William James and Wilhelm Wundt

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Chapter 2 endnote 14, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

William James and Wilhelm Wundt, founding fathers of psychology, were skeptical of [the existence of] emotion organs.

Two founding fathers of modern psychology, William James and Wilhelm Wundt, believed that there were no emotion essences to be discovered in the brain or body.[1][2][3] In general, they cautioned against faculty psychology and the use of folk psychology categories to organize the new science of psychology. Instead, they were pioneers of the emerging theme of psychological construction—that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions emerge from basic, all-purpose, ingredients that can be combined in various recipes, and that one key ingredient is human conceptual knowledge.

James put it best: “A science of the relations of mind and brain must show how the elementary ingredients of the former correspond to the elementary functions of the latter.”[4] He believed that our incredibly varied emotional experiences are constructed as the brain perceives sensations from the body (although he did not provide any clues to how those perceptions were constructed). James also predicted the existence of core ingredients of emotion in the brain when he wrote, “emotional brain-processes not only resemble the ordinary sensorial brain-processes, but in very truth are nothing but such processes variously combined.”[5]

Wundt, too, believed that emotions were “psychic compounds” constructed when “ideas” made meaning out of simple feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, and quiescence. Wundt's theory incorporated the idea of emergence, although he did not formally use this word. He also foreshadowed Gerald Edelman's concept of the "remembered present." “Ideas,” argued Wundt, were the “revival of previous experiences”.[6]

Wundt is less well-known than James, at least in U.S. psychology, and is one of the most tragic historical figures in scientific psychology. He was apparently a formal, not-very-friendly guy with a large ego who always searched for, but never quite received, the recognition he craved. Wundt alienated his powerful mentor, Hermann von Helmholtz, who actually fired him for being unable (or unwilling) to study sensory processing mathematically. Wundt was more interested in studying mental phenomena on their own terms, without reducing them to biological or physical explanations. James was, himself, not free from craving scientific fame and accolades, however.

The intellectual breadth of Wundt’s writing—from physiology to philosophy to psychology to culture and sociology—is inspiring, and he published some of the most influential books and papers in European psychology in the 19th century. He was responsible, perhaps more than anyone else, for psychology’s transformation into an independent scientific discipline. So I find great pathos in Wundt’s story, because his well-deserved place in scientific history never really materialized. He did influence William James, though, whose theory of emotion bears a striking resemblance to an early version of Wundt’s. James was a magnificent writer whereas Wundt, well, not so much. Also, Wundt wrote in German and his books were translated into English by his graduate student, the psychologist Edward Titchener. And here is a lesson for all academics: treat your students well and remember that they are your intellectual legacy. Titchener, a fairly influential psychologist in his own right, misrepresented Wundt’s views and replaced them with his own. As a consequence, Wundt’s ideas were largely misunderstood for almost a century, significantly diminishing his influence. (Another factor was the two world wars that all but decimated the study of psychology in Europe.) Wundt’s story has been well-documented by the historian Kurt Danziger, and by an illuminating edited volume, Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology.[7]

Although neither man explicitly labeled himself as a constructionist, both believed that emotion categories were just subjective distinctions that were not discovered in nature, but were constructed by the human mind. For example, James argued, “The cardinal passions of our life, anger, love, fear, hate, hope, and the most comprehensive divisions of our intellectual activity, to remember, expect, think, know, dream, with the broadest genera of aesthetic feeling, joy, sorrow, pleasure, pain, are the only facts of a subjective order which this vocabulary deigns to note by special words.”[8] In a similar vein, Wundt argued that sensations from the world and the body were not different in kind, “but different points of view from which we start in the consideration and scientific treatment of a unitary experience.”[9] They endorsed Kant’s skepticism that human experience reveals the underlying causal structure of nature. Both men warned of the perils awaiting the scientist who indulged in the naïve realism that experiences of emotion reveal their causal mechanisms. James termed it “the psychologist’s fallacy,” and Wundt referred to it as the sin of “intellectualism.”[10]


Notes on the Notes

  1. James, William. 1884. "What is an emotion?" Mind, 9, 188–205.
  2. James, William. (1890) 1998. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press.
  3. Wundt, Wilhelm. (1897) 1998. Outlines of Psychology (C. H. Judd, trans.). Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press.
  4. James, William. (1890) 1998. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, p. 28.
  5. James, William. 1884. "What is an emotion?" Mind 9: 188-205., p. 188.
  6. Wundt, Wilhelm. (1894) 1998. Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology (S. E. Creigton & E. B. Titchener, trans.). New York: Macmillan, p. 452.
  7. Rieber, Robert W., and David K. Robinson. 2001. Wilhelm Wundt in History: The Making of a Scientific Psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic.
  8. James, William. (1890) 1998. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, p. 195
  9. Wundt, Wilhelm. (1897) 1998. Outlines of Psychology (C. H. Judd, trans.). Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, p. 2
  10. It is possible to find many such warnings in the history of science. For example, the 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon warned about using common-sense language in science, reifying the referent of the word that doesn’t warrant it.