Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927)

Titchener was born in Chichester, England in a family whose fortunes had seen better days. Fortunately for him, he was a bright child and earned scholarships to Malvern College, a prep school, and later to Oxford. There, he studied philosophy at first but later read Wundt’s Textbook of Human Physiology, (3rd edition) and translated it into English. He visited Wundt in Leipzig shortly thereafter, showing him the translated work, only to discover that Wundt had nearly finished the fourth edition. Nonetheless, Wundt was impressed with Titchener and urged him to go back to Oxford to take a year of biology. Titchener did so and then returned to Leipzig where he obtained his PhD from Wundt two years later. One of Titchener’s fellow students at Leipzig was Frank Angell (see chapter 9); they became close friends. After graduating from Leipzig, Titchener could not find a suitable position in Britain, but instead went to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY after Angell left there to begin Stanford’s first psychology laboratory. So, Titchener, a prim and proper English gentleman was one of the first of Wundt’s students to move to the United States. Titchener spent the rest of his life at Cornell, dying unexpectedly of a brain tumor in 1927 at the age of 60.

The structuralism that Titchener developed at Cornell was a marked departure from Wundtian voluntarism. For one thing, its origins lay in the associationistic

Marginal Definition: structuralism-an early approach to psychology that used controlled introspective methods to infer the elements of the mind.

philosophical tradition that began with Locke and culminated with John Stuart Mill. Thus, Titchener disagreed with Wundt over the most fundamental philosophical precepts. Wundt’s psychology was based upon the German idealistic tradition that viewed the mind much more holistically and which devalued associationism as an explanatory device. Titchener also put much more emphasis upon the role of introspection as a psychological method. Wundt, used introspection as well, but also used other methods: apperception and the creative synthesis, that Titchener did not. He also disagreed with Wundt over the very definition of psychology, seeing it as an experimental science only. Titchener did not bring Wundt’s völkerpsychologie with him to Cornell. Both agreed, however, on the importance of establishing psychology as an experimental science. Titchener was more committed to that goal because his definition of psychology was much narrower and more restricted than Wundt’s.

Psychology for Titchener was the scientific, experimental study of the mind. He had no use for or place in psychology for animal behavior, child studies, abnormality, or any applied area. He believed psychology was too young an enterprise to risk losing it by dabbling in fringe areas such as those. Titchener, more than anything, wanted to make psychology the academic equivalent to physics. He saw physics, psychology, and biology as the three main sciences. Each was looking at the same data, but interpreting it from their own point of view. Thus, he was instrumental in attempting to create borders for psychology with physics and biology and to create a home ground for an independent discipline of psychology to thrive. In that effort he was only partly successful. “Titchener did succeed...in establishing the laboratory as the center of the psychological enterprise, both as central in the educational preparation of psychologists and of the scientific enterprise itself” (Evans, 1991, p. 103).

Titchener’s Theory of Psychology

Titchener was a strong proponent for rigorous methods in psychology. To that end he continued to translate German textbooks into English and later wrote his own textbooks and instructor’s manuals. Those later works emphasized the necessity for reliable methods of introspection. As noted earlier, introspection has a long history in the academy, especially in philosophy. Wundt and Titchener each believed that introspection could be used to study the mind. Titchener, however, emphasized introspection and highly-trained introspectors in his psychology to a much greater degree than did Wundt. For example, Titchener introduced the stimulus error and provided methods for

Marginal Definition: stimulus error-reporting anything other than a quality of a sensation, image, or affect while introspecting, especially reporting things already known through experience.

avoiding it while introspecting. While introspecting, structuralist researchers were only to report their inner states with regard to sensations, images, and affect. For sensations, they could report the quality, intensity, or duration. For vision and touch, they could also report extensity, or the impression that sights and sounds could spread out through space beyond their initial focus. For affect they could only report pleasantness or unpleasantness, another simplification of Wundt’s system. Wundt believed that affect could be broken down into three parts: pleasantness or unpleasantness, excitation or depression, and tension or relaxation. Titchener and his students eventually identified over 44,000 elements, with more than 30,000 of those being visual. Obviously, his original project had grown like Topsy and he was left with far too many elements to deal with successfully.

FYI: Introspecting about the eraser-In class, I “introspect” about the eraser at the board (one reason being that nearly all classrooms have erasers). I pick up the eraser and note its perceived weight, how it feels to touch, how it smells, and how it tastes (although I fake that part keeping my tongue obviously well away from it). I then speculate how I might introspect differently were I holding a bar of pure gold exactly the same size as the eraser. My introspection would be very different. Lastly, I commit the stimulus error on purpose. I say, “This is an eraser.” A well-trained introspector in Titchener’s lab would never have said such a thing.

Much of the success of Titchener’s structuralist approach came from his personality and work habits. He was famously aloof and distant. His wife screened all of his calls, and he never joined the newly formed American Psychological Association or attended any of its meetings, even when they once met in Ithaca. He founded a group called the “Experimental Psychologists” which only admitted men who studied the kind of psychology he championed. All others were excluded. After his death, that group continued under a new name, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, which currently has a membership of about 220 invitees, including women. Titchener awarded 54 PhDs in psychology during his career; twenty of those were to women. The first one was to Margaret Floy Washburn.

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