Wundt and Titchener

Part of the SpringerBriefs in Philosophy book series (BRIEFSPHILOSOPH)


The year 1879 is generally regarded as seminal in the history of psychology; it is widely agreed that this marks the official beginning of modern psychology.

3.1 Wundt and the Beginning of Modern Psychology

The year 1879 is generally regarded as seminal in the history of psychology; it is widely agreed that this marks the official beginning of modern psychology.1 It was the year that Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832–1920) founded, at the University of Leipzig in the then recently unified German state, what has come to be regarded as the world’s first laboratory of psychology.2 Wundt received his medical training at the time when the great physiologists, Hermann von Helmholtz among them, were establishing the field of physiology as an independent experimental science, distinct from anatomy (Danziger 1990, pp. 24–25).

Wundt sought to adopt the experimental method from physiology and he “obviously hoped [that] this recent rather impressive success [in physiology] might serve as the model for the transformation of another field, namely psychology” (Danziger 1990, p. 25). In Wundt’s famous laboratory we find the important division of labor in psychology between the experimenter (Beobachter) and the experimental subject (Versuchsperson), which

was an extremely important development with the most profound implications for the nature of psychological research. The division of labor that was spontaneously adopted in Wundt’s laboratory was none other than the well-known division between the roles of “experimenter” and “subject” in psychological experiments (Danziger 1990, p. 30).

Wundt characterized his own approach as “physiological psychology” and his monographic contributions include the Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie, a work still awaiting comprehensive scholarly treatment. Even less well-studied is his immense ten-volume Völkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte in which he investigates the higher reaches of human mental life, including cultural products such as art, myth and customs. We would today recognize the work as sharing investigative object domains with areas such as history, philology, linguistic, ethnology and anthropology, here analyzed with a view to drawing inferences about the psychological processes involved in their production (Greenwood 2003, p. 75). This non-experimental side of Wundt’s work, however, was, in the context of scientific psychology, all but ignored even while the experimental side attracted both attention and emulation.

During his long career, Wundt taught as many as 24,000 students and supervised nearly 200 doctoral dissertations; indeed, the list of his doctoral students reads like an index to a history of modern psychology (Bringmann et al. 1975, p. 294). Wundt is generally regarded as the founder of experimental psychology, by which, in Boring’s words, “we mean both that he promoted the idea of psychology as an independent science and that he is the senior among ‘psychologists’” (Boring 1950, p. 316).

Wundt’s most famous student was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). Titchener was born in 1867 in Chichester, England, about 70 miles south of London. He went to Oxford in 1885 and was a member of Brasenose College, first as a philosophy and classics scholar, then (in his fifth year) as a research student of physiology (Boring 1927, p. 490). Completing his studies at Oxford, Titchener began his research in experimental psychology under the tutelage of Wundt in Leipzig. Having received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1892, Titchener served for a few months as an extension lecturer in biology at Oxford and then relocated to Cornell University (Boring 1927, p. 493). He spent the last 35 years of his career at Cornell University, where he exercised considerable influence upon contemporary thought in psychology, especially in America.

3.2 The Wundt-Titchener Relationship

Much debate in history of psychology circles has centered on the question of the precise relationship between Wundt and Titchener. On one side there is the traditional account, advanced most notably by the prominent Wundt students, Titchener and Oswald Külpe—and, in turn, by Titchener’s own student, Edwin G. Boring, who carved the traditional view into the psychological record with his highly influential A History of Experimental Psychology.3 By his very "definition of psychology," according to this account, Wundt made “introspection for the time being the primary method of the psychological laboratory” (Boring 1950, p. 328)—a state of affairs that lasted “until behaviorism came into vogue in America (ca. 1913)” (Boring 1950, p. 332). Based on his reading of the Wundtian oeuvre, Boring concludes that “there was a body of opinion which was in general shared by Wundt, by Külpe before he left Leipzig, by G. E. Müller at Göttingen, by Titchener at Cornell and by many other less important ‘introspectionists’ who accepted the leadership of these men” (Boring 1953, p. 171). Titchener, on the traditional account, is viewed as the leading introspectionist in America around the turn of the twentieth century precisely because he “outwundted Wundt” (Boring 1950, p. 386)—precisely, that is, because he excised the inconsistent elements in Wundt’s work and represented introspectionism in pure form (Boring 1950, p. 386).4

According to the opposing modern account of Wundt, advanced by a number of late twentieth century historians of psychology (e.g. Blumenthal 1979, Costall 2006, Danziger 1979, 1980 and Leahey 1981), the traditional image of Wundt is a distortion.5 In The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology, Bernard Baars sums up the significance of the new account by asserting that the conception of Wundt as “an introspectionist, an associationist, a dualist, and a believer in ‘mental chemistry’” now “appears almost entirely false” (Baars 1986, p. 30).

The scholarly criticism of the traditional account centers on the historical work of Boring who, it is claimed, seriously misunderstood Wundt. Boring, in turn, acquired his own mistaken understanding from Titchener, his teacher6 and the man to whom he dedicated7 his famous work on the history of psychology.8 The consequences of this error, according to the modern account, have been so extensive that, as Costall describes in a recent contribution to Consciousness and Cognition, the myth of Wundt as the arch-introspectionist persists in the current work of Adams, Blackmore, Dennett, Güzeldere, Hooker, Kihlstrom, Hooker, Leahey, Lundin, Rosch, Rosenthal, Thompson, Varela, Vermersch and Weidman (Costall 2006, p. 646). These thinkers have all been misled by Titchener who sought to create the impression that his own introspectionist system, through Wundt, had deep roots extending back to the very founding soil of experimental psychology. He accomplished this by systematically reinterpreting Wundt’s theories “to remove or trivialize their basic incompatibility with the classical British tradition in psychology” as well as with Titchener’s own philosophy of science (Danziger 1979, p. 217; Danziger 1980, pp. 244 and 246).

For our present purposes, this debate can be bracketed. Let us consider the strongest suggested positions at each end of the spectrum, namely (1) that Wundt was the true forbearer of introspectionist thought, or (2) that Wundt’s public image as an introspectionist was in fact a perverse misrepresentation by Titchener, Külpe and Boring. In either case, and in all instances in-between, the perceived image of Wundt was that of an introspectionist whose views on experimental psychology were proximal to those of Titchener, his de facto spokesman in the English-speaking world. It was this perceived state of affairs at that time, and subsequently, that is causally relevant with respect to the theory of introspection in psychology that was to dominate.

When Watson launched behaviorism in direct opposition to “introspective psychology” (Watson 1966, p. 3, italics removed), he was reacting to a research program that was widespread in America at the time.9 Wundt was, rightly or wrongly, taken to be the originator of this approach, while Titchener was its undisputed leader and prime Anglo-American representative (Boring 1937, p. 470; Schwitzgebel 2004, p. 60). Titchener can, in this sense at least, be called the premier introspectionist in the history of psychology, the pinnacle of the—golden or gilded—age of introspection.10 We will now examine his perilously influential system of psychology.


  1. 1.

    Despite widespread agreement on this point, the marking of this date as the beginning of modern psychology is not met with universal assent. Hatfield has argued that it “obscures the disciplinary and theoretical continuity of the new experimental psychology with a previous, natural philosophical psychology. And it goes together with a story of rapid antagonism between philosophy and psychology at century’s turn, which itself seriously misrepresents the state of play between philosophers and psychologists at the time” (Hatfield 2002, p. 209). The classic discussion of this issue is Boring’s (1965) paper “On the subjectivity of important historical dates: Leipzig 1879,” where he concludes that there is “a very considerable element of subjectivity in the establishment of this date” (Boring 1965, p. 6). For our present purposes, we shall not take a position on this matter. However, it is worthwhile to note that one purpose of the present chapter is to make salient the profound philosophical continuity that exists between the associationistic thought of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hartley, and the Mills on the one hand, and the subsequent introspectionist body of thought in experimental psychology on the other hand.

  2. 2.

    On the role of the German academic science culture in the development of scientific psychology, see Dobson and Bruce (1972).

  3. 3.

    From time to time, the traditional account also slips into the writings of other twentieth century historians of psychology. Robert Watson, for example, claimed that Titchener had an “unshakable allegiance” to Wundt (Watson 1965, p. 131). We also see it in Hatfield’s claim that Titchener was “pursuing the Wundtian project of resolving mental life into its elements” (2003, pp. 103).

  4. 4.

    This was also how Titchener himself viewed it. He saw himself as extending the domain of experimental methodology beyond the self-limiting boundaries that Wundt had placed upon his own investigations (see Titchener 1920, p. 502).

  5. 5.

    Already in 1887, however, we see a growing recognition on the part of Bain, of Wundt’s distinctive position regarding the “insufficiency or shortcoming of the principles of Association” (Bain 1887, p. 174).

  6. 6.

    And in whose shadow he walked as a graduate student (Boring 1967, p. 315).

  7. 7.

    The inscription simply reads “To Edward Bradford Titchener.”

  8. 8.

    The problem is acute because “Titchener and Boring were key figures in carrying the burden of explanation of Wundt’s work” (Anderson 1975, p. 385).

  9. 9.

    Watson was, in fact, casting an extremely wide net in finding opponents to his own position. In Behaviorism, he takes exponents of “the older psychology … called introspective psychology” to include not only Wundt, Külpe, and Titchener—but also James, Angell, Judd and McDougall (Watson 1966, p. 3, italics removed). What unifies these very different thinkers, in Watson’s mind, is that they all claim that consciousness “is the subject matter of psychology” (Watson 1966, p. 3, italics removed).

  10. 10.

    In The Disappearance of Introspection, William Lyons characterizes the period from the seventeenth century to the first decade of the twentieth century as “the golden age of introspection” (Lyons 1986, p. 2). As Lyons further states, “[i]ntrospection in its classical form (or forms) may be said to have reached its zenith and nadir at the same time in the school of Titchener in the United States” (Lyons 1986, p. 21). The zenith also represented, in a different sense, the nadir because the (purported) practice of introspection had “become highly elaborated by the time and, to the growing number of outsiders, bizarre” (Lyons 1986, p. 21). We shall uncover the cause of this as we proceed. As we shall also see, this period was more of a gilded than a golden age of introspection.


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© The Author(s) 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Media, Cognition and CommunicationUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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