History books are filled with the writings of Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato who mused about the origins of mankind and the inner workings of the human mind. The science of psychology did not exist apart from the fields of philosophy, anthropology, and religion before the 1800’s. After it was recognized as a distinct discipline it it was progressively shaped by a number of schools of thought, each of which further developed its science. This paper will briefly discuss five major schools of thought including notable scientists and the most significant contributions of each.
Wilhelm Wundt, son of a German Lutheran minister, opened the first experimental laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879 to study the human mind. As a physiologist and university professor, he saw the need to study human behavior after the same fashion as other fields of science. He believed that the human mind was largely shaped by perceptions and sensations that occurred in the consciousness and sought to identify them through introspection. Wundt’s work has been classified under the heading of “Structuralism” because he broke down the conscious mind into what he perceived to be three separate parts: sensations, feelings, and perceptions. Wundt is credited with being the Father of Experimental Psychology because of his pioneering work in the laboratory.[i]
A scientist named Edward Bradford Titchener was a student of Wundt’s work in the United States. He later founded a school of structuralism at Cornell University and became the American authority of experimental psychology of his time.
William James was born in 1842 and went on to study medicine. The son of an affluent and well educated father, he became initially interested in the fields of philosophy and theology and followed the emergence of psychology as its own discipline. While studying the work of both Wundt and Titchener, he became convinced that merely studying the components of the conscious mind were not enough unless this knowledge could be used to understand how the mind worked. His pioneering efforts in establishing an experimental laboratory at Harvard University earned him the distinction as the Father of the School of Functionalism. He was also immersed in “Pragmatism” the belief that abstract truth could never be proven and was only as significant as it was useful. [ii]
The schools of Structuralism and Functionalism rivaled one another for preeminence in the field of experimental psychology, but neither ever emerged to be more widely accepted. Eventually they gave way to new and more sophisticated ways of studying human behavior. However, both the structure and the function of the human mind are both incorporated into the more modern disciplines.
In 1913 an American named John Watson turned the focus of the experimental fields of psychology away from the subjective and toward a more measurable science by advocating that rather than limiting study to the consciousness, that psychologists ought to be observing behavior. Unlike Wundt and James, he turned his attention, not to the consciousness and its perceptions, but to the effect of external stimuli on behavior. He believed that human beings were largely shaped by their responses to the environment around them. As the school of Behavioralism developed, Watson’s views were considered a bit extreme because he focused almost exclusively on the impact of operant conditioning. While teaching at John Hopkins’s University in Baltimore, Maryland, Watson gained the attention of the psychological community with the Little Albert Study, which was an attempt to prove that emotions could be artificially manipulated by external variables.
The School of Behavioralism dominated the science of psychology for over forty years. Other notable psychologists who worked and distinguished themselves in this field include the Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, who performed experiments to study conditioned reflexes and P.F. Skinner, an American psychology student at Harvard University who developed the idea of operant conditioning (the use of positive and negative reinforcements to produce change). Unlike Pavlov, Skinner studied the natural effects of the environment, rather than attempting to purely manipulate them.[iii]
While Behavioralism’s impact dominated the field of American psychology during the latter half of the 1900’s it remains a strong focus for modern day psychologists who clinically treat patients through the use of reshaping current behaviors rather than focusing on insights from the past.
Sigmund Freud was Moravian born, but lived and worked in Austria most of his life. His immediate influence is mostly significantly felt during the mid 1900’s. He was a medical doctor, a physiologist, and the father of the Psychoanalytic school of thought. His ideas revolutionized the field of psychology as his experiments turned from focusing on the conscious to the unconscious. He is best known for his works related to the “id” and “ego.” He believed that the “id” was the seat of the unconscious and drove the desires for pleasure, including the sex drive. The “ego” was the name he gave to conscious thought. Neurosis or mental illness was believed to occur when there was conflict between the id and the ego that could not be successfully resolved.
Perhaps Freud’s most significant positive contribution to psychology is his assertion that unresolved events in the one’s past could create cognitive and emotional difficulties in the present. Modern psychotherapists who lean heavily on gaining insight from past trauma ground themselves in psychoanalytic theory.
Freud’s assertions did not set well with behavioralists who did not focus on the unconscious, but the consciousness of human beings. His theories of the unconscious and of the origin of neurosis continue to significantly impact modern day psychology. [iv]
While Behavioralism remained strong in America, a man named Max Wertheimer arrived on the scene in Germany. He advocated that the real significance of behavior could not be determined by examining mere pieces or vignettes. Instead, he believed that the whole could only be understood in light of the significance contribution of each piece. While he eagerly study the parts of a problem, his work pioneered efforts to step away from the minutiae and gain perspective and significance by looking at the bigger picture, in light of each of the parts. He believed that all behavior should be seen as only a part of a bigger pattern. With men like Wolfgang Kohler, an American psychologist who extensively studied human perception, Wertheimer founded the Gestalt school of psychology. Gestalt theory shaped the role of psychotherapy in Europe and popularized the “Gestalt approach” to helping people solve problems. [vi]
These five schools of thought each played a significant role in shaping the development of psychology as a science from the middle 1800’s until the middle 1900’s. From an awareness of the conscious to the unconscious; from mere observation to asking how what was seen could be useful in understanding human behavior, each of these men contributed to a bigger picture that would be further built upon by more contemporary schools of thought including the fields of cognition, humanism, and neuro-science. The latter are generally considered to be more modern schools of psychological thought and should be examined separately.
[ii]Schultz, Duane and Schultz, Sydney Ellen. The History of Modern Psychology, Thomson and Wadsworth, 2007.