Wilhelm Wundt and Structuralism


'Structuralism': The First Paradigm in Psychology

paradigm: an agreement within a discipline defining the subject matter to be studied and the correct methods for studying it.

The Founder of Experimental Psychology: Wilhelm Wundt

Psychology has a long history as a topic within the fields of philosophy and physiology. It became an independent field of its own through the work of the German Wilhelm Wundt. He taught the first course in physiological psychology at Heidelberg in 1867. In 1873 he published the first book on psychology Principles of Physiological Psychology, which established psychology as a unique branch of science with its own questions and methods. He was the first one in history to be called a 'psychologist'. Wundt set out purposively to establish a new science. As founder he took it as his right to define the first paradigm in psychology, Structuralism.

"Wundt would appear at exactly the correct minute--punctuality was essential--dressed all in black and carrying a small sheaf of lecture notes. He clattered up the side aisle to the platform with an awkward shuffle and a sound as if his soles were made of wood. On the platform was a long desk where demonstrations were performed. He made a few gestures--a forefinger across his forehead, a rearrangement of his chalk--then faced the audience and placed his elbows on the bookrest. His voice was weak at first, then gained in strength and emphasis. As he talked his arms and hands moved up and down, pointing and waving, in some mysterious way illustrative. His head and body were rigid, and only the hands played back and forth. He seldom referred to the few jotted notes. As the clock struck the end of the hour he stopped and, stooping a little, clattered out as he had clattered in."

The paradigm of Structuralism

Structuralism had its roots in earlier work in physiology. Scientists there (e.g. Gustav Fechner) had found success in studying sensory perception by manipulating stimuli and having subjects report back their experience. Wundt adopted this general approach for his new science.

The subject matter of psychology: Wundt defined psychology as the study of the structure of conscious experience. The goal was to find the 'atoms' of conscious experience, and from there to build a knowledge of how the atoms combine to create our experience. Wundt hoped to thus emulate the success of the natural sciences.

The methods of psychology: as psychology was defined as the study of experience, and as an outside observer cannot gather information on subjective experience, Wundt turned to introspection as the tool for gathering data. Researchers were trained with specific criteria for becoming skilled introspectors.

Structuralism was an attempt to study the mental world with introspection, the tool that Descartes thought most appropriate for the mental realm. It attempted to use that data to fit into the mechanical realm of science. This early attempt to cut across Cartesian dualism was not successful. Introspectors could not agree on the data, and thus the scientific necessity of confirming results in other laboratories could not be met. Structuralism basically ended with the death of Wundt's most devoted pupil, E.B. Titchener, in 1927.