The History of Psychology
- Marisa Alexander
The development of psychology took place in eras. The contributors of a period provide the next necessary step for improvement of new philosophies sometime discarding all or part of the previous to provide a new perspective. This essay will explore the major contributors from the ancient Greeks to more modern times and demonstrate the improvement over time to where psychology is seen as a science.
Between 470-322BCE rose three major philosophers that played a pivotal role shaping western philosophical thinking. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the foundation of what psychology as a science is today. They were switching from using mysticism or mythology to understand their world to experience and scientific inquiry. Socrates used the power of reasoning and was the first to use a scientific approach to psychology that focused on various causes of behaviour (Hergenhahn, 2009). His student Plato followed in his footsteps. Plato believed that ideas were innate and the brain is the mechanism of mental processes. His innate ideas were denied by Aristotle who suggested that the heart was the mechanism of mental processes. He proposed that emotions emphasized thoughts and behaviour and cause selective perception in the environment.Their philosophy flourished in that period and even after Athens defeat.
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The Greek city-state was defeated by Sparta (431-404 B.C) which caused the collapse of Athens. The Romans invaded the Greek territory and there was a need for a philosophy that can address the instabilities and ills of this era. To address this issue the Romans focused on helping individuals live a good life. Philosophies such as stoicism, skepticism, Epicureanism and Neo-Platonism emerged. These philosophies were involved in the transition from philosophy to Christianity. There were various conflicting versions of Christianity so to eliminate this issue Constanine placed the responsibility on bishops to arrive at a single set of documents to govern Christian communities. Through this in C. 380 Christianity became the approved religion in Rome by Theodosius I. there were some aspects in philosophy that were useful to Christianity and was incorporated along with Judaism into the religion by Augustine.
Augustine’s work fell into the medieval period; this period marked the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance period (approx. CE 400 – CE1300). It was a period of rebirth and a transition from being God centred to being more human centred (Hergenhahn, 2009). Having an open mind was one of the requirements of this time. Ushering in this period was the devastating epidemic the Black Death which killed approximately one-third of Europe. This changed Europe social and economic situation drastically for the worse. Frustration caused Europe to seek comfort in Christianity. It was a time when the Roman Catholic Church was the authoritative figure in all aspects of Europe’s life. The renaissance period was a difficult time for the church as it was threatened by the loss of its powers on the state. This made way for the emergence of leaders to govern the state without the church. Other factors threatened the authority such as the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gettenburg (1445). The invention meant that literature would be easily accessible and not just owned by the elite. It also meant that they would not have to rely on the interpretations of the priest but they can read and interpret for themselves.
The period steered way for new philosophies that would: belief in individual potential, see religion as more personal and less institutionalized, show an intense interest in the classics, and have a negative attitude toward Aristotle’s philosophy (Hergenhahn, 2009). Bacon, Descartes and Galileo work emerged around C.1610 which created a scientific revolution in psychology. Bacon was an empiricist whose vision for sciences was to be able to solve human problems. He focused on inductive reasoning which dealt with facts that can be observed. Descartes on the other hand, was a rationalist who saw the mind and body as two separate entities. The body is observable and measurable. In contrast, the mind is not directly observable. He also stated that ideas were innate and they are experienced with such precision and uniqueness that they need to be accepted as true. Galileo explored the laws that governed the physical world. He tried to apply the laws of the universe in understanding human thought and behavior through deductive reasoning which deals with predicting an event from general principle. So based on the laws he concluded that psychology was impossible to predict because of the subjective nature of human thought (Hergenhahn, 2009).
Locke was an empiricist who opposed Descartes philosophy of innate idea (King, Viney & Woody, 2009). In 1690 Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding which defended empiricism and concerned itself with determining the boundaries of human understanding in respect to a wide variety of topics (Uzgalis, 2001). Locke thought that if all humans had innate ideas as Descartes stated, then all humans should possess these ideas and since they do not, then Descartes’ philosophy of it is not true. He believed that our minds were like a blank paper or slates at birth and through sensory experiences it would be furnished with the necessary ideas.
In 1808 Gall had a different perspective for understanding human behavior. He believed that faculties (personality and intelligence traits) were stored in specific parts of the brain (King et al, 2009). The shape and size of a person’s skill he believed was a good indication for presents or absence of personality and intelligence traits. While Gall focused on physical features Weber was concerned with sensations. Weber was the first to quantify perceived differences between a physical stimulus and sensation, his work entailed experiments what looked at just noticeable differences between stimuli. Just noticeable difference is the standard detectable difference between the standard and the comparison weight. He published his research on The Sense of Touch in 1834.
Another approach surfaced called evolutionary psychology and was pioneered by Charles Darwin. In his publication of the Origin of Species (1859) it explains that we develop behaviors and cognitive abilities to adapt to our environment for our survival (Houck 1999). Twenty years later there was a new discovery by Wilhelm Wundt, he was the first to establish a lab for studying psychology in 1879 and used introspection to collect information. He conducted experiments examining the physical on the psyche and agreed with Darwin’s concept on the importance of adaptation (Kim, 2006). In his research he recognized the need for scholarly journals but his new research did not fit with the established physiology or philosophy journals (King et al, 2009). So in 1881 he published the first issue of Psychological Studies.
Wundt and Titchener dominated the introspective self-observation approach when Ebbinghaus began his research on human memory. Ebbinghaus was systematic and cautious in his approach to the study of memory; this changed the standard by confirming that higher cognitive processes could also be studied scientifically. His method moved the study of memory out of philosophy and into the domain of empirical science. His study showed that memorizing meaningless is more difficult that memorizing meaningful ones, an increase in the amount of material increases the amount of time it takes to learn it, relearning is easier that initial learning and forgetting takes longer after relearning (Plunker 2013). He then discovered that forgetting happens rapidly right after learning occurs and slows down over time.He published his findings in 1885 Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.
Hall was a functionalist and influential in launching psychology as a science and in its development as a profession. Just as Ebbinghaus, Stanley used scientific methods in conducting his experiments; his is famous for work on child development, especially adolescence (King et al, 2009). Hall spearheaded the scientific approaches in the field of psychology. In 1887 he launched theAmerican Journal of Psychology (APA), and in 1892 he organised the American Psychological Association and held the position as its first president (Perry, 2006). Calkins was the fourteenth (14th) president of APA in 1905; she did her dissertation and was refused her doctorate from Harvard University even though she met the requirements.
Thorndike was a behaviourist which is a branch of psychology dealing with objective experimental approach and learning behaviours. His theory focused on connections created in the mind between environmental stimuli and the organism’s response, where as previous theorists focused on connections between ideas. In 1898 An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals was his thesis he wrote on his experiments conducted on animals (Wozniak, n.d). Apart from Thorndike, there are other behaviourist who influenced psychology with their works, there are Watson, Skinner and Pavlov. Watson published a piece in 1913 on Psychology as the Behaviourist Views where he discussed his position on behaviourism and the theoretical goal to predict and control behaviour. He stated that itshould onlybe about things we can directly observe, that is, the relationship between the environment and the behaviour of the organism (Watson, 1913). Skinner dealt with modifying behaviour through reinforcement and punishment. He did experiments with animals and published his work as The Behaviour of Organisms in 1938. Then there was Pavlov who published his work on Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes in 1928 which dealt with finding from his experiment he discovered though observing a pattern. He noticed that the dog was conditioned to have a reflex action; this pattern was not the real intention of his experiment. This he called classical conditioning.
A different perspective of psychology emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century that focused on the unconscious part of the mind. This was developed by Freud, who stated that there are events or things that the mind cannot deal with that is stored in the unconscious. Also there are structures that make up our personality such as the id, ego and superego and the each have a responsibility. He also proposed developmental stages which has a connection to sexuality or erogenous zones. Apart from this he stated that unconscious thought or issues manifested in dreams. Freud published Interpretations of Dreams in 1900 to describe his work on the subject. Freud had followers of his approach such as Alfred Alder, Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, and his daughter Anna Freud. They all went on to depart from his theory and develop their own using his foundation.
Another perspective to understanding human behaviour is Gestalt. This movement in psychology was launched by Wertheimer in 1905 and opposite to behavioural perspective that viewed the parts or saw thing on a molecular level; this approach was more on a molar (holistic) level. It represents a more cognitive aspect in psychology since the focus is on perception and the forming of self-organizing tendencies which provide insight through an overall view. There were other theorist that followed this movement such as Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka who worked with Wertheimer. Humanistic is similar to gestalt but they extend their focus from a more perceptual consciousness to cover the organism’s entire state of being. Behaviour should be understood from a subjective perspective (individual experience) and it is not dependent on the past. Instead the individual is allowed to make their own choices or choose their own part. Rogers published the theory as it relates to counselling in 1942 in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
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The Latest great contribution to psychology was the publishing of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). This was published in 2013 and contained a classification system for diagnosing mental disorders. In the previous years there was one revision and many four (4) editions of the same book. The first edition of this book was published in 1952 and ever since then as became the bible of mental disorders and useful providing valuable information on the matter.
In conclusion it was necessary for the development of psychology to be a science for it to go through the rigorous changes in time. There were many instances for the theorists living in that time to adopt the changes and integrate them into their theories. As previously mentioned there were a lot of building of this approach for ancient Greek from philosophy with many other hard sciences such as physics, physiology add to it throughout the years to be developed to what it is today.
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Parry, M. (2006). G. Stanley Hall: Psychologist And Early Gerontologist. American Journal of Public Health, 96(7), 1161-1161.
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