Edward B. Titchener

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Edward Bradford Titchener (1867 – 1927) was an Englishman and a British scholar. He was a student of Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, Germany, before becoming a professor of psychology and founding the first psychology laboratory in the United States at Cornell University. It was Edward Titchener who coined the terms "structural psychology" and "functional psychology," in 1898, the early trends in scientific psychology. Structural psychologists analyzed human experiences through introspection, breaking mental activity down into "basic elements" or "building blocks." Although his theoretical models were not adopted by others, his championing of psychology as a science, using the scientific method of laboratory experiments to collect data, made a clear separation between experimental psychology and other trends such as psychoanalysis. Ultimately, however, our understanding of human nature cannot be achieved solely through science, although the distinctions drawn by Titchener were valuable in its early development.


Edward Bradford Titchener was born in southern England to a family of old lineage but little money.

He entered Oxford University in 1885 on a scholarship to study philosophy, and he became interested in Wilhelm Wundt's writings, translating the third edition of the Principles of Physiological Psychology. However, the psychology of Wundt was not enthusiastically received at Oxford, so Titchener resolved to go to Leipzig and work with him directly. There, he took his doctorate completing a dissertation on binocular effects of monocular stimulation.

After unsuccessfully searching for a position in England, Titchener accepted a professorship at Cornell University, which had opened up when Frank Angell, another American student of Wundt, went to the newly founded Stanford University. For thirty-five years, Titchener presided over psychology at Cornell, where he was an institution unto himself, arrogantly lecturing in his academic robes and tolerating no dissent.

Titchener often quarreled with his American colleagues and founded his own organization to rival the fledging American Psychological Association because of the dispute with members of the latter group. Titchener became the American editor of Mind in 1894, and associate editor of the American Journal of Psychology in 1895. Later, he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Clark, and Wisconsin. Although Titchener supervised a large number of students in early twentieth-century American psychology, his system died with him in 1927.


In the end of the nineteenth century, Edward B. Titchener carried the basic ideas of Wilhelm Wundt to the United States. Titchener called Wundt's ideas structuralism, and tried to study the structure of mental life or consciousness.

His structural psychology has a threefold aim:

  • to describe the components of consciousness in terms of basic elements,
  • to describe the combinations of basic elements,
  • to explain the connections of the elements of connections of the elements of consciousness to the nervous system.

Consciousness is defined as "immediate experience," i.e., experience as it is being experienced. Mediate experience was flavored by contents already in the mind, such as previous associations and the emotional and motivational levels of a person. Structural psychology, in general, attempted to defend the integrity of psychology by contrasting it with physics.

Edward Titchener put his own spin on Wundt's psychology of consciousness. He attempted to classify the structures of the mind, not unlike the way a chemist breaks down chemicals into their component parts—water into hydrogen and oxygen, for example. Thus, for Titchener, just as hydrogen and oxygen were structures, so were sensations and thoughts. He conceived of hydrogen and oxygen as structures of a chemical compound, and sensations and thoughts as structures of the mind. This approach is known as "structuralism."

The experimental method employed by structuralists was introspection. This technique of self-report is the ageless approach to describing self-experience. Introspection depended on the nature of consciousness observed, the purpose of the experiment, and the instructions given by the experimenters. Introspection was considered valid only if done by exceptionally well-trained scientists, not naive observers. The most common error made by untrained introspectionists was labeled the "stimulus error"—describing the object observed rather than the conscious content. Stimulus error, according to Titchener, resulted not in psychological data but in physical descriptions.

Under this natural science approach, psychology was defined as the experimental study of the data of immediate experience through the method of introspection. The goal of psychology was to reduce the contents of consciousness to constituent elements of sensory origin.

In the 1890s, Wilhelm Wundt developed a three-dimensional theory of feeling. Essentially, Wundt thought that feelings vary along three dimensions: Pleasant—unpleasant, strain—relaxation, excitement—calm. Titchener agreed with and accepted only the pleasant—unpleasant dimension. This approach led him to relegate emotions to organic visceral reactions. Further, Edward Titchener proposed a theory of meaning suggesting that the context in which a sensation occurs in consciousness determines meaning. Accordingly, simple sensation has no meaning by itself, but it acquires meaning by association with other sensations or images. In that way, Titchener described the mind in terms of formal elements with "attributes" of their own, connected and combined by the mechanism of associations.

As a structural psychologist, Titchener, in his attempt to adhere strictly to a natural science model, readily sacrificed psychological processes and activities that did not fit into his methodological framework. In addition, the over-reliance on the questionable, strict methodology of introspection led Titchener and other structural psychologists into a sterile dead end. In a sense, structuralism was caught between the "empiricism of the British tradition" and "nativism of the German tradition." Titchener and other structuralists articulated a view of the mind as determined by the elements of sensation; at the same time they recognized mental activity and attempted to deal with activity through such constructs as "apperception." Coupled with the inadequacies of introspection, structuralism failed to accommodate conflicting philosophical assumptions about the nature of the mind.


Most of the major findings of structuralism were seriously challenged. In terms of higher mental processes, Titchener called thought a mental element that is probably an unanalyzed complex of kinesthetic sensations and images. Moreover, he perceived what we call will as an element composed of complex of images that form ideas in advance of action. As a result, thought and will are linked through mental images. According to this analysis, thought must be accompanied by images. This imperative gave rise to the "imageless thought controversy," in which other psychologists, (Oswald Külpe, Alfred Binet, and Robert S. Woodworth) argued the possibility of thought processes without discrete mental images. Such an interpretation was unacceptable for Titchener because it contradicted his analytic view of thought, described by elements of images. Instead, it substituted a more holistic or phenomenal view of thought processes, unanalyzed into constituent elements.

Titchener proposed a model of psychology that bore similarities to materialistic empiricism. Although he recognized the necessity of a mental construct, he argued that the contents of the mind could be reduced to the elements of sensation. This analytic model of psychology ultimately led to reduction of the sensations to their corresponding stimuli. The integrity of psychology was lost, and psychology was logically reduced to physics.


Structural psychology holds a unique place in the development of the natural science model for psychology in Germany. Specifically, the writings of Edward B. Titchener as well as those of Wilhelm Wundt constitute a systematic attempt to start a coherent science, encompassing all that they considered to be psychological. As such, structural psychology was a system of psychology.

However, other scientists in Germany, contemporary with Wundt and Titchener, responded to the same forces of Zeitgeist and wrote on psychology (Ewald Hering, Georg Elias Müller, Herman Ebinghaus, Ernst Mach). They wrote as individuals, though, not as system builders. Within the limits of natural science approach to psychology, they rejected the extremism of Wundt (Germany) and Titchener (the United States), both in the terms of the substance and the methodology of structuralism. These scientists were experimentalists in the sense that they were guided in their progress not by the framework of a preconceived system, as were Wundt and Titchener, but rather by the results and implications of their laboratory studies.

Titchener did not succeed in separating the applied from the scientific in psychology, even though he spoke with passion and conviction on this topic. He was sufficiently effective in such presentations that Sigmund Freud considered Titchener "the adversary" following his speech at Clark University in 1909 when psychoanalysts were first introduced into America. Equally, Titchener's theoretical model of mental processes failed to account for the rich diversity of the activities and products of the human mind. Nevertheless, Titchener's work firmly set the stage for psychology to be treated as a scientific enterprise, using the scientific method of laboratory experiments to obtain data.


Titchener's writings are characterized as scholarly and systematic, almost encyclopedic in their scope. He would not admit applied aspects of psychology, and so he removed himself from the mainstream of American psychology that was eagerly studying such topics as child psychology, abnormal psychology, and animal psychology. Titchener was solely concerned with the experimental analysis of the normal adult human mind, not with individual differences. Until the end of his earthly life, Titchener remained a European scientist, more exactly, a British naturalist and a German empiricist.


  • Titchener, E.B. 2005 (original 1896). An Outline of Psychology. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1402177461
  • Titchener, E.B. 1903 (original 1898). A Primer of Psychology. Macmillan & Co.
  • Titchener, E.B. 1901. Experimental Psychology.
  • Titchener, E.B. 1973 (original 1908). Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention. Ayer Co Pub. ISBN 0405051662
  • Titchener, E.B. 1909. Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes. Arno Press; Reprint edition. ISBN 0405051670
  • Titchener, E.B. 1910. A Textbook of Psychology. New York: Macmillan.
  • Titchener, E.B. 2005 (original 1915). A Beginner's Psychology. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1402185146
  • Titchener, E.B. 1972 (original 1929). Systematic psychology: Prolegomena. Cornell Univ+press. ISBN 0801491320


  • Titchener, E.B. 1898. "The postulate of structural psychology" in Philosophical Review. No.7, 449-465.
  • Titchener, E.B. 1899. "Structural and functional psychology" in Philosophical Review. No.8, 290-299.
  • Titchener, E.B. 1925. "Experimental psychology: A retrospect" in American Journal of Psychology. No.36, 313-323.

Titchener also translated several works of his colleagues, including Oswald Külpe's Outlines of Psychology.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boring, E.G. 1977 (original 1950). A history of experimental psychology. Irvington Pub. ISBN 0891979336
  • Boring, E.G. 1927. "Edward Bradfors Titchener" in American Journal of Psychology. No.38., 489-506.
  • Brennan, J.F. 1982. History and systems of psychology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Evans, R.B. 1972. "E.B. Titchener and his lost system" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No.8, 168-180.
  • Evans, R.B. 1975. "The origins of Titchener's doctrine of meaning" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No.7, 23-28.
  • Henle, M. 1971. "Did Titchener commit the stimuli error? The problem of meaning in structural psychology" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No.7, 279-282.
  • Henle, M. 1974. "E. B. Titchener and the case of the missing element: The problem of meaning in structural psychology" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No.10, 227-237.
  • Hindeland, M.J. 1971. "Edward Bradford Titchener: A pioneer in perception" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No.8, 168-180.
  • Pillsbury, W.B. 1928. "The psychology of Edward Bradford Titchener" in Philosophical Review No.37, 104-131.
  • Woodworth, R.S. 1906. "Imageless thought." In The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. No.3, 701-708.


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