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Voluntarism, Experimental and Gestalt Psychology

Experimental psychologists were, in fact, the first researchers to try to study mental processes by utilizing the experimental method to understand the influence of the body and the physical world on the mind. On the other hand, voluntarism came about with Wundt’s discovery that it is possible to measure the speed with which consciousness switched from one subject to another (Hergenhahn & Henley, 2014).

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Wundt then decided that it was necessary to study consciousness; but he thought that consciousness could not be explained by any physical means; thus, experimental psychology with its focus on the physical did not seem to be right to him. Wundt believed the power of will was fundamental for organisms, for they reached towards a particular goal; thus, he called his psychology voluntarism (Wertheimer, 2012, p. 85).

The values of the psychological study did not change much; research was carried out for the sake of pure science rather than application. The principles of study, on the other hand, changed – in voluntarism, it wasn’t believed to be possible to explain consciousness via physiological research – but the methods, in fact, remained similar to the previous ones; study was to be carried out by employing various experiments and recording results, trying to identify the main elements of the consciousness; for instance, the chronometric device was used much.

The subject matter of the research changed in the transition; whereas physiological qualities of a person were studied before, now they were declared useless to psychological research and were abandoned for a time. The new research methods were based on the same principles, but reflected the change in the subject matter, for now not the properties of the body were studied, but the mind’s reactions to various stimuli were recorded and analyzed (Hergenhahn & Henley, 2014).

Gestalt psychology emerged in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. In Germany, Wundt’s elemental approach to consciousness was widespread at that time. Wundt attempted to take the molecular approach and decompose the consciousness into basic elements and analyze them separately. However, there existed opposing approaches that were in opposition to structuralists and behaviorists, such as Brentano’s act psychology and Mach’s views.

They believed that the consciousness cannot be reduced to some elements, and that the whole in not only the sum of its parts, but that it “is entirely different from a mere sum; it is prior to its parts” (Wertheimer, 2014, p. 131). They offered to adopt the molar approach instead (Hergenhahn & Henley, 2014). From this point of view, Gestalt psychology developed; it was accompanied by the philosophical school of phenomenology, whose prominent representative was Husserl.

This school of thought contradicted many views that were popular at the time. For instance, it appeared to be inconsistent with the analytic study of the world, which involved decomposing the object of study into elements. The facts that Wundt separated psychology from philosophy, that he also used the experimental and molecular approach, pushed many to think that to adopt Gestalt psychologists’ views would mean that psychology again returns to philosophy and might disappear in it (Hergenhahn & Henley, 2014). However, although Gestalt psychology indeed had many ties to philosophical thought, especially phenomenology (Nilsen, 2008), it still had a crucial influence on the future of psychological discipline.

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It might be said that, even though Gestalt psychology is mostly popular only from historical perspective nowadays (Nilsen, 2008, p. 72), it did have a great influence on the future of psychology and, correspondingly, on the future of the whole society.

For instance, it significantly affected the development of cognitive psychology, a psychological school that combines the findings of a number of various research disciplines, including psychology, biology, AI, etc., to understand the mechanism of the brain’s work. Cognitive psychology makes a stress on “organization, structure, relationships, the active role of the subject,” etc. (Hergenhahn & Henley, 2014, p. 589), and it appears that it would be hard for such an approach develop if there had been only the schools of psychological thought that practiced the molecular approach.


Hergenhahn, B. R., & Henley, T. B. (2014). An introduction to the history of psychology (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Nilsen, H. (2008). Gestalt and totality. The case of Merleau-Ponty and Gestalt psychology. Nordicum-Mediterraneum, 3(2), 72-88.

Wertheimer, M. (2012). A brief history of psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wertheimer, M. (2014). Music, thinking, perceived motion: The emergence of gestalt theory. History of Psychology, 17(2), 131-133. Web.

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