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History of Psychology

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Essay title: History of Psychology

Explain the reasons for the development of psychology as an academic discipline in the 19th and 20th centuries, making explicit the important turning points and breakthroughs.

In this essay I am looking at where Psychology as a discipline has come from and what affects these early ideas have had on psychology today, Psychology as a whole has stemmed from a number of different areas of study from Physics to Biology,

But the first Psychological foundations are rooted in philosophy, which to this day propels psychological inquiry in areas such as language acquisition, consciousness, and even vision among many others.

While the great philosophical distinction between mind and body in western thought can be traced to the Greeks, it is to the influential work of Renй Descartes, French mathematician, philosopher, and physiologist, that we owe the first systematic account of the mind/body relationship. As the 19th century progressed, the problem of the relationship of mind to brain became ever more pressing.

The word Psychology comes from two Greek words: Psyche and Logos. The term ‘psychology’ used early on described the study of the spirit. It was in the 18th century when psychology gained its literal meaning: The study of behaviour. In studies today psychology is defined as the scientific and systematic study of human and animal behaviour. The term psychology has a long history but the psychology as an independent discipline is fairly new.

Psychology started, and had a long history, as a topic within the fields of philosophy and physiology. It then became an independent field of its own through the work of the German Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology and structuralism. Wundt stressed the use of scientific methods in psychology, particularly through the use of introspection. In 1875, a room was set-aside for Wundt for demonstrations in what we now call sensation and perception. This is the same year that William James set up a similar lab at Harvard. Wilhelm Wundt and William James are usually thought of as the fathers of psychology, as well as the founders of psychology’s first two great “schools” Structuralism and Functionalism. Psychologist Edward B Titchner said; “to study the brain and the unconscious we should break it into its structural elements, after that we can construct it into a whole and understand what it does.” (

Functionalism, an early school of psychology, focuses on the acts and functions of the mind rather than its internal contents. Its most prominent American advocate is William James. William James is the author of ‘The Principles of Psychology’ a book that is considered to be one of the most important texts in modern psychology.

“The subject matter of psychology is consciousness and it maybe understood in terms of what it is (structure), or in terms of what it does (function).” (Benjafield, 1996, p.123)

The psychodynamic approach focuses largely on the role of motivation and past experiences in the development of personality and behaviour. In 1986 the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, introduced the term in a scholarly paper. Freud's psychoanalytic approach suggests that people are motivated by powerful, unconscious drives and conflicts. The psychodynamic approach has been drawn from Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Many of Freud’s insights into the human mind, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought.

Through his work with patients and through his theory building, he showed that factors which influence thought and action exist outside of awareness, that unconscious conflict plays a part in determining both normal and abnormal behaviour, and that the past influences the present. Freud’s text ‘Interpretation of dreams’ was published in 1900 was the first of 24 books that he would come to write and in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud both developed the argument that the unconscious exists, and described a method for gaining access to it.

But Freud was criticised for his lack of statistical data and the fact that he used a limited number of disturbed adults, who were what his research was based on, this was seen to be very unscientific.

Founded by John B Watson in 1915 the behaviourist approach studies observed behavioural responses of humans and animals. The behaviourist approach believes we learn to behave in response to our environment, either by stimulus-response association, or as a result of reinforcement.

Behaviourists focus on the influence of the environment, they chose not to be concerned with the internal mechanisms that occur inside the organism, they believe that your behaviour depends on what factors are present in the environment at any given time. Another big contributor

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