History of Psychology

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History of Psychology

In this essay I am looking at where Psychology as a discipline has come from and what affects these early ideas have had on psychology today, Psychology as a whole has stemmed from a number of different areas of study from Physics to Biology,
But the first Psychological foundations are rooted in philosophy, which to this day propels psychological inquiry in areas such as language acquisition, consciousness, and even vision among many others.

While the great philosophical distinction between mind and body in western thought can be traced to the Greeks, it is to the influential work of René Descartes, French mathematician, philosopher, and physiologist, that we owe the first systematic account of the mind/body relationship. As the 19th century progressed, the problem of the relationship of mind to brain became ever more pressing.

The word Psychology comes from two Greek words: Psyche and Logos. The term ?psychology? used early on described the study of the spirit. It was in the 18th century when psychology gained its literal meaning: The study of behaviour. In studies today psychology is defined as the scientific and systematic study of human and animal behaviour. The term psychology has a long history but the psychology as an independent discipline is fairly new.

Psychology started, and had a long history, as a topic within the fields of philosophy and physiology. It then became an independent field of its own through the work of the German Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology and structuralism. Wundt stressed the use of scientific methods in psychology, particularly through the use of introspection. In 1875, a room was set-aside for Wundt for demonstrations in what we now call sensation and perception. This is the same year that William James set up a similar lab at Harvard. Wilhelm Wundt and William James are usually thought of as the fathers of psychology, as well as the founders of psychology?s first two great ?schools? Structuralism and Functionalism. Psychologist Edward B Titchner said; ?to study the brain and the unconscious we should break it into its structural elements, after that we can construct it into a whole and understand what it does.? (psicafe.com)
Functionalism, an early school of psychology, focuses on the acts and functions of the mind rather than its internal contents. Its most prominent American advocate is William James. William James is the author of ?The Principles of Psychology? a book that is considered to be one of the most important texts in modern psychology.

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?The subject matter of psychology is consciousness and it maybe understood in terms of what it is (structure), or in terms of what it does (function).? (Benjafield, 1996, p.123)

The psychodynamic approach focuses largely on the role of motivation and past experiences in the development of personality and behaviour. In 1986 the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, introduced the term in a scholarly paper. Freud's psychoanalytic approach suggests that people are motivated by powerful, unconscious drives and conflicts. The psychodynamic approach has been drawn from Freud?s psychoanalytic theories. Many of Freud?s insights into the human mind, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought.

Through his work with patients and through his theory building, he showed that factors which influence thought and action exist outside of awareness, that unconscious conflict plays a part in determining both normal and abnormal behaviour, and that the past influences the present. Freud?s text ?Interpretation of dreams? was published in 1900 was the first of 24 books that he would come to write and in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud both developed the argument that the unconscious exists, and described a method for gaining access to it.

But Freud was criticised for his lack of statistical data and the fact that he used a limited number of disturbed adults, who were what his research was based on, this was seen to be very unscientific.

Founded by John B Watson in 1915 the behaviourist approach studies observed behavioural responses of humans and animals. The behaviourist approach believes we learn to behave in response to our environment, either by stimulus-response association, or as a result of reinforcement.

Behaviourists focus on the influence of the environment, they chose not to be concerned with the internal mechanisms that occur inside the organism, they believe that your behaviour depends on what factors are present in the environment at any given time. Another big contributor to this approach is Ivan Pavlov who was made famous for conditioning in which he used dogs in an experiment.

?The behaviourist approach has been a dominant influence in psychology, it represents one of the ?hardcore? approaches, which has contributed a great deal to our understanding of psychological functioning ? (Malim & Birch, 1998)
a common criticism of this approach is that it does not address the possible role of biological factors in human behaviour. And also that it leaves no room for the free will of an individual.

In the wake of psychoanalysis and behaviourism, humanistic psychology emerges as the "third force" in psychology led by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. This approach came about just before the cognitive approach in 1954. This approach centres on the conscious mind, free will, human dignity, and the capacity for self-actualization. Humanistic psychologists emphasize the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny and they regard scientific methods as inappropriate for the study of humans. The main aim of psychology they believe is to help people to maximise their potential psychological growth. Maslow gave the humanistic approach his theory of self-actualisation as illustrated by his hierarchy of needs. Rogers extended Maslow?s work into the field of humanistic person-centred psychotherapy. This approach has been criticized, like psychoanalysis, because it is based mainly on case studies and interviews, which unlike experiments are not very scientific.

There is not one leading psychologist when it comes to the cognitive approach, founded in 1956, like the others. One thing that the cognitive psychologists have in common is an approach that stresses the importance of studying the mental processes. The cognitive approach studies our information processes of perception, attention, language, memory, and thinking, and how they influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It considers each, and their contribution to our ability to operate successfully in our world. The cognitive approach views us as active processors of information from our outside world, and we are not just passive learners, as behaviourists would have us believe. An early application of the cognitive approach was George A. Miller's 1956 article "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two?. The cognitive approach has been criticised because of its increased emphasis on the internal processes of learners, has strayed a bit too far from the importance of active learning.


I believe that the birth of psychology was an accident, I think someone asked a question that nobody had the answer to, which was link closely to philosophy but at the same time not quite, and more and more questions stemmed from the original one till some had to make an effort to find the answers. I believe this is where the psychological discipline originated from, the fact that there was a whole psychological world at the end of that question may have been just luck. Psychology as an independent discipline developed over the years with keen philosophers, biologists and physicists taking an interest in this new area of study and putting in their pennies worth, more and more questions arose over the years and new schools of psychology were formed looking at the discipline from different perspectives. From what started off as an idea (I guess) turned into one of the most interesting and sought after areas to study of all the social sciences.
Over the years psychologists from all the different ?schools? have collectively made psychology what it is today. If the last two centuries have brought psychology this far, where will psychology be in the 23rd century?


Benjafield, John G, (1996) ?A History of Psychology? MA:Simon & Schuster company

Malim, T & Birch, B (1998) ?Introductory Psychology?
Publisher: Palgrave, Houndmills, Basingstoke




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