Last updated:
July 23, 2003

Narrative Psychology Search

[Narrative Psychology]

  Theorists and Key Figures

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920)

[Wilhelm M. Wundt]

Biography & Theory | Internet Resources | Author's Works | Secondary Literature

 Biographical and Theoretical Notes

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt is a problematic figure at several levels. Consider the contradictions:

Futher, throughout the first half of the 20th century (and occasionally even today), Wundtian psychology has been (mis-)characterized as crudely introspective or a static structuralism -- errors now seen as the invention or misappraisals of psychologists like Edward Titchener (his student) and William James (Blumenthal, 1979). Rather than an uncontrolled and subjective introspectionism, most of Wundt's laboratory work was conducted according to objective and controlled methods of observation and self-report; Wundt termed this approach Experimentelle Selbstbeobachtung ("experimental self-observation;" Leahy, 2004, p. 238). Further, Wundt's voluntarism reflected his belief that "the mind is a creative, dynamic, and volitional force...[which] must understood through an analysis of its activity--its processes" (Hothersall, 2004, p. 124).

So, we might ask, who was this scholar and, ultimately, why is he important for the narrative viewpoint? Wundt was born in Neckarau near Mannheim (Baden) in southwest Germany on August 16, 1832. In the first years of education, he was a notably mediocre student despite coming from one of the most accomplished professional and academic families of the time. That was to change. He trained professionally in medicine at both Tübingen and Heidelberg under the supervison of his uncle, Friedrich Arnold, a noted physiologist. After receiving his medical degree (1855) he spent a semester in Berlin with the pioneer physiologists, Johannes Müller and Emil Du-Bois Reymond. Between 1858 and 1864, he served as an assistant to the great 19th century scientist, Herman Ludwig von Helmholtz in Heidelberg.

During his years with von Helmholtz, Wundt wrote several important volumes. In his very first book, Contributions Toward a Theory of Sense Perception (1862), he set down a vision for psychology as an independent discipline containing three general subdivisions. In the first, psychology would follow the principles of the Naturwissenschaften (physical sciences) and be conducted as an experimental, inductive science. The focus of this psychology would involve basic mental processes which were amenable to experimental observation and manipulation, e.g., sensation, perception, reaction time to stimuli. In a second complementary division, Wundt pictured psychology allied with the tradition of the Geisteswissenschaften (human or social sciences). These would involve the higher mental processes which could not be brought under direct control in a laboratory, e.g., religion, social practices, language, myths, etc. Hence, their study would require other methods of investigation including the use of historical records, naturalistic observation in the field, and analyses of cultural products like literature. This has often been termed the "comparative-historical" approach. A final form of psychology which he called scientific metaphysics would serve to intergrate the empirical work of the laboratory with other findings of science.

Immediately following his work in Helmholtz's physiological laboratory, Wundt became an independent tutor in physiology (with only a few students) and, for four years beginning in 1866, served two two-year terms as a member of the parliament of Baden. However, he returned to the university world in 1871 when he assumed a position at Heidelberg, moved on to Zurich briefly in 1874, and arrived at his final academic home, Leipzig, in 1875 to take up a chair in philosophy. In 1876 Leipzig allowed him to begin using a room to store the instruments and equipment used to demonstrate his lectures and, in 1879, he began to conduct experiments in that room unrelated to his course lectures. This date has come to be regarded as the founding of the first experimental laboratory in psychology. This lab was to remain unofficial until 1885 when the university began to list it in the school's catalog.

[Volkerpsychologie]In 1900 Wundt published the first of what would become by 1920, the year of his death, ten volumes entitled Völkerpsychologie: eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte (or, Ethno-Cultural Psychology: An Investigation of the Developmental Laws of Language, Myth, and Customs [Morality]). Sometimes translated incorrectly as "Folk Psychology" this massive compendium of anthropological and social psychological materials traces "the lawful development, through cultural participation, of the higher human mental processes" (Cahan & White, 1992). Unremarkable for the 19th century, Wundt shared a belief with other European theorists that the movement of human societies followed a series of historical stages. The delineation of these stages, for Wundt, was closely related to the forms and complexity of language and the artefacts of language development such as myth, epic, drama, etc. His classification of historical development identified four stages or "ages" which are noted below with brief comments from his 1916 summary:

(I) The Age of "Primitive Man"
(2) The "Totemic Age" ["If we would define the concept of totemism as briefly as possible, it might perhaps be said to represent a circle of ideas within which the relation of animal to man is the reverse of that which obtains in present-day culture. In the totemic age, man does not have dominion over the animal, but the animal rules man. Its deeds and activities arouse wonder, fear, and adoration" (Wundt, 1916, p. 8).]
(3) The "Age of Gods and Heroes" ["In place of the eldest of the clan and the tribal chieftain of the totemic period, this new age gives rise to the hero....The hero who is exalted as a leader in war belongs to a different world, a world faithfully mirrored in the heroic song or epic.... All this is at the same time closely bound up with the origin of the State, which now displaces the more primitive tribal institutions of the preceding period....With national heroes and with States, national religions come into being; and, since these religions no longer direct the attention merely to the immediate environment, to the animal and plant world, but focus it primarily upon the heavens, there is developed the idea of a higher and more perfect world. As the hero is the ideal man, so the god becomes the ideal hero, and the celestial world, the ideally magnified terrestrial world" (Wundt, 1916, p. 9).]
(4) The Present Age [Beyond Gods and Heroes]. ["Thus there begins a development in which we of the present still participate; it cannot, therefore, be referred to otherwise than as an age that is coming to be. We may speak merely of an advance toward humanity, not of a development of humanity. This advance, however, begins immediately with the fall of the barriers that divide peoples, particularly with regard to their religious views." (Wundt, 1916, pp. 9-10)] Note that Wundt does not assign this period any special name.

Wundt gathers together a far-ranging collection of data--mostly drawn from ethnographic studies conducted by social scientist throughout the 19th century--which serve to portray the developmental stages expressed across diverse human cultures and to provide an understanding of the cultural influences exerted upon individuals within particular national communities. "In parallel to the constituents of individual consciousness (imagination, feeling, and will), Wundt considered language, myth, and custom in their interrelationships as the fundamental constituents of the Volksseele [mind of a people]" (Cahan & White, 1992). The first two volumes of his Völkerpsychogie focus upon Die Sprache (language), vol. 3 on Die Kunst (the arts), vols. 4-6 on Mythus und Religion (myth and religion), vols. 7-8 on Die Gesellschaft (social organization), vol. 9 on Das Recht (law), and vol. 10 on Kultur und Geschichte (culture and history). These ten volumes, though, were never translated from the German although a single-volume summary in English did appear in 1916 as Elements of Folk Psychology (Wundt, 1916 which was reviewed by George Herbert Mead in 1919). For the most part, Wundt's efforts represented by the Völkerpsychologie were ignored even in his own day.

Wundt retired from his academic chair and assumed emeritus status in 1915 more than a decade after receiving an honorary citizenship by the city of Leipzig (1902). In retirement he continued writing steadily. Wundt died at age 88 in Grossbathen, just outside of Leipzig, on August 31, 1920. His death came only a short time after completing the manuscript of his final memoirs (Erlebtes und Erkanntes [What I Have Experienced and Discovered]).

For narrative social science, Wundt represents the unfulfilled promise of what Cahan & Sheldon (1992) so persuasively argue might have been a "second psychology" to complement the laboratory-experimental discipline appearing in the late 19th century. Wundt's sensitivity to the role of language, in particular, as a entry point to understand social and cultural behavior anticipated what some 20th century psychologists and psycholinguists would begin to examine from other perspectives several decades later (e.g., Vygotsky).


Sources:  Blumenthal, A. L. (1979). The founding father we never knew. Contemporary Psychology, 24, 547-550; Cahan, Emily D., & White, Sheldon H. (1992). Proposals for a second psychology. American Psychologist, 47(2), 224-235; Danziger, K. (1979). The positivist repudiation of Wundt. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15, 205-30; Hothersall, D. (2004). History of psychology (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill; Leahy, T. H. (2004) A history of psychology: Main currents in psychological thought (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

 Internet Resources

 Bibliographical: Author's Works (Selected)

Wundt, W. (1874/1902/1904). Principles of physiological psychology (Edward Bradford Titchener, Trans.) (from the 5th German ed., published 1902; 1st German ed. published 1874.)

Wundt, W. (1896/1897). Outlines of psychology (Charles Hubbard Judd, Trans.).

Wundt, W.. (1916). Elements of folk psychology: Outlines of a psychological history of the development of mankind (Edward L. Schaub, Transl). London: Allan & Unwin

 Bibliographical: Secondary Literature

In preparation.



When citing this document, you may wish to consider this form for the reference (derived from APA Style [5th ed.])

Hevern, V. W. (2003, July). Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920). Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved [enter date] from the Le Moyne College Web site:

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