of these two views in psychology. Which of these two schools of thought is most influential in psychology today and why? Name the major figures in the historical development of these two schools of thought.


    The two major figures in the development of structuralism and functionalism were Edward Titchener and William James respectively. Titchener developed structuralism as a school of thought in which the primary objective was to identify the basic building blocks (which he called mental elements) of consciousness. He believed that consciousness was akin to a mechanical object in the sense that it consists of basic elements that are combined into complex structures. Titchener believed that mental elements were of 3 types: Sensations, b) Images and c) Affective states. A significant part of Titchener’s work, therefore, involved the identification of the various different kinds of mental elements. It is said that over the course of his career he identified tens of thousands of distinct elements through the use of a procedure called introspection. Introspection was a method of observing the elements of consciousness elicited by a stimulus in which no form of interpretation, thinking, or subjective assessment is involved. For instance, introspective observations of an apple, would include immediate statements about the color (red), shape (round) and size (small) of the apple but not interpretations of what the object is (i.e., that it is an apple). Since the normal form of human consciousness involves interpretation, observers had to be trained to make introspective observations of stimuli.  It is likely that Titchener’s approach was motivated by discoveries concerning the structure of matter being made in chemistry at the early part of the 20th century.

    James rejected Titchener’s mechanistic, reductionist, artificial view of human consciousness as structured of elements. He developed a new school of thought that emphasized the continuous, active nature of conscious thought. James also rejected the highly academic, experimental nature of structuralism and argued for a science of psychology that was pragmatic in approach. In doing so, he dramatically increased the scope and methods of psychology. His functionalist school of thought supported a broader form of introspection, reaction time studies, psychophysical methods, comparative methods, mental testing and applied psychology. As many of these methods are used in modern psychology, it can be argued that functionalism was very influential in the development of the psychology we have today. Structuralism on the other hand, has very little if any influence today. Perhaps the only area of psychology influenced by structuralism today is cognitive psychology. In cognitive psychology, the mind is viewed as a sort of computational machine. In structuralism, the mind was also viewed as a mechanical object of sorts.


    ‹ ‹ Previous Lecture
    Next Lecture › ›
    All intellectual content copyright of Dr Jackson.ca - 2017.