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Wilhelm Wundt: The First Experimentalist

Wilhelm Wundt

The only possible conclusion the social sciences can draw is: some do, some don’t.”
– Ernest Rutherford

Morton Hunt’s excellent ‘Story of Psychology‘ helps explain why people doubt the scientific basis of psychology. Think about the famous figures in the history of the more physical sciences: Biology has Charles Darwin, Physics has Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Chemistry has Francis Crick and whole load of other people whose surnames are immediately recognisable: Anders Celsius, Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Louis Pasteur. Now famous psychologists.

Think for a moment…who have you got?

If you’re not a psychologist then you’ve probably thought of Sigmund Freud…and who else? B. F. Skinner? Maybe Ivan Pavlov and his soggy dog? Perhaps Jean Piaget’s developmental psychology and maybe Alfred Kinsey because of the film with Liam Neeson? If you’re a psychologist then I’m sure you came up with quite a few more but let’s just consider Siggy for a moment because he’s prototypical.

Freud was one of the greatest psychologist of all time. Let’s not split hairs here about his legacy, many think it is incomparable, a few think he was full of it. Either way, everyone can agree that he was the kind of man you could trust to be creative. While he trained as a neurologist, a man of science, his influence pervades the arts.

And what are the things that people know about Freud? That his theories have largely been discredited (not really true). That he thought it all came down to sex (well yes: sex plus aggression certainly). And that he invented/discovered the unconscious (his greatest idea).

The point is that he’s not really known as a scientist in the same way as Darwin, Newton or Einstein. He’s seen more as a literary figure, a man of writing and insight certainly, but not a scientific man. How could anyone interested in dreams in these times of cold hard facts be a man of science?

By contrast, not many people have heard of one of the founding fathers of modern psychology: Wilhelm Wundt. It was Wundt who, in the University of Leipzig, carried out what some credit as the first ever psychological experiment in 1879.

The experiment was fairly simple, though it is still employed today in more complicated guises. It simply measured perceptual processing – the time it takes from hearing a bell ring to pressing a button.

Now, if Wilhelm Wundt was the first name that came to mind when you were asked for a famous psychologist, that would make a big difference to the public perception of psychology.

So, to return to today’s straw man, Ernest Rutherford, while I’m not sure if Rutherford meant his statement to include psychology, he does sum up many people’s attitude to modern psychology. The reason Rutherford is wrong is simply that psychology can also answer the questions: “Which ones?” “Why?” and “How?”.

Unfortunately, here is a science regularly represented in the popular press by a man who has worked out a formula for the ‘happiest‘ and ‘worst‘ days of the year. A parody of scientific psychology if ever there was one. Instead psychology needs to remember its more prosaic, and more prototypically scientific, alumni like Wundt, Weber, Fechner and Helmholtz.



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