My acquaintance with psychology was more or less through the theories evolved in the 80s and 90s by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and William James. Their theories were and still are the founding pillars of psychology. How psychology did really came into existence?
Where did it all start? Who were the earliest founders of psychology? What were those ideas that started the fire? And so I did some digging and discovered that the discipline of psychology is a living discipline with its own history, current concerns and future considerations to consider.
However, in order to understand its concerns and conflicts, we need to look back at the history of philosophy and philosophical theories that shaped the history of Psychology. Which obviously does make sense because since the dawn of civilizations, worthy kings, priests, shamans, spiritual leaders, all time and time focused on the mental wellbeing of their people. That’s how they were evaluated as good leaders. And we learnt of these through stories revolving all around us right from our childhood.
Even though today, psychology is defined as “a scientific study of behaviour and mental processes”; philosophical interest in the human mind and behaviour dates back to the ancient cultures like Jainism and Buddhism, amongst others, not only speculated the nature of the mind, heart, soul, spirit, and brain but also developed concepts and theories involving the mind, thoughts and reasoning. Much of their tradition was passed on orally and therefore is lost.
Anyway, let’s get glimpses of some known people throughout history whose ideas of psychological perspectives actually came into existence making some significant difference.
So the Ancient Greeks are considered as the kick-off for the history of Psychology. The Greek philosophers Plato (428–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) have contributed some significant insights into the field of psychology.
According to history, Plato build his theories based on the knowledge he received from Socrates, his guru as well as a very influential figure in the history of philosophy. Plato focused on what role nature plays in psychological development. Plato believed that we have some innate or inborn abilities. He also surmised that all the knowledge and information we need are already engraved in our Psyche.
So to learn and grow, all that was needed to do is to unlock or tap into that knowledge and information. The Republic (Latin- Res Publica) is a Socratic dialogue, which Plato wrote for the future generations. It’s probably the first written text and solid evidence of research and evaluation of the human mind and behaviour.
Interestingly, history suggests that Aristotle was Plato’s successor but he reckoned on the role of nurture in psychological development, unlike his mentor. He pivoted that individuals are born as an “empty slate” (‘Tabula rasa’). According to him, knowledge is primarily acquired through learning and experience.
His book ‘Para Psyche’, ‘About the Mind’ is said to be the first book dedicated to the field of psychology in the history of psychology. Aristotle also attempted to address the relationships between impulses and urges or desires and reasons, the two forces that determined actions. (Eh! Looks like Freud was not the first one to dwell on this idea.)
European and French Philosophers
European philosophers asked fundamental questions during the Renaissance. The questions usually revolved around free will (mostly arguing in its favour), the ideas of dualism, whether the mind controls the body, etc etc. There were few psychologists who addressed the relationship between the mind or the mental aspects of life and the body or the physical aspects of the body.
But one problem that these philosophers faced was that they had few methods for settling their claims. Most philosophers didn’t even conduct any research on these questions, or rather because they didn’t yet know how to do it, and was it even possible to objectively study human experience?!
Gustav Theodor Fechner
Gustav Theodor Fechner was a German philosopher, physicist and the very first founder of Experimental psychology. He was an inspiration in 20th-century for many budding scientists and philosophers.
He proposed that the mind was susceptible to measurement & mathematical treatment, therefore psychology had the potential to become a quantified science if given the opportunity. He turned to philosophy after developing partial blindness and being painful sensitivity to light due to his gazing at the Sun during the study of visual afterimages.
Which in turn led his curious mind to study consciousness. He then developed the first test in experimental psychology known as Just Noticeable Difference (JND) also known as the Difference Threshold (DT). This theory concerns with the sensory abilities to discriminate between two stimuli having a slight difference.
Structuralism was a revolutionary movement in the late 80s that established psychology as a separate science from biology/physiology and philosophy. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of structuralism, opened the first psychological laboratory at Leipzig University in 1879. It is said that even though Wundt was the founder of structuralism, it was, in fact, Edward B.
Titchener, his first student, who coined the term ‘Structuralism’. Structuralism basically is a theory about mind and consciousness. They were trying to break down psychological matters into their smallest possible part like the element table in science.
Later, Titchener parted ways from many of Wundt’s ideas and at times even misrepresented his mentor’s teachings; but the school of structuralism had a considerable influence when Titchener died. And almost immediately, other theories like functionalism and Gestalt psychology surfaced to dominate psychology.
William James’s Functionalism was formed as a counter-reaction to structuralism. It was largely influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories of Evolution and Natural Selection. He proposed that there were three ways of viewing the relationship between the subconscious and conscious.
First began with how subconscious is identical in nature with states of consciousness. Second, subconscious being the same as conscious but impersonal. And lastly, he said that the subconscious is simply a brain state but with no mental counterpart. Functionalism broadly studied the functions of consciousness in an evolutionary manner.
This school of psychology was originated by Max Wertheimer as a response to the structuralism. Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were few thinkers to influence Gestalt psychology. This school of thought looks at the human mind and behaviour as a whole. Gestalt psychologists believed that the whole is different than the sum of its part.
It focused and studied how the human mind perceives the elements in its surroundings and made sense of the situations, people, and objects around them. Psychologists belonging to this school f psychology didn’t use the investigation method for their research; instead worked on the principles of Totality and Psychophysical isomorphism.