The Origin of Psychology

The History of Psychology

The science of psychology has both a long and short history. The history of psychology is long in the sense that its roots are found in ancient philosophy, and short in the sense that psychology has only been considered a science unto itself for a little over 125-years (Goodwin, 2008). The argument can be made in fact that psychology is born of an amalgamation of several scientific disciplines including biology, chemistry, and physiology. From the ancient Greeks, who postulated about the structure of the human mind, to René Descartes, who developed the first model of the nervous system, to Herman von Helmholtz, whose work with perception initiated theories of unconscious inference and experience that set the stage for clinical behavior and perception studies (Goodwin, 2008).

Major Philosophers

René Descartes was born in 1596 at the end of the Renaissance. Although privy to a superior educational background, Descartes decided that scholastic learning was inferior to individual experience and set out to discover the world for himself. A world, Descartes believed, could be unified as one mathematical process conceivable to the human mind (Goodwin, 2008). Descartes’ widely accepted rationalist point of view and search for knowledge led to some of the fundamental issues in psychology today. The concepts of innate and derived ideas, dualism or the separation between mind and soul, and the Cartesian dichotomy (the theory that sentience separates man from beast) are examples of the questions brought forth by Descartes’ work. As a result of Descartes’ search for unification of mind and movement, his interest in the reflexes and mind-body interaction became the primary link between the study of physiology and behavior.

In England the contemporaries of Descartes, John Locke, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Stuart Mill were engaged in theories of social and political importance. Like Descartes, Locke and Bacon believed empirical study was the best way to gain understanding. John Locke’s comparison of the mind to a blank sheet of paper, the experiences of a lifetime to which are written, forming human understanding, is the basis of British empiricism (Goodwin, 2008). Further study of perception by George Berkley, David Hume, and David Hartley illustrated that mind and body were controlled by two distinct systems, just how these systems operated, synchronously, independently, or in a building fashion was the question. John Stuart Mill’s concept that the combination of simple ideas becoming complex ideas that in turn become greater as a whole are some of the basic foundations of later psychological theories (Gestalts’) (Goodwin, 2008).

The Development of Psychology as a Science

As previously stated, psychology has its roots in many scientific disciplines. The first college of study involved in psychology is, of course, philosophy. This fact is true of the science of psychology as it developed all over the world. Even today the indelible mark of philosophical ideas will always be present in the way Russian psychologists think, form ideas, and produce hypothesis (Abul’khanova & Slavskaia, 1997). But as Descartes attempted to unite all knowledge in a singular location it became more clear that the human mechanism was much more than the sum of its parts. Through physiological and neural studies physiologists discovered that the mechanism itself had different control centers that controlled behavior, and further that there are different levels of perception and behavioral response. These studies moved scientists further into the realm of behavior and learning. Through Robert Whytt’s experiments with stimuli, Magendie’s (and to a small extent Bell) experimentation with anterior and posterior nerve dissection, and Hemholtz’s ability to measure the speed of neuron impulse, the tools for measuring the differences between reflexive or learned behavior came into focus.

Scientists began to have clinical opportunities to study the differences between reflex, learning, and perception. Scientists like Pierre Flourens started experimenting with the brain and learning by using ablation to measure the learning capabilities of rats. Soon extraordinary cases like that of Phineas Gage and “Tan” that allowed Drs. John Harlow and Paul Broca to study the effects of brain damage to behavior and speech (Goodwin, 2008). As the possibility of studying the effects of brain tissue damage on human behavior became possible, the discipline of psychology began its inevitable move to the laboratory.


Even though psychology has developed into a scientific discipline in its own right, it will always be inextricably intertwined with other sciences like philosophy and physiology. As Dr. Viney points out in his interview with Alexandra Rutherford, it is impossible to separate the famous psychologist William James from his philosophical side (Rutherford, 2004). To further illustrate that point, it was James himself who theorized that “all states of mind are neurally conditioned” (James, pg VX 1994). James would also support the thought that different disciplines build on the understanding of the whole and should continue to be integrated to that end.


Abul’khanova, K.A. & Slavskaia, A.N. (1997) On the history of the alliance between psychology and philosophy. Russian Social Science Review; Nov/Dec 1997; 38, 6, pg 40

Goodwin, J.C. (2008) A history of modern psychology, (Third Edition) John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

James, W. (1994) The varieties of religious experience. Modern Library Edition. Random House Publishers.

Rutherford, A. (2004) Where history, philosophy, and psychology meet: An interview with Wayne Viney. The Generalist’s Corner, Vol. 31, No. 4

Written by Illumin8Bliss
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