History of Psychology till the Greeks
The world is flat – this was a widely held belief until Ferdinand Magellan decided to go ‘around’ the world and show us that the world is, in fact, round and not flat.
Magellan did not change reality – the world was always round. Instead, what he managed to do was change our perspective of reality. Perspectives are important because they allow us to see the same thing from different points of view, and, as such, are important in psychology.
Over the course of the history of psychology, many different perspectives and ideas about the human mind and behaviour have been postulated; some that have since been discarded, while some continue to influence us today.
It is important for us to have a view of the full range of psychological perspectives for us to understand better ourselves and others. Understanding psychology’s roots and its path to becoming a science of mind and behaviour is essential in understanding what it is today and how it might change in the future.
Psychology’s remit seems broad because, as a subject, it has roots not only in philosophy and medicine but also in the biological and physical sciences.
The history of psychology has been (and continues to be) an unfolding narrative, helping our understanding of the human mind and behaviour. This narrative continues to change and evolve as new cutting-edge research is published. In studying human behaviour, psychologists are interested in exploring the biological, psychological, and environmental factors that influence how and why we behave the way we do.
Psychology’s remit seems broad because, as a subject, it has roots not only in philosophy and medicine but also in the biological and physical sciences. The broad root of psychology has, therefore, given rise to several different perspectives on human behaviour. We will journey through all the major perspectives through the articles in this column.
The mind-body problem is a very old one in psychology. Early thinkers asked the question: Is the mind a part of the body, or is it a separate entity altogether? The Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE) was not a big fan of science. Instead, he believed that knowledge is attained through the act of thinking.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE), in contrast, believed that there is a deep relationship between what he referred to as the ‘soul’ and the body. Aristotle made many seminal contributions to psychology, including the idea that the mental wellbeing depends on the body as well as the mind.
Despite the early advancements made by the Greeks, philosophy and psychology went into a long period of stagnation until the French mathematician, philosopher, and scientist René Descartes (1596–1650) kickstarted the mind-body debate once again. According to Descartes, the body is a physical entity, subject to the physical laws of mechanics, whereas the mind is non-physical and, therefore, not subject to such laws. As such, Descartes believed that the mind cannot be studied using scientific methods, and hence psychology cannot be viewed as a science.
The idea that the mind and the body interact with each other has contributed to the development of modern psychology.
Descartes’ work contributed to what became known as rationalism. Rationalism’s main focus was the pursuit of truth through reasoning. Descartes held the view that the mind and body are separate entities and should be treated as such. This became known as the Cartesian dualism. Despite holding this dualistic perspective, Descartes also believed that the mind and the body do interact with each other. The idea that the mind and the body interact with each other has contributed to the development of modern psychology.
Expanding on Descartes’ dualism, German scientists Ernst Weber (1795-1878) and Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) began exploring the relationship between the mental and physical realms in the mid-1800s and laid the foundations to what came to be known as psychophysics: the scientific study of how psychological experiences are dependent on physical stimuli.
Slowly, empiricism began to replace Descartes’ rationalism, as the focus started to shift away from searching for truth through reasoning to searching for truth through experience and observation.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) suggested that newborn children enter this world as a blank slate, or tabula rasa, upon which knowledge is imprinted. Today, we talk about learner-centric education, an approach that places the learner at the centre of the learning experience and educational focus, and we can see how this idea may have been influenced by Locke’s philosophy. This focus on putting the learner at the centre of an educational ‘experience’ has been influenced by the philosophies of not only Locke but also that of David Hume (1711-1776) and George Berkeley (1685-1753).
Of course, today we would not completely depend on empiricism as we now have a wealth of evidence suggesting that childhood development is also influenced by genetic factors, and not just experiences. Nevertheless, empiricism does have something to contribute even today. Empiricism entails investigation of a research question, or hypothesis, based on existing theory. It is testable and involves the collection and analysis of data, followed by an interpretation of results, culminating in supporting or refuting the hypothesis.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, empiricism is used as a technique many times in classroom situations. For example, when a teacher believes that a child behaves badly when he or she is with a particular group of children, the teacher might move the child around, observe and note any differences, and use this data to support or refute this hypothesis. Equally, if another member of the staff comments that a child is ‘always aggressive’, a teacher might seek to explore a range of circumstances where the teacher observes the child to look for emerging patterns. For example, perhaps aggressive behaviour only takes place during the first lesson of the day and only on a particular day, or just after lunch after other children have been taunting him or her in the playground during lunch break. This is how empiricism continues to have an impact in classrooms even today.
The birth of psychology as a science can be traced back to the founding of the world’s first experimental psychology laboratory by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) at the University of Leipzig in 1879. Wundt’s approach to the study of the mind is known as structuralism. His approach explored the ‘science of immediate experience’ of the mind through introspections (looking inwards).
Structuralists used introspection to study sensations by exposing participants to various sensory stimuli (for example, lights, sounds, and tastes) and asking them to report their experiences. Wundt’s systematic study of the structure of the mind was the first attempt at advancing what came to be known as experimental psychology, and, in effect, at separating psychology from philosophy. Despite its many drawbacks, structuralism had an important role to play in advancing the scientific study of cognitive processes.
In the United States, an alternative perspective on the human mind emerged, known as functionalism. In contrast to structuralism, functionalism aimed to study the processes of perception and learning as conscious activities, the functions of consciousness rather than its structure, and how adaptation to environments might affect these functions.
The functionalist approach was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. William James (1842–1910) was a major proponent of functionalism and his book Principles of Psychology greatly enhanced the scope of psychology as a science. Though, like structuralism, functionalism is not a part of modern-day psychology, its legacy is evident in both cognitive psychology, which studies mental processes, and evolutionary psychology that explores how psychological traits have evolved and adapted over time.
Reflect on how your students pass through the education system. They must constantly adapt to new environments. For example, when the oldest class in a primary school becomes the youngest class in a secondary school. Not everyone adapts equally; some quickly, while others more gradually. And, this is where, as educators, we can facilitate such transitions and help our students.
Taking a leaf out of the functionalist perspective, reflect on some of the major transitions you have had to undertake yourself. Can you remember your first day at school? Your first day at college? How do you manage to adapt to change daily?
We will explore more perspectives in future articles in this series. Until then, happy teaching!
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