UNIT 1: The History of Psychology

Unit Introduction


Welcome to Introduction to Perspectives in  Psychology! This first unit will introduce you to the history of the subject of  psychology and its development as an independent discipline. We will look at  the philosophical roots of modern psychology, moving through to the scientific  revolution and the Age of Reason, before finding out how psychology was  established as an independent branch of learning. There is enough material to  form the basis of an entire module, and we only have space for this one unit,  so we have selected a range of key figures in the development of psychology. We  have provided you with several links to outside sources, and you are encouraged  to engage with these and your own independent reading for this topic.

It is recommended that you spend about 20 hours  working through the learning material and its associated End of Unit Activity in  the Discussion Board thread

Philosophical Roots

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Why Should We Look to Philosophy When Studying Psychology?

The word 'psychology' is derived from two Greek words 'psyche' (which means 'mind', 'soul' or 'spirit') and 'logos' (which means 'discourse' or 'study'), so 'psychology' actually means 'the study of the mind'. Many of the issues that interest modern psychologists have their roots in philosophical debate from hundreds of years ago. Although the modern discipline of psychology is considered only about 140 years old, we can see that early views and beliefs of human behaviour are linked to psychology today.

Before you start the reading for this week, consider why you think we should look to philosophy when studying psychology. 

The Influence of Aristotle and Plato

Very early medical doctors, physiologists and philosophers were interested in the physical workings of the human body. Ancient Greek philosophers studied the differences between the mind and the soul and how past experience contributes to behaviour from around 600 BCE. Many of the basic ideas that we investigate in modern psychology may be traced back to two Greek philosophers: Aristotle and Plato. They treated behaviour as something that is logical and analytical, rather than mystical. Plato was a nativist - he believed that certain kinds of knowledge are innate, whereas Aristotle was an empiricist - he believed that all knowledge was acquired through experience. This difference can be seen in the nature versus nurture debate that continues today.

Galen's Four Temperaments

The Roman philosopher Galen devised a model of personality types based on the ancient Greek theory of humourism, which attempted to explain how the human body worked. The original medical model was based on the four basic elements of earth, fire, air and water. These elements had qualities that could be ascribed to four fluids in the body. Galen connected these fluids, or 'humours', to emotions or behaviours, known as 'temperaments'.Galen's four temperaments were sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.

  • sanguine: warm-hearted, cheerful, optimistic and confident
  • phlegmatic: slow, quiet, shy, rational and consistent
  • choleric: fiery, energetic and passionate
  • melancholic: sad, fearful, depressed, poetic and artistic

He proposed that if one of these humours develops disproportionately, the related personality type begins to dominate. For example, a sanguine person has too much blood and although is warm-hearted, cheerful, optimistic and confident, could also become selfish. Galen believed that some people are born predisposed to certain temperaments but can be 'cured' through diet and exercise and, in more severe cases, through purging and bloodletting. The example of the sanguine person being too selfish could be 'cured' by cutting down on meat or by releasing some of their blood. These principles were popular in medicine until the Renaissance, and the idea that many physical and mental illnesses are connected forms the basis of many modern treatments.

Moving Ahead to the 17th Century

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Making Links Between Mind and Body

In 17th-century France, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was concerned with the link between the external physical world and the internal subjective experience. He concluded that body and mind are fundamentally different things, suggesting that the mind influenced the body through the pineal gland - an idea that became known as 'dualism'.

Descartes explained: 

There is a reasoning soul in this machine; it has its principal site in the brain, where it is like the fountaineer who must be at the reservoir, whither all the pipes of the machines are extended, when he wishes to start, stop, or in some way alter their actions..

You can read more about Descartes at (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014).  

The Growth of Craniometry and Phrenology

Not everyone at this time agreed with Descartes and his theory that the mind and body were separate. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that the mind and body were not separate entities at all but that the mind is what the brain does. This view was later expanded by scientists such as Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who believed that the mind and brain were linked but only by size. Through examining the brains of people who had died, he found that mental ability was linked to brain size. He theorised that different areas of the brain were linked to different abilities and characteristics and that these areas could be felt through the skull. This led to a very popular movement called 'phrenology' - each human capacity was mapped onto a particular area of the brain.

If this is something that interests you, here are a couple of magazine articles about phrenology that we recommend you read:

The Shape of Your Head and the Shape of Your Mind (Janik, 2014)

Facing a Bumpy History (Scherlinder Morse, 1997)

You might like to spend some time considering the similarities between 18th- and 19th-century advances in craniometry and physiognomy and current work in neuroscience. For example, Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) first discovered the association between different brain areas and functions such as balance and motor coordination. You may have also heard of Paul Broca (1824-1880), who was responsible for important discoveries about language function. 

Developments During the Scientific Revolution

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The arrival of the 19th century witnessed a scientific revolution through academia and scholarship. There was a shift in the way that knowledge was created, from philosophical ideas to more-scientific methods. Shifts in culture and society, the origins of technology, and changes in the university system all played a part in this revolution. We will now consider some of the key figures at this time.

Francis Galton

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was the first scientist to identify ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ as two separate influences on personality. As one of Charles Darwin's relatives, it is perhaps unsurprising that Galton was so interested in the development of personality. He proposed that the effects of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ could be measured and compared and used his own family tree and home environment as the basis of his research. This idea was in contrast with that of John Locke, who in 1690 proposed that the mind of every child is a blank slate (or ‘tabula rasa’). It also conflicts with the views of Darwin himself, who in 1859 suggested that all human development is the result of adaptation to the environment.

Galton had a varied and extraordinary scientific career. He conducted the first large survey by questionnaire, investigated the differences between identical and fraternal twins, identified synaesthesia and provided a fingerprint classification system.

You can read more about Galton's life and work at (Tredoux, n.d.). How did Galton’s ideas influence the development of the eugenics movement? You might like to read this BBC news article (  Jones, 2011) to inform you.

Wilhelm Wundt

The first ever psychology department at a university was founded by German physiologists Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) and Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). The 1879 opening of the University of Leipzig's psychology laboratory marked the foundation of psychology as a separate scientific discipline. Wundt and his colleagues were interested in investigating the mind through introspection, and their use of controlled conditions and measurement signalled a clear difference from earlier, more-philosophical research. Wundt, along with Ernst Weber (1795-1878) and Gustav Theodor Fechner (1808-1887), used methods that became known as ‘psychophysics’, and they investigated testing the limits of perception under laboratory conditions.

Please now read this article by David Robinson (2010) from The Psychologist magazine about the ‘founding fathers’ of modern psychology: Founding fathers.

Despite his prominence, Wundt's methods have been criticised for, at times, being less than scientific. His use of introspection rather than a more objective scientific method harked back to his philosophical roots. However, other aspects of his research did employ a more scientific basis, and the development of the psychology laboratory attracted attention from around the world.

Many of the psychologists who visited Wundt's laboratory went on to forge careers in the field themselves. You will no doubt recognise the names G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924), E. B. Titchener (1867-1927) and Charles Spearman (1863-1945).

End of Unit Assignments

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