History of Psychology Essay Sample

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According to American Psychological Association (APA), “At the end of the 18th century, the leading minds of the age believed that psychology was naturally constrained from rising to the level of a natural science. The Transformation of Psychology: Influences of 19th Century Philosophy, Technology, and Natural Science reveals some of the intellectual, social, technological, and institutional currents and practices that were mundane during the 19th century that fostered a radical reappraisal of the scientific possibilities for psychology,” (APA, 2013). This paper will explain the roots in early philosophy, leading into the 19th century, which influenced the development of modern psychology. At the same time, it will be accompanied by the explanation of historical relation with philosophers to the beginnings of psychology as a formal discipline as well as identifying western tradition’s major philosophers in contributing the formation of psychology as a discipline and the developing of psychological science during the 19th century.

History of Psychology

Historically, psychology is the study of mental processes and behavior dating back to the ancient Greeks and is still in its infancy. Psychology was originally the branch of philosophy until the late 1800s, progressing as independent scientific discipline. However, the history of psychology unfolds that many other issues still debated by psychologists today are established in early philosophical traditions (Psychoid.net, 2002-2010). According to Furumoto (1989), the distinction between both old and new history of psychology provides different approaches that best describe the history of psychology.

Through the old history of psychology, internal, personalistic, and presentist approaches emphasize the triumphs of “great” psychologists and philosophers in concentrating on the celebration of “classic studies” and “breakthrough discoveries” in retelling and preserving the “great events” to help psychology guard an identity as the respectable scientific discipline in emphasizing and acclaiming modern psychology through the emergence of its past. While, the new history of psychology links external, naturalistic, and historicist approaches in examining occurrence of historical events, searching for the influential of extra-disciplinary forces, and examining the contextual factors in relying on primary source materials and factual data rather than on trivial textbooks (Goodwin, 2008).

Philosophers: The Beginnings of Psychology as Formal Discipline Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German philosopher and psychologist launched the empirical study of human memory, discovering the “forgetting curve” and “spacing effect” as well as conduct a research on the “learning curve.” According to Goodwin (2008), Ebbinghaus is known for the opening sentence written in 1908, “Psychology has a long past, yet its real history is short,” which he indicated that psychologists must perceive the profound origin in philosophy and that the history of psychology cannot be understood if the history of philosophy is not recognized, learned, and understood (Goodwin, 2008). Through his experimentation, he used himself as both subject and experimenter in launching a backbreaking process that comprised testing his memorization of what he invented “nonsense syllables” to eradicate variables generated by previous familiarity with the material being memorized in which he constructed 2,300 one-syllable consonant-vowel-consonant combinations, such as lef, bok, and taz in promoting his study of learning independent of meaning.

Ebbinghaus’ 1885 publication of “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology,” applying the nonsense syllables characterize the aspect of the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve depicts the weakening of memory confinement (retention) and the notion of the durability (strength) of memory, which refers to the endurance that the memory indications in the brain, discovering the exponential nature of forgetting in the formula of R=e(-t/S), where R is memory retention, S is the strength of memory, and t is time (New World Encyclopedia, 2008). Ebbinghaus demonstrated that the one’s learning pattern can display an acute decline after the first attempt, which the capacity of a person to maintain information tends to decline after the first trial as well as the learning curve shows an exponential increase similar to the forgetting curve. Ebbinghaus also pioneered the “sentence completion exercise” in assessing schoolchildren’s mental abilities in structuring their sentences (FamousPsychologists.org, 2013).

The philosophy of ancient Greece, leading into the Renaissance is rich with the writings of Plato and Aristotle and others through great philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, “who united Christian faith with Aristotelian logic,” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 29). Instead, into the reach of Renaissance and the beginning of the 17th century, René Descartes “sometimes considered the father of modern philosophy, mathematic, physiology, and psychology,” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 30), appeared at the end of the Renaissance with the years of great advances in technology and science.

Rationalist and nativist, “Descartes believed that the way to true knowledge was through the systematic use of his reasoning abilities because he believed that some truths were universal that could arrive through reasoning without the necessity of sensory experience. Not only was he rationalist and nativist but also a dualist and an interactionist in believing that the mind and body were both distinct essences with direct influence on each other, which Descartes developed a model of nervous system activity in describing reflex action and was a mechanistic one that the body was like a machine,” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 59).

Western Philosophers: The Formation of Psychology as a Discipline John Locke (1632-1704), founder of British empiricism denied the nativist belief in inherent ideas, arguing that the mind was akin to a blank piece of paper also known as the “tabula rasa” or “blank slate.” According to Goodwin (2008), “Locke is important to psychology as a consequence of the concepts expressed in two of his books, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690/1963) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693/1963), which Locke’s view on how knowledge is attained, how we as humans come to understand the world and the latter is based on a series of letters to a friend and shows how empiricist thinking could be applied to all aspects of a child’s education,” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 38). Locke’s beliefs led him to advocate that parents should take on effective role in educating their child, praising children rather than applying the reward method and punishments should be averted as an educational approach.

George Berkeley (1685-1753), a bishop of the Anglican Church in Ireland was concerned about the materialistic implications of 17th century science. Berkeley believed that America was the great hope for civilization, which reflected it in his poem entitled “Destiny of America,” containing the often-quoted line “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” According to Goodwin (2008), “Berkeley is important for psychology because of two books that he published: An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709) and Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), which are strongly empiricist focusing on the analysis of sensory processes.

Berkeley rejected Locke’s primary and secondary qualities distinction and to counter materialism, which he proposed (subjective idealism) that we cannot be sure of the reality of objects except through our belief in God, the Permanent Perceiver,” (Goodwin, 2008, pp. 43, 59). David Hume (1711-1776), “An empiricist/associationist known for making a distinction between impressions, resulting from ideas and sensations, which he said were “faint copies” of impressions. He classified the rule of association as contiguity, cause/effect, and resemblance as well as he believed that we cannot grow causality absolutely that certain events occur together regularly,” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 59). Hume did not reject the existence of God, the possibility of absolute causes of events, or reality, which he pointed out that we could never arrive with certainty.

David Hartley (1705-1757), according to Goodwin (2008) “is considered the founder of associationism because of his systematic attempt to summarize all that was known about it and his argument that the essence of association was contiguity (both spatial and temporal) and repetition. He developed a model of nervous system action based on the Newtonian concept of vibrations, and his position on the mind-body issue was that of psychological parallelism,” (Goodwin, 2008, pp. 59-60). Although Hartley was not known as an original thinker, his “Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749/1971)” outlined the fundamentals of British empiricist published 100 years after Descartes’ “The Passions of the Soul,” Hartley’s Observations became a worthy successor. Nineteenth-Century Development of the Science of Psychology

Son of an empiricist philosopher James Mill, “John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the leading British philosopher of the 19th century described the mind in mechanical atomistic, building-block terms. Mill used a holistic chemical metaphor, arguing that complex ideas are ideas are greater than the sum of their individual simple ideas. Mill analyzed the logic of science and described several methods for trying to arrive at inductive scientific truth of two methods: method of agreement and method of difference, which include today’s experimental method and the method of concomitant similar to the modern correlational method. As an empiricist, Mill believed that all knowledge came through experience and that under the proper circumstances, anyone could become knowledgeable,” (Goodwin, 2008, pp. 52, 60).


Psychology, as a science, has been developing over a period dating back to the 17th century B.C., but sees more advancement from the works of Descartes and the great philosophers of the Renaissance and the following century. At the same time, continue further in developing many separate disciplines within the science and continue to develop and change the changes of outcome in the human perspective in which the truth remains that the roots of psychology is deeply planted in the soil of its philosophical origins. Although psychologists work in different settings, modern psychology is divided into several subdisciplines based on behavior and mental processes.

APA: American Psychological Association. (2013). The Transformation of Psychology: Influences of 19th century philosophy, technology, and natural science. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/431661A.aspx Psychoid.net. (2002-2010). A brief history of psychology. Retrieved from http://www.psychoid.net/history-psychology-beginning.html Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. New World Encyclopedia (2008). Hermann Ebbinghaus. Retrieved from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Hermann_Ebbinghaus FamousPsychologists.org. (2013). Hermann Ebbinghaus. Retrieved from http://www.famouspsychologists.org/hermann-ebbinghaus/

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