History of Psychology

February 17, 2014

Psychology is a discipline with a phenomenal history that must be understood in order for one to fully understand the scientific study of mind and behavior.  Psychology originated from the discipline of philosophy which uses logic and reasoning to understand the mind.  Through several philosophical ideas, psychology began being recognized as a separate discipline in 1879 through the effort of Wilhelm Wundt who developed the first psychology lab in Germany (Kowalski, 2011).  The beginnings of psychology developed through a philosophical idea called dualism, which is the idea that the body and mind operate independently from one another creating the human experience (Cherry, 2014).  Over time, philosophers began to be intrigued by these ideas of human behavior eventually bringing us to the discipline of Psychology.

The first philosopher responsible for the introduction of the study of the human mind is Rene Descartes.  Descartes was responsible for the first idea of the mind and body relationship (Wozniak, 1995) with his idea of dualism (Cherry, 2014).  He attempted to explain human emotions as reflexes in which the mind influences the body to react to sensory events (Goodwin, 2008).  Additionally, Descartes wanted to prove that the mind intervenes between the physical reactions of the body based on what the mind thinks or feels (Goodwin, 2008).  He chose the pineal gland as evidence because it is the only portion of the brain that is not directly duplicated on both sides of the brain and was unique to humans which he thought was an indication that this portion of the brain is what separated the mind from the body (Wozniak, 1995).

John Locke was a philosopher who did not agree with Descartes and proposed his own thoughts on how knowledge is acquired in humans (Goodwin, 2008).  He believed that the mind was a blank slate at birth that becomes colored as things are learned (Goodwin, 2008).  Unlike Descartes, Locke disregarded the idea of innate existence believing that even though humans have innate functions like the ability to think, all knowledge is gained purely from experience (Goodwin, 2008).  Locke is notorious for writing an essay  titled Concerning Human Understanding in which he defends empiricism and explains the limits of human understanding, basically defining what one can or cannot know (Uzgalis, 2014).  It is believed that he developed his theories based on his own personal upbringing as well as the environmental events that were occurring in his lifetime (Uzgalis, 2014).

A third philosopher who’s ideas and theories also influenced the development of psychology is David Hartley.  Hartley, like Descartes, was also a dualist believing that the mind and the body  operate independently from one another.  He is responsible for creating associationism, a theory that believes all mental activity is a connection of mental processes between of sensations and behaviors (Random, 2010).  Through this idea, he developed psychophysical parallelism, which is a theory that suggests that physical and mental  experiences are separate from each other, but do not intersect, meaning that the mind and body operate independently of each other (David, 2014).  Hartley’s theory of associationism became a vital part of psychology later in its development.  He also attempted to explain the physiological processes and how they caused mental processes to occur (Goodwin, 2008).  Additionally, he developed the theory of contiguity which is the idea that repetition of a mental stimulus will eventually trigger an idea that  will stimulate the same trigger in anything associated with the original trigger (Goodwin, 2008).  He believed that the more a stimulus was repeated, the more strength the associations would gain (Goodwin, 2008).  Hartley believed that the if the stimulus is presented in closer intervals, the chance of association occurring would increase a great deal (David, 2014).

These are not the only philosophers who assisted in the development of psychology.  There was an eccentric philosopher, George Berkley, who made great strides into psychology through analyzing sensory processes (Goodwin, 2008).  It is a legend that Berkeley, at a young age, witnessed a hanging which gave him curiosity about the sensations of being hung (Goodwin, 2008).  Therefore, he decided to be hung himself and cut down so he could report his observations (Goodwin, 2008).  Additionally, he wondered how a person is able to see the world right side up when our lens retrieves objects upside down, but came to the idea that what we see is clarified by relating the object to experience through the use of our other senses (Goodwin, 2008).    Another important philosopher, Hume, attempted to combine both psychology and philosophy by introducing the experimental method in which observations combines with logical analysis were used to study the mind and human behavior (Goodwin, 2008).  This led him to theorize that all understanding was rooted through experience giving one impressions (basic sensations) and ideas (copies of impressions) leading to knew knowledge (Goodwin, 2008).

Psychology is an intricately designed study that originated completely with philosophical ideas.  Those ideas were argued, supported, rejected and backed up.  Some ideas are used today as a basis for new theories and some are still used in the practice of psychological discipline.  Others have been scientifically tested and proved while others were rejected and forgotten.  Each piece of information and any idea that was brought about was used in some way to develop modern psychology.  The history of psychology is vital to the study of psychology in many ways.  One may study the history and learn an idea that was rejected, but may prove true today.  More importantly is the learning of the evolution of psychology from a simple philosophical thought to what is today a scientific study of the mind and behavior.




Cherry,Kendra. (2014). In The Origins of Psychology:  A Brief History of Psychology Through the Years. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/psychistory.htm



David Hartley. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/256165/David-Hartley


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


Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2011). Psychology (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved


Uzgalis, William, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/locke/&gt;.


Wozniak, Robert H. “Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William James
Bryn Mawr College, Serendip 1995
Originally published in 1992 at Bethesda, MD & Washington, DC by the National Library of Medicine and the American Psychological Association.


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