Early Wundt on Emotion

Wilhelm WundtThe April 2009 issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences includes an article by Claudia Wassmann (U. Paris I) entitled “Physiological Optics, Cognition and Emotion: A Novel Look at the Early Work of Wilhelm Wundt.” Although most historical attention has focused on Wundt’s 1874 textbook (Principles of Physiological Psychology) and his later work at Leipzig, Wassman shines a light on his earlier (still untranslated)* book, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, written when he was still an assistant in the Heidelberg physiological laboratory of Helmholtz and Du Bois Reymond. There, he discussed a theory of emotion that, Wassman argues, grounded the debate that led up to William James’ famous 1884 theory of emotion. The abstract of the article is below.

The German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt, who later founded experimental psychology, arguably developed the first modern scientific conception of emotion. In the first edition of Vorlesungen über die Menschenund Thierseele (Lectures on human and animal psychology), which was published in 1863, Wundt tried to establish that emotions were essential parts of rational thought. In fact, he considered them unconscious steps of decision-making that were implied in all processes of conscious thought. His early work deserves attention not only because it is the attempt to conceptualize cognition and emotion strictly from a neural point of view but also because it represents the very foundation of the debate about the nature of emotion that revolved around William James’ theory of emotion during the 1890s. However, this aspect of his work is little known because scholars who have analyzed Wundt’s work focused on his late career. Furthermore, historical analysis interpreted Wundt’s work within a philosophical framework, rather than placing it in the context of German medical and physiological research in which it belongs. In addition, Wundt’s early works are hardly available to an English speaking audience because they were never translated.

Thanks to Dana Tulodziecki (U. Missouri, KC) for alerting me to this article. Claudia Wassmann’s article on Wundt was also previously discussed on AHP here.

*My mistake. Gabriel Ruiz (U. Sevilla) pointed out to me that it was translated as early as 1894.

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About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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