Würzburg School: what it is, origin and contributions to psychology

One of the most important schools of psychology in the history of this science is the Würzburg school.

In this article, we will do a historical review to better understand how this meeting place was born between important psychologists and what were their most important contributions to the advancement of the discipline.

    What is the Würzburg school?

    Throughout the history of psychology, different movements have emerged that have led to the development of different currents and methodologies, enriching this young science. One of the most famous is the Würzburg School, so named after it originated at the University of Würzburg in Germany. Its course covers the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

    What could be considered the founder of the Würzburg school would be Oswald Külpe, who was a pupil of Wilhelm Wundt himself, The father of experimental psychology, because he created what was the first laboratory for the study of this discipline. Külpe continued Wundt’s work and shaped the experimental methodology, crystallizing in what would become the Würzburg School.

    However, although Külpe and Wundt began to share a line of thought and the use of experimental methodology, they would eventually distance themselves, as Oswald Külpe began to differ on several issues from his mentor. For example, he was not convinced by the concept of psychic causation, nor by the separation established by Wilhelm Wundt between psychic phenomena of higher type and lower type.

    Finally, I also disagree with certain assessments of the mental content because Külpe argued that they do not necessarily always have to be representative and aware, Since part of his work is devoted to trying to show that many times these contents do not meet these characteristics.

    All these divergences ultimately led Külpe to separate his line of work from that of his former teacher, laying the foundations for the creation of the Würzburg school, to which various researchers gradually joined with their ideas and works this new place of psychological knowledge.

      Theoretical and experimental proposals

      These are the main contributions of the Würzburg School to the world of early research in psychology.


      Unlike Wundt, who we have already seen advocating the study of higher processes, Külpe and the Würzburg school opt for study reflection through experimental introspection. Therefore, much of the methodology of this school is based on self-assessments, a wide range of questionnaires where subjects participating in the studies are to reflect the thoughts they have had throughout the test.

      These self-reports should be applied after the task, so that the subject has time to think about them in depth and thus collect and capture rich information that will be very useful for researchers.

      Wundt, on the other hand, collected the information during the performance of the task, so it did not lead to that further thought, key to good treatment by volunteers. This is the key to the beginning of what the introspective method would be.

      Thought without images

      The Würzburg school too saw the birth of other interesting concepts, such as thought without images. Külpe argued that there must be objective thinking, independent of the images themselves, that is, a person could recognize a stimulus without necessarily evoking the image of that element. To start testing this theory, he experimented with a group of volunteers, offering to visualize a series of colors while in total darkness.

      Külpe had many philosophical influences in his training, which prompted him to continue studying the theory of thought without images, because he was sure that certain elements of thought, the most basic mental processes, bear no imageContrary to what Wundt posed, who asserted that thought could not exist without images. To prove their thesis, the Würzburg school used the introspective method we have seen before.


      Following the line of new concepts studied at the Würzburg School, we come to abstraction, another of the valuable contributions of this group of authors. This is a thought phenomenon whereby an individual focuses his attention on specific elements, In such a way that all the others are ignored, as if they did not exist.

      One of the most famous experiments used by Oswald Külpe to demonstrate the existence of the abstraction process was to have them visualize a number of subjects of different stimuli, including letters, numbers, numbers and colors, but asking them to fix them on only one of them (what the researcher proposed in each test). With each trial, participants were able to remember the details of the suggested stimuli, but not the rest, so that they were effectively ignored.

      Outraged, if the range of stimuli to be observed was widened, the awareness of each specific stimulus gradually diminished., Which allowed him to conclude that the energy that we can devote to the attentional process has a limit, and the more elements there are involved, the less the performance we will have towards each of them individually, because the attention is divided among them all.

      Think vs think

      Another of the distinctions made at the Würzburg school is between the act of thinking and the thoughts themselves, so that on the one hand we have the mental processes, which would be functions or acts, and of on the other hand there would be the thoughts, it would be the content, associated, these yeses, with mental images.

      For Külpe, thought processes are unlikely to be consciously analyzed, And also have great instability. The only way to know them is therefore after the event that triggered them, through the introspection of the subject, through the self-declarations that we had already mentioned above. On the opposite side would be the thoughts, which are indeed stable and descriptive.

      mental sets

      Other experiments carried out at the Würzburg school allowed the authors to continue to draw interesting conclusions in the context of the study of human thought. In this case, they discovered that, contrary to the theories of associationism, in reality what the subjects used to connect the concepts were the mental sets.

      Therefore, participants were asked to think of a category that could relate to them by showing them a series of concepts, and they always tended to group them into a higher category, rather than combining them using an equivalent concept. . For example, when showing them a bird, they were more likely to use the animal category before naming a particular bird species.


      Wundt, a former Külpe teacher, was one of the most critical writers with some of the Würzburg School’s contributions. For example, regarding the introspective process, Wundt claimed that it is really complicated for the subject to be able to carry out the thought processes necessary for the task and at the same time reflect on these processes in order to translate them into himself. – report, because both exercises require total attention on the part of the individual. for that concludes that these investigations which give rise to the concepts of thought without images should not be considered valid.

      Moreover, another important author, such as Titchener, also a follower of Wundt, joins him in this conclusion, because he agrees with his criticism and considers that one cannot speak of thought without images in these cases.

      Another important criticism that Wilhelm Wundt makes about the Würzburg school concerns the methodology used., And does Wundt assure that in the experiments carried out in this school, no measures are taken to ensure a control experimental correct. There was no way to replicate the experiments, as the processes were unique to each subject and each particular essay, which did not result in a repeat, severely limiting the scope of their conclusions.

      Wundt explains that in the process proposed by the Würzburg school, the observer, instead of being the research psychologist, is the subject of the experience, who is also affected by a task that does not wait (he do not know what to ask), which is already biased the observation of thought processes.


      Although the Würzburg school received criticism from Wundt and other authors more in favor of other experimental currents, it is undeniable that this institution has conducted important studies which have contributed to the advancement and growth of psychology, Promote the progressive growth of this science and lay the foundations for new trends that have arrived in the years to come, so that it becomes a key school for the evolution of our discipline.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Lindenfeld, D. (1978). Oswald Külpe and the Würzburg school. Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences.
      • Ogden, RM (1951). Oswald Külpe and the Würzburg school. The American Journal of Psychology.
      • Roca, DS, Sáiz, M. (1993). O. Külpe and the Würzburg school. History of psychology: texts and comments.

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