History of Psychology – The First Psychologist?

While the mind as a philosophical subject has been around since ancient cultures,attempts to study it scientifically didn’t become widespread until the 1800s.

The person who first began to study psychology using experiments and research was Wilhelm Wundt, known as one of the two the “fathers of experimental Psychology”-the other being William James. As well as psychology, Wundt studied philosophy, physics and physiology – his work in all of those areas can be seen as “foundationalist”, meaning he tried to find the basic beliefs in each discipline that everything else is based on. His ideas were often drawn from philosophers, so used concepts such as materialism and idealism.

Wundt was instrumental in the early development of psychology, teaching the first ever university course on psychology and also writing its first textbook, Principles of Physiological Psychology. He also developed the first psychological approach, based on his concept of “Introspection” and “inner perception”; a person’s ability to analyse a single emotion, feeling or idea by objectively observing their consciousness, allowing them to understand their conscious experiences from the small elements of experience that it was made from. His volunteers were specially trained to observe and record their thoughts objectively, in the hope of removing some of the biases in perception, althought Wundt himself admitted that introspection was a flawed process.  In his later career he moved on to the study of folk culture and mythology,  volkerpsychologie, although this was less recognised than his “harder” science.

Despite Wundt being probably the most prolific scientist of all time (he published on average 7 works a year for 68 years), his work was ignored due to the rise of Behavioural Psychology, which ignores the internal mental processes Wundt spent his time trying to make sense of. However, his influence was shown through group of psychology students, the Ganzheit (holistic) psychologists. Between them, they founded three different branches of psychology, and taught in many different universities. Wundt also taught Titchener, who founded the very first psychological approach; Structuralism. This was the belief that all human experience could be broken into smaller parts, eventually down to the most basic senses and perceptions. Titchener’s view was that the smaller elements of consciousness could be isolated and organised in the same way that chemists organised chemical elements into a periodic table.

Fortunately for Wundt, the decline of Behaviourism in the 1950’s meant that his ideas could again be focused on, and his contribution to Psychology is now recognised in the “Wilhelm Wundt-William James Award for Exceptional Contributions to Trans-Atlantic Psychology”, reflecting the amount of research Wundt had done as the founder of psychology.

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