Psychology Degree Guide: History of Psychology
Any discussion of the history of psychology must begin with an earnest consideration of where exactly such a history begins. In a loose sense, humankind has speculated about the nature of the mind and how it functions since the beginning of time. Some of the earliest records of humankind’s fascination with the workings of the mind date back to Ancient Egypt as well as the classical Greek and Roman era, and these surviving records are quite impressive for the depth of the knowledge they contain. Much of psychology’s modern progress can be traced back to these records of ancient thought.
Although psychology is rooted in the philosophical tradition of the ancients, it was not until the nineteenth century that psychology developed into a specific discipline, one that combined that ancient philosophical interest in human thought with a scientific approach to investigating the physiological processes of human thought. It is for this reason that many psychologists and psychology historians make a specific distinction between these two histories. Kurt Danzinger, a notable scholar in the field of the history of psychology, speaks specifically about this distinction, saying in an interview in 2006:
The history of psychology is intimately bound up with the existence of a professional class of psychologists, the existence of groups of specialists in psychology who employ specifically psychological practices and specifically psychological concepts in order to intervene in the world in some way. I therefore don’t feel comfortable with extending the history of psychology beyond the last 200 years, or perhaps 250 years, but no more.
The professional class of psychologists that Danzinger describes here perfectly combined both physiological and philosophical investigations, thus creating an entirely new discipline with a wide and varied history of progress through the past 200 years.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MODERN PSYCHOLOGY
As with many other large and complex fields of study, psychology has developed intensely over the past 200 years, progressing through various movements and schools of thought, many of which fractured or grew out of direct opposition to previous movements. The following is a general overview of some of these major developments within the discipline and the famous people and events responsible for that progress, and it is meant to be a brief description of the history of modern psychology.
Birth of the New Psychology
The New Psychology originated in the scientific laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), the German philosopher and psychologist responsible for establishing experimental psychology, which was quite a different approach to understanding the mind than the previously philosophical attitudes of earlier times. By creating a research laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879, Wundt helped European philosophers and scientists reconcile their different approaches to figuring out how the human mind works. Wundt, known as ‘the father of experimental psychology,’ is most famous for his applied use of introspection, a method of gathering information from research subjects regarding how their mind works under controlled test environments.
Perhaps the first organized movement of the New Psychology, structuralism has origins in Wundt’s laboratory though it wasn’t until Edward B. Titchener (1867-1923) traveled to the United States and coined the term ‘structuralism’ that the school of thought gained significant followers. Structuralism as a psychological approach required psychologists to break down mental processes into their primary components. The belief here was that by breaking down these processes, psychologists could better understand how the mind works, much like a scientists creates a taxonomy of basic elements. Structuralist psychologists used introspection as their primary method of ascertaining how a research subject’s mind worked.
Functionalism grew as a kind of reaction to the project of structuralism; rather than consider the parts of the mind, functionalist psychologists focused on the function or processes of the mind and how they operated based on a person’s environment. Popularized by such thinkers as William James (1842-1910), as well as scholars John Dewey (1859-1952), James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), and others at the University of Chicago, functionalism required psychologists to focus their work on how conscious experience functioned in the individual as an ever-changing process, one that rejected the subjectivity of introspection as a research method. Although functionalism never gained prominence as a formal school, despite being based in Chicago, it did lead to the founding of the behaviorist school of thought.
Growing out of both a rejection of structuralist psychology and a complaint about the lack of scientific rigor in functionalist psychology, behaviorism largely postulates that everything an organism does should be thought of as a behavior. Behaviorists, such as B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), believed that in order to understand behavior, there must be some observable process, whether that process is public, such as speaking aloud, or private, such as thinking. Behaviorists rejected the idea that theories such drive psychological study, and instead sought to look for objective and observable correlatives to psychological processes. Behaviorists sought to inject a new sort of scientific rigor into the study of the mind.
Created by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Gestalt psychology, German for ‘essence or shape of an entity’s complete form,’ an approach of the Berlin School of experiment psychology, headed by Wertheimer’s mentor Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), essentially shifted the approach of psychology to holistically consider the human mind as an entire form, rather than a product of a series of parts or processes or behaviors, as considered by previously schools. Gestalt methodology required that research consider overall phenomena rather than sensory qualities, and it also shifted research away from laboratories and into natural situations. However, Gestalt psychology was largely criticized as being merely a descriptive approach, rather than explanatory in nature.
Psychoanalysis, popularized by the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his students, originated as a way to explain human behavior and treat abnormal behavior. Freud posited that the much of human behavior consisted of a delicate balancing act between repressing unconscious desires and allowing those desires to surface. First developed by Freud in Vienna in the 1890s, psychoanalysis essentially works from a set of theories about human behavior and sought to find causes of this behavior, and to treat them if necessary. For this reason, critics of psychoanalysis often say that it is highly unreliable. Freud’s psychoanalytic work was continued by his students and colleagues, among them Carl Jung (1875-1961) and Otto Rank (1884-1939). Psychoanalysis persists today as a legitimate school of psychology.
Founded as a movement in the late 1950s by psychologists Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), Carl Rogers (1902-1987), and Clark Moustakas, humanistic psychology grew out of a desire to create a holistic and useful psychology that could help humans deal with the natures of their existences, as opposed to previous forms, such as psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which sought to explain certain behaviors and to understand them as strictly scientific processes. As such, humanistic psychology largely relies upon counseling and therapy, in which the psychologist lets his or her methods meet the patient’s needs as opposed to deriving an explanation from a theory of behavior or how the mind works. Humanistic psychologists are concerned with issues such as love, self-actualization, health and hope, creativity, becoming an individual, and other highly abstract concepts of the human experience, while downplaying the more scientific and objective view of the patient as a patient, or as pathological.
Cognitive psychology, originally coined by Ulric Neisser (b. 1928) in 1967, is a form of psychology that returns to the extremely scientific and empirical approach to understanding the human mind. It characterizes people as ‘dynamic information-processing systems’ whose brains can be thought of in computational terms. Cognition, according to Neisser, “refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used.” This school of thought also grew out of Noam Chomsky’s critique of behaviorist thinker B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Cognitive psychologists also place a lot of importance on language in their approaches to the mind, as that offers them the most basic method of understanding how human represent knowledge, emotions, and other mental processes.
For more information regarding the history of modern psychology, including events, important papers, and famous figures, please visit the following links.
History of Psychology Resources
- History of Psychology Archives at Muskingum College
- Archives of the History of American Psychology at The University of Akron
- Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier by Robert M. Young
- Mind and Body: René Descartes to William James by Robert H. Wozniak
- Classics in the History of Psychology, an electronic resource developed by Christopher D. Green
- History of Psychology, a resource compiled and maintained by Miriam E. Joseph
Famous Figures in Psychology
- Adler, Alfred
- Bettelheim, Bruno
- Binet, Alfred
- Brunswick, Egon
- Burt, Sir Cyril
- Calkins, Mary Whiton
- Cattel, James McKeen
- Charcot, Jean-Martin
- Dewey, John
- Dix, Dorothea Lynde
- Ebbinghause, Hermann
- Erikson, Erik Homburger
- Eyesenck, Hans
- Fechner, Gustav Theodor
- Frankl, Viktor
- Freud, Anna
- Freud, Sigmund
- Fromm, Erich
- Fromm-Reichmann, Frieda
- Hall, Granville Stanley
- Hollingworth, Leta Stetter
- Horney, Karen
- Hull, Clark Leonard
- James, William
- Jung, Carl
- Klein, Melanie
- Kohler, Wolfgang
- Maslow, Abraham
- May, Rollo
- Mead, George Herbert
- Müller, George Elias
- Munsterberg, Hugo
- Pavlov, Ivan
- Perls, Frederick
- Piaget, Jean
- Rank, Otto
- Reich, Wilhelm
- Rogers, Carl
- Rorschach, Hermann
- Rush, Benjamin
- Skinner, B.F.
- Terman, Lewis
- Thorndike, Edward
- Titchener, Edward
- Tolman, Edward
- von Helmholtz, Hermann
- Vygotsky, Lev
- Watson, John
- Wundt, Wilhelm
Selected Famous Essays and Books in Psychology
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
- The Principles of Psychology by William James
- “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena” by Carl Jung
- The Myth of the Birth of the Hero by Otto Rank
- from Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow
- “Superstition in the Pigeon” by B.F. Skinner