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Development of Modern Psychology

The De anima of Aristotle is considered the first monument of psychology as such, centered around the belief that the heart was the basis for mental activity. The foundations of modern psychology were laid by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued that scientific causes could be established for every sort of phenomenon through deductive reasoning. The mind-body theories of Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and G. W. Leibniz were equally crucial in the development of modern psychology, where the human mind's relation to the body and its actions have been significant topics of debate.

In England the empirical method employed in modern psychological study originated in the work of John Locke, George Berkeley, Thomas Reid, and David Hume. David Hartley, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Alexander Bain stressed the relation of physiology to psychology, an important development in the scientific techniques of modern psychology. Important contributions were made in the physiological understanding of human psychology by French philosopher Condillac, F. J. Gall, the German founder of phrenology, and French surgeon Paul Broca, who localized speech centers in the brain.

In the 19th cent., the laboratory work of Ernst Heinrich Weber, Gustave Fechner, Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Edward Titchener helped to establish psychology as a scientific discipline—both through the use of the scientific method of research, and in the belief that mental processes could be quantified with careful research techniques. The principle of evolution, stemming from Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, gave rise to what became known as dynamic psychology. The new approach, presented by American psychologist William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890), looked at consciousness as an evolutionary process.

Out of the new orientation in psychology grew the clinical experiments in hysteria and hypnotism carried on by J. M. Charcot and Pierre Janet in France. Sigmund Freud, in his influential theory of the unconscious, gave a new direction to psychology and laid the groundwork for the psychoanalytic model. Freudian theory took psychology into such fields as education, anthropology, and medicine, and Freudian research methods became the foundations of clinical psychology.

The behaviorism of American psychologist John B. Watson was highly influential in the 1920s and 30s, with its suggestion that psychology should concern itself solely with sensory stimuli and behavioral reaction. Behaviorism has been important in modern psychology, particularly through the work of B. F. Skinner since the 1930s.

Equally important was the development of Gestalt psychology by German psychologists Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler, and Max Wertheimer. Gestalt theory contended that the task of psychology was to study human thought and behavior as a whole, rather than breaking it down into isolated instances of stimulus and response.

Another influential school of psychology was developed in the 1950s and 60s by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Their humanistic theory asserts that people make rational, conscious decisions regarding their lives, and optimistically suggests that individuals tend to reach toward their greatest potential.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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