(go to literature)

Wilhelm Wundt

(in: LARG International Dictionary of Anthropologists, New York: Garland 1991

Wundt, Wilhelm. Psychologist, physiologist, philosopher. Born in Neckerau/Mannheim (Germany) 16 August 1832, died in Leipzig (Germany) 31 August 1920. After earning the M.D. degree from the University of Heidelberg, Wundt served as assistant in the physiology laboratory of Hermann von Helmholtz before being named professor of anthropology and psychology. He immediately set himself the task of developing a comprehensive system of scientific psychology with an appropriate methodology. As he conceived it, only physiological individual psychology, limited to sensory perceptions, can work with individual laboratory experiments. General psychology, based on the more complicated forms of individual thought, requires statistical analyses to prove its legitimacy. And the "objective cultural forms" of larger sociocultural collectivities are only ascertainable through comparative historical observation. Wundt saw language (and art), myth (and religion) and customs (including law and institutions) as universal, primary forms of cultural development, which he later analyzed comprehensively in his mature work, the ten-volume Völkerpsychologie.

Wundt is considered the last great constructor of systems in the l9th century. He wanted to unite the sciences and humanities and conceived a philosophy that built on the conclusions of the modern sciences and was purified of theology and metaphysics. However, his comprehensive system remained a torso. His originality is particularly evident in cross-fertilizations between disciplines in the natural sciences (physiology and psychology), the humanities (cultural history and philology) and the social sciences (statistics, ethnology and sociology). Today Wundt is perceived only as the founding father of experimental individual psychology, since he established the first psychological laboratory in the world in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, where he had been appointed professor of philosophy in 1875. But by doing so, he also paved the way for cultural anthropology: from his insight that it is scientifically improper to apply results of experiments in individual psychology to social and historical phenomena, he developed an ethnopsychological concept of general cultural genesis, the results of which, conversely, must be connected to psychological analysis. He expressly rejected, however, a universal concept of evolution that organizes cultural forms in a progressive and value-laden order from primitive to advanced societies. Following Darwin, he defined evolution as the development of new cultural forms through adaptation to new situations. He also replaced the Hegelian metaphysical construct of national spirit (Volksgeist) with the notion of actuality (Aktualitätsgedanken), the nature of a thing as realized in existence; national soul (Volksseele) and collective will (Gesamtwille) manifest themselves in constantly new "creative syntheses" as direct actualization of concrete collective experiences.

It was this "Leipzig School" approach to the development of structures and to collective psychology with which Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss and others in France sought to come to terms in their works on myth, religion and ethics. In the United States, Wundt's influence was considerable. His students (James McKeen Cattell, Frank Angell, E.B. Titchener and G. Stanley Hall, among others) occupied all of the important research centers for individual psychology; in social psychology, William James (who held high hope for Wundt's renewal of philosophy) and James Mark Baldwin (a student of Wundt) developed the concept of the "social self" in response to Wundt's ideas; and George Herbert Mead took his concept of "language as gesture" from Wundt's "Lautgebärde". In its German reception-by Felix Krueger (psychology), Willy Hellpach (social psychology), or Alfred Vierkandt (sociology), for example-Wundt's macroconcept of cultural anthropology tended to fade behind a social-ontological individualism that was clearly typical of the generation of German scholars that succeeded him.

(back to top of page)


MAJOR WORKS: Vorlesungen über die Menschen- und Thierseele [2 vols.] (Leipzig: 1863) [tr.: Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology (London and New York: 1894)]; Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (Leipzig: 1874) [tr.: Principles of Physiological Psychology (London and New York: 1904)]; Logik: eine Untersuchung der Prinzipien der Erkenntnis und der Methoden wissenschaftlicher Forschung [2 vols.] (Stuttgart: 1883); Ethik. eine Untersuchung der Tatsachen und Gesetze des sittlichen Lebens (Stuttgart: 1886) [tr.: Ethics: an Investigation of the Facts and Laws of the moral Life [3 vols.] (London: 1897); Grundriß der Psychologie (Leipzig: 1896) [tr.: Outlines of Psychology (London and New York: 1897)]; System der Philosophie (Leipzig: 1897); Einführung in die Psychologie (Leipzig: 1911) [tr.: An Introduction to Psychology (London: 1912)]; Elemente der Völkerpsychologie: Grundlinien einer psychologischen Entwicklungsgeschichte der Menschheit, (Leipzig: 1912) [tr.: Elements of Folk Psychology: Outlines of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind (London: 1916)]; Völkerpsychologie: eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte [10 vols.] (Leipzig: 1900-1920) [tr. of parts of vols. 1 and 2: The Language of Gesture (The Hague: 1973)].

SOURCES: Wilhelm E. Mühlmann, Geschichte der Anthropologie (Frankfurt/Main: 1968); Wilhelm Wundt, Erlebtes und Erkanntes [autobiography] (Stuttgart: 1920); Carl F. Graumann, "Experiment, Statistik, Geschichte," Psychologische Rundschau, vol. 3 (1980), pp. 73-83; Jan Jacob de Wolf, "Wundt and Durkheim: a reconsideration of a relationship," Anthropos, vol. 82 (1987), pp. 1-23; R.W. Rieber (editor), Wilhelm Wundt and the Making of a Scientific Psychology (New York and London: 1980); Georg Eckart and Lothar Sprung (editors), Advances in the History of Psychology (Berlin [Eastl] 1983); W.G. Bringmann and E. Scheerer (editors), "Wundt centennial issue," Psychological Research, vol. 42 (1980), pp. 1-189.

Elfriede Üner

Translation from German: Sem C Sutter

back to top

Home | Writings | Texte

created by Five Foot Jen Webwerx

© Dr. Elfriede Uener -- All Rights Reserved