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History of Psychology: From Philosophy to Science

Updated on November 30, 2009

Descartes Described Reflexes


The drive to understand human behavior and psychological processes has fueled the development of psychology from philosophical conjecture to a true science. For centuries, the questions about the human mind remained in the realm of philosophy. The transition from philosophical conjecture to a science was made possible by many factors. Less authority by the Catholic Church allowed science to progress past the principles established by Aristotle and other philosophers.

Sir Francis Bacon supported an inductive approach to science, whereas knowledge is gathered by observation rather than the acceptance and promotion of philosophy. He helped shape the nature of science, including psychology. René Descartes (1596-1650) furthered this movement by developing a systematic approach to studying the body.

Through observation and experimentation, Descartes created explanations for reflex actions and the interactions between mind and body. Descartes considered the pineal gland to be the location of mind-body interaction. He was a dualist, believing that the mind and body were separate entities, but that they interacted with each other.  As science gained notoriety and more systematic approaches evolved, the understanding of learning, reflexes, and thought processes and their relationship to the body became more understood, but also more disputed.

Different approaches to understanding human cognition and behavior emerged and were frequently debated. The nature versus nurture debate is one such concept that was widely debated since the birth of psychology in philosophy. John Locke, the founder of the British Empiricist movement of psychology, believed that human cognition is shaped by experience, not by innate knowledge.

In the late 19th century, there was a movement to begin to treat psychology as the science it is. Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated to a scientific study of psychology in Germany. Wundt emphasized the importance of experiments but not to the exclusion of other methods. He used a method of introspection in his experiments. Titchener, a student of Wundt’s, believed that too little was known about the anatomy of the brain to focus on the function of it. Structuralism is focused on the anatomy of the brain. Functionalism is more concerned with the function of the brain.


In addition to psychology being established as a laboratory science, growing knowledge in human anatomy and physiology increased the understanding of how the brain affects mental processes and behavior. Phrenology proposed that personality characteristics should be identified by the shape of the skull. Based on a weak, biased gathering of data related to the shape of skulls and the individual’s behavior, phrenology continued to be popular among the public long after it was disproven.

Case studies such as that of Phineas Gage taught psychologists more about the localization of brain functions and cognitive processes on the brain. In 1868, Phineas Gage was a railroad construction supervisor. During an accidental blast, a steel rod shot through his skull. Miraculously, he survived the incident. Behavior and personality changes due to the injury became evident. The once mild-mannered Gage became aggressive and vulgar. Cases like this showed how the brain affects personality and behavior. Gage’s physician documented these changes, though he had a tendency to minimize the effects of the accident.

During the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, psychology became established as a scientific field in the United States. William James is considered the first American psychologist. While James brought psychology into the system of higher education in the United States, Stanley Hall is credited with establishing the first psychology laboratory. The decades that followed featured growth of experimental psychology and the development of other schools of psychology including behaviorism.    



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    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 

      7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Nicely done - many people don't know that philosophy was the precursor to psychology and science as we know it today....

    • profile image

      Kim S 

      7 years ago

      Just a note, Phineas died in 1860. The date of this event was 1848. Otherwise, good article. I do believe that it may be the event which generated enough interest to push psychology to be a recognized science as soon as it did. Although it took 30 years, I think this event may be the real trigger for Wundt opening his lab for research.

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 

      8 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      This is a great intro to the history of Psychology. I am sure it s a big subject, and it would be a huge hub if it had every single detail attached, hubs are meant to be articles and we don't get enough room to write books here, more's the pity. I am interested in how the mind works and has so much control over the rest of the body and how it shapes our actions. Great hub, Sheila!

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      What do you find confusing, vm? (In English, please.)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      ang gulo!!!!!!!

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Well, obviously, anyone could write volumes of books on the history of psychology, but this is just a brief article...

    • profile image

      mr ripper 

      8 years ago

      You have got to be kidding me? You call this a history? your starting with Bacon? Lets go back to the very beginning to the likes of Aristotle who lived from 384-322 B.C. he wrote the relationship of the soul and body in his De Anima as well as other works. Lets not forget his teacher Plato who origanally formulated the idea for dualism with his idea that the soul can exist separately from the body.His idea that has become dualism.What about Gustav Fechner who performed the first scientific experiments that would form a basis for experimentation in psychology. No mention of Titchener while flawed and mostly feel out of sight with his idea of structuralism. No mention of freud even some of his ideas' are used today granted not much but still are.William James what type of psychology did he follow? Functionalism! What about the first women Margaret F Washburn she published a book on animal behavior that was considered an important work in the era of psychology? I could go on....

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Intriguing and well-written hub!


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