Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.2: A Fragmented Psychology

  • Page ID
    21202
  • Modern experimental psychology is rooted in two seminal publications from the second half of the nineteenth century (Schultz & Schultz, 2008), Fechner’s (1966) Elements of Psychophysics, originally published in 1860, and Wundt’s Principles of Physiological Psychology, originally published in 1873 (Wundt & Titchener, 1904). Of these two authors, it is Wundt who is viewed as the founder of psychology, because he established the first experimental psychology laboratory—his Institute of Experimental Psychology—in Leipzig in 1879, as well as the first journal devoted to experimental psychology, Philosophical Studies, in 1881 (Leahey, 1987).

    Fechner’s and Wundt’s use of experimental methods to study psychological phenomena produced a broad, unified science.

    This general significance of the experimental method is being more and more widely recognized in current psychological investigation; and the definition of experimental psychology has been correspondingly extended beyond its original limits. We now understand by ‘experimental psychology’ not simply those portions of psychology which are directly accessible to experimentation, but the whole of individual psychology. (Wundt & Titchner, 1904, p. 8)

    However, not long after its birth, modern psychology began to fragment into competing schools of thought. The Würzberg school of psychology, founded in 1896 by Oswald Külpe, a former student of Wundt’s, challenged Wundt’s views on the scope of psychology (Schultz & Schultz, 2008). The writings of the functionalist school being established in North America were critical of Wundt’s structuralism (James, 1890a, 1890b). Soon, behaviourism arose as a reaction against both structuralism and functionalism (Watson, 1913).

    Psychology’s fragmentation soon began to be discussed in the literature, starting with Bühler’s 1927 “crisis in psychology” (Stam, 2004), and continuing to the present day (Bower, 1993; Driver-Linn, 2003; Gilbert, 2002; Koch, 1959, 1969, 1976, 1981, 1993; Lee, 1994; Stam, 2004; Valsiner, 2006; Walsh-Bowers, 2009). For one prominent critic of psychology’s claim to scientific status,

    psychology is misconceived when seen as a coherent science or as any kind of coherent discipline devoted to the empirical study of human beings. Psychology, in my view, is not a single discipline but a collection of studies of varied cast, some few of which may qualify as science, whereas most do not. (Koch, 1993, p. 902)

    The fragmentation of psychology is only made more apparent by repeated attempts to find new approaches to unify the field, or by rebuttals against claims of disunity (Drob,2003; Goertzen,2008; Henriques,2004; Katzko,2002; Richardson, 2000; Smythe &McKenzie, 2010; Teo, 2010; Valsiner, 2006; Walsh-Bowers, 2009; Watanabe, 2010; Zittoun, Gillespie,&Cornish, 2009).

    The breadth of topics being studied by any single psychology department is staggering; psychology correspondingly uses an incredible diversity of methodologies. It is not surprising that Leahey (1987, p. 3) called psychology a “large, sprawling, confusing human undertaking.” Because of its diversity, it is likely that psychology is fated to be enormously fragmented, at best existing as a pluralistic discipline (Teo, 2010; Watanabe, 2010).

    If this is true of psychology, then what can be expected of a more recent discipline, cognitive science? Cognitive science would seem likely to be even more fragmented than psychology, because it involves not only psychology but also many other disciplines. For instance, the website of the Cognitive Science Society states that the Society,

    brings together researchers from many fields that hold a common goal: understanding the nature of the human mind. The Society promotes scientific interchange among researchers in disciplines comprising the field of Cognitive Science, including Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Anthropology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Education. (Cognitive Science Society, 2013)

    The names of all of these disciplines are proudly placed around the perimeter of the Society’s logo.

    When cognitive science appeared in the late 1950s, it seemed to be far more unified than psychology. Given that cognitive science draws from so many different disciplines, how is this possible?

    • Was this article helpful?