Voluntarism

Structuralism and functionalism were two of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. To understand these early perspectives, it is important to consider the sociohistorical context in which they developed. Psychology as an independent scientific discipline was founded in 1879 by German scholar Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) at the University of Leipzig. Wundt was a medically trained physiologist appointed to the department of philosophy at Leipzig. In 1879, he established the first-ever laboratory devoted solely to the experimental study of psychological issues. The German Zeitgeist was conducive to this development. For example, the education reform movement encouraged the development of university research and promoted academic freedom. Furthermore, German scholars at the time accepted a broader definition of science compared to their counterparts in many other European countries.

Wundt defined psychology as the scientific study of conscious experience and organized it into two broad areas: experimental psychology (the study of sensation and perception, reaction time, attention, and feelings) and Völkerpsychologie (cultural psychology, which included the study of language, myth, and custom). Wundt made an important distinction between immediate and mediate experiences. Mediate experiences involve an interpretation of sensory input ("I see an apple"), whereas an immediate experience consists of pure and unbiased sensory experiences ("I see a roundish, red object"). Wundt emphasized the process of organizing and synthesizing the elemental components of consciousness (the immediate experiences) into higher-level thoughts. Because this process of apperception was considered to be an act of will or volition, he often referred to his system as voluntarism.

One of Wundt's students, Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927), an Englishman who earned his Ph.D. under Wundt in 1892, ascended to prominence by establishing the structural school of thought in psychology as a professor at Cornell University. Functionalism soon arose as a school of thought that opposed structuralism.

Titchener, it should be noted, considered structuralism to be a refined extension of, and largely compatible with, Wundt's work. Because Titchener was the main translator of Wundt's work into English and was widely considered to be a loyal and accurate representative of Wundt's system, the term "structuralism" at the time was used as a label for both Titchener's and Wundt's work. This interpretative error, which is still propagated in some textbooks, was not fully realized until the mid-1970's, when scholars started to examine Wundt's original work in detail. There are some important differences between Titchener's structuralism and Wundt's system of voluntarism. First, Titchener rejected the idea of a branch of cultural psychology. Second, structural psychology neglected the study of apperception and focused almost exclusively on the identification of the elements of consciousness. Finally, in a structuralist framework, the elements of consciousness themselves were of utmost importance; mediate and immediate experiences were considered the same event, viewed from different vantage points. There was no need for a volitional process.

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