The Study of Consciousness

Psychology Theorists, Preferred Methods, and Criticisms

The post below spotlights my essay response to one of three questions posed in my History & Systems of Psychology final. I completed the doctoral class in late July 2020 and will be sharing my essay responses to the other two final questions in future posts.


Psychology started as the study of consciousness. Each theorist had a different definition and preferred methods. How do these theories conceptualize consciousness? What were their preferred methods? List one criticism of each.


Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

During the mid-19th century, the observation of consciousness was one not viewed as a serious scientific activity (Danziger, 1980b, p. 243); a Kantian-inspired way of thinking, which centered around the notion that the mind could not be subjected to quantification and experimentation (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010, p. 50) had influenced the psychological landscape of the time. However, Wundt’s founding of experimental psychology — a hybrid form of science combining experimental physiology and psychological introspection in 1879 (p. 50) — presented an entire realm of counter possibilities.

Thus, experimental psychology, where consciousness would and/or could be observed and its contents organized into higher-level thought processes, was born. 

This belief that consciousness could be “broken down” into individual elements, much like a chemist dissects the compounds of a formula, was also referred to as “voluntaristic psychology” (Tweney, 1987, p. 37). As a result of these efforts to catalog the contents of the mind, Wundt became a key figure in establishing the science of psychology (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010, p. 51).

To derive at a scientific psychology of consciousness, Wundt believed it would be necessary to manipulate “the conditions of internal perception so that they approximated the conditions of external perception” (Danziger, 1980b, p. 245). This manipulation, according to Wundt, was to be accomplished in the psychological experiment, and it was this goal that gave to the experiments their specific form and their characteristic (p. 245).

Wundt’s rigorous approach towards experimental psychology and, therefore, observing consciousness and its “speed of thought,” included the meticulous use of measurement instruments, including chronoscopes, chronometers, and stopwatches (Benschop & Draaisma, 2000). Each of these chronometrical instruments and their peripherals, including batteries for the chronoscopes, resistors, electromagnets, telegraph keys, wires, switches, were used to measure reaction times (p. 4).

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

In stark contrast to the constant observations, endless measurements, and ongoing reporting Wundt’s experimental psychology steadfastly demanded, Freud’s view of psychology — with psychoanalysis at its center — superseded the bounds of psychology and stemmed “into the social realm” (Stea, 2012, p. 182). Given Wundt’s ardent adherence to scientific principles of quantification and experimentation, he would perhaps be one of those psychologists Hornstein (1992) describes as one of many who outright rejected “the sort of radical subjectivity” that psychologists had dubbed as unscientific (p. 254). Wundt would not be alone in such thinkings; American psychologist John Broadus Watson attacked “the ‘mystical’ new psychology of Freud” as unscientific in his 1924 book, Behaviorism (Watson, 2017; Crowther-Heyck, 1999, p. 39).

Moreover, because Freud and other psychoanalysts believed science had nothing to do with method and that psychologists who spent time controlling variables, counting things, and carrying around bulky charts were seemingly superficial (p. 255), they were often accused of “brazenly trying to supplant the new psychology at the moment of its greatest promise” (p. 254). Freud and psychoanalysis counterparts, instead, believed that what made something scientific was simply if it was true (p. 255). Therefore, constructing a science of the mind was more about surpassing consciousness to “peer through the watery murk” of one’s subconscious (p. 255).

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology, which Pickren and Rutherford (2010) indicate was born (or revived) within “a kaleidoscopic interdisciplinary milieu” (p. 310), appears to blend numerous schools of psychological thought, including the best of Wundt (a scientific psychology where the mind can be subjected to quantifications and experimentations) and Freud (psychoanalysis and “the talking cure,” which involve human reasoning, problem-solving, memory, and more). In addition to the above, cognitive psychology is also concerned with the neurological substrates of various processes, including human reasoning, problem-solving, memory, cognitive development, and language acquisition (p. 310) as well as “the ideas and thoughts that people hold, including both the forms and the contents of their consciousness” (Sampson, 1981, p. 731).

Regarding consciousness within the context of cognitive psychology, Sampson (1981) posits:

Consciousness and thinking reflect something about the subject’s perception and experience; yet they also reflect something about the objective world within which that individual works and lives. To understand cognition therefore requires that we grasp both subject and object (p. 732).

To these ideas, Sampson adds that human thoughts are more centered around the idea of “we think” versus “I think” because our thoughts are inspired or derived from our social interactions or cultural experiences within our external environments, a sentiment echoed and detailed in length by Gergen (2010) who saliently claims that the brain” primarily functions in the service of cultural process” (p. 1).


All theorists and schools of thought, despite their globally-groundbreaking ideas and expansive contributions to P/psychology, however, have their criticisms.

In terms of Wundt, his efforts to break down the contents of the conscious mind were clearly impactful and revolutionary in terms of birthing scientific psychology. Yet Wundt’s hearty and reductionist emphasis on recording excruciatingly meticulous measurements of consciousness limits the holistic and collective whole of the human mind. As Freud and other psychoanalysts believed, the study of the mind shouldn’t be limited to rote testing outcomes of experiment after experiment within laboratories; rather it should also encompass the depth and impact of one’s subconscious. Paradoxically, however, while Freud’s focus of the subconscious (including dreams) seems both appropriate and needed, much of his theories and ideas cannot pass the test of empiricism, which appears to be a focal point of scientific psychology.

Lastly, in terms of criticism in the realm of cognitive psychology, the hyper-focus on the neurological origins of everything has seemingly resulted in a modern take of the old mind-brain problem from which psychological thought and theory was first born. Pickren and Rutherford (2010) expand on this idea, explaining that cognitive neuroscience has given rise to a new band of philosophers who’ve been weighing in on the mind–brain problem in relation to “the problem of the embodiment of mind, the nature of consciousness, the limits in our ability to account for it, and many other vexing questions” (p. 329). Despite the major advancements of technological tools and techniques for investigating consciousness, it’s clear that cognitive psychology has reignited the same challenges which first sparked intense debates about the nature of consciousness, and how to best account for it, from centuries long ago.

Thus, it would seem that for all its insightfulness and bountiful contribution, cognitive psychology has helped bring us full circle from where we first started; back to when Descartes was attempting to address and decipher the mind-brain problem as far back as the mid 14000s. As such, how much have we really moved the needle forward, I often wonder.



Benschop, R., Draaisma, D. (2000) In Pursuit of Precision: The Calibration of Minds and Machines in Late Nineteenth-century Psychology, Annals of Science, 57:1, 1-25, doi: 10.1080/000337900296281.

Crowther-Heyck, H. (1999). George A. Miller, language, and the computer metaphor and mind. History of Psychology, 2(1), 37-64. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.2.1.37.

Danziger, K. (1980b). The history of introspection reconsidered. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 16(3), 241-262.

Gergen, K. J. (2010). The acculturated brain. Theory & Psychology, 20(6), 795-816.

Pickren, W., Rutherford, A. (2010). A history of modern psychology in context.  Wiley & Sons.

Sampson, E. E. (1981). Cognitive psychology as ideology. American psychologist, 36(7), 730.

Stea, J. N. (2012). Freud’s Conceptualization of the Social World: Psychology Recapitulating Sociology or Sociology Recapitulating Psychology?. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 8(1), 182-202.

Tweney, R. D. (1987). Programmatic research in experimental psychology: EB Titchener’s laboratory investigations, 1891-1927.

Watson, J. B. (2017). Behaviorism. Routledge.


Photo credits

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

Please share any questions or feedback in the comments below.

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson


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