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The Origins of Psychology

A Brief History of Psychology Through the Years

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Early philosophers played an important role in psychology history.

Philosophers such as Rene Descartes (above) played an important role in the history of psychology.

While the psychology of today reflects the discipline’s rich and varied history, the origins of psychology differ significantly from contemporary conceptions of the field. In order to gain a full understanding of psychology, you need to spend some time exploring its history and origins. How did psychology originate? When did it begin? Who were the people responsible for establishing psychology as a separate science?

Why Study Psychology History?

Contemporary psychology is interested in an enormous range of topics, looking a human behavior and mental process from the neural level to the cultural level. Psychologists study human issues that begin before birth and continue until death. By understanding the history of psychology, you can gain a better understanding of how these topics are studied and what we have learned thus far.

Questions in Psychology

From its earliest beginnings, psychology has been faced with a number of different questions. The initial question of how to define psychology helped establish it as a science separate from physiology and philosophy. Additional questions that psychologists have faced throughout history include:

  • What topics and issues should psychology be concerned with?

  • What research methods should be used to study psychology?

  • Should psychologists use research to influence public policy, education, and other aspects of human behavior?

  • Is psychology really a science?

  • Should psychology focus on observable behaviors, or on internal mental processes?

The Beginnings of Psychology: Philosophy and Physiology

While psychology did not emerge as a separate discipline until the late 1800s, its earliest history can be traced back to the time of the early Greeks. During the 17th-century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the idea of dualism, which asserted that the mind and body were two separate entities that interact to form the human experience. Many other issues still debated by psychologists today, such as the relative contributions of nature vs. nurture, are rooted in these early philosophical traditions.

So what makes psychology different from philosophy? While early philosophers relied on methods such as observation and logic, today’s psychologists utilize scientific methodologies to study and draw conclusions about human thought and behavior. Physiology also contributed to psychology’s eventual emergence as a scientific discipline. Early physiology research on the brain and behavior had a dramatic impact on psychology, ultimately contributing to the application of scientific methodologies to the study of human thought and behavior.

Psychology Emerges as a Separate Discipline

During the mid-1800s, a German physiologist named Wilhelm Wundt was using scientific research methods to investigate reaction times. His book published in 1874, Principles of Physiological Psychology, outlined many of the major connections between the science of physiology and the study of human thought and behavior. He later opened the world’s first psychology lab in 1879 at the University of Leipzig. This event is generally considered the official start of psychology as a separate and distinct scientific discipline.

How did Wundt view psychology? He perceived the subject as the study of human consciousness and sought to apply experimental methods to studying internal mental processes. While his use of a process known as introspection is seen as unreliable and unscientific today, his early work in psychology helped set the stage for future experimental methods. An estimated 17,000 students attended Wundt’s psychology lectures, and hundreds more pursued degrees in psychology and studied in his psychology lab. While his influence dwindled in the years to come, his impact on psychology is unquestionable.

Structuralism Becomes Psychology’s First School of Thought

Edward B. Titchener, one of Wundt’s most famous students, would go on to found psychology’s first major school of thought. According to the structuralists, human consciousness could be broken down into much smaller parts. Using a process known as introspection, trained subjects would attempt to break down their responses and reactions to the most basic sensation and perceptions.

While structuralism is notable for its emphasis on scientific research, its methods were unreliable, limiting, and subjective. When Titchener died in 1927, structuralism essentially died with him.

The Functionalism of William James

Psychology flourished in American during the mid- to late-1800s. William James emerged as one of the major American psychologists during this period and the publication of his classic textbook, The Principles of Psychology, established him as the father of American psychology. His book soon became the standard text in psychology and his ideas eventually served as the basis for a new school of thought known as functionalism.

The focus of functionalism was on how behavior actually works to help people live in their environment. Functionalists utilized methods such as direct observation. While both of these early schools of thought emphasized human consciousness, their conceptions of it were significantly different. While the structuralists sought to break down mental processes into their smallest parts, the functionalists believed that consciousness existed as a more continuous and changing process. While functionalism is no longer a separate school of thought, it would go on to influence later psychologists and theories of human thought and behavior.

Next: Psychoanalysis - The Psychology of Sigmund Freud

Further Reading:
Wilhelm Wundt Biography
William James Biography
Structuralism and Functionalism

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