Wilhelm Wundt is the founder of the new science of psychology. Associating experimentation with psychology, he established psychology as an independent academic discipline, separating it from philosophy and physiology. According to Wundt, psychology should be studied by defining psychological events in terms of variables and analysing them by the experimental method.
Wundt defined psychology as the analytic study of the generalized adult human mind through the method of introspection. For Wundt, the subject matter of psychology is the study of consciousness. Wundt believed that consciousness has many different parts, which can be studied by breaking it down into smaller components. Wundt’s approach was a major precursor to the first school of psychology called structuralism.
Psychology in today’s time is very different from Wundt’s approach. Over the years, psychology went through many changes due to the emergence of other schools of thought. These schools broadened the scope of psychology beyond the laboratory, studied a wide range of topics, apart from just conscious experiences, and also emphasized on the practical applications of psychology. Gradually, with the passing of time, Wundtian psychology faded away.
Despite Wundtian psychology having little relevance in today’s time, some aspects of it can be found in psychological perspectives that emerged much later. Certain ideas proposed by Wundt are found in a rather different form and context in other approaches to psychology that came into existence many years after Wundtian psychology, and are still very popular.
Unlike the British empiricists, Wundt did not believe that the mind works passively. Wundt focused on the self-organizing capacity of the mind. Due to this he referred to his system as voluntarism – a term derived from the word volition, which means the act or power of willing. Voluntarism is the power of the will to organize the content of the mind into higher mental processes. He emphasized on the process of actively organizing and synthesizing the elements of the mind.
The concept of the will was highly significant for Wundt. He suggested that the idea of will should be the central concept on the basis of which psychological issues should be understood.
According to Wundt, human beings can decide what is attended and thus what is perceived, that is, humans can exert their will in attending to and perceiving of objects. He further suggested that much of this will has a purpose; it is motivated. On the whole, through his approach of voluntarism, Wundt was emphasizing that humans have will, choice, and purpose.
Decades later, another psychological perspective developed and gained popularity by emphasizing similar ideas. One of the basic themes of humanistic psychology, founded by Abraham Maslow, that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, many years after Wundt, is choice and free will.
Humanistic psychologists believe that behavior is not constrained by either current circumstances or past experience. The way individuals act is not simply a response to an immediate stimulus, nor determined solely by previous events. Human beings, instead, choose and decide how to behave based on their subjective assessment of a situation. They are also guided by purpose rather than being passive to external factors. This means that, according to humanistic psychologists, human beings have free will.
This emphasis on free will emphasized by humanistic psychologists is very similar to Wundt’s voluntarism. Wundt opposed the associationists view of the mind being passive and suggested that humans can exert choice and will while attending to and perceiving. In the same way, humanistic psychology opposed the deterministic viewpoint of psychoanalysis and behaviorism.
Humanistic psychologists suggested that instead of being determined by the unconscious or environmental factors, human beings, based on their subjective perceptions of the situation, have choice and free will, and are not passive.
Wundt’s voluntarism, however, was specifically with respect to perception, whereas humanistic psychology, emphasizing on free will, is more in terms of behavior in general. Nevertheless, there can be a striking similarity found between Wundtian psychology and humanistic psychology with respect to choice, will, and purpose.
Wundt used his approach of voluntarism to explain the organization of mental elements referred to as apperception. He suggested that perceptions have a unity or wholeness; the visual experience of individuals in the real world comprehends a whole, complete object and not as the elementary sensations and feelings that constitute it. It is this organization of mental elements that Wundt called apperception. Wundt believed that apperception is active and voluntary; it is under the individual’s control. He emphasized on the active role of attention.
According to Wundt, when elements are attended to, they are arranged and rearranged as per the individual’s will. Wundt called this phenomenon creative synthesis. He believed that creative synthesis is involved in all acts of perception.
Wundt suggested that the process of organizing mental elements into a whole is a creative synthesis, which creates new properties from the building up or combining of the elements. Apperception, thus, according to Wundt, is an active process. The mind acts on the elements or smaller components in a creative way to make up the whole.
This combining of elements into a whole by the individual’s will in a creative manner was also suggested years later, in the 1930s, by the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler – one of the pioneers of social psychoanalysis.
One of the most significant concepts of Adler is the creative self. By the concept of creative self, Adler suggested that each individual has the ability, the creative power to develop his/her own personality, in the way he/she wants to. The creative power of the self is something that intervenes between the stimuli acting upon and the person and the responses the person makes to these stimuli.
Adler suggested that individuals use the raw material of heredity and experience to construct their own personality. The individual uses the heredity and environment, together with the manner in which he/she experiences them as the bricks and mortar to build and develop overall personality. The architectural design reflects that person’s own style. How individual’s put those materials together to use is of major importance.
The concept of the creative self was developed by Adler to oppose the mechanistic viewpoint of construction of life. Adler opposed the idea that individuals acquire unique behavior patterns through a stimulus-response kind of learning, because it implies that people are passive recipients who cannot interpret or act upon their experiences.
The creative self, in contrast, implies that people, by actively constructing them out of their experiences and heredities, create their own personalities, resulting in uniqueness, completeness, and wholeness. The creative self enables the individual to act upon the facts of the world and transform these facts into a personality that is dynamic, unified, and uniquely stylized.
In the same manner, Wundt opposed idea of the mind being passive and suggested that apperception takes place by creative synthesis, which organizes the mental elements into something new, unique, and whole; the mind acts upon sensations and experiences creatively to make the whole.
Wundt and Adler, in a way, were suggesting a similar idea in a different context. Wundt was talking about organization of sensations and experiences and its interpretation leading to the comprehension of a whole object. Adler was talking about using heredity, environment, and experiences taken together in the construction of personality. Both emphasized the individual actively being involved in the transformation from raw materials towards wholeness and completeness.
Wundt, therefore, suggested ideas and concepts that years later were represented in aspects of psychoanalytic and humanistic perspectives. Wundtian psychology, which involved the study of consciousness by breaking it down into smaller sensory experiences in a laboratory setting, proposed certain ideas and concepts similar to perspectives that emerged much later, at a time when psychology had moved beyond only experimentation and just the study of consciousness.