Hugo Münsterberg was born to a Jewish family in Danzig, Germany, in 1863. Since 1897, he taught and researched permanently in the United States. In particular, he built up the experimental psychology department at Harvard University by which he acquired and enjoyed an excellent reputation in the U.S., and internationally. William James had invited him to Harvard.

His academic and scholarly roots lay in Leipzig where he registered at the Alma Mater Lipsiensis in the 1882/83 winter semester. He wrote his dissertation with Wilhelm Wundt in philosophy with a paper on Die Lehre von der natürlichen Anpassung (The theory of natural adaption) in 1885 at age 22 for which he was awarded his first doctoral degree in philosophy. Wundt is esteemed as the founder of experimental psychology in Europe while William James may be looked on as its founder in the United States.

Münsterberg was awarded a second doctoral degree: in medicine in 1887 at the University of Heidelberg with an experimental dissertation Über das Augenmass (On the eye measuring of proportion), and he was qualified as a university lecturer (Privatdozent) in 1888 at the University of Freiburg.

Hugo Münsterberg with his students and laboratory equipment around 1891 in Freiburg Source: Münsterberg, Margaret 1922, P. 26.

In 1916, he placed the first film theory on a sound scholarly basis. Unfortunately, this paper was hardly given a critical reception in the German-speaking world for eight decades because his book and essays on film were initially published in English in 1916 and then again in 1970. Only in 1996, they were translated into German by Jörg Schweinitz; Friedrich Kittler had rediscovered him in 1986, Peter Wuss had dedicated a ten-page chapter to him in 1990 (pp. 66-76), and Helmut H. Diederichs ranked him in the first class of the early (German) film theories and film theoreticians (1996/2001: 258).

In the U.S., his reception was much more intense, beginning in the 1970s, but also in “waves”, among other reasons due to his problematic public acting in the U.S. as a German-American in the context of World War I.

Philosophers at Harvard
(f.l.t.r.): George H. Palmer, Hugo Münsterberg, Josiah Royce and William James (sitting).
Source: (6.6.2014).

In 1987, Ian Jarvie evaluated Münsterberg’s approach in his “Philosophy of the Film”: “Solipsism is false and (…) the structures of the mind are the terminating point for the quest for things in themselves. (…) Hooked into genuine problems of the philosophical tradition, Munsterberg’s being intrigued by film was not slumming or casual, but intelectually serious: he saw there ways of approaching his major preoccupations” (Jarvie 1987:  72). Jarvie dedicated a whole  chapter of his “Philosophy of the Film” to Münsterberg, even more: his whole book refers to Münsterberg every now and then.  Jarvie characterised Münsterberg as the one and only philosopher who did not have to refer to any other philosopher on film before him, because he was the first one (cf. Jarvie 1987: pp. 69/70). He “addresses the central epistemological and ontological questions raised by film” (Ibid.: 70). Other authors who have written about Munsterberg (Fredrickson 1973; Andrew 1976; Wicclair 1978) have found him prescient and full of insight.

Film makes only a very small portion of Münsterberg’s scientific and experimental research work.

Münsterberg, Margaret (1922): Hugo Münsterberg: his life and work. New York [u.a.]: D. Appleton and Co.