Edward B. Titchener is the founder of the theory of structuralism. Because he was student of Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig, Titchener’s ideas on how the mind worked were heavily influenced by Wundt’s theory of voluntarism and his ideas of Association and Apperception (the passive and active combinations of elements of consciousness respectively). Titchener attempted to classify the structures of the mind, not unlike chemists classify the elements of nature into the periodic table.

Titchener argued that only observable events constituted science and that any speculation concerning unobservable events has no place in society (this view was similar to the one expressed by Ernst Mach). In his book, Systematic Psychology, Titchener wrote:

It is true, nevertheless, that observation is the single and proprietary method of science, and that experiment, regarded as scientific method, is nothing else than observation safeguarded and assisted.

Mind and Consciousness

Titchener believed that the goal of psychology was to study mind and consciousness. He defined consciousness as the sum total of mental experience at any given moment, and the mind as the accumulated experience of a lifetime. He believed that if the basic components of the mind could be defined and categorized, then the structure of mental processes and higher thinking could be determined. What each element of the mind is (what), how those elements interact with each other (how), and why they interact in the ways that they do (why) was the basis of reasoning that Titchener used in trying to find structure to the mind.

Introspection: Structuralism's Main Tool

Titchener took Wundt's experimental technique, known as introspection, and used it to focus on the structures of the human mind. Anything that could not be investigated using this technique, Titchener believed, was not in the domain of psychology.

Titchener believed that the use of introspection, which utilized observers who had been rigorously trained to analyze their feelings and sensations when shown a simple stimulus, could be used to discover the structures of the mind. He spent the bulk of his career devoted to this task.

The main tool that Titchener used to try and determine the different components of consciousness was introspection. Titchener writes in his Systematic Psychology:

“The state of consciousness which is to be the matter 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:

“…within the sphere of psychology, introspection is the final 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 the reporting of an introspective analysis. The subject would be presented with an object, such as a pencil. The subject would then report the characteristics of that pencil (color, length, etc.). The subject would be instructed not to report the name of the object (pencil) because that did not describe the raw data of what the subject was experiencing. Titchener referred to this as stimulus error.

In his translation of Wundt’s work, Titchener illustrates Wundt has 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

Titchener’s theory began with the question of what each element of the mind is. He concluded from his research that there were three types of mental elements constituting conscious experience: Sensations (elements of perceptions), Images (elements of ideas), and Affections (elements of emotions). These elements could be broken down into their respective properties, which he determined were quality, intensity,

Interaction of Elements

The second issue in Titchener’s theory of structuralism was the question of how the mental elements combined and interacted with each other to form conscious experience. His conclusions were largely based on ideas of associationism. In particular, Titchener focuses on the law of contiguity, which is the idea that the thought of something will tend to cause thoughts of things that are usually experience along with it.

Titchener rejected Wundt’s notions of apperception and creative synthesis (voluntary action), which were the basis of Wundt’s voluntarism. Titchener argued that attention was simply a manifestation of the “clearness” property within sensation.

Physical and Mental Relationship

Once Titchener identified the elements of mind and their interaction, his theory then asked the question of why the elements interact in the way they do. In particular, Titchener was interested in the relationship between the conscious experience and the physical processes. Titchener believed that physiological processes provide a continuous substratum that give psychological processes a continuity they otherwise would not have. Therefore, the nervous system does not cause conscious experience, but can be used to explain some characteristics of mental events.

Titchener's Structuralism

Titchener's structuralism stressed three important tasks in the study of the human mind:3

1.     To discover how many processes there were, identify the elements of these processes, and explain how they work together.

2.     To analyze the laws governing the connections between the elements of the mind.

3.     To evaluate the connections between the mind and nervous system.

Titchener's Influence

For approximately 20 years, Titchener dominated American psychology. He was also extremely prolific, publishing 216 books and papers during his lifetime. He trained a number of influential psychologists, supervising the doctoral work of nearly 60 students including Margaret Floy Washburn and Edwin G. Boring.2 Yet today his work is rarely mentioned outside of a purely historical context. He maintained a powerful hold on American psychology during his lifetime and contributed to psychology becoming a respected branch of the sciences, but his influence began to wane following his death.

Structuralism may have enjoyed a brief period of dominance in psychology, but the school of thought essentially died out following the death of its founder. It did, however, lead to the development of other movements, including functionalism, behaviorism, and Gestalt psychology.