Ideas from philosophy and natural sciences were combined to give rise to the development of the new field of psychology. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, psychology established itself as an independent discipline.
The formal start of modern psychology can be traced back to 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) established the first psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany. He was the first person to refer to him as a psychologist. He did not believe in the philosophical approach to the study of mind. He applied experimental methods for analyzing human consciousness. He published a book entitled ‘Fundamentals of Physiological Psychology’, which was considered to be the draft of the constitution of psychology as an independent science. He opened his laboratory to students from ail over the world. As he took the first step in establishing psychology as an independent science, he is rightly regarded as the father of modern psychology.
Wundt defined psychology as the study of conscious experience, and developed a model that came to be later known as structuralism. His aim was to study the building blocks of mind. Thus, he and his colleagues started analyzing human consciousness to identify its basis elements. He believed that the mental state, in order to be understood, has to be broken down into its fundamental components.
In order to achieve this, he and other structuralists used a method called introspection, whereby a trained person (often-called subject) carefully observes and analyzes his own mental experiences (thoughts and feelings). The person turns inward or looks within to search for what happens in his mind. Wundt was a master of introspection training. He trained some of his students with minimum of 10,000 practice observations before they were allowed to introspect themselves. Wundt’s views and assumptions spread far and wide, but they did not stand the test of time.
Structuralism. E.B. Titchner (1867-1927), who was a student of Wundt, strengthened his teacher’s thinking about mind and popularized his ideas in the United States. Titchner advocated that psychology should focus on the study of conscious experience using the method of introspection. Titchner, like his teacher, departed from earlier philosophical approach, and emphasized the ‘What’ of mental activity, rather than the ‘Why’ and ‘How’. He believed that all conscious experiences consist of sensations, images, and affective states.
Titchner’s approach came to be known as structuralism, as he was interested in studying the basic elements that combine to form the structure of mind, and behaviors. Structuralism represents a tradition in psychology, which suggests that the structure of mind can be understood as the combination of simple events and elements. The method for understanding mind’s structure is introspection, which means asking the experiencing person to present a verbal report of his mental activity.
You can understand the basic features of structuralism, if you have ever asked a cook regarding the ingredients of a dish that you have liked. The dish contains so many different ingredients. In order to understand the nature of a dish, you need to familiarize yourself with its basic ingredients as reported by the cook. Similarly, the structuralists attempt to discover the basic elements of experience by asking the person to analyze his thoughts and provide a verbal description of what the contents of thought were like. Hence the method of introspection was considered as a vehicle for exploring the mental experiences of an individual.
Both Wundt and Titchner contributed immensely to the development of modern psychology. But structuralism hardly stood the test of time. All the structuralists’ ideas were criticized vehemently.
First of all, reducing complex mental experiences to basic sensations was considered far too simple to describe human behaviour.
Second, introspection was not truly a scientific method because (i) the person cannot experience his feelings and analyze his experiences at the same time; and (ii) there is no way of verifying whether the person’s introspective report was truly genuine.
Third, animals and mentally retarded persons cannot provide an introspective report of their conscious experiences.
Finally, the introspection is a subjective experience and its truth- value cannot be ascertained by an independent observer. On all these grounds, structuralism fell into pieces. The fall of structuralism gave way to other emerging schools of thought. But the residues of structuralism even last till date.
Psychologists in the modern era have once again turned their attention to the study and description of human consciousness. Structuralism that perished about 100 years ego has now reflections in the minds of modern psychological thinkers, though in a different form.