With reference to the history of psychology in this essay is discussed why most psychologists consider 1879 to be the year when psychology began as an independent discipline. Moreover, there is an explanation of some reasons why this year should not be considered as the founding year.

Psychology is a complex, preparadigmatic) multifaceted discipline, and so is its historical evolution and emergence into an independent discipline. The early origins of psychology can date as far back to 387 BC, whereby Plato theorized that the brain is the mechanism of mental processes, all the way up to, 1879, where many scholars believe was the year psychology emerged truly independent. However, before one may adequately discuss this, it is imperative to begin with the Historical roots of this field.

When delving into the History of Psychology I have elected to take the “great-person approach” which emphasizes the works of individuals over time. Beginning with Plato whom by many, was considered to be one of the most significant thinkers of antiquity. Many of his concepts had a great influence on more contemporary psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who developed his personality theory which emphasized our id (immediate gratification), ego (meeting the demands of the id in a realistic and appropriate way), and superego (our morality, what is right and wrong). His timeless works still have relevance in today’s modern time, whereby scholars use much of what Plato propounded to draw inferences about our human nature.

Moving onto Aristotle, who like Plato was primarily interested in the essences or truths that transcended past what was physically observable, he was one of the first to philosophize on the basis of science. He later gained the title of “panepistimon”, translating to man of all sciences. He encompassed both Rationalism, which states that we possess some forms of knowledge innately, and Empiricism which states that knowledge comes from experience. His book entitled “De Anima” (on the soul) was one of the firsts to treat psychology as a methodical philosophy. In many of Aristotle’s writings he covered topics that are studied in today’s modern epoch such as, memory, sensation, sleep, dreams, geriatrics and learning.

Subsequently, Heraclitus was another significant early Greek philosopher who sought to explore the nature of knowledge, the quintessence of life. It was his belief that every individual possessed “logos”, which is our ability to reason, but stated that we generally do not make use of it. Heraclitus alleged that everything was constantly changing, and evolving, and he often debated with Parmenides who took the stance that nothing ever truly changed, this in turn raised a series of epistemological questions which are still asked by some today; “what if anything is permanent enough to be known with certainty?”.

Though Early Greek philosophers, among others, lay the way for psychology gaining its independence, the influential names I enlisted are by no means exhaustive, if we move onto a more progressed time, we can see that there are other works that had just as big an impact on the evolution of psychology as an independent discipline.

René Descartes, was truly a “renaissance man”. It was said that when he moved to St. Germain, he experienced an intellectual crisis, highlighting the fact that those who came before him could never actually agree on philosophical truth, this sparked his quest to discover and learn for himself. He states:

“I resolved to seek no other knowledge than that which I might find within myself, or perhaps in the great book of nature”.

Like Galileo before him and Newton after him, Descartes had reached a conclusion that our ultimate knowledge was always rooted in Mathematics. His contributions to psychology include his systematic analysis of reflexive behavior which was said to be the beginning of stimulus -response and behavioristic psychology.

It was also said that when he put forth his idea of “innate ideas” that the response to this was so severe that it generated new psychological and philosophical stances, modern empiricism and modern sensationalism. Additionally, so, by investigating the bodies of animal specimen and discovering more about their functionality he ‘gave birth’ to what is referred to as modern physiological and comparative psychology. Descartes paved the way for the scientific study of consciousness.

If we fast forward to Thomas Hobbes, a physical monist, and the birth of British empiricism, we can infer, that like Descartes he also had a great impact on the evolution of psychology. Hobbes attempted to explain human drive through mechanistic philosophies (where one explains the universe as mechanical processes or movement). Hobbes actually rejected, Descartes concept of ‘innate ideas’, and postulated that instead all ideas came from direct experience or sensory experience. He investigated an array of different concepts, stemming from materialism, motivation, empiricism, psychological phenomena, amongst others. He had a profound influence on the way that we viewed our own internal motives, but also, he was able to break down our internal thoughts (mechanistic Philosophy). In fact, he set a precedent for all British empiricists who followed him because they accepted his concept of association as to why we remember or recall certain experiences in a particular order.

Like Hobbes before him and many after him, John Locke challenged Descartes concept of innate ideas, not so much his dualistic philosophies. For Locke, ideas were merely mental imagery that was employed simultaneously while thinking. Locke was particularly influential to the field of Psychology, not just in his essay, especially “The Two Treatises which discussed human understanding which later became the foundation of Western Philosophy, and formed the basis of how individuals developed, but he asked essential questions, like, why and how we became individuals, and what was the true significance of life. “These two ideas, the-body-mind duality” and the “clean-state-mind” have been the strong roots of Western psychology for many decades”.

Onto Charles Darwin, who has had a significant influence on the world of Sciences, but also Psychology. While he hypothesized and theorized numerous things, generally in the 1859 era certain areas of his research were more prominent to Psychology than other areas. Because he postulated that animals and humans had common features in common the field of Comparative psychology increased in popularity. “To say the very least, Darwin’s influence on Psychology was revolutionary'. Darwin forever changed the traditional view of our human nature and with it, he changed the history of Philosophy and Psychology. In contemporary psychology, there is an evident link to Darwinism, for example: Developmental psychology, Animal Psychology, Comparative Psychology, Psychobiology, emotion theory (this list is not exhaustive). Darwin has been credited for stimulating an interest in the investigation of our individual differences, and he showed that studying our behavior was equally important to studying the mind.

Before 1879, Psychology itself was not considered to be an independent discipline, rather rooted in the Philosophy branch, or Physiology and many of the ‘authoritative’ figures at the time were seen as Aristotle or the Church (dogma). However, over the course of History, we can see that there has been an abundance of Philosophers, Scientists, Psychologists that have contributed to the emergence of Psychology as an independent discipline, the names listed previously are a mere handful. However, it was 1879 and Willhelm Wundt that many scholars accredit the official declaration of psychology as an independent discipline. At this point in History Psychology became known as a self-conscious field of experimental investigation. For psychology to be considered an independent discipline meant that it was no longer tied to Philosophy or The Sciences, it was now its own branch, with its own schools of thought.

German psychologist, Willhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory exclusively dedicated to psychological research in Leipzig at this time and wrote the first textbook on psychology entitled “Principles of Physiological Psychology”. Although Wundt was not the first psychologist to have existed, he is considered to be the most influential to the history of psychology according to a survey among historians, his importance stems from his desire to distinguish Psychology from Philosophy and Physiology. Many believe that Wundt himself was the ‘father of Psychology’, his labs set a precedent for how they should be modelled internationally, he is credited with training a large number of first-generation psychologists, he was the first to teach Psychology as an independent discipline, he offered ‘proper’ rigorous methods in Psychology, he was the first person to coin the term ‘experimental psychology’, thereby distinguishing it from the philosophical and sociological sciences. Wundt is also responsible for dividing Psychology into two parts, Experimental and Social, along with severing the ties between Psychology and non-modeled Philosophy, which was important since it gave a clear differentiation to Psychology.

Moreover, Wundt is seen as sparking the evolution of Psychology and even the basis of what we learn today, many scholars agree began with him. In fact, one of his students Edward Titchener, his protégé, has had own influence on psychology, though expanding on Wundt’s ideas he developed one of the first schools of thought, Structuralism, which states that the mind is the sum of different underlying parts. Although structuralism struggled to thrive under the scrutiny of the scientific method, new approaches to the mind evolved.

Functionalism founded by William James in the late 19th century built on Structuralisms concern with the anatomy of the mind, therefore leading to greater concern with the various functions of the mind, and thereafter, Behaviorism arose. Behaviorism, led by B.F Skinner, was predominantly concerned with what was observable and measurable, Skinner is also credited with originating ‘operant conditioning’ which is one of the most used techniques in Psychological therapy today. Following Behaviorism was Gestalt Psychology, looking at behavior in a holistic way. Subsequent to Gestalt Psychology, Humanistic Psychology evolved which emphasized the subjectivity of man, denying the Freudian assumption that the unconscious and or behavioristic environment was the ultimate basis of behavior.

However, although the unanimous consensus globally is that Wundt officially founded Psychology therefore leading to its independence, there is still a level of ambiguity with some scholars. For one, recent research by Schwartz and Pfitser rediscovered Ferdinand Bernard Uberwasser, a professor at the University of Münster who had attempted to make Psychology an independent discipline almost a century before Wundt had. In 1787, Uberwasser published his book which proposed Scientific Psychology on the basis of variable manipulation and promoted the study of memory, perception, and creativity. The tragedy here is that The Napoleonic Wars and the shutdown of the University of Münster made Uberwassers legacy very close to being forsaken, at least, not until modern times. This recent discovery by German researchers has cast a level of uncertainty regarding the argument that Wundt is solely responsible for proposing the independence of Psychology, since it is clear that Uberwasser was impeded by social and political factors but ultimately had the same aspiration.

Another argument is that much of the antiquated philosophical thinking i.e. mental processes and human behavior which have formed the foundations of modern Western Psychology dates back to what the Classical Greeks postulated, and even many of those who came after that, examples including, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, among others. From approximately 600 – 300 BC, Greek Philosophers investigated a wide range of psychological topics relating to what we now consider to be Psychology. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all theorized about emotion, pain, knowledge, rationality and motivation which is still a modern topic of debate; moreover, they are often considered to be the “founders” of mental illness since Socrates and Plato sought to determine the psychological variables at the root of the causes. So why is it that we don’t consider them to be the original founders of psychology? Isnt it remiss that we don’t? Nonetheless, despite that being the case many refute that claim by saying that Wundt’s creation of the first Psychology lab is the crux of what Psychology needed in order to be considered independent, it allowed for experimentation and replication, which has since formed the basis of modern Psychological methodologies, additionally so, although early Greek Philosophers may have investigated psychological topics they were still predominantly philosophical. Subsequently, some Historians are arguing that Hermann Von Helmholtz a predecessor to Wundt was carrying out psychological experimentation before he attempted it. Interestingly enough, Wundt himself had started his career working as Helmholtz’s lab assistant. He was the first to measure the speed of a neural impulse, his findings completely contradicting what was previously said, this is significantly important especially since modern day cognitive psychology, which investigates memory, attention, problem solving etc. all relates back to his discovery. This issue however, with naming Helmholtz the ‘Psychologist’ responsible for first attempting experimentation was his era. In the early 1800s, Psychology had not yet been founded, although we know this was similarly the case with William James who was trained as a Biologist, but later identified as a Psychologist, we can see that in retrospect Helmholtz had a significant impact on Psychology, even tho he himself didn’t identify as one in his time.

Thus, in conclusion, we can infer that through tracing history up until and after 1879, the pinnacle of Psychology’s independence, we are able to highlight and acknowledge the importance of those like the Early Greek Philosophers, and early 17th and 18th century individuals such as Descartes, Locke, Hobbes and Darwin and their contributions to psychology. Though generally universally accepted that Wundt is responsible for the emergence of psychology as an independent discipline via his establishment of the first Psychological Laboratory, there are Historians and Scholars that refute that claim but highlighting the works of early Greek Philosophers, German Physicist Herman Vonn Helmholtz and Bernard Uberwasser who had the same ambition but were encumbered by Political and Social constraints that were pertinent at their times.


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23 March 2023
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