Structuralism, functionalism and introspection


William James (1890) proposed a distinction be...
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“We can will to believe what we should believe” Charles Renouvier

On the Ground

Experimental psychology came into being during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  At this time, it can be said that the prevailing thought was dominated by positivism.  Simply put, positivism was the philosophy of Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte (b. 1798 – d. 1857), the French sociologist – which, incidentally, was also a term that he himself first coined.  Thus, it is to Comte that we owe a debt for both terms: positivism and sociology [or social physics].  Comte views concerning the categorisation and systemisation of all knowledge became enshrined within his major six volume work, Course in Positive Philosophy (1830-42).  Here, then, Comte outlines the stages of societal development as determined to follow the following succession: theological, metaphysical, and positive. That is, in the first stage of development one held beliefs in gods and spirits, in the second stage one moved onto beliefs in unseen forces, and in the last stage one moves onto the purest form of understanding where one confines explanations to observable, verifiable and measurable correlations between phenomena.  In common with empiricism, Comte held the view that knowledge of the world arises from observation.

However, in contrast to many empiricists he denied the possibility for knowledge of things which are unobservable.  Therefore, to Comte’s thought, positivism was the method of study based on observation and was restricted to the observable world.  That said, the term has rather fallen into disrepair – the common usage of positivism has come to refer to any discourse phrased in the language of the natural sciences.  Moreover,  it is in this less formal sense that positivism joined forces with Locke’s empiricism, Darwin’s evolutionism, and materialism to become the philosophical foundations for what we may call the ‘scientific revolution’.  Given the positivism of the times, and the confluence of ideas that we have already touched upon, psychology was ripe to become an experimental science.

‘A Structure for Mind’ – Wilhelm Wundt (b. 1832 – d. 1920)

Wilhelm Wundt can be said to have been a serious child from a modest Lutheran family in Baden, Germany; his greatest childhood friend appears to have been his first teacher and mentor; his greatest ambition to satisfy his desire for scholarship.  In 1856, he received his doctorate in medicine at the University of Heidelberg.  In 1858, he was assigned to work as assistant to the most famous physiologist of the time, Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz.  Wundt laboured for a few years in the setting of the laboratory – as was the custom of the German medico-physiological academic model at that time – it is also in this time of setting-up experiments in the laboratory for Helmholtz that he lost faith in physiology altogether; instead, turning his intellectual curiosity toward questioning the prevailing positivistic philosophy.

It would appear that Wundt had become seduced by the psychological questions posed by the philosophers of mind, such as, John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, and John Stuart Mill.  He could no longer regard himself as a positivist; for, on the one hand, he was unwilling to reduce the workings of the mind to physical processes of the brain, and on the other, he was unwilling to regard metaphysics as merely a transitional paradigm following Comte.  For Wundt, then, his future trajectory of discovery appears to have suggested itself as a marriage between philosophical psychology and experimental method.  It is for this reason that he is regarded as the founder of experimental psychology.

Wundt set out his stall for his future scholarly interest in the first of his works.  Here, in a work entitled Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perceptions (1862), Wundt summarises the medico-psychology of perception as it is understood to be at this time in an otherwise unremarkable reportage.  However, what is remarkable about this work is that in the introductory section Wundt sets forth his ambitious project in three clearly defined areas for a ‘new’ psychology: firstly, to create an experimental psychology, secondly, to create a scientific metaphysics, and thirdly, to create a social psychology.

It is difficult, if not near impossible, to speak of a central theoretical thrust for Wundt’s work; as William James was later to say of him, “cut him up like a worm and each fragment crawls”.  However, Wundt’s new designs for psychology can be said to be one involved with the elements of consciousness, the determination of the manner in which these elements are connected, and the laws and principles of connexion.  His approach became known as structuralism.

By 1874, Wundt was appointed as professor of philosophy at the prestigious University of Leipzig, that same year the first edition of his Physiological Psychology was published.[1] This was to be Wundt’s magnum opus; that is, his great masterwork, for inside the preface of this work Wundt writes; “The work which I present to the public is an attempt to mark out a new domain of science”.  Within the pages of this work, Wundt establishes psychology as a laboratory science with its own problematics, and a science with its own experimental methods.  This scientific psychology became known as the ‘new psychology’, and it was thence distinguished from the ‘old psychology’ of the philosophers –  modern psychology had come into being.

For Wundt, when we study a living system from the outside, we are studying its physiology, but when we study a living system from the inside, we are studying its psychology.  That said, Wundt had realised that the only way to study the human system from the inside using psychology meant that one had to do so by self-observation.  The term he used to describe this method was introspection.  Nevertheless, to learn about ourselves through this method called introspection demanded more than mere casual observation.  Wundt believed that the observer ought to be trained to proceed methodically; that is, to be trained in the ways of experimental laboratory conditions, and further, to be trained in the precise setting of well defined conditions for repeatable experimentation.

By 1879, Wundt felt able to start up his own laboratory – it was to be the first laboratory of psychology in the world.  This would provide a place to conduct psychology using his scientific method, but it soon became apparent that a space was also required to publish the resulting output from the laboratory.  In 1881, Wundt created the first scholarly journal expressly focused on experimental psychology; he called it the Philosophische Studien.  After 1881, the work of Wundt’s laboratory can be said to have been primarily situated in the research areas concerning sensation and perception, with particular emphasis on vision and hearing.

Of slightly lesser importance came the work on reaction time; it was a widely held belief at this time that reaction times could be used to measure the speed of thought.  On an equal footing to that held by the work on reaction time, there came the work on attention, association, and memory.  For instance, in the research work concerned with attention, Wundt employed the use of a metronome to measure the ability of the subject [using the method of subjective introspection] to report on whether the rhythm of the metronome could be said to leave an impression of an agreeable whole.  In other words, whether the rhythms of the metronome could be described as leaving a feeling.  In other experiments, again on attention, Wundt sought to inquire whether certain rhythms were more pleasurable than others, and whether some rhythms were actually quite unpleasurable.  The introspections offered allowed Wundt to form a schema as an aid to theorising how feelings might be understood.

His theory was not warmly welcomed; however, at very least, Wundt had provided experimental psychology with its first theory of feeling.  Through experimentation, and the carefully recorded subjective introspections of each subject, Wundt described three distinct vertices for the experience of feeling – agreeableness-disagreeableness, strain-relaxation, and excitement-calm.  This became known as the tri-dimensional theory of feeling.

It soon became clear that disproving Wundt’s claims was not going to be easy – rather, how could agreement be reached when the method used for observation, namely, introspection, was in actuality not scientifically objective at all; it relied upon the subjective experience of the subject. Notwithstanding this fact – scientific psychology had at least found a starting point from which to begin.  However, the ever industrious Wundt was unrelenting in his love affair with scholarship; in 1880, he produced a Logic, in 1886 an Ethic, and in 1889, he produced his System of Philosophy.  Today these works are almost totally disregarded by psychologists and philosophers alike; furthermore, they exampled Wundt’s belief in the usefulness of a scientific metaphysics as a contradiction in terms – that is, at least to the thought of most positivists.

It is during what has been called Wundt’s ‘philosophical decade’ that the first of a long line of students embarked on the journey from America to study under Wundt in Leipzig.  Amongst these students was Edward Titchener who went on to become professor of experimental psychology at Cornell University. In the latter part of Wundt’s astonishingly industrious academic career, he was to concentrate on social psychology.  With the publishing of his ten volume work, Elements of Folk Psychology, Wundt explored the gradually emergent unifying Germanic concept of Volk.  In action, therefore, it is clear that rather than move further toward positivism he was actually distancing himself further from its professed goals.  For Wundt, the collective, social, folk mind transcended the individual minds that composed its number; the folk mind manifested itself through art, literature, myth, legend, habit, customs, law and morals – the individual was seen as an acculturated individual, s/he was never to be viewed in isolation.  Thus it was that Wundt’s psychology became split into two distinct divisions: experimental and the social.  He claimed that this division was justified as the simpler functions of the individual mind [sensation, perception, memory, etc.,] can be studied under laboratory conditions, whereas, the higher functions of the collective mindset [language, morality, and ideology] were so strongly affected by their very collectivity that experimentation was nothing less than impossible.

Human thinking, at the collective level, according to Wundt at this stage in his thinking, can only be explored by anthropology, sociology, and social psychology.  Human thinking cannot be understood by the analysis of logic; it is, said Wundt, mostly illogical.  That said, his observations on the central role played by social products, most importantly, the product of language, remain today as both truthful and important as when he made the point.  However, his method of experimental psychology, as being one based upon introspection alone, has not faired as well in modern times. Wilhelm Wundt’s great enduring legacy is the creation of a scientific psychology; where the great empirical philosophers had merely used words to explore psychological experimentation, Wundt had actually devised the physical experiments to turn psychology into an action.

‘A Function for Mind’ – William James (b. 1842 – d. 1910)

At the outset of the project for a scientific psychology, that is, at the end of the nineteenth century, also stands the figure of William James; this figure the equal in significance to Wundt, but one forever caste in the mould of armchair philosopher; that is, one even less prone to reliable scientific method.  For James, introspection allowed for him to give free reign to his immense gifts of scholarship and literary skill; scientific method was to James’ thought the right way forward, but he did not desire to partake of its drudgery himself – James thought himself a shepherd, definitely not a sheep.

James was born to a close and loving family from New York, the first of five precocious children.  Their father, Henry James, was wealthy enough to devote himself to his children’s education, and then to his own literary ambitions.  As part of his idea for a worldly education, Henry James schooled his gifted brood by taking them away to travel around Europe.  Between 1855 and 1860, the James’ travelled through England, France, Switzerland and Germany assimilating the languages and cultures as they went.  By 1860, William declared that he should wish to be an artist – his father pushed his disappointment inwards, outwardly encouraging his son toward his stated goal.  However, by 1861, the young William had grown tired of painting, much to his father’s pleasure, and William was swiftly enrolled as a Chemistry student at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard.

Again, James became bored; his thirst for knowledge taking him off-road into the fields of literature, history, science and philosophy.  James then resolved to enter Harvard Medical School.  However, boredom struck once more, he wrote to a cousin: “With the exception of surgery, in which something positive is sometimes accomplished, a doctor does more by the moral effect of his presence on the patient and family than by anything else”.

In the spring of 1865 James decided once again to seek excitement; this time taking a year off to travel the Amazon and learn zoological biology.  As is often the case with such restless characters, James’ foray into zoological biology was over by 1867.  He returned to Europe, visiting Dresden and Berlin, where he sought a cure to his increasing malcontent and bodily frailty.  In 1869, James returned to Harvard, finished his medical doctorate, and proceeded to move into the dark isolation of melancholia.  By 1870 his will had practically deserted him – in his correspondence with his family he stated himself as having toyed with the idea of suicide as a final solution to his despair.  The positivism of his age and education had become repugnant to him; James sought consolation within philosophy as an aid to his ever deepening depression.

It is at this time that James came upon the writings of Charles Renouvier.  Renouvier had written a number of essays on the subject of free will, and James appears to have found within these essays what his restless mind had been craving.  Renouvier had argued that the causal interaction of the body and mind, as it had been understood up till that point, had underplayed the possibility, if not wholly denied, that materialistic physiology could be controlled by deliberate choice.  That is to say, free will could determine bodily states.  James experienced something like an epiphany; he wrote in his diary, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”.  From this point on, James’ personal conviction became one where personal belief, sheer will, could be used to cure himself of his melancholy and frailty.  Slowly but surely James fought his way back from the edge of the abyss of sorrow.

By 1872, he accepted a post teaching physiology to undergraduates at Harvard College.  Here, James also established a laboratory for physiological experimentation, however, the actual use for the equipment James had concealed from the college treasurer; he fully intended the laboratory to be almost exclusively for the purposes of psychological experimentation.  James had migrated from physiology and anatomy into physical psychology.  In 1878, James agreed to write a textbook on psychology for the publisher Henry Holt.  James anticipated that this work might take him two full years to complete.  However, he was very wrong in this assumption; the work was to take him twelve years to complete.

When William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890) appeared in print, it was clear to those who knew him that he had retained the lasting impressions left over by Renouvier’s influence.  In the chapter entitled ‘The Emotions’, James gave free reign to his debt to Renouvier, and to a Danish physiologist called C. Lange.  Since that time, the theory contained in this chapter has been known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.  A single paragraph from the Principles has often served as précis for this theory, it reads:

“Our natural way of thinking about these courser emotions is that the mental perception of some facts excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression.  My theory, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion.  Common-sense says we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.  The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble”.[2]

This important theory still finds advocates and resonance within clinical psychology and theories of emotion more than a century after it was first penned. James had proposed a physiological process associated with emotion; furthermore, the theory lends itself for experimentation using scientific method to show its reliability.

However, that was by no means all, James’ Principles was to be a treasure trove of psychological thinking coupled with a clarity of persuasive argumentation.  In the chapter entitled ‘The Stream of Thought’, first published as the 1884 article, ‘On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology’,[3] he first espouses that consciousness had at its centre a glaring omission – this omission, passed on since the time of the British empiricists, had been to assume that it was as if consciousness were filled by a sequence of discreet ‘snapshots’, each associated to the next by some unknown mechanism of mind.  Instead, James, as one always alive to the possibility for using metonymy to explain his abstract concepts, likened consciousness to a stream, and likened it to the life of a bird.  That is, consciousness was made up of a life comprised of both flight and perching.  This metaphor became famous as James’ own way of distinguishing between the substantive and transitive aspects of the stream of thought; on the perch [as if substantive thought] we are occupied with sensory images, in flight [as if transitive thought] we are occupied with concerns resulting from the arrangement of those images acquired during life on the perch.  For James, the introspective psychologists of the time, and also those antecedents to him, had neglected to adequately consider the import of the transitive state.

James’ detailed articulation of the inner life also led him toward the age old problematic of the self.  For James, the conscious dualism between me and not-me appeared to also be arbitrated over by the “I”.  In the Principles James divided between those experiences which are known as me, and those of the knower as I.  In other words, experiences of the me concerned me as the known, experiences of the I concerned I as the knower.  In this way the division between me and I marked a significant demarcation of functional interest.  The me to which James points is no different, as an object of knowledge, than any other object of knowledge save that it is a personally significant object, but the I cannot be an object of knowledge for James, other than by reference to itself as a knower of that knowledge.  Therefore, the I must indicate the personal identity of ego that is the source of the unity and organisation of selfhood.

In 1892, James revised his Principles into a shorter more compact edition, and thence retreated into his beloved philosophy.  It appeared that James had become bored once again and needed to move on.  However, it is James who is the first American to call attention to the work of Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, in 1894, for their work on hysteria.  Then, to everyone’s considerable surprise James re-emerged every bit the psychologist with his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). The Varieties was written as a direct result of two imperatives for James:  the first, his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901-2, which, incidentally, came to be regarded as the first foray into clinical psychology; the second, as an act of filial love toward the meaning his father had derived from religion.  Thus, The Varieties became a space for James to work out his own experiences; his melancholy, his redemption from melancholy, and his profound interest in the exceptional mental states of the mob, hypnosis, and psychopathology.  James appears convinced that religious life was not ordered by the systems of theology, rather, that religion represented a human need far more primordial than reason, though equal in importance; if one where to understand the nature of humankind without the distortion of positivist rationality one ought to appreciate the void filled by religious life.  Once again, James returned to espousing the central role of the will, as seen in faith, as the central agent of cure for the tormented soul.

From 1902 to his death in 1910, James’ health deteriorated. Though he lectured and wrote, his health dictated that he spent an increasing amount of time in his bed.  What can be said unequivocally of James is that although his subjective introspections are more difficult to evaluate than to appreciate, the richness of his prose, his influence on the functional psychologists of Chicago and Columbia, and the clarity and breadth of his thinking mark him out as one of the great psychologists for all time.


[1] Wundt went on to produce five revisions of this seminal text before his death.

[2] James, W., (1890/1950), Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, New York: Dover, pp. 449-450.

[3] James, W., (1884), ‘On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology’, Mind, 9, pp. 1-26, cited in Ralph Perry (1938), In the Spirit of William James, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 75-123.

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