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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: May 2019

3 - The Early Physiological Study of Perception


German Experimental Psychology (1850–1940): Introduction to Chapters 3, 4, and 5

German experimental psychology began as physiological psychology, and central in physiological psychology was the study of perception. When Wundt established his laboratory in 1879, this study had flourished for close to forty years. In his attempt at formally establishing psychology as a branch of empirical science, Wundt added studies of attention, feelings, and the will, and then, somewhat later, Hermann Ebbinghaus extended experimental psychology to include the study of remembering.

German experimental psychology thus remained a study of consciousness. A main trend in the physiological study of perception – as well as in the early studies of feeling, memory, and the will – had been to regard psychological processes as consisting of elements that combine in various ways. From the beginning of the 1900s, however, there was a growing reaction to this tendency, and new approaches were developed until German experimental psychology declined under the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

I shall begin my account of German experimental psychology with this chapter on the early sensory physiology. Then I shall treat the psychology of Wundt and his contemporaries in Chapter 4 and conclude with Chapter 5 on the new tendencies gaining force at the end of the nineteenth century. First we look at the society and culture in which German psychology originated.

German Society and Culture

Until 1871, Germany was divided into a number of independent states. While tariff frontiers restricted trade between these states, an open and extensive exchange of scientific ideas took place among all regions where the German language was spoken. German was also the administrative language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in continental Europe there was therefore a large area of German culture. German-speaking scientists could obtain positions not only in the German states and Austria, but also in Zürich in German-speaking Switzerland, and in Prague in Bohemia.

The Industrial Revolution began later in Germany than in Great Britain and France, but it accelerated rapidly from the mid-1800s. One important reason for its expansion was that the Germans applied not only technology but also science in industry. This was far less the case in other Western countries and is presumably one of the major reasons why Germany so quickly became equal to Great Britain and France as an industrial and military power.

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A History of Modern Psychology
  • Online ISBN: 9781316272442
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