Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Introduction to

Outlines of Psychology
Wilhelm Wundt (1896/1897)

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 Outlines of Psychology[1] is by far the best general introduction to the mature psychological views of Wilhelm Wundt.[2] Reasons for this include its relative clarity, brevity, and the fact that Wundt wrote the book to provide students with 'a systematic survey of the fundamentally important results and doctrines of modern psychology.'[3] In addition, the Outlines was also published to counter the rise, within his own laboratory, of a view of psychology that Wundt believed to be pernicious. As such it was written not only to lay out Wundt's views on fundamental issues but to make the rationale behind these views impeccably clear.

The impetus for Wundt's work on the Outlines came from the 1893 publication of Oswald Külpe's Grundriss der Psychologie.[4] Külpe had arrived at Wundt's Leipzig laboratory as a student in 1886. Under the influence of Georg Elias Müller, with whom he had studied at Göttingen, and the radical empiricism of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius,[5] Külpe had already begun to view psychology as a natural science. This implied, among other things, an almost exclusive emphasis on the experimental method and on psychological processes most amenable to experimental treatment, viz., sensations; it required understanding psychological phenomena in their relationship to and dependence on the body (and hence biology); and it meant ridding theory of purely psychological constructs that seemed to Külpe to be more closely aligned with metaphysics than with science.

The break with Wundt, however, was slow in developing.[6] During his first few years in Leipzig, Külpe was something of a star in Wundt's laboratory. In rapid succession, he finished his dissertation, received appointment to a coveted position as Wundt's assistant, and was made Privatdozent with teaching responsibilities in psychology. His divergent views on the nature and scope of the discipline had yet to become public. The catalyst that led to Külpe's airing these views was Wundt's suggestion that he write an introductory text for student use. When that text appeared in 1893 as the Grundriss,[7] it created a sensation.[8] Although the work was dedicated to Wundt, it marked a radical departure from Wundt's conception of the nature, methods, and limits of psychology.

Wundt had little choice but to reply to this challenge. In 1896, after Külpe had moved on to a professorship at Würzburg, Wundt published his own Grundriss der Psychologie. The significance of his decision to give the work the same title as that of Külpe could hardly have been more pointed. Wundt's goal was not only to offer students an introduction to psychology but to produce what was, in effect, a countertext to that of Külpe, one that would provide students with the 'correct' conception of the nature and scope of psychology. This involved making a clear distinction between psychology and natural science, defining psychology in such a way as to preclude its reduction to biology, exposing readers to the full range of complex psychological phenomena beyond sensation, arguing for a severe restriction of the role of experimentation in psychology, and recognizing the theoretical importance of purely psychological constructs.

In introducing the Outlines, Wundt turned first to the distinction between psychology and natural science. There are 'two directions for the treatment of experience,' he wrote, 'one is that of the natural sciences, which concern themselves with the objects of experience, thought of as independent of the subject. The other is that of psychology, which investigates the whole content of experience in its relations to the subject and in its attributes derived directly from the subject.'[9]

Where Külpe had defined psychology 'as a science of the facts of experience in their dependency upon ... the corporeal individual,'[10] Wundt defined psychology as the study of experience 'in its relations to the subject'.[11] The point of reference, in other words, was not the individual as a nervous system, but the individual as an active apprehender of the contents of experience. Where Külpe laid the groundwork for biological reductionism, Wundt stressed the independence of psychology from biology.

Given this difference, it is not surprising that the two texts varied markedly in the distribution of discussion allocated to various content areas within the field. Külpe devoted over three fourths of his text to sensation, much of it to the elementary phenomena of sensation. By contrast, Wundt gave approximately equal treatment to sensations/ideas and to feelings/emotions. More importantly, less than a third of Wundt's text was focused on elementary processes; the remainder was taken up with more complex psychological phenomena ranging from psychical compounds and their interconnections to the psychological development of animals (e.g., the rise of instincts), children (e.g., the development of ideas, self-consciousness, will, and play), and cultures (e.g., the emergence of language, myth and custom).

In discussing these more complex phenomena, Wundt made it clear that he did not, by any means, share Külpe's faith in the broad relevance of experimental method. Külpe had claimed that 'there is no topic of psychological inquiry which cannot be approached by the experimental method.'[12] Wundt, on the other hand, drew a sharp distinction between those aspects of psychology for which experimentation was useful (viz., 'the analysis of simpler psychical processes'[13] in the individual) and those for which it was not (viz., the more complex psychical processes of value and meaning elaborated in interactions between individuals). For Wundt the higher processes were 'unapproachable by means of experiment.'[14]

In the last section of the book, Wundt laid out his argument for the necessity of purely psychological constructs. Reemphasizing the distinction between psychology, which studies immediate experience dependent on the experiencing subject, and natural science, which studies mediate experience in abstraction from the subject, and arguing that the parallelism between mediate and immediate experience was only partial, Wundt pointed to the existence of phenomena that 'lie entirely outside the sphere of experience to which the principle of parallelism applies.'[15]

Purely psychological phenomena of this sort (e.g., value, meaning, purpose) could, for Wundt, 'only be understood through psychological analysis.'[16] Moreover, the existence of such phenomena required 'the recognition of an independent psychical causality...just as different from...physical causality as the point of view adopted in different from the point of view taken in the natural sciences...'[17] In psychical causality, Wundt believed that he had found the basis not only for psychology's right to exist in independence of biology, but for psychology's claim to serve as the foundation for all of the human sciences. It is hardly any wonder that he was loathe to see this principle lost in an overassimilation of psychology to natural science.


[1] Wundt, W. (1897). Outlines of Psychology. Translated by C.H. Judd. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann (Reprinted Bristol:Thoemmes, 1999); first published in German as Wundt, W. (1896). Grundriss der Psychologie. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann.

[2] 1832-1920. For biographical information on Wundt, see Wundt, W. (1920). Erlebtes und Erkanntes. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner.

[3] Wundt (1897), op. cit., p. v.

[4] Külpe, O. (1893). Grundriss der Psychologie. Auf experimenteller Grundlage dargestellt. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann; translated into English by E.B. Titchener as Külpe, O. (1895). Outlines of Psychology. Based upon the Results of Experimental Investigation. London: Swan Sonnenschein.

[5] See Mach, E. (1886). Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen. Jena: Gustav Fischer; translated into English as: Mach, E. (1897). Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations. Chicago: Open Court; and Avenarius, R. (1888-90). Kritik der reinen Erfahrung. Leipzig: Fues.

[6] And seems never to have extended to the personal domain, see Blumenthal, A.L. (1985). Shaping a tradition: Experimentalism begins. In C.E. Buxton (Ed.). Points of View in the Modern History of Psychology. Orlando, FL:Academic Press, pp. 51-83.

[7] Külpe (1895), op. cit.

[8] See Kiesow, F. (1930). F. Kiesow. In C. Murchison (Ed.)., A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 1). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, pp. 163-90.

[9] Wundt (1897), op. cit., p. 3.

[10] Külpe (1895), op. cit., pp. 3-4.

[11] Wundt (1897), op. cit., p. 3.

[12] Külpe (1895), op. cit., p. 12.

[13] Wundt (1897), op. cit., p. 23.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 319.

[16] Ibid., p. 320.

[17] Ibid.