Wilhelm Wundt and William James

Dr. C. George Boeree

Wilhelm Wundt and William James are usually thought of as the fathers of psychology, as well as the founders of psychology’s first two great “schools.”  Although they were very different men, there are some parallels:  Their lives overlap, for example, with Wilhelm Wundt born in 1832 and dying in 1920, while William James was born ten years later and died ten years earlier.  Both have claims to having established the first psychology lab in 1875.  And neither named his school. As you will see, there are other commonalities as well, personal and philosophical.

I believe we haven't seen thinkers of their stature in psychology since.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt was born in the village of Neckerau in Baden, Germany on August 16, 1832.  The son of a Lutheran pastor, he was a solitary and studious boy.  He roomed with and was tutored by his fathers assistant, the vicar of the church.  He was sent off to boarding school at 13, and the university at 19.

He studied medicine at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Berlin, although interested more in the scientific aspect than in a medical career.  In 1857, he was appointed dozent (instructor) at Heidelberg, where he lectured on physiology.  From 1858 to 1864, he also served as an assistant to the famous physiologist Helmholtz, and studied the neurological and chemical stimulation of muscles.

In 1864, he became an assistant professor at Heidelberg.  Three years later, he started a course he called physiological psychology, which focused on the border between physiology and psychology, i.e. the senses and reactions -- an interest inspired by the work of Weber and Fechner.  His lecture notes would eventually become his major work, the Principles of Physiological Psychology (Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie), which would be published in 1873 and 1874.

Like Fechner and many others at the time, Wundt accepted the Spinozan idea of psychophysical parallelism:  Every physical event has a mental counterpart, and every mental event has a physical counterpart.  And he believed, like Fechner, that the availability of measurable stimuli (and reactions) could make psychological events open to something like experimental methodology in a way earlier philosophers such as Kant thought impossible.

The method that Wundt developed is a sort of experimental introspection:  The researcher was to carefully observe some simple event -- one that could be measured as to quality, intensity, or duration -- and record his responses to variations of those events. (Note that in German philosophy at that time, sensations were considered psychological events, and therefore “internal” to the mind, even though the sensation is of something that is “outside” the mind.  Hence what we might call observation was called by Wundt introspection!)

To continue his story, Wundt went on to become chair of “inductive philosophy” at Zürich in 1874, and then professor of philosophy at Leipzig in 1875.  It was there that he would stay and work for the next 45 years!

In 1875, a room was set aside for Wundt for demonstrations in what we now call sensation and perception.  This is the same year that William James would set up a similar lab at Harvard.  We can celebrate that year as the founding of experimental psychology!

In 1879, Wundt assisted his first graduate student at true psychological research -- another milestone.  In 1881, he started the journal Philosophische Studien.  In 1883, he began the first course to be titled experimental psychology.  And in 1894, his efforts were rewarded with the official establishment of an “Institute for Experimental Psychology” at Leipzig -- the first such in the world.

Wundt was known to everyone as a quiet, hard-working, and very methodical researcher, as well as a very good lecturer.  The latter comment is from the standards of the day, which were considerably different from today’s:  He would go on in a low voice for a couple of hours at a time, without notes or audio-visual aides and without pausing for questions.  His students loved him, but we would no doubt criticize him for not being sufficiently entertaining!

It is curious to note that during this same busy time period, Wundt also published four books in philosophy!  Keep in mind that, at this time, psychology was not considered something separate from philosophy.  In fact, Wundt rejected the idea when someone suggested it to him!

The studies conducted by Wundt and his now numerous students were mostly on sensation and perception, and of those, most concerned vision.  In addition, there were studies on reaction time, attention, feelings, and associations.  In all, he supervised 186 doctoral dissertations, most in psychology.

Among his better known students were Oswald Külpe and Hugo Munsterberg (whom James invited to teach at Harvard), the Russian behaviorists Bekhterev and Pavlov, as well as American students such as Hall (“father” of developmental psychology in America), James McKeen Cattell, Lightner Witmer (founder of the first psychological clinic in the US, at U of Penn), and Wundt’s main interpreter to the English speaking world, E. B. Titchener.  Titchener is particularly responsible for interpreting Wundt badly!

Later in his career, Wundt became interested in social or cultural psychology.  Contrary to what many believe, Wundt did not think that the experimental study of sensations was the be all and end all of psychology!  In fact, he felt that that was only the surface, and additionally that most of psychology was not as amenable to experimental methods.

Instead, he felt that we had to approach cultural psychology through the products it produced -- mythology, for example, cultural practices and rituals, literature and art.... He wrote a ten volume Völkerpsychologie, published between 1900 and 1920, which included the idea of stages of cultural development, from the primitive, to the totemic, through the age of heroes and gods, to the age of modern man.

In 1920, he wrote Erlebtes and Erkanntes, his autobiography.  A short time later, on August 31, 1920, he died.

William James

William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842.  His father was a rich man who spent his time entertaining the intellectuals of the time and discussing the religious mysticism of Swedenborg.  This wonderful atmosphere for a bright young boy was thanks to his grandfather, an Irish immigrant with a knack for real estate investment!  William was soon joined by a younger brother, Henry, who would grow up to be one of America’s premier novelists.  All the James children were sent to European boarding schools and traveled through all the great capitals.

At 19, after a stint as an art student, James enrolled at Harvard in chemistry, which he soon changed to medicine.  He was not really interested in a career in medicine, but wanted to study the science that went with it.

In 1865, he took advantage of a marvelous opportunity to travel the Amazon River basin with the great biologist Louis Agassiz, to collect samples of new species.  While there, he began to suffer from a variety of health problems.  In 1867, he went to study physiology in Germany, under Helmholtz and others.  He befriended several notable early German psychologists, including Carl Stumpf.  On the other hand, he had little respect for Herbert Spencer, Wilhelm Wundt, G. E. Müller, and others.

In Germany, he began to suffer from serious depression, accompanied by thoughts of suicide.  In addition, he had serious back pain, insomnia, and dyspepsia.  In 1869, he came back to the US to finish up his MD degree, but continued to be plagued by depression.  He had been reading a book by a French philosopher named Renouvier, which convinced him of the power of free will.  He decided to apply this idea to his own problems, and seemed to improve.

(A personal aside:  I also suffer from depression.  Unlike James, however, I began to get a grip on my depression when I finally realized that it was biological, and therefore precisely not in my control!)

From 1871 through 1872, James was a part of "the Metaphysical Club," a group of Harvard grads who met in Boston to discuss the issues of the day.  Included in the club were the philosopher Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Chauncey Wright.  It was Wright who introduced the idea of combining Alexander Bain's concept of beliefs as the disposition to behave, with Darwin's concept of survival of the fittest:  Ideas had to compete with each other, and the best would last.  This is similar to a more recent idea called memes.

It was Peirce, on the other hand, who took Kant's idea that we can never really know the truth -- that all our beliefs are maybes -- and turned it into the basis for pragmatism.  This is very similar to Hans Vaihinger's (1852-1933) philosophy of "as if" that so influenced Alfred Adler and George Kelly.

In 1872, James was appointed an instructor of physiology at Harvard.  In 1875, he taught his first course in psychology, or “physiological psychology,” ala Wundt, and established a demonstration laboratory -- the same year Wundt established his at Leipzig.  and in 1876, he became an assistant professor of physiology.

In 1878, he married Alice Gibbons, a Boston school teacher.  She took particularly good care of him, and his depression lessened significantly.  Despite his tender nature, he and Alice managed to raise five children.

In that same year, he signed on with the publisher Holt to write a psychology textbook.  It was supposed to take two years -- it took him 12.

In 1880, his title was changed to assistant professor of philosopher, which is where, in those days, psychology actually belonged.  In 1885, he became a full professor.

Despite his battles with depression, he was well liked by his students and known for his great sense of humor.  Even his textbook would have a certain lightness that we rarely find in textbooks.  He seemed to enjoy teaching.  On the other hand, he disliked research, did almost none of it, and said that labs were basically a waste of resources!

In 1889, his title changed again -- to professor of psychology!  The next year, his book was finally published -- two volumes, to be exact, titled The Principles of Psychology.  In 1892, he put out a shorter version subtitled The Briefer Course, which students would refer to for the next 50 years as “the Jimmy.”  Both are masterpieces of prose and were extremely popular among students of psychology and laypersons alike.

Despite his dislike of research, he did raise the money for a new and expanded lab at Harvard, but promptly arranged to hire one of Wundt’s students, Hugo Münsterberg, to be its director.  He did not supervise many graduate students, but several were quite successful in their own right, including James Angell, Edward Thorndike, and Mary Calkins.

[Mary Calkins (1863-1930) was the first woman to complete the requirements for a PhD in psychology at Harvard.  Unfortunately, she was denied the degree because (get ready...) she was a woman.  She later became the first woman president of the APA. ]

James had always shared his father’s interest in mysticism, even in psychic phenomena.  This has dampened his reputation among hard-core scientists in the psychological community, but it only endeared him more to the public.  In 1897, he published The Will to Believe, and in 1902, Varieties of Religious Experience.

But James was never completely comfortable with being a psychologist, and preferred to think of himself as a philosopher. He is, in fact, considered America’s greatest philosopher, in addition to being the “father” of American psychology!

He was profoundly influenced by an earlier American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, who founded the philosophy of Pragmatism.  Pragmatism says that ideas can never be completely proven true or false.  Rather, we should be looking to how useful an idea is -- how practical, how productive.  James called it the “cash value” of an idea!  James popularized Pragmatism in books like Pragmatism in 1907 and The Meaning of Truth in 1909.  In 1909, he also wrote A Pluralistic Universe, which was part Pragmatism and part an expression of his own beliefs in something not unlike Spinoza’s pantheism.

He had retired from teaching in 1907 because his heart was not was it used to be, not since a mild attack in 1898 when climbing in upstate New York.  He did meet Freud when he came to visit Boston in 1909, and was very much impressed.  The next year, he went to Europe for his health and to visit his brother Henry, but soon returned to his home in New Hampshire.  Two days later, on August 26, 1910, he died in his wife Alice’s arms.

Several of his works were published posthumously, including Some Problems in Philosophy in 1911 and the magnificent Essays in Radical Empiricism in 1912.  James' most famous students included John Dewey, the philosopher often considered the father of modern American education, and Edward Thorndike, whose work with cats opened the door to the Behaviorists.

Structuralism or Voluntarism

Wundt is undergoing a resurgence in popularity.  Over 100 years after his work, we have finally caught up with him.  Actually, he was massively misrepresented by poorly educated American students in Germany, and especially a rather ego-driven Englishman named Titchener.  Wundt recognized that Titchener was misrepresenting him, and tried to make people aware of the problem.  But Boring -- the premier American historian of psychology for many decades -- only knew Wundt through Titchener.

One misunderstanding revolves the title of one major work: Physiological psychology. But physiological psychology originally meant experimental psychology -- using methods of physiology -- although not the experimental psychology of the behaviorists in the twentieth century.

Wundt and his students used an experimental version of introspection -- the careful observation of one’s  perceptions -- and outlined some pretty specific details to the method:

1.  The observer must know when the experience begins and ends.
2.  The observer must maintain "strained attention."
3.  The phenomenon must bear repetition.
4.  And the phenomenon must be capable of variation -- i.e. experimentation.

Regarding sensations, for example, it was determined that there are seven "qualities" of sensations:  The visual, auditory,  olfactory, gustatory, cutaneous, kinesthetic, and organic.   Several of these have additional aspects.  Vision, for  example, has hue, saturation, and value.  And qualities could vary in intensity, duration, vividness, and (for the visual  and cutaneous senses) extension.

Wundt's labs were enormously productive places, describing things like selective attention, short-term memory, etc. -- even including the famous limitations on short-term memory to 7 or so "pieces" of information that would not be noticed again until the 1970's.


One of the things that would make Wundt's work so foreign to American psychologists was what he referred to as the principle of actuality:  He said that consciiousness is, in fact, a reality, and that it is the subject matter of psychology.  This is, of course, true -- although we managed to overlook it for a good 80 years or so when behaviorism ruled the academic world in the the US, Britain, and Russia.

Mental processes are an activity of the brain, and not material.  Wundt accepted Spinoza's metaphysics of parallelism and spent a great deal of effort refuting reductionism.  He believed that consciousness and its activites simply did not fit the paradigms of physical science -- even though psychology emerges from biology, chemistry, and physics.  With that emergence, consciousness has gained a certain capacity for creative synthesis -- another of Wundt's key concepts.

Although consciousness operates "in" and "through" the physical brain, its activities cannot be described in terms of chemistry or physics.  The color blue, the sound of an E minor chord, the taste of smoked salmon, the meaning of a sentence....  are all eminently psychological or subjective events, with no simple physical explanations.  When does that wavelength, retinal activity, neural firing, and so forth become "blue?"

Wundt also prefigures the Gestalt psychologists in rejecting the associationism of Locke and Hume:  Psychological structures are more than just the sum of their parts!

He and his students concluded that consciousness is composed of two "stages:"  First, there is a large capacity working memory called the Blickfeld Then there is a narrower consciousness called Apperception, which we might translate as selective attention, which is under voluntary control and moves about within the Blickfeld.

This selective attention idea became very influential.  It led, among other things, to Kraepelin's theory of schizophrenia as a breakdown of attention processes.


Another aspect of Wundtian psychology was its psycholinguistics, which actually takes up the first 2 books of Völkerpsychologie.  Wundt suggesteed that the fundamental unit of language is the sentence -- not the word or the sound.  He identified the sentence not just with a sequence of words and sounds, but as a special mental state.  Sounds, words, the rules of grammer, etc., all have their meaning only in relation to that underlying mental sentence.

Wundt actually invented the tree diagram of syntax we are all familiar with in linguistics texts!  Language starts with S (the sentence) at the top, and selective attention separates the subject (the focus or figure) from the predicate (the ground), and so on, in contrast to the popular bottom-up, associationistic conception the behaviorists proposed.  Wundt's ideas are now the standard -- yet no one remembers they were his in the first place!

Looking at the language of children, Wundt and his students proposed that language has its origins in emotional sounds and gestures -- another theory that is returning into favor.


According to Wundt we are first of all emotional creatures.  All of our mental activities involve emotion.  And emotion precedes cognition!  He was very much the romantic  (in the philosophical sense!).

He used a variety of terms:  Feelings were what he called the basic, short-lived experiences;  Moods were the more long-lived versions.  Emotions proper were the more complex experiences.  And motivations were the more "pressurized" versions of emotion that lead to behavior.

Wundt disagreed with William James and the James-lange theory of emotions.  James believed that we first respond to a situation, and then we experience the emotion.  Wundt pointed out that introspection clearly shows that the emotion comes first -- then we have physiological and behavioral consequences.

He felt that we could not come up with some organized list of emotions:  They blend into each other too much.  But we could determine several quality dimensions with which to describe them, three in particular:

1. pleasure vs displeasure
2. high vs low arousal
3. strained (or controlled) attention vs relaxed attention

Wundt felt that volition -- acts of will, "decision and choice" -- were so significant to understanding psychology, that he wound up calling his theory voluntaristic psychology.

Volition is really motivation, and volitional action is motivated behavior.  It comes out of a creative synthesis of other emotional qualities.  Students of psychology often learn about Wundt's reaction time experiments -- he really saw these as studies of volition.

The work done in his labs on volition would influence the Belgian phenomenologist Albert Michotte, who in turn would influence people such as Heider, Lewin, and Festinger who would be very influential in the new specialty called social psychology.

Volition and volitional acts can range from impulses and automatic, nearly reflexive acts to complex decisions and acts that require great effort. Many controlled actions become automatic over time, which then frees us up for more complicated volitional work.  In fact, it was the development of logical thought that Wundt considered the very highest form of will that humans are capable of.  He was quite optimistic about our potential in that regard!


Functionalism as a psychology developed out of Pragmatism as a philosophy:  To find the meaning of an idea, you  have to look at its consequences (see where it leads).  So truth is what is useful, practical, pragmatic.  This led  James and his students towards an emphasis on cause and effect, prediction and control, and observation of  environment and behavior, over the careful introspection of the Structuralists.

Pragmatism blended easily with Darwinism:  To understand an idea, ask “what is it good for?” i.e. what is its function  in the organism, what is its purpose in an ecosystem, how does it add to a creature's chances of survival and reproduction?

Some aspects of Functionalism were clearly just "anti-structuralism," a reflection, perhaps, of James impatience with  details and poor grasp of the German language.  In particular, he felt that the structuralists were ignoring the whole  and paying too much attention to the tidbits.  The anti-structuralism of later functionalists was based more on Titchener's inaccurate interpretation of Wundt's work rather than on Wundt's work itself.


An example of functionalist thinking can be found in James’ view of emotions (the James-Lange theory):

In the first paragraph, note the holistic idea that emotion is nothing without the body.  In the second, he points out that emotion has evolutionary purpose.  And in the third, James emphasizes a practical application of his theory!


From a historical perspective, it was James' emphasis on habit that ignited the interest of his followers, and paved the road for the development of American behaviorism.  Again, here is James in his own words:

When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. In wild animals, the usual round of daily behavior seems a necessity implanted at birth; in animals domesticated, and especially in man, it seems, to a great extent, to be the result of education. The habits to which there is an innate tendency are called instincts; some of those due to education would by most persons be called acts of reason. It thus appears that habit covers a very large part of life, and that one engaged in studying the objective manifestations of mind is bound at the very outset to define clearly just what its limits are.
So nothing is easier than to imagine how, when a current once has traversed a path, it should traverse it more readily still a second time. But what made it ever traverse it the first time?[5] In answering this question we can only fall back on our general conception of a nervous system as a mass of matter whose parts, constantly kept in states of different tension, are as constantly tending to equalize their states. The equalization between any two points occurs through whatever path may at the moment be most pervious. But, as a given point of the system may belong, actually or potentially, to many different paths, and, as the play of nutrition is subject to accidental changes, blocks may from time to time occur, and make currents shoot through unwonted lines. Such an unwonted line would be a new-created path, which if traversed repeatedly, would become the beginning of a new reflex arc. All this is vague to the last degree, and amounts to little more than saying that a new path may be formed by the sort of chances that in nervous material are likely to occur. But, vague as it is, it is really the last word of our wisdom in the matter.[6]
Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the 'shop,' in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.
To read some of James' view of consciousness, go to http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/jamesselection.html.


In reality, structuralism and functionalism were more like each otherand different from modern mainstream  psychology in that both were free-willist and anti-materialistic, and both considered the proper study of psychology  to be the mind:


“Mind,” “intellect,” “reason,” “understanding,” etc., are concepts... that existed before the advent of any scientific psychology.  The fact that the naive consciousness always and everywhere points to  internal experience as a special source of knowledge, may, therefore, be accepted for the moment as sufficient testimony to the right of psychology as a science... “Mind,” will accordinly be the subject to which we attribute all the separate facts of internal observation as predicates.  The subject itself is determined wholely and exclusively by its predicates.
There is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and... we call that stuff “pure experience.”
Both Wundt and James were empiricists, and considered their psychologies experimental.  Neither liked the  rationalistic systems prevalent in the philosophy of their day -- such as Hegel's grand system.  However, neither  were anything like what most people understand as experimentalists today, because neither of them were  materialists or reductionists.

Wundt on materialism:

If we could see every wheel in the physical mechanism whose working the mental processes are accompanying, we should still find no more than a chain of movements showing no trace whatsoever of their significance for mind...  (All) that is valuable in our mental life still falls to the psychical side.
James’ friend and teacher Peirce on materialism:
The materialistic doctrine seems to me quite as repugnant to scientific logic as to common sense; since it requires us to suppose that a certain kind of mechanism will feel, which would be a hypothesis absolutely irreducible to reason -- an ultimate, inexplicable regularity; while the only possible justification of any theory is that it should make things clear and reasonable.
And Mary Calkins*, one of James' students, on James' view of introspection:
From introspection he derives the materials for psychology. "Introspective observation," he expressly asserts, "is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always...."
As for the historical influential differences between Wundt and James:  While Wundt focused on the introspection of consciousness, James focused on behavior in environment.  This focus would lay the groundwork for a behaviorism that James would scarcely recognize.

It would be nearly a century before research psychology would come back from a long sojourn in materialistic,  reductionistic, quantitative, physiological, behavioristic methods to something Wundt and James would recognize as  psychology!

* Mary Whiton Calkins was one of the first female students of psychology, as well as the founder of the psychology program at Wellesley.  She studied under James and Munsterberg at Harvard, but was not given the PhD she richly deserved -- because she was a woman!  After she died, students appealed to Harvard to grant her the PhD posthumously.  They turned her down again.  Shame on Harvard!


Blumenthal, Arthur L.  (2001) A Wundt Primer:  The Operating Characteristics of Consciousness. Chapter Four in Reiber, Robert W. and Robinson, David K. Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology.  Kluwer Academic Publishing.

William James (1890). The Principles of Psychology. As presented in Classics in the History of Psychology, an internet resource developed by Christopher D. Green of York University, Toronto, Ontario. Available at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

Calkins, Mary W.  Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins, in Murchison, Carl. (Ed.) (1930). History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 1, pp. 31-61). Worcester, MA:  Clark University Press. [quoting James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, pp. 225 ff.]

© Copyright 1999 and 2000, C. George Boeree