Wundt, Wilhelm


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Wilhelm Max Wundt (1832-1920) was born in the small German village of Neckarau (a suburb of Mannheim). He was the son of a Lutheran clergyman. He seems to have been a serious and solitary child who spent most of his time studying. When he was eight years old, his father's assistant, whose room Wundt shared, provided his education. When this assistant moved to a neighbouring village, Wundt accompanied him.
At 19 Wundt decided to study medicine in Heidelberg. He decided that medicine was not for him, but that he wanted to be an academic physiologist. He took his doctorate in medicine in Heidelberg in 1856 and was then appointed a Privatdozent in physiology. When Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz arrived in Heidelberg in 1858, Wundt became his assistant. He found this work boring and eventually resigned and took up his former post. It was while working for Helmholtz that he became interested in studying, from a physiological viewpoint, the psychological problems posed by British philosophers. Wundt offered the first academic course in psychology in 1862.
Wundt left the University of Heidelberg in 1874 to teach inductive philosophy at the University of Zurich until 1875 when he became a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leipzig where he stayed until he was 85 (in 1917). At Leipzig Wundt concentrated almost exclusively on psychological research, particularly on the study of human sensory experience. In 1879, at the University of Leipzig, Wundt established the first psychology laboratory. It is because he started the experimental tradition in psychology that Wundt is considered to be one of the founders of psychology. He also founded the first experimental psychological journal, Philosophische Studien - Studies in Philosophy in 1881.
Wundt's psychological laboratory was much visited by scholars interested in psychology, from the USA and Britain as well as Germany, and other early psychological laboratories were modelled on Wundt's. Wundt was also influential because he was the most popular lecturer in Leipzig.
Wundt's research was particularly on the study of human sensory experience. He was interested in attention, sensation, feeling and perception (particularly vision and hearing). He also studied reaction time and his students studied association and memory. In order to research consciousness, Wundt used the method of introspection - getting his students and himself to give full verbal accounts of their conscious experiences. Although Wundt was the founder of experimental psychology, he believed that human social processes (such as language) cannot be studied experimentally but have to be studied through anthropology, sociology and social psychology. He thus divided psychology into experimental and social branches. His Elements of Folk Psychology, worked on during the last twenty years of his life, were devoted to social psychology.
Wundt's career spanned six decades so it is perhaps not surprising that he published 53,000 pages in more than 50 volumes over his lifetime. These include:
Vorlesungen uber die Menschen und Tier-Seele (1863, English translation, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, 1896).
Grundzuge der physiologeschen Psychologie (1874, English translation, Principles of Physiological Psychology, 1904).
Volkerpsychologie (Elements of Folk Psychology), (10 vols., 1900-1920).