Psychology Degree Guide: the History of Psychology
Our modern science of psychology is a relatively young discipline. The term only dates to the 18th Century, and modern psychology is a 19th Century area of study, having grown out of the preexisting study of philosophy of mind. In our history of psychology, we trace the roots of modern psychology from ancient Greece forward to the present day for students and other non-professionals.
Precursors to the Discipline
Philosophers of mind in the Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese philosophical traditions all developed rival theories as to what mind is, how it is developed, and how it correlates to the surrounding world. Plato offers one of the earliest accounts in this regard.
Philosophy of mind was a principal concern of scholars during the Golden Age of Islam. Drawing on Platonic and Aristotelian concepts, thinkers like Avicenna elaborated the philosophy of mind and applied it to the medical practices being revolutionized throughout the Islamic world. Early forms of psychotherapy were applied, and psychiatric hospitals were opened.
The term “psychologia” was first document in the 16th Century. It remained an obscure term, rarely used, for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until the 1730s, when Christian Wolff published his Psychologia Empiria and Psychologia Rationalis (translated as “empirical psychology” and “rational psychology”), that the term “psychology” entered into the vocabulary of the European academic world. It remained, however, very much within the purview of philosophy of mind. But many of the philosophers of the 17th and early 18th Centuries who studied this area became very influential on later scientific psychology: René Descartes, David Hume, Baruch de Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz among them.
Psychology as a New Science
As the Enlightenment gained steam in the 18th Century, psychology progressed as a discipline. Informed by a fast-developing system of rational inquiry and a new empirical awareness of neurobiology, schools of experimental psychology developed throughout the West, especially in Germany. 19th Century pioneers like experimental psychologist Carl Stumpf and father of sexuality studies Richard von Krafft-Ebing applied the empirical method to the innermost workings of the human mind.
The late 19th Century saw the full emergence of modern psychology. In Austria, Sigmund Freud and his disciples were inaugurating the field of psychoanalysis, uncovering the unconscious drives that they believed to lurk behind all human interaction. Meanwhile in the United States, the pragmatist school of American philosophy and psychology was developing “structuralist” and “functionalist” approaches to explain the human mind, the first being a study of the basic structures of mind and the second being a study of the mind as shaped by environment.
The major innovator of the time was Freud. In the Freudian model, the subconscious (id) is as important as the ego, and the sexual drive (eros) as important as the death drive (thanatos). The inner drives of the human mind, having been set during childhood, can be revealed via a process of psychoanalysis. This has been elaborated by some of the most noteworthy psychologists of the 20th Century, among them his daughter Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Jacques Lacan, Melanie Klein, Jean Piaget, and Carl Rogers. Especially in Europe, this has been a dominant psychological perspective.
In the United States, psychologists largely rejected the Freudian/analytic model, favoring a more explicitly “scientific” perspective. Behaviorism was a major current at the time, perceiving the human mind as a set of learned behaviors. Largely under the leadership of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorists viewed the human mind as an anatomical organ above all else. In the ’60s, behaviorism fell out of fashion, and became perceived by most of the psychological community as a flawed, reductionist model. After the innovations of the linguist Noam Chomsky, a new “cognitivism” came into vogue, perceiving the mind as an evolved and evolving metaphysical entity. This paved the way for the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic technique in which the patient consciously alters his or her mindsets and behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapists generally have a minimum of interest in Freudian drives and childhood trauma.
We’ve linked to general resources dealing with the history of psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy from ancient times to our present century.
- The Forum for the History of Human Science is an organization dedicated to tracing the history of human knowledge.
- Cheiron is another organization studying the development of psychology and other social sciences.
- Classics in the History of Psychology is a portal on classic texts hosted by York University in Toronto.
- Christopher Green hosts the podcast “This Week in the History of Psychology.”
- The Archives of the History of American Psychology preserves the development of American psychology from William James forward through Skinner, Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Aaron Beck.
- The International Psychoanalytic Association is the main organization of psychologists working in the Freudian vein today.
- The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies favors a less Freudian approach and promotes cognitive behavioral therapy, the main approach used by American psychotherapists today.