The World’s First Psychologist

You’ve probably never even heard of Wilhelm Wundt.

Patrick Heller
4 min readJun 2, 2023

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If we look back into history, psychology as such is not yet that old. It wasn’t until 1879 that Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) opened the first official psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany.

As a modern science, it’s not even one and a half-century old. In earlier eras, however, psychology-related topics were raised mostly by philosophers. Thus, psychology can be traced back as far as thousands of years, for instance to the world of the Ancient Greeks — with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — and in the Far East to the times of Confucius and Buddha.

If we take a closer look at Western philosophy in more recent centuries, we find the basics of psychology as we know it today.

Matter over mind

In seventeenth-century France, René Descartes (1596–1650) proclaimed the now-famous sentence, “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”. Until Descartes, the understanding of who and what we are was mainly subject to religious views. The Cartesian dualistic view maintained that we humans consist of a material body and an immaterial soul. Most of our inner workings were attributed to the soul. Descartes, however, submitted that most of what we do, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, et cetera, could just as well be purely mechanical. Only thinking, Descartes implied, was different. That, he attributed to the soul.

Descartes did put a lot of stress on the tight relationship between body and soul. He was quite aware, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, of the existence of a nervous system. Descartes’ view was that the soul interacted with the body from a part of the brain, through these “threads”, with the parts of the body.

Meanwhile, in England, there was a certain Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who took things in quite a different direction. He argued that we have no soul at all and that all there is, is matter and energy. This is a view known as materialism. In Hobbes’ view, all thought is the result of purely mechanical processes, mainly taking place in the brain. Thus, all of our behavior is subject to natural laws and can be asserted as such. This approach made it possible for a new view to enter the scene, empiricism.

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