History of Psychology

“Psychology has a long past, yet its real history is short.” This quote, by Hermann Ebbinghaus, describes the juxtaposition of psychology throughout the years. Although it was recognized as a science only a short time ago, psychologists know that the history of psychology is rooted in philosophy. All the questions that are or have been asked by psychologists have, sometimes centuries earlier, been asked before by philosophers. Two of the most important philosophers to impact psychology were Renee Descartes and John Locke. The nineteenth century also brought into focus the workings of the brain and nervous system (Goodwin, 2008).

Renee Descartes

     Renee Descartes was a revolutionary rationalist who lived during the seventeenth century. He was highly intelligent, and sought a scientific way to unite knowledge by grounding it in mathematics. He was also considered the first physiological psychologist. As a rationalist, Descartes believed that the only truth that could be relied upon was that which could not in any way be doubted. He had four basic principles to be used as guidelines when one sought the truth of an idea: first, be sure the idea is without doubt; second, analyze the idea down to its most core elements; third, analyze the core elements and work back up to the whole; fourth, review all conclusions carefully (Goodwin, 2008).

     Descartes hypothesized that there were two types of ideas: innate and derived ideas. Innate ideas were ideas one already possessed through use of rationalization alone. The five senses were not involved in innate ideas. Derived ideas were those ideas that came from ones sensory experiences of the real world. In this way, Descartes was a dualist, one who argued that the mind and body were completely separate entities. This belief also gave birth to his ideas on interactionism (belief that the mind directly influences the body) and human emotions. Shortly before his death, he theorized that there was a link between human reflexes (automatic stimulus response reactions) and emotions (Goodwin, 2008).

John Locke

     John Locke was an empirical philosopher who lived during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His beginning idea was to turn epistemology into an experimental and empirically based discipline. Epistemology is the study of human knowledge and how it is acquired. Locke rejected Descartes’ theory of innate ideas, instead believing that all ideas come from experiences. More specifically, he believed that every idea comes from the experience processes of sensation and reflection. Locke hypothesized that there were two kinds of ideas: simple ideas and complex ideas. Simple ideas were the result of basic sensory experiences, while complex ideas were combinations of several ideas into one idea (Goodwin, 2008).

     Locke also coined the ideas of primary and secondary qualities of matter. Primary qualities of matter are the intrinsic properties of an object. Secondary qualities of matter are dependent upon one’s perception of the object. The implication of Locke’s theory on the influence of experiences on ideas were that if one’s knowledge were based on sensation-sourced experiences, then defective senses may warp one’s view of the world. Locke also believed (as a liberal in his time) that people experiencing different environments may have different ideas and beliefs about the world, and those differences should be embraced rather than condemned (Goodwin, 2008).

Nineteenth century

     Robert Whytt, a prominent Scottish neurologist in the mid-eighteenth century, made important discoveries into the physiology of reflexes. His work led to a better understanding of reflexes, and knowledge that the brain was not needed in the operation of reflexes. Whytt’s work lead to a burst of knowledge about the nervous system in the nineteenth century. In just one hundred years, scientists discovered that sensory and motor nerves were distinctive, neurons were recognized and observed, and, according to Goodwin, “the concept of a synapse was coming to be accepted; the physiology of nervous system function was starting to be understood; and knowledge of brain function had gone far beyond phrenology and identified areas responsible for language comprehension and production, and various sensory and motor functions” (pp. 112-113). The nineteenth century saw many remarkable advances (Goodwin, 2008).

     The history of psychology can be described as a series of steps, from the earliest philosophical ideas to the latest scientific breakthroughs. Each person took the knowledge gained from those before and took it one step further. Renee Descartes sought to identify the truth and the source of knowledge. John Locke applied science to the study of human knowledge and adapted Descartes theories to fit a new hypothesis. Years later, Whytt paved the way for a scientific revolution by studying the nervous system and its functions. All of these men put the pieces together that later formed the road to psychology itself (Goodwin, 2008).


Goodwin, C.J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley &

     Sons Inc.