Who Is The Father Of Modern Psychology, And Why Does It Matter?

By: Julia Thomas

Updated November 10, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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You might have heard or assumed that Sigmund Freud is the “Father of Modern Psychology.” Freud was certainly one of the driving forces in the field, but others can be reasonably considered founders, too. If you ask someone in the field, they might choose Wilhelm Wundt for that title. There are also other psychologists who are associated with the beginnings of modern psychology. So, who is it, and what's the point of referring to someone in this way?

Sigmund Freud: The Father of Modern Psychology?

Sigmund Freud is a very well-known name. Freud developed theories about the mind and its functioning and founded psychoanalytical treatment for psychological problems based on those theories. He devoted his life to learning, helping patients, and developing theories to further the understanding of the human psyche. He is rightly considered the father of psychoanalysis.

While Freud took copious notes on his sessions with clients, his observations were mostly his interpretations of one person's problems at a time. His theories were largely extrapolations of very limited data. Freud's theory of the mind and the problems his patients experienced were based largely on the idea of unconscious motivations or thoughts and stimuli outside the awareness of the person.

Many psychologists and others in the field continue to research and learn Freud's theories. While Freud worked, he had no means of studying and quantifying the mind or his theories by the scientific method. Since modern psychology is a scientific field, it might be best to look for another person to fill the role of the father of modern psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt - The Father of Modern Psychology as a Science

Wilhelm Wundt rightfully holds the title as the father of modern psychology as a scientific pursuit. Wundt approached the study of the mind from a scientific perspective from the beginning of his work in the field.

Distinguished Psychology as a Unique Science

Before Wilhelm Wundt, there was no science known as psychology. People who studied the mind did so by learning about biology and philosophy. Wundt also started with these two subject areas, but he melded them together to create a distinct science that was more complete than the sum of its parts.

Wundt was the first person to label himself a psychologist.

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Founded First Experimental Psychology Lab

In Wilhelm Wundt's time, there were two experimental psychology laboratories, with his lab in Leipzig being the first. At the lab, Wundt and his students carried out experiments to find out how trained observers responded to different stimuli.

With Wundt's new lab, came the need to develop new research techniques. Certainly, there were many techniques already in existence, having been used in other fields of science. However, now that Wundt was studying the mind, he needed techniques that would help him find out things that physical tests couldn't always reveal.

Wundt outlined the difference between introspection and internal perception. Introspection, according to Wundt, wasn't accurate enough to rely on for scientific experiments. Instead, he preferred internal perception, which trained observers practiced in his psychology research lab by reporting significant responses to stimuli.

Publications and Psychological Journals

Wundt's book Principles of Physiological Psychology, published in 1874, detailed the experimental techniques he'd developed for psychology research at that time. Wundt also established the first psychology journal, titled Philosophical Studies, which reported on experimental findings as well as general concepts of psychology. The use of psychology journals to publish, vet, and study new information continues today.

Contributions of Students

Wundt didn't start a specific field of psychology—at least, he didn't give a name to any school of thought or write any works devoted to one school of thought. What he did, though, was to approach the study of psychology in a unique way. By doing so, he laid the foundation for a school of thought a student, Edward B. Titchener, would found and call Structuralism.

Structuralism involved breaking down the processes of the human mind to study them separately. Structuralism was also devoted to studying the overall structure of the minds, and how each of these individual parts worked together to form a conscious thought.

If none of Wilhelm Wundt's students had ever done anything significant in the new field of psychology, Wundt's contributions would have been enough to earn him the title of father of modern psychology. However, that wasn't the case; many of his students became significant contributors in their own rights. These included:

  • Edward Titchener - Founder of structuralism
  • James McKeen Cattell - first psychology professor in the United States
  • Charles Spearman - Early theorist on psychological subjects including statistics, intelligence, and factor analysis
  • Stanley Hall - First American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and first President of the American Psychological Association
  • Charles Hubbard Judd - Founder of educational psychology
  • Hugo Munsterberg - An early pioneer of applied psychology in clinical practice, industrial organizations, and forensics

Wundt differed from Freud in many respects, but one of the most important ways his theory differed was that Wundt believed psychology should study only conscious thought. Wundt's students tended to agree with this. In fact, Munsterberg and other students Wundt worked with went so far as to say the unconscious doesn't even exist, a clear departure from Freud's emphasis on the unconscious, and his theories of the structure of the human mind.

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Summary of Wundt's Contributions to Psychology

Wundt accomplished much in the new field of psychology. He contributed several things that no one else had touched on:

  • He established psychology as its field, separate from biology and philosophy.
  • He named the new field of 'psychology,' and its practitioners 'psychologists.'
  • He founded the first psychology research lab.
  • He devised some of the earliest techniques for studying psychology in a lab setting.
  • His work led to his student's formation of the first school of thought in psychology.

Wundt also made contributions that weren't necessarily unique in the field but helped establish him as an important force in psychology. These included:

  • Writing a scholarly book on his methods and findings.
  • Founding a psychology journal.
  • Teaching students who went on to impact the field significantly.

What Does it Mean to be the Father of a Field?

The title of "father" of a field is simply a poetic way of describing a person's founding of a particular subject, and summarizing what people who study in that subject—or were impacted by it—feel was a large and important contribution to it.

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Because of Wundt's contributions and the additional contributions of those whom he educated and introduced to the field, his place as the founder of psychology is accepted by most, despite Freud's seemingly higher level of popularity in media. Many people have contributed to psychology and our understanding of the human mind and behavior throughout history, each leaving their distinct mark.

Why Does It Matter Who the Father of Modern Psychology Is?

So, what's the point of figuring out who to call the father of modern psychology? After all, so many people contribute to anyone's field that few sciences rest squarely on the shoulders of one giant. Besides that, what are we going to do when we decide who it is? Canonize him? Erect monuments to him and obliterate all memory of other pioneers in psychology? Of course not!

In a way, it doesn't matter who the father of modern psychology is. What matters most is how far the field has come and what we can learn from it today.

There may be some advantage in deciding who should hold this title. By choosing Wilhelm Wundt, we are choosing to see psychology as a scientific discipline. We can view it as an objective science rather than the philosophical notions of one man. We can understand psychology as a continuous field that can change and grow as researchers add their findings to the larger body of work in the field.

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