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Psychology 101, What Are The Historical Perspectives In Psychology?

Updated on April 9, 2012

In this Psychology 101 article, we ask what are the historical perspectives in psychology?

Now, this question provokes a thesis on its own, but here we evaluate specific times of extraordinary turning points leading to where we are today.

We are all psychologists in our own right.

We have the innate ability to draw conclusions by watching the behaviours of others.

So, where, whom and what legitimizes psychology as a science and how did we arrive there?

It is through history, that we have built and drawn from our own evaluations as a species. So, what is psychology?

Psychology Definition

As this is a psychology 101 based article, as always, we will start by providing a ‘working definition’ of psychology as a term:

‘Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour of humans and animals.’ Psychologists concentrate on what is observable and measurable in a person’s behaviour. This includes the biological processes in the body, although, the mind is central to the subject.

  • ψ - This is the Greek letter pronounced as 'Sigh' and spelled as 'Psi'. It is now used as the International symbol of Psychology.
  • Psychologists think it is important to be scientific in their study. This is to avoid confused thinking.

What Is Psychology?

We have covered the centralised theme around psychology with the above definition. But in order to understand the historical perspectives, we need to ask what is psychology from the original concept?

The term psychology can be disected into two words: 'psyche' and 'logos'. Originally taken from the Greek word ψυχή meaning 'breath of life' of the soul or spirit, loosely translated as 'mind'.

Logos means 'knowledge', 'study' as many 'ologies' mean. In Greek mythology, psyche was represented by a butterfly who became the wife of Eros, the God of Love. We know her as Cupid (renamed by the Romans later).

Psychology was originally defined, therefore, as 'the study of the mind', however the above definition is generally accepted as the working definition today.

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Descartes - Discourse On Method

Long before Psychology's official birth, philosophers such as Socrates (470-399 BC), Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) and Plato (428 - 347 BC) were seeking truth through thinking. The idea of psychology, therefore, has evolved and changed over many centuries.

Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650) contributed as a philosopher to the realms of Psychology today. He looked at issues surround the 'Mind-Body Problem' in 'Discourse on Method' in 1637 and 'The Meditations' in 1941.

Nature (Nativist) Versus Nurture

The focus here is on Platonic Dualism where the mind influences the body as a one way interaction. Descartes believed differently. The mind has a single function of thought (Rationalism) and produces ideas from external stimuli on the senses and innate ideas from the conscious self.

Now we see the birth of the Nature (Nativist) Versus Nurture debate.

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  • Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) - Transcendentalism.  Already existing concepts of cause helps people to have objective experiences.  There are three mental activies - Knowing, Feeling and Willing.  Transcental explanations are influences outside experiences that build upon existing experiences.

  • John Locke (1632 - 1704) - The Mind Is A Clean Slate and develops only from experience - 'The Theory Of Association'.

  • Hume (1711 - 1776) - Associationism - We assume cause and effect associations through experiencing pairs of events.

  • Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) and Positivism (later, Logical Positivists).  The father of sociology who believed in a science of society and not the science of the mind.  The connection between observable facts is a positive method.  Anything beyond this can not be counted.  This is Positivism.  The idea is to reduce the facts to it's most simple common denominator.  This is Reductionism. This idea can be formed as the basis of psychological measurement in research today.

  • James Mill (1773 - 1836) - Father, J S Mill (1806 - 1873) - Son and Utilitarianism (striving for the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number'). James mill - 'Analysis of the Phenomena fo the Human Mind' (1829) focused on the mind as passive, whereas, his son J S Mill, believed in 'Mental Chemistry' and 'Creative Sythesis' - the mind as active and a fusion of sensory elements.
  • The 1830's saw physiological contributors in the form of early brain research notably Johannes Muller from Berlin, Marshall Hall from London and Pierre Flourens from Paris.  Their techniques included Extirpation, Clinical Methods and Electrical Stimulation.  Such developments in understanding brain activity bytesting, removing and stimulating localized brain areas with these different techniques are still used to day.

Species Change: Over time and generations the physical and behavioural characteristics change - as per fossil evidence.

Gradual Change: Changes happen over time but in small stages and over many generations.

Common Descent: Like a family tree for all organisms, physical and behavioural traits can be traced back through ancestory.

Charles Darwin (1809 -1882) started the big debate on 'The Origin Of Species by Natural Selection' published in 1859.

These ideas forms the foundations of Evolutionary Psychology and focuses on Species Change, Gradual Change and Common Descent.

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The Psychological Perspectives

The psychological perspectives can be broadly fitted into six main approaches:

  • Psychodynamic
  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitive
  • Humanistic
  • Bio-Psychological
  • Social-Cultural

Psychology Has Several Perspectives Instead Of One Unifying Theory

As you can see, many other themes from other doctrines have merged under this umbrella, including physiology, philosophy and sociology. Historical perspectives have evolved over time and seem to have embedded into the foundations of psychology today.

However, in the sense of today, unlike Chemists, Biologists and Physicists who have one unifying theory or approach, psychologists have several perspectives.

Sub-Sections Within Psychological Perspectives

  • Organisational Psychology
  • Health Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Bio-Psychology
  • Individual Differences
  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Comparative Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt Publications

  • Principles of Physiological Psychology (1873)
  • Lectures on The Minds Of Men and Animals (1863)

Psychology - The Birth

Although the history of Psychology is something that evolved from many doctrines over many hundreds of years and ligitimised in 1893 (see below), many Psychologists would argue that it's official birth was in 1879.

It was during this time that Willhelm Wundt (1832 - 1920) officially opened the first recognised laboratory for the study of human behaviour in Leipzig, Germany.

He first used, what he termed, 'Experimental Psychology' here with the aim to create a new science.

It was here that introspection, which examins your own mental state, was used.

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Psychology History, Ligitimising Psychology

The recognised qualification for a Psychologist is study at degree level, for example BSc Hons, and a membership of a Professional Association.

These associations were first founded in 1893, starting with the American Psychological Association (the APA), followed by The British Psychological Society (BPS) in 1901 and, finally, the American Psychological Society in 1988.

It is these Associations that legitimises the doctrine and may be thought of as where this science formally began.

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Famous publications:

  • Hereditary Genius’ (1869)
  • English Men of Science’ (1874).

Galton And Contribution To Measuring Psychology

Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) founded the ideas on ‘individual differences’. He was an avid data analyses who set up a laboratory in 1884 at the International Health Exhibition at South Kensington Museum. 

A cousin of Darwin, he is remembered for discovering the uniqueness of finger prints (1892), development of Probability, Normal Distribution and Correlation.

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What Is Structuralism?

  • Analysis of consciousness
  • Comprised of component elements or experiences to determine its structure
  • Non Applied Psychology

What Is Functionalism?

  • Opposes Structuralism
  • Concerns with the function of the mind
  • Derived from Darwinism

Historical Perspectives of Psychology From Structuralism and Functionalism

Structuralism and Functionalism are two perspectives that gives way to the six today, as listed below.

  1. The school of Psychodynamic (1896)
  2. The school of Behaviourism (1913)
  3. The school of Gestalt or Cognitive (1912, 1960)
  4. Humanistic (1950's)
  5. Bio-Psychology (1880's)
  6. Social-Cultural (1880's)


Structuralism survived for approximately 25 years and died with:

  • Edward Titchener (1867 - 1927) - a follower of Wundt, although he appeared to be too introspective and mechanistic in his ideas.

James Angell Summary Of Functionalism

In 1906 Angell summarized Functionalism as studying:

  • Mental operations, not elements
  • Consciousness, including processes like willing and judging
  • No mind-body distinction.


Based from the ideas of Darwinism, Social Darwinism was born from:

  • Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903).
  • William James (1842 - 1910) taught the first Psychology course in 1875 and developed the phrase 'Stream of Consciousness' as a continues process. He wasn't considered scientific enough and was unconventional. Key interests included: telepathy, clairvoyance and spiritualism. He did, however, begin to contribute important applications to Educational Psychology when he published 'Talks To Teachers' in 1899.
  • James Angell (1869 - 1949)
  • Harvey Carr (1873 - 1954) - Functionalism was moving away from the subjective mind and consciousness. The new move was toward the study of objective behaviour. It then is more thought of as an important bridge between Structuralism and Behaviourism.

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Key Contributors To The Six Psychological Doctrines Today - Links Coming Soon!

As the detail of the six psychological doctrines are so immense, I have produced six articles to cover these, hoping to make this article more complete when read in conjunction. The links are available here for your convenience:

From Psychology's Foundations To Today's Perspectives

As we have already touched upon, today we have six developments in terms of the historical perspectives of Psychology.

Three of these are termed as schools because they each consist of a group of people who have similar or the same ideas.

The other three are not schools because not everyone is in total agreement, although they have fundamentally important ways of thinking.

You will now understand how the historical perspectives have come to be what we know today.

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We Are All Psychologists

This Psychology 101 asked the question What Are The Historical Perspectives In Psychology? Although it skims of a brief history of how psychology has evolved and changed from the times of Socretes to now-a-days, it does provide a basis to how we arrived at the ideas that we are all familiar with today. Of course, we are all psychologists as human beings, because we all observe each others behaviours. We do this as a way to understand what we are all thinking - not so different to the Psychologists discussed in this article, don't you think?

© This work is covered under Creative Commons License

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Resource Box

References: The Open University, Psychology BSc (Honours) Course Work DSE141

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    • profile image

      rachel chinni 

      6 years ago

      hi dudes thx for all wh has been posted thisactualli i was not intrasted in this but after reading your comments nd reading some book of psycology i come to know its true now i belive now ynx for all

      good thing nd great news

    • shazwellyn profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Great Britain

      Oh... I wouldn't dare do a cheap trick like that! *wink* However, what are you scared of? I don't bite - well, I might growl a little! hehehe

    • cheaptrick profile image


      10 years ago from the bridge of sighs

      Hello shaz.I Have been reading you but was a bit Nervous about posting out of fear that you might Analise me and run screaming into the woods![that's a joke...I hope?]I will post more often if you promise not to...OK? :)Strange aren't I:)


    • shazwellyn profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Great Britain

      @dahoglund - thanks for your appreciation! :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      10 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the review.

    • shazwellyn profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Great Britain

      Certifiedhandy - Thank you. We all look to body language and the tone of what is said (or not said - in subtle silences) as clues to what is going on internally with others. It gives us ideas as to what is truth and how others perceive themselves with the behaviours that they display. I think this is where we are all natural psychologists.

      Bless you and wish you well.

    • shazwellyn profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Great Britain

      Thanks Tony. Yes, I was answering the question at the same time as you but found that the subject was far more comprehensive than I cared to answer just here. This hub has been waiting since then - I needed to do the links and complete separate articles in order to answer this first:

      * The school of Psychodynamic - Freud and his followers - Jung, Adler, Erikson and Klein

      * The school of Behaviourism - Pavlov, Thorndike, Skinner and Watson

      * The school of Gestalt or Cognitive - Koffka, Wertheimer and Köhler

      * Humanistic Psychology

      As you can imagine, completing the above articles made it more timely and it is only just now that I could release it with the desired explanations as to what these schools were in the frame of 'historical perspectives'.

      I did wish, whilst completing the other articles, that I hadn't started this one at all! Instead of one article on the subject, I have had to create 7! lol

    • CertifiedHandy profile image

      Chaplain Bernell Wesley 

      10 years ago from Jonesboro,Georgia

      Well researched. According to your opening statement we can all be considered psychologists I agree with that in the sense that everybody at sometime in their life will make a judgement call as to what is normal in someone else. Very thought provoking...

      In His Service

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for this comprehensive Hub. I also answered this question but focussed my answer mainly on the three main streams now recognised - behaviourism, psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology. The others you mention besides these can be incorporated in the three main streams, I believe!

      Thanks for a good read.

      Love and peace



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