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William James’ Personal Copy of Wilhelm Wundt’s Vorlesungen Uber Die Menschen- Und Tierseele – Book of the Month

By Chp

- Contributed by Franklin Fitch.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832- 1920) and William James (1842 – 1910) are considered by many to be two of the most central figures in the establishment of experimental psychology. Both saw the discipline through its early stages as it branched off from the philosophical discourse of the time and became a field of its own. Both  established psychology labs during the very same year. These labs were the first of their kind, focused on the measurement and analysis of sensation, perception, and introspection. The historical narratives of these two early psychologists were have been intertwined, due both to their historical proximity to one another and the role each filled in building the foundation of a discipline that was new in name, but had in truth existed for thousands of years. Wundt founded the first official laboratory and institute for psychology in Germany. James is said to have taught the first psychology course in the United States and published one of the first American textbooks in the field. Both laid the groundwork for a field of science that now spans the globe. Taking all that into account, the text at hand becomes particularly significant. Housed within the Cummings Center’s collection is this particularly spectacular artifact, one that establishes a material link between these two giants of modern thought.

William James’ Personal Copy of Wilhelm Wundt’s Vorlesungen uber die Menschen- und Tierseele – Book of the Month

front cover of Wundt book

The book is a first edition copy of Wilhelm Wundt’s Vorlesungen uber die Menschen- und Tierseele which translates to “Lectures about Human and Animal Psychology.” Wundt is recognized as a  of experimental and comparative psychology.

spine of Wundt book

spine of Wundt book

The artifact itself is beautiful; the pages are thick and smell of years past (and are in good shape, all things considered). The interior portion of the binding is covered in a web of red and blue ink the likes of which I have never seen. It’s a wonderful example of turn of the 20th century craftsmanship and attention to detail.

inside front cover of Wundt book

inside front cover of Wundt book

Aesthetics aside, this copy has something that makes it extremely special. This particular copy belonged to William James himself!

William James' signature with date from first pages of Wundt book

William James’ signature with date from first pages of Wundt book

One can almost feel the weight of history when turning through the pages. On the back page, there is a list of annotations written by James. The staggering significance of the piece shines through when you flip to one of the pages mentioned in James’ personal index.

index of annotations in William James' handwriting

index of annotations in William James’ handwriting

For example, on page 136 James has written a paragraph worth of reaction to Wundt’s ideas. He notes, “… from the entire mass of comparative measurements absolute norms emerge.”

James' annotations of Wundt book, pages 136-137

James’ annotations of Wundt book, pages 136-137 (click to enlarge)

I feel honored to have the privilege of examining and commenting on this text. I can think of few artifacts that have such a personal and historical significance to the field of psychology. One founder of the field commenting on the work of another. This unique text, housed in the Cumming’s Center collection, serves as a tangible record of their interaction with each other. While the text is in many ways in remarkable condition, the pages are separating significantly from the binding. As always, your donations help preserve artifacts just like this one!

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