Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920)
Wilhelm Wundt was born on August 16, 1832 in Baden, Germany. He was described as a shy, solitary, and frequently daydreaming student who had really bad grades in school. He came from a long line of scholars and intellectuals and had a strict Lutheran pastor as a father.
At age 13, he went to a prep school where he had a hard time getting along with classmates and teachers. He continued on to not giving too much attention to schoolwork but eventually lived up to the expectations of his impressive lineage later in life when he buckled down and studied medicine at the University of Tubingen for a year. Upon his father’s death, he then transferred to the University of Heidelberg and excelled in his academic work thus earning his MD in 1855. He sought further studies at the University of Berlin in 1857 and when he finished his training, was accepted as a lecturer in the University of Heidelberg working as the laboratory assistant to the physiologist, Hermann Helmholtz. He also worked with organic chemist Robert Bunsen (yes, of the infamous bunsen burner!) as his doctoral adviser. They had made such a good impression on him that their works greatly influenced many of Wundt’s writings. Ultimately, he founded his own lab in 1879 and this forever changed the history of Psychology.
- He is the father of Experimental Psychology.
- Founded the first psychology research laboratory.
- One of the fathers of Psychology field as he differentiated this to Philosophy and Physiology or Biological Science.
- Theory on Voluntarism (not Volunteerism and not Structuralism as this is Titchener’s)
- Trained more than 180 students, prominent names include G. Stanley Hall, Edward Titchener, James McKeen Cattell, Lightner Witmer, Oswald Kulpe, and Charles Spearman
- Wrote the 10 volume Völkerpsychologie
The Father of Experimental Psychology
Many scientists during Wundt’s time focused their life’s work in studying what contributed to the formalization of the Psychology field. Germany was the place to be in if you wanted to be an expert in the field that many Americans who trained in this country later founded their own Psychology laboratories back home. With the intention to study how the mind works outside of the field of philosophy and biology, Wundt founded the first formal Psychology laboratory 1879 at the University of Liepzig. It started with four rooms and a few students but by the early 1880s, it grew to having six rooms with 19 doctoral students. By 1883, the first doctoral degree was awarded to one of Wundt’s advisees, one of many more to come. This totaled to more than 180 students under his wing during the time that he was a professor. His doctoral students did experiments that could be replicated, published, and made public so that other scientists were able to verify their work. Before this time, the study of the mind was verging more on the philosophical or even in the metaphysical level. Wundt purposely stayed away from this and the lab focused on studying attention, memory, and perception. It was a good time for Psychology to finally find it’s own voice in the scientific field.
The field was voluntarism and the method used was introspection. The term Structuralism, though often linked with his name is actually used more by one of his more popular students, Edward Titchener. He translated into English many of Wundt’s work.
Voluntarism is the term used for the mind’s selective volitional attention. Wundt posits that when a person gives focused attention to stimuli, the mind is able to process this information differently. This attention is constant and can be measured much like a scientist would observe a physical phenomenon. This scope of attention can be broad (perception) or narrow (apperception). This narrow or more focused attention is likened to the will. As this focus becomes more intense, it rises above the field of perception thus becoming aware of itself until ultimately becoming self-conscious. From this, Wundt and his students were able to do experiments. Many had a lot to do with reaction time which is still being used in many Psychology labs today.
Great Academic Lineage
Great minds attract other great minds and so it was not a surprise that many of Wundt’s students became great Psychologists as well. To the more than 180 he trained and supervised, some of the notable ones include G. Stanley Hall, Edward Titchener, James McKeen Cattell, Lightner Witmer, Oswald Kulpe, and Charles Spearman.
Wundt’s Voluminous Writings
It wasn’t enough that wonderful Wundt taught and trained so many students that became leaders in Psychology. By writing, he also made his teachings available to future generations. Wundt wrote so much that what he published was more than what people read in their lifetimes! This included the 10-volume Völkerpsychologie which translates into Cultural Psychology: An Investigation of the Developmental Laws of Language, Myth, and Morality. This was during his old age but in his early years as a professor he wrote what became a standard textbook in psychology which was the Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (Principles of Physiological Psychology) in 1874 and wrote the first academic journal for psychological research titled Philosophische Studien (Philosophical Studies) in 1881.
As a young child, Wundt didn’t start off looking like he would be doing and discovering so many great things in the future but his curiosity and thirst for knowledge could not be stopped. He topped his certification exam as a medical doctor and just a few years after put up his own laboratory and spearheaded a new type of science in Experimental Psychology. That day dreaming lad started life not paying attention to much of anything and then growing up to formalize Psychology by studying attention. Who knows what went on his mind? Maybe he was already brewing up his theories at such a young age, maybe he already started thinking about thinking and ways to understand how the mind works. In any case, Psychology owes this brilliant man so much.
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