Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

(Return to Classics index)

Introduction to

Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie
Wilhelm Wundt (1874)

Robert H. Wozniak

© 1999 Robert H. Wozniak. All rights reserved. Previously published in Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Classics in Psychology, 1855-1914: Historical Essays. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

The birth of experimental psychology as a discipline in its own right is often dated from the appearance of Wilhelm Wundt's great handbook, the Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie.[1] The Grundzüge had its immediate origin in lectures on physiological psychology that Wundt gave at the University of Heidelberg, once in the winter of 1867-1868 and again in 1872-1873. The book itself appeared in two parts, the first half in 1873 following the conclusion of the second set of lectures, the second half in 1874.[2]

In the 30 years following its initial publication, the Grundzüge was revised, expanded, and rewritten no fewer than four times. When the fifth edition appeared in 1902-3, the work had grown from a single volume of 876 pages to four volumes containing a total of 2035 pages plus an index.[3] The only portion of the Grundzüge to appear in English was the first volume of the fifth edition.[4] This fact, together with the scope of later revisions, led to a certain amount of misinterpretation regarding Wundt's early views on the nature of physiological psychology.

This misinterpretation was compounded by references to the Grundzüge that appeared in psychology's most influential disciplinary history, A History of Experimental Psychology by Edwin G. Boring. Referring to the Grundzüge as "the most important book in the history of modern psychology," Boring suggested that it represented Wundt's "metamorphosis from physiologist to psychologist," stressed the relative systematicity of the work and its sophistication in comparison to Wundt's two earlier contributions to psychology, his Beiträge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung and his Vorlesungen über die Menschen und Thierseele,[5] and suggested that "it attempted systematically to cover the range of psychological fact."[6]

While it would be difficult to argue with Boring's assertion that the Grundzüge was more systematic and sophisticated than the Beiträge or the Vorlesungen, there was something fundamentally misleading in his overall characterization of the work as a break with Wundt's earlier contributions to psychology, a reflection of his new identity as a psychologist, and an attempt to cover "the range of psychological fact." On the contrary, there was a strong thread of continuity running from the Beiträge through the Vorlesungen to the Grundzüge. And that thread had to do with Wundt's conception of the nature, scope, and content of psychology, his characterization of psychological methodology, and the relatively circumscribed goal of the Grundzüge as a handbook of physiological rather than general psychology.

In the methodological preface to the Beiträge, published in 1862, Wundt had made it clear that he conceived of psychology in the widest possible fashion. At the lowest levels, it consisted of the study of sensory phenomena in relation to physical stimuli, or psychophysics; at the highest levels it included the investigation of cultural history, morality, and language, or "folk psychology". In keeping with this broad perspective, he had argued that a variety of methods-developmental, comparative, introspective, deductive, statistical, and experimental -- could and should be brought to bear on the analysis of psychological phenomena. And he made it clear that experimental methods, though of great potential importance, were of relatively limited applicability. While "experiments can find application in the purely psychological domain," he wrote, "it must nevertheless be admitted that it is primarily the sensory side of psychic life which accords the widest prospect for experimental investigation."[7]

This was a theme echoed in the two volumes of the Vorlesungen in 1863. After reprising the methodological argument of the Beiträge, Wundt devoted one volume to experimental work in psychophysics, sensory psychology, reflex movement, reaction time, and space perception, and a second volume to historical, ethnopsychological, and comparative analyses of topics such as the aesthetic, intellectual, and religious feelings, morality, custom, the history of society, the family, state, and religion, and the nature and origin of language.

How, then, did Wundt conceive of the Grundzüge in 1874? The answer, clear in the opening lines of the first edition, is that far from considering it as covering "the range of psychological fact," he thought of it as establishing a new borderline science, a "physiological psychology," standing midway between physiology, on the one hand, and psychology on the other.

"The present work," Wundt wrote, "shows by its very title that it seeks to establish an alliance between two sciences that, although they both deal with almost the same subject, that is, preeminently with human life, nevertheless have long followed different paths. Physiology informs us about those life phenomena that we perceive by our external senses. In psychology, the person looks upon himself as from within and tries to explain the interrelations of those processes that this internal observation discloses...[In addition,] there exists a wide range of life processes that are simultaneously accessible to external and internal observation, a border region that...may usefully be assigned to a special science standing between them...A science that has as its subject matter the points of contact between internal and external life...Physiology and psychology each by itself can easily evade this question, but physiological psychology cannot sidestep it."[8]

The methods of this new science were to be experimental. As Wundt described it, "Psychological introspection goes hand in hand with the methods of experimental physiology, and the application of the latter to the former has given rise to the psychophysical methods as a separate branch of experimental research. If one wishes to place major emphasis on methodological characteristics, our science might be called experimental psychology in distinction from the usual science of mind based purely on introspection."[9]

The Grundzüge, then, was not, by any means, designed to be a handbook of psychology. It was, on the contrary, offered by Wundt as the handbook of a new science, a "physiological psychology" bridging the gap between physiology, on the one hand, and psychology on the other. Drawing on the content and methods of both of the older disciplines, the Grundzüge pulled together everything that was then known of relevance to this borderland, it laid out the broad outlines of a program of experimental research that promised to extend this knowledge far beyond its previous limits, and it provided detailed examples of how this new science might be developed.

Taken together with the fact that Wundt then went on to establish not only an experimental laboratory but an entire institute devoted to working out the program of the Grundzüge and that this institute became a Mecca for students from around the world who wished to discover for themselves what the new science of experimental, physiological psychology was all about, it is not surprising that the Grundzüge exerted the influence that it did. Nor is it surprising that Wundt, despite his clear interest in psychological topics far beyond the range of physiological psychology and his clear recognition of the limits of the experimental method, should have become known as the founder of experimental, physiological psychology.


[1] 1832-1920. For biographical information on Wundt, see Wundt, W. (1920). Erlebtes und Erkanntes. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner; Wundt's handbook is Wundt, W. (1874). Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann (Reprinted Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999).

[2] The second part was issued with a titlepage listing date of publication as 1874. This is the standard form of reference and we will follow it here.

[3] Wundt, W. (1902-3). Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (Fünfte völlig umgearbeitete auflage) Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann; a sixth edition appeared in 1908-11 but was not textually revised.

[4] Wundt, W. (1904). Principles of Physiological Psychology. Translated from the Fifth German Edition (1902) by Edward Bradford Titchener. London: Swan Sonnenschein.

[5] Wundt, W. (1862). Beiträge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung. Leipzig und Heidelberg: C.F. Winter; Wundt, W. (1863). Vorlesungen über die Menschen- und Thierseele. Leipzig: Leopold Voss.

[6] Boring, E.G. (1929). A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Century. All quotations can be found on p. 317; it is of interest that Boring saw no reason to alter any of these statements in 1950 when he published the second, revised edition of his history.

[7] Wundt (1862), op. cit., pp. xxviii-xxix; the English translation is taken from Wundt, W. (1961). Contributions to the theory of sensory perception. In T. Shipley (Ed.). Classics in Psychology. New York: Philosophical Library, pp. 51-78, p. 72.

[8] Wundt (1874), op. cit., pp. 1-2; the English translation is taken from Wundt, W. (1980). Selected texts from writings of Wilhelm Wundt. Translated with commentary notes by S. Diamond. In R.W. Rieber (Ed.). Wilhelm Wundt and the Making of a Scientific Psychology. New York: Plenum, pp. 155-77, p. 157.

[9] Ibid., pp. 2-3; the English translation is taken from Wundt (1980), op. cit., p. 158.