Wundt's "New Psychology"

Wilhelm Wundt(1832-1920) was the first professional to call himself a psychologist. He founded one of the first psychological laboratories in Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. Wundt believed the "only certain reality is immediate experience" (Blumenthal, 1975). If psychology were to be a science, then psychologists would have to collect data about experience. To do this, Wundt used procedures similar to those developed by the psychophysicists. He arranged controlled laboratory settings. He carefully administered stimulation such as sounds and sights. He gathered information about how quickly people responded to a stimulus (reaction time) and what they experienced. Wundt believed these experiments would lead to a consensus or agreement among scientists about the nature of experience.

How did Wundt intend to build a science of psychology?

Wilhelm Wundt

Wundt's approach was not unreasonable. It resembled the way most natural sciences developed in the 1800s. Science like botany and zoology began with careful observation and an effort to arrive at consensual validation (agreement among different observers). For example, biologists began with careful descriptions of plants and animals before trying to classify them. Wundt believed the same approach would work in psychology. Careful scientific observers could simply look inside themselves to see the mind in action, and they should be able to agree on the basic phenomena of psychology. After agreeing about basic observations, they could do a deeper analysis of what they had found. The technique of "looking inside" to gather data about the mind is called introspection .

What was the problem with Wundt's research program?

The problem with Wundt's program is fairly obvious to those of us in the modern world, where differences between people are taken for granted. Different people see different things when they look inside! This was not obvious to Wundt. He tended to assume that if people saw something in their minds different from what he did, under controlled laboratory conditions, they must be doing something wrong.

How does the issue of "imageless thought" provide an example?

Introspection was the dominant technique in psychology for several decades, but as time went on, it showed itself to be an inadequate methodology for advancing science. There was no way to resolve differences of opinion about what people saw when they looked inside. For example, a major controversy erupted over the issue of imageless thought. Could a thought exist without an image? Some scientists looked inside and said yes, some thoughts exist without any picture or image in the mind. Others said no, there is always an image. Given such a disagreement—which always seemed to occur, with any important issue involving introspection—there was no way to arrive at a consensus about the nature of the human mind. That ultimately led to the downfall of introspection as a technique.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey