Structuralism meaning,goals,impact,contributions and decline

The late 19th and early 20th century was a dominant period of structuralism. Structuralism was a systematic, experimental, introspective psychology. Titchener’s structuralism used analytical introspection as its primary method for most of its existence to reduce complex mental states to the simplest elemental mental processes that appear in consciousness. It explained those processes in terms of the physiological processes of the organism.

Meaning of structuralism 

Structuralism holds that psychological wholes are compounds of elements; psychology’s task is to discover the elements and the manner in which the compound. One must begin with the atoms or elements; science goes from the part to the whole. The elements are conscious of mental content. The method of choice is systematic introspection by highly trained observers.

Titchener life 

Titchener offered his own approach, which he called structuralism, yet claimed it represented psychology as set forth by Wundt. One of Wundt’s most distinguished students, Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927), reinterpreted the experimental part of Wundt’s psychology in his own systematic way. He brought this attempt to understand the structure of the mind to the United States, where it never took firm root, although it soon served as a foil for all the other four schools; it seems to have died with Titchener. It will be summarized here quite briefly.

Titchener developed the fundamental distinction between structuralism and functionalism; structuralism is curious about the “is” of the mind, whereas functionalism wonders about its “is for.” Titchener called himself and Wundt structuralists. Titchener had a tight group of devoted followers, but his influence did not extend far beyond this group, nor did structuralism live long after Titchener’s death—although he did leave important students, among them Karl Dallenbach and Edwin G. Boring and important students of students such as Boring’s student S. S. Stevens.

Structuralism’s Goals and Methods

Titchener agreed with the Wundt concept, immediate experience. He said that psychology should study immediate experience—that is, consciousness. He defined consciousness as the sum total of mental experience at any given moment and mind as the accumulated experiences of a lifetime.

     Psychology should strive to answer the what, the how, and the why. What is the task of analysis—into the simplest components; why is the task of synthesis of the complex out of the elements; and how is the question of the laws of connection of the elements, arrived at by analysis. 

       Titchener sought only to describe the mental experience. Titchener, accepting the positivism of Ernst Mach, believed that speculation concerning unobservable events has no place in science. It is interesting to note that Titchener took the same position toward the use of theory as B. F. Skinner was to take many years later. For both, theorizing meant entering the world of metaphysics; and for both, science meant carefully describing what could be observed. However, whereas Skinner focused on observable behavior, Titchener focused on observable (via introspection) conscious events. It was the structure of the adult, normally functioning, the human mind that Titchener wanted to describe, and thus he named his version of psychology structuralism (Titchener, 1898, 1899).

      In Titchener’s work, the problems and methods of Wundtian experimental psychology were transmuted into what was hoped would be a natural science of the structure of the mind, using experimental methods and systematic introspection.

     Titchener divided psychology into human, animal, social, child, and abnormal psychology; in practice, however, he was most sympathetic to what he called human psychology: the main task of psychology is to understand the structure and content of the adult human mind, well trained in systematic introspection. This preference of his was apparently shown in his and his co-editors’ editing of the American Journal of Psychology in that papers reporting studies on participants other than adult humans were usually rejected.

        That Titchener tried steadfastly to remain true to Wundt’s experimental tradition does not mean that he did not make a number of innovations. For example, while the Wundtian elements were sensations and feelings, Titchener renamed feelings and added a third class: his elements were sensations, images (elements of memory), and affections.

The Content of Conscious Experience According to Titchener, the subject matter of psychology is a conscious experience as that experience is dependent on the person who is actually experiencing it. Scientists in other fields are studied experience in different ways. For example, light and sound can be studied by physicists and by psychologists. Physicists examine the phenomena from the standpoint of the physical processes involved, whereas psychologists consider the light and sound in terms of how humans observe and experience these phenomena.

          Stimulus error 

In studying conscious experience, Titchener avoids the stimulus error, which confuses the mental process with the object we are observing. For example, observers who see an apple and then describe that object as an apple. The observer did not report the elements of color, brightness, and shape then his experience is  the stimulus error

  When observers focus on the stimulus object an apple instead of on the conscious content, they fail to distinguish what they have learned in the past about the object (for example, that it is called an apple) from their own direct and immediate experience. All that observers can really know about the apple is that it is red, shiny, and round. When they describe anything other than color, brightness, and spatial characteristics, they are interpreting the object, not observing it. Thus, they would be dealing with mediate, not immediate, experience.

         Titchener defined consciousness as the sum of our experiences as they exíst at a given time. The mind is the sum of an individual’s experiences accumulated over a lifetime. Consciousness and mind are similar, except that consciousness involves mental processes occurring at the moment whereas mind involves the total of these processes.

Titchener’s Use of Introspection.

     Titchener’s use of introspection was more complicated than Wundt’s. Typically, Wundt’s subjects would simply report whether an experience was triggered by an external object or event. Titchener’s form of introspection, or self-observation, relied on observers who were rigorously trained to describe the elements of their conscious state rather than reporting the observed or experienced stimulus by a familiar name.

Titchener’s subjects, therefore, had to be carefully trained to avoid reporting the meaning of a stimulus.  If the subjects (more accurately, observers) were shown an apple, for example, the task would be to describe hues and spatial characteristics (red, round, smooth, etc). In this case, Titchener wanted his subjects to report sensations, not perceptions.

    Titchener said, “Introspecting through the glass of meaning … is the besetting sin of the descriptive psychologist” (1899, p. 291).

Toward the end of his career, Titchener modified his use of introspection (Evans, 1984).

        Titchener adopted Külpe’s label, systematic experimental introspection, to describe his method. Like Külpe, Titchener used detailed, qualitative, subjective reports of his subjects’ mental activities during the act of introspecting. He opposed Wundt’s approach, with its focus on objective, quantitative measurements, because he believed it was not useful for uncovering the elementary sensations and images of consciousness that were the core of his psychology. 

    whereas Wundt emphasized the whole. In line with most of the British empiricists and associationists, Titchener’s goal was to discover the so-called atoms of the mind.

The Elements of Consciousness three essential problems for psychology posed by Titchener.

  1. Reduce conscious processes to their simplest components. 
  2. Determine laws by which these elements of consciousness were associated. 
  3. Connect the elements with their physiological conditions. 

From his introspective studies, Titchener concluded that the elemental processes of consciousness consist of sensations (elements of perceptions and sounds, sights, smells, and other experiences ), images (elements of ideas and reflects experiences ), and Affective states, or affections (elements of emotions and love, hate, and sadness).

Titchener considered these four to be fundamental to all sensations in that they are present, to some degree, in all experiences.

Quality:  cold or red

Intensity: strength, weakness, loudness, or brightness. 

Duration: over time. 

Clearness: conscious experience 


According to Titchener, Sensations and images possess all four of these attributes( Quality, intensity, Duration, and clearness), but affective states have only three: quality, intensity, and duration. Affective states lack clearness.

In practice, Titchener and his students concentrated most on the study of sensations, then on affections, and least of all on images. Titchener (1896) concluded that there are over 44,500 identifiable sensations, most of which are related to the sense of vision (about 32,820), with audition next (about 11,600), and then all the other senses. In his later years, Titchener changed the object of his introspective analysis from the elements themselves to their attributes (such as quality, intensity, and clearness) because it is only through its attributes that an element could be known (Evans, 1972).

Titchener rejects Wundt’s tridimensional theory of feeling. Titchener argued that feelings had only one dimension( pleasantness-unpleasantness dimension ), not three. Titchener denied the other two dimensions (tension/relaxation and excitement/depression). He said that psychology included the sensations and images that were described in terms of quality, intensity, duration, clearness, and extensity, as well as the feelings that varied in terms of pleasantness.

Law of Combination

After Titchener had isolated the elements of thought, the next step was to determine how they combine to form more complex mental processes. In explaining how elements of thought combine, Titchener rejected Wundt’s notions of apperception and creative synthesis in favor of traditional associationism. Titchener (1910) made the law of contiguity his basic law of association:

       Let us try … to get a descriptive formula for the facts which the doctrine of association aims to explain. We then find this: that, whenever a sensory or imaginal process occurs in consciousness, there are likely to appear with it (of course, in imaginal terms) all those sensory and imaginal processes which occurred together with it in any earlier conscious present…. Now the law of contiguity can, with a little forcing, be translated into our own general law of association. (pp. 378–379)

          What about attention, the process that was so important to Wundt? For Titchener, attention was simply an attribute of a sensation (clearness). We do not make sensations clear by attending to them as Wundt had maintained. Rather, we say we have attended to them because they were clearer than other sensations in our consciousness. For Titchener, there is no underlying process of apperception that causes clarity; it is just that some sensations are more vivid and clear than others, and it is those that we say we attend to. The vague feelings of concentration and effort that accompany “attention” are nothing more than the muscle contractions that accompany vivid sensations. Consistent with his positivism, Titchener saw no need to postulate faculties, functions, or powers of the mind to explain the apparently rational process of attention. For him, attention was the clearness of sensation—period.

      For the how of mental processes, then, Titchener accepted traditional associationism, thus aligning himself firmly with the British empiricists.

Context Theory of Meaning

      What do we mean by the word meaning? Titchener’s answer again involved associationism. Sensations are never isolated. In accordance with the law of contiguity, every sensation tends to elicit images of sensations that were previously experienced along with the sensation. A vivid sensation or group of sensations forms a core, and the elicited images form a context that gives the core meaning. A rattle may elicit images of the baby who used it, thus giving the rattle meaning to the observer. A picture of a loved one tends to elicit a wide variety of images related to the loved one’s words and activities, thus giving the picture meaning. Even with such a rationalist concept as meaning, Titchener’s context theory of meaning maintains his empiricist and associationist philosophy.

The Impact of Structuralism

Titchener’s Cornell laboratory was an active, exciting place to be during Titchener’s days there. The traditional Wundtian experimental problems were being pursued zealously, and some students who were to become important in later years were deeply inspired by Titchener’s rigor and enthusiasm. With Titchener’s system, there seemed to be a possibility that another 40 or 50 years of diligent research might bring psychology to the state of an essentially completed science—all the important problems would have been solved by that time, and only a little refined clean-up work would remain. Clearly, though, that is not how later psychology developed. From the perspective of about a century later, the chief longer-term historical significance of Titchener’s structuralism might be that it constituted a clear and highly systematic point of view with which other schools and orientations could contrast their own positions.

Contributions of Structuralism 

Their research methods, based on observation, experimentation, and measurement, were in the highest traditions of science. Because consciousness can only be perceived by the person having the conscious experience, the most appropriate method for studying that experience and that subject matter was some form of self-observation.

the method of introspection-more broadly defined as the giving of a verbal report based on experience-continues to be used in many areas of psychology. Researchers in psychophysics collect information by self-report when researchers ask subjects to report whether a second tone sounds louder or softer than the first. Clinical reports from patients, and responses on personality tests and attitude scales, are introspective in nature. Introspective reports involving cognitive processes such as reasoning are frequently used in psychology today. For example, industrial/organizational psychologists obtain introspective reports from employees about their interaction with computer terminals. This information can be used to develop user-friendly computer components and érgonomic chairs. Such verbal reports based on personal experience are legitimate forms of data collecting. 


The Decline of Structuralism

A case can be made that many of Wundt’s ideas are alive and well in contemporary psychology, whereas little of substance from Titchener’s system survives. The question is, What caused the virtual extinction of structuralism?

      In many ways, the decline of the school of structuralism was inevitable. Structuralism was essentially an attempt to study scientifically what had been the philosophical concerns of the past. How does sensory information give rise to simple sensations, and how are these sensations then combined into more complex mental events? The major tool of the structuralists was introspection. This, too, had been inherited from the past. Although it was now used scientifically (that is, in

a controlled situation), introspection was still yielding different results depending on who was using it and what they were seeking. Also, there was lack of agreement among highly trained introspectionists concerning the correct description of a given stimulus display.

      Another argument against Titchener’s introspection is that it was really retrospection because the event being reported had already occurred. Therefore, what was being reported was a memory of a sensation rather than the sensation itself. Also, it was suggested that one could not introspect on something without changing it—that is, that observation changed what was being observed.

             Aside from the apparent unreliability of introspection, structuralism came under attack for other reasons. With its focus on understanding the normal, adult, human mind, structuralism excluded several developments that researchers outside the school were showing to be important. For example, animal behavior held little meaning for those hoping to find the basic elements of human consciousness. Likewise, the structuralists were not interested in the study of abnormal behavior even though Freud and others were making significant advances in understanding and treating individuals who were mentally ill. Similarly, the structuralists essentially ignored personality, learning, psychological development, and individual differences while major breakthroughs occurred in these areas. Also damaging was the structuralists’ refusal to seek practical applications. Titchener insisted that he was seeking pure knowledge and was not concerned with the solution of everyday problems. For all these reasons, the school of structuralism was short-lived and essentially died with Titchener.

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Wertheimer,M.,(2012). A brief history of psychology (5th ed.), Psychology Press.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A history of modern psychology. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.



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