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Münsterberg's Photoplays: Instruments and Models in his Laboratories at Freiburg and Harvard (1891-1893)


Henning Schmidgen

Hugo Münsterberg (1863 - 1916) is often quoted as a pioneer of applied psychology. He is also well-known for his philosophy of values, his early theory of the cinema (The Photoplay, 1916), and the fact that future writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), then a student at Radcliffe College, worked in his laboratory in the late 1890s. Less familiar is Münsterberg's role as a creative experimenter and energetic director of psychological laboratories - in Germany and the United States. In this role, Münsterberg contributed significantly to the transition from a cognitive and/or idealist "Physiological Psychology" in the sense of Wilhelm Wundt to the pragmatist and/or functional "Science of Mental Life" as advocated by William James and others.

This present essay argues that this transition was not only grounded in theory and epistemology but corresponded to significant changes in the material culture of Münsterberg's psychological laboratories. In order to reconstruct this materiality, the essay links early photographs of Münsterberg’s laboratories to trade catalogs, scientific publications, short biographies, and other holdings of the Virtual Laboratory. In addition, it connects these images to individual items (instruments, models) preserved in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University (go directly to the interactive photograph of the lab in Freiburg and at Harvard [first and second]).

Portrait of Hugo Münsterberg
Hugo Münsterberg (1863 - 1916)

Münsterberg's academic career started in 1885 when he completed his philosophy studies with Wundt at Leipzig University with a PhD thesis on the development, application and importance of the theory of natural adaptation. Two years later, he got his MD at Heidelberg University with a thesis on the visual perception of distances (published in vol. 2 of his Beiträge zur experimentellen Psychologie). In 1888, he received his Habilitation at Freiburg University with a philosophical study of the problem of voluntary actions. Shortly later, Münsterberg (now a Privatdocent at Freiburg's Philosophy Department) inaugurated a private psychological laboratory. It was located in his apartment and only loosely associated with the university. But along with Wundt's lab in Leipzig (founded in 1879) and the psychological laboratories of Georg Elias Müller in Göttingen (1880) and Götz Martius in Bonn (1888), Münsterberg's lab was one of the first of its kind in the German-speaking world.

Reference: Schmidgen, Henning. 2008. Münsterberg's Photoplays: Instruments and Models in his Laboratories at Freiburg and Harvard (1891-1893). The Virtual Laboratory (ISSN 1866-4784), http://vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/references?id=art71