The beginning of modern psychology is marked by the time when psychology was being established as a science, giving it a separate identity, making it different from philosophy. The major force behind this movement was Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of modern psychology. Wundt had been conceiving his ideas about psychology from the time when he was conducting research in physiology calling it the new science of psychology or simply new psychology.
Wundt believed that the field of psychology should adopt the methods of natural sciences, like physics. He expressed his ideas in his book Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception, published in 1858 in which for the first time he used the term experimental psychology. This led to the first formal course of psychology he began in 1862, called Psychology as a Natural Science. He further elaborated his book Principles of Physiological Psychology, published in 1873/74; all of this culminating into Wundt establishing the first ever experimental psychology laboratory at Leipzig, in 1879.
According to Wundt, psychology is the study of the mind, emphasizing on the structure and contents of consciousness, using the method of introspection, in an experimental framework. Wundt’s psychology led to the beginning of the first school of psychology by Edward Titchner, called structuralism, further establishing psychology as an experimental science that uses methods similar to that of the natural sciences.
Even though Wundt’s influence was widespread, there were other individuals who did not agree with Wundtian psychology. These individuals who were contemporaries of Wundt were not part of any common school of thought that rivalled Wundtian psychology. Like Wundt, they also wanted to expand psychology as a science, but collectively disagreed with Wundt in confining psychology to experimentation. These individuals, along with Wundt, were influential in their own way and played a significant role in the development of modern psychology.
One of the most significant persons of this movement was Franz Brentano. Brentano was one of the major early and significant psychologists who had an alternate view of the dominant Wundtian psychology. He was the person who came the closest to Wundt in terms of influence in the 19th century German psychology.
Brentano’s approach was empirical rather than experimental. He believed that the method of psychology should be observation instead of experimentation. He did not outright reject the use of experiments, but felt observation to have a broader scope.
The movement started by Brentano came to be known as Act Psychology. He opposed Wundt’s view that psychology should be the study of the structure and content of consciousness. Brentano’s system centered around the idea that interaction between individual and the environment is inseparable. Accordingly, psychological events are defined as phenomena and cannot be reduced to smaller components without losing their identity. In regard to this, Brentano argued that the subject matter of psychology should be mental activity rather than mental content. Brentano’s act psychology, thus, argued against the elementism of Wundtian psychology.
Brentano proposed his perspective in his book Psychologie vom vom empirischen Standpunkt (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint), published in 1874. He defined psychology as the science of psychic phenomena expressed as acts and processes. He viewed consciousness as a unity in terms of acts, opposing the existing reductionism and elementism.
In redefining the subject matter of psychology in terms of mental acts, and the unity of consciousness, Brentano proposed the method of observation; he preferred an empirical method over experimentation. However, he was not proposing a return to speculative philosophy. He, instead, proposed the method of systematic observation.
Brentano, also, moved towards the development of the method of phenomenology in psychology. According to him, phenomenology is a descriptive method. He believed that the method of phenomenology will be useful in describing psychological acts in a subjective, experiential manner, that is, describing objects in the environment as part of the process of perceiving. This method was further developed by his student Edmund Husserl, who is considered the founder of phenomenological psychology.
Brentano’s Act psychology, later on, played an influential role in the beginning of other movements in psychology. The idea of mental acts in terms of the unity of consciousness being the subject matter was influential in the development of Gestalt psychology. Laying emphasis on subjective experiences helped in the beginning of phenomenological psychology, which eventually also led to the development of the humanistic movement in psychology.
Brentano, therefore, is regarded as the intellectual heir to the Gestalt and phenomenological movements in psychology. Being one of the first persons to oppose experimentation, during the dominance of Wundtian psychology, also makes his perspective being influential for the development of Functionalism.
Brentano had a strong influence on Carl Stumpf, who was a major figure in German psychology and is considered to be one of the greatest rivals of Wundt. The most influential work of Stumpf was Tonpsychogie (Psychology of Tones), published in two volumes, first in 1883 and then in 1890. He had a lifelong interest in the unity of musical experience, making him one of the pioneers of the psychological study of music.
The influence of Brentano on Stumpf is reflected in Stumpf adopting the method of phenomenology. Like Brentano, Stumpf suggested that the primary data for psychology are phenomena. According to him, phenomenology is the analysis of unbiased experience, in the sense that experience just as it occurs. He disagreed with Wundt’s approach of reducing experience into smaller elements. He believed that breaking down experience into smaller components makes it artificial and therefore unnatural.
Stumpf, through his publications, had a heated debate with Wundt concerning the proper description of melodies. He did not agree with Wundt in reducing melody to its smaller sensory elements. He believed in the unity of melody. This view of Stumpf resembled the phenomenological view, later on developed by Edmund Husserl.
Stumpf passed his version of act psychology and phenomenology to his students. Among those students were Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka, who along with Max Wertheimer were two of the founders of the Gestalt movement. The Gestalt movement began in opposition to Wundtian psychology and the structural viewpoint. In this way, Stumpf turned out to be a leading precursor to Gestalt psychology and thus led to the creation of an alternate view to Wundtian psychology in Germany.
The beginning of modern psychology, in terms of establishing psychology as an independent scientific discipline, was largely due to the enormous efforts of Wilhelm Wundt, especially his emphasis on experimentation. At a time when Wundtian psychology was dominant and consistently on the rise, leading to the development of the structural perspective, it was Franz Brentano and, later on, Carl Stumpf who proposed an alternative perspective.
Opposing Wundt’s idea of reducing conscious experience to sensory elements, Brentano and Stumpf proposed the idea of mental acts and phenomena. Their emphasis on the unity of consciousness and subjective experiences led to the beginning of the Gestalt and the phenomenological movements in psychology, making their approach to be highly significant in the development of modern psychology. Their perspectives, thus, can be regarded as very successful.
The perspectives of Brentano and Stumpf indicate that psychology right from an early stage has been a multi-method and multi-perspective discipline. If there was Wundt’s elementism, reductionism, and experimentation, there was also Brentano’s unity of phenomena, subjectivity, and systematic observation. Both viewpoints were significant in their own rights, with respect to modern psychology.