“Psychology has a long past but only a short history.” With these few words, Hermann Ebbinghaus, one of the great thinkers in psychology, aptly captured the essence of this field’s development. Since time immemorial, men and women have pondered over questions that are psychological in nature. From the early Egyptians to the ancient Greek philosophers, there has been no letup in efforts to understand human thought and behavior. Yet, in spite of its long past, the formal history of psychology dates back only 133 years to 1879 – the year when Wilhelm Wundt opened the doors of the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. As a result of this significant move, Wundt is widely regarded as the founder of psychology. Yet, this was just the beginning of Wundt’s contributions to the field. He went on to become the first of several spirited speakers to engage in an ongoing debate over what should be the focus of psychology. The history of psychology is indeed short, but it has never been short of drama. With that said, let the drama unfold…
Wundt’s ideas formed the basis of the first school of thought (or perspective) in psychology, known as structuralism. In reality, though, it was one of Wundt’s students, Edward B. Tichener, who formally established this psychological school of thought. Structuralism, as the name suggests, was centered on investigating the structure of the mind. Wundt believed that psychology should focus on breaking down consciousness into its basic elements, in much the same way a child would pull apart a toy to reveal its component parts. The idea of determining the specific structure of something so abstract and dynamic as the mind may seem absurd to many today. Yet, structuralists were confident that not only could they accomplish this goal, but that they could do so scientifically. [showmyads]
Wundt advanced the technique of introspection as the “scientific” tool that would enable researchers to unveil the structure of the mind. Introspection involves looking inwards; reflecting on, analyzing and trying to make sense of our own internal experiences as they occur. In employing this technique, trained subjects were presented with various forms of stimuli and asked to describe as clearly and “objectively” as possible what they experienced. Reports would then be examined to determine the basic elements of consciousness. For example, if you were presented with a slice of cake, it would not be enough to simply identify the type of food before you. You would also need to explain the basic elements of the cake that you able to sense. For example, you might describe the taste, smell, texture, colour, and shape of the cake in as much detail as possible.
Structuralism played a significant role in shaping the field of psychology during its formative years. Wundt and his followers helped to establish psychology as an independent experimental science and their emphasis on scientific methods of inquiry remains a key aspect of the discipline today. Nevertheless, structuralists could not escape criticism. Despite their noble attempt at scientific investigation, introspection was less than ideal because no two persons perceive the same thing in exactly the same way. Subjects’ reports therefore tended to be subjective and conflicting. Some of the fiercest criticisms of structuralism came from the person of William James, one of the leading proponents of the functionalist perspective.
From the point of view of American scholar William James, structuralists were sorely misguided. The mind is fluid, not stable; consciousness is ongoing, not static. Attempts to study the structure of the mind would therefore be futile at worst and frustrating at best. A more fruitful endeavor, they argued, would be to study the function, as opposed to the structure, of the mind. Function in this sense can mean one of two things – first, how the mind operates – that is, how the elements of the mind work together – and second, how mental processes promote adaptation. Clearly influenced by the teachings of Charles Darwin and the principle of natural selection (survival of the fittest), James believed that mental processes serve vital functions that enable us to adapt and survive in a changing world. Thus, while the structuralists asked “what happens” when we engage in mental activity, the functionalists were more concerned with “how it happens” and “why.”