6 junio, 2024

Structuralism (psychology): what it is, main theories and critics

What is structuralism in psychology?

He structuralismalso called structural psychology, is a theory of knowledge developed in the 20th century by Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt and Edward Bradford Titchener.

Structuralism tries to describe the structure of the mind and the combination of mental processes that converge in complex experiences. By understanding these mental processes, structuralism proposes to define and categorize the different elements of the human psyche.

Furthermore, the structuralists proposed that any conscious experience could be broken down into basic conscious elements.

For this, psychologists use introspection through self-reports and inquiring into feelings, sensations, emotions, among other things, that provide internal information about the person.

Wundt and structuralism

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920) was a German physiologist, philosopher and psychologist, widely known for developing the first experimental laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. In the university of this same city he was an instructor of Edward Titchener, the founder of structuralism.

Titchener declared what is known as the «science of immediate experience», or what is the same, complex perceptions can be obtained through basic sensory information.

Wundt is often associated in ancient literature with structuralism and the use of introspective-like methods.

The author makes a clear distinction between pure introspection, which is the relatively unstructured self-observation used by earlier philosophers, and experiential introspection.

According to him, for introspection or experience to be valid, they must be produced under experimentally controlled conditions.

Titchener brought his own theory and that of Wundt to North America, but in translating Wundt’s works he reinterpreted and selected some of its content.

He did not present him as a voluntarist psychologist (doctrine that organizes the content of mental will power into thought processes at a higher level), which is what he really was, but rather presented him as an introspectionist.

Thus Titchener used this reinterpretation of Wundt’s work to support his own.

Titchener and structuralism

Edward B. Titchener (1867-1927) was a British psychologist established in the United States, where he adopted this nationality.

He is considered the founder of structuralism and the promoter of the experimental method in American psychology. Titchener is an introspectionist and when he imported Wundt’s work to the United States he reinterpreted the postulates of his teacher, presenting him as an introspectionist.

The error resides in the fact that in North America there was no difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, but in Germany it was.

Actually, for Wundt introspection was not a valid method because according to his theories it did not reach the unconscious. Wundt understands introspection as a description of conscious experience divided into basic sensory components that have no external referents.

Instead, for Titchener, consciousness was the sum of a person’s experiences at a given moment, understanding those as feelings, ideas, and impulses experienced throughout life.

Titchener was a disciple of Wundt at the University of Leipzig, and one of his most important students.

For this reason his ideas of how the mind works were strongly influenced by Wundt’s theory of voluntarism and his ideas of association and apperception (combinations of elements of active and passive consciousness, respectively).

Titchener attempted to classify the structures of the mind, noting that only observable events constitute science, and that any speculation regarding unobservable events has no place in society.

in his book Systematic Psychology (systematic psychology), Titchener wrote: «It is true, however, that observation is the only and patented method of science, and that experiment, considered as the scientific method, is nothing other than protected and assisted observation.»

How to analyze the mind and consciousness

Titchener took into account the accumulated experience of a lifetime. He believed that he could understand the structure of the mind and its reasoning if he could define and categorize its basic components and their rules of interaction.


The main tool that Titchener used to try to determine the different components of consciousness was introspection.

He himself writes in his systematic psychology: «The state of consciousness that should be the subject of psychology… can become an object of immediate knowledge only by way of introspection or self-awareness.»

and in his book An Outline of Psychology, Introduction of psychologywrites: «… within the sphere of psychology, introspection is the last and only court of appeal, that psychological evidence cannot be other than introspective evidence.»

Unlike Wundt’s method of introspection, Titchener had very strict guidelines for presenting an introspective analysis.

In their case, the subject would be presented with an object, for example, a pencil, and would then report the characteristics of that pencil (color, length, etc.).

Said subject would be instructed not to report the name of the object, in this case pencil, because that does not describe the basic data of what the subject was experiencing. Titchener referred to this as «stimulus error.»

In Titchener’s translation of Wundt’s work, he shows his teacher as a supporter of introspection as a method through which to observe consciousness.

However, introspection only fits Wundt’s theories if the term is taken to refer to psychophysical methods.

elements of the mind

The first question that Titchener posed in his theory was the following: What is each element of the mind?

The British psychologist came to the conclusion that in his research there were three types of mental elements that constitute conscious experience.

On the one hand the sensations (elements of perception), on the other, the images (elements of ideas) and finally, the affections (elements of emotions).

Furthermore, these elements could be divided into their respective properties, which were: quality, intensity, duration, clarity and extension.

Sensations and images contain all these qualities, however, they lack affection in clarity and extension. On the other hand, images and affects could be broken down into groups of sensations.

In this way, following this chain, all thoughts are images that are built from elementary sensations.

That means that all complex reasoning and thinking could eventually be broken down into sensations, which you could arrive at through introspection. Only well-trained observers could perform introspection scientifically.

element interaction

The second question that Titchener posed in the theory of structuralism was how mental elements combine and interact with each other to form conscious experience.

His conclusions were largely based on the ideas of associationism, particularly on the law of contiguity. He also rejected the notions of apperception and creative synthesis, the basis of Wundt’s voluntarism.

physical and mental relationships

Once Titchener identifies the elements of the mind and their interaction, he questions why the elements interact the way they do. In particular, Titchener was interested in the relationship between conscious experience and physical processes.

The British psychologist believed that physiological processes provide a continuous substrate that gives continuity to psychological processes, which otherwise would not.

Thus, the nervous system does not cause conscious experience, but it can be used to explain some features of mental events.

Modern Psychology Showdown

An alternative theory to structuralism is functionalism (functional psychology).

Functionalism was developed by William James, who in contrast to structuralism, stressed the importance of rational-empirical thought, thought on an empirical-experimental philosophy.

James included introspection in his theory (eg, the study of the psychologist’s own mental states), but he also included things like analysis (eg, the logical critique of precursor and contemporary views of mind). , experiment (eg, in hypnosis or neurology), and comparison (eg, using the statistic means distinguishing norms from abnormalities).

Functionalism also differed by focusing on the utility of certain processes located in the brain for the environment, and not on the processes themselves, as occurs in structuralism.

Functionalist psychology had a strong influence on American psychology, being a more ambitious system than structuralism, and served to open up new areas within scientific psychology.

Criticism of structuralism

Among the large number of criticisms received, the main one comes from functionalism. He criticized her focus on introspection as a method for understanding conscious experience.

They argue that self-analysis was not feasible, since introspective students cannot appreciate the processes or mechanisms of their own mental processes.

Introspection, therefore, produced different results, depending on who was using it and what they were looking for.

Some critics also pointed out that the introspective techniques were really a retrospective examination, as it was more the memory of a sensation than the sensation itself.

Behaviorists, for their part, totally rejected the idea of ​​conscious experience as a worthy subject in psychology, since they believed that the subject matter of scientific psychology should be strictly operational, objective, and measurable.

Since the notion of a mind objectively could not be measured, this was hardly worth mentioning.

Structuralism also believes that the mind could be divided into its individual parts, which form conscious experience. This approach received criticism from the Gestalt school of psychology, which argues that the mind cannot be conceived in individual elements.

In addition to theoretical attacks, he was also criticized for excluding and ignoring important events that were not part of his theory. For example, structuralism was not concerned with the study of animal behavior and personality.

Titchener himself was criticized for not using his psychology to help answer practical problems.

contemporary structuralism

Today, structuralist theory is not widely used. Researchers are still working to offer experimental approaches to achieve the measurement of conscious experience,…

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