Monday, February 28, 2011

The History of Psychology

The History of Psychology

The early traditions of psychology hoped to reconstruct society despite 17th and 18th century tradition, religious authority and doctrine with new reliance on reason and the rational understanding of human nature (Cahan & White, 1992). The goal of philosophers in the age of Enlightenment was to address contemporary philosophical questions from the new perspective of direct experimentation, and with rapidly increasing knowledge of the brain and nervous system, early psychologists began to develop new ways to study the human mind (Goodwin, 2008). A defining characteristic of this period was the newly acquired introspection that transpired according to the notion that when thoughts are turned toward the external world (of science,) at the same time thought will revert toward itself (Cahan & White, 1992). This became the pervasive environment during the early years of psychological discovery, and within the beginnings of the new science called psychology, came the perplexing study of the internal thought processes of the human mind (Goodwin, 2008).

Early Philosophers and the Beginnings of Psychology

Addressing the early roots of psychology is difficult without referring to Rene Descartes' contributions during the 17th century (Goodwin, 2008). Descartes was a brilliant thinker, philosopher, scientist, physiologist, and early psychologist (Goodwin, 2008). His mechanistic view of the human body inspired others of his time to further contemplate the human body and its relationship to the brain and the mind (Goodwin, 2008). His theory regarding the mind-body connection is still an ongoing discussion and has become an integral part of modern medicine. Another significant contribution and a fundamental step in early psychology was Descartes' discovery of reflexive action that incorporated a more accurate model of stimulus and response (Goodwin, 2008).

George Berkeley made significant strides in understanding vision and sensory processes as he addressed misconceptions of how perception in combination with experience played a major role in the way people see (Goodwin, 2008). According to E. J. Goodwin (2008), a recurring theme of Berkeley's work as well as one of the period was the idea that the world is viewed indirectly, rather than directly, as previously thought. Berkeley likewise posited humans see and judge material objects indirectly, and these judgments are based on perception (Goodwin, 2008). As Descartes declared, "I think, therefore, I am," Berkeley was addressing a similar line of thought that perception is a personal experience and people can only know that they are perceiving material objects without being definitively certain of their reality (Goodwin, 2008).

Major Philosophers' Contributions to Psychology

David Hume believed that the mind's basic elements were impressions and ideas for which he made a distinction that the former was a result of sensation and the latter was "faint copies of impressions" (Goodwin, 2008, p. 59). According to E. J. Goodwin (2008), in alignment with the zeitgeist that included the thoughts of Descartes, Berkeley, and others from the period, the discussion of reality versus its perception continues. David Hartley continued with Hume's associations made within the brain and mind between impressions and ideas (Goodwin, 2008). He created a new model of the nervous system that was based, in part, on Newton's theory of vibrational forces that communicated between various parts of the nervous system (Goodwin, 2008).

According to E. J. Goodwin (2008), John Stuart Mill, a leading 19th century British philosopher, lead thought to a new direction in a movement that separated him from the atomist view that the mind was purely mechanical. Mill observed the mind in a more holistic sense against the predominant backdrop of thought that the mind was of a purely mechanistic nature (Goodwin, 2008). He believed the complexities of the human mind were far greater than the sum of its parts (Goodwin, 2008). As a true proponent of the new science, in 1842 Mill argued vehemently for the inclusion of psychology in a list of the five sciences of the world from which the new science was initially omitted (Cahan & White, 1992). Because of his unyielding argument, the final list included psychology (Cahan & White, 1992).

Nineteenth Century Developments in the Science of Psychology

Developments during the 19th century continued at a frenetic pace that coincided with a deeper understanding of electricity as applied to brain and nervous system function and lead to understanding the electrochemical nature of nerve cells (Goodwin, 2008). Gall's early theory of localization of brain function, provoked further studies, although his original accomplishment known as phrenology was later debunked by the scientific community (Goodwin, 2008). Pierre Flourens used a technique called ablation in which he removed specific parts of animals' brains to falsify Gall's theory and discover their various and distinct functions (Goodwin, 2008). Magendie's discovery regarding the spinal cord's separate correspondence to sensations and motor responses provided a further anatomical basis for studying both sensation and movement in reflexive action (Goodwin, 2008). This discovery provided additional information regarding the spinal cord and its companion regions in the brain (Goodwin, 2008).

Helmholtz's discoveries of perception changed the current ideas of vision, and the case of Phineas Gage brought new understanding of the localization of brain function (Goodwin, 2008). Broca and Wernicke further defined the localization of speech function and language comprehension, and a debate raged between life's basic force and materialism's single reality called matter (Goodwin, 2008).


From the years that finalized the Renaissance period, there was a gradual change in people's regard and reliance on the single truth that came from the authority of the church to a greater belief that science and its methodical discoveries and intelligent reasoning might lead to a better understanding of the natural world (Goodwin, 2008). Brilliant scientists, philosophers, and later psychologists contributed innumerable resources that enabled the continued evolution of psychology (Goodwin, 2008). During the latter part of the 19th century psychology rapidly metamorphosed from philosophical theories of esoteric thoughts of the soul to a legitimate laboratory science of the human mind (Benjamin, Briant, Campbell, Luttrell, & Holtz, 1997). This new psychology aimed to present itself as a legitimate science without the historic accoutrements of metaphysics and the paranormal with which it had often been associated (Benjamin et al., 1997). John Stuart Mills' consideration of the relationship between the human mind and the sum of its parts is further reflected in a contemporary perspective that the new science of psychology became a far greater legacy than the sum of its many brilliant contributions.


Benjamin, L. T., Briant, W. H., Campbell, C., Luttrell, J., & Holtz, C. (1997). Between Psoriasis and Ptarmigan: American encyclopedia portrayals of psychology, 1880–1940. Review of General Psychology, 1(1), 5-18. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.1.1.5

Cahan, E. D., & White, S. H. (1992). Proposals for a second psychology. American Psychologist, 47(2), 224-235. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.224

Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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