Today, psychology is defined as ‘the scientific study of mind and behavior.’ The word ‘psychology’ is derived from two specific Greek words; psyche, which means ‘mind,’ and logia, meaning ‘the study of.’ Simply put, psychology means the study of the mind.
The philosophical interest in the human mind and behavior dates all the way back to the ancient civilizations of Persia, Greece, Egypt, India, and China. Psychology is relatively a very novel science, with most advances developing over the past 150 years. However, its origins could be traced back to 400 – 500 years BC in ancient Greece.
The development of psychology began with an emphasis on Philosophy, with great minds such as Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), thereby influencing Plato (427BC – 348BC), who in turn inspired Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC).
Philosophers used to deliberate about several matters now studied by modern psychology, such as attraction, memory, nature vs. nurture, free will vs. determinism, etc. (Greenfield, P.M., 2013. The changing psychology of culture from 1800 through 2000.)
The Beginnings of Psychology as a Discipline
During the 17th-century, Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, introduced the concept of dualism, which asserted that the mind and body were two distinct entities that interact to form the integral human experience.
Then emerged two dominant theoretical perspectives concerning how the brain worked, i.e., Structuralism and functionalism.
Structuralism was the first school of psychology developed by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). The theory focused on breaking down the various mental processes into the most basic components.
Structuralism primarily relied on trained introspection, a research method wherein the subjects had to relate what was going on in their minds at that moment while performing a particular task.
However, introspection proved to be unreliable as there were too many individual variations in the experience reports of research subjects.
Despite the failure of introspection, Wundt is considered an important figure in the history of psychology as he was the one to separate psychology from philosophy by analyzing and assessing the workings of the mind in a more structured manner, with an emphasis on objective measurement and control. In the year 1879, he also opened the first laboratory dedicated to psychology, and its establishment is usually thought of as the inception of modern experimental psychology. (Martin, J. and Sugarman, J., 2001.)
Background: Philosophy and Physiology
Even today, several other issues debated by psychologists, such as the relative contributions of nature vs. nurture, are essentially rooted in these early philosophical theories.
So what makes psychology different from philosophy?
While antecedent philosophers heavily relied on methodologies such as logic and observation, psychologists today utilize scientific methods to study and draw conclusions about human thoughts and behaviors.
Physiology also significantly contributed to the eventual emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline. Early physiological studies on the brain and its behavior had a powerful impact in the field of psychology, ultimately contributing to applying its numerous scientific methodologies to the study of psychology.
William James (1842-1910), an American psychologist, developed a theory known as functionalism that disagreed with the roots of Structuralism.
He argued that the mind is volatile, and it is fatuous to look for the elements and structure of conscious experience. Instead, he proposed to focus on the purpose of consciousness and behavior, i.e., how and why an individual does something.
James further suggested that psychologists should seek the underlying cause of behaviors and the mental processes involved with them. This emphasis on the implicated causes and consequences of thoughts and behavior has markedly influenced contemporary psychology. (Temkin, O., 1946. The philosophical background of Magendie’s physiology.)
The Perspectives of Psychology
Since then, the theories of Structuralism and functionalism have been replaced by several influential and dominant psychological theories, each one of them bolstered by a shared set of hypotheses of what individuals are like, what’s important to study, and how to do it.
Psychoanalysis developed by Freud was the original psychodynamic theory; however, the psychodynamic approach resulted in a lot of contention.
The behaviorists were the ones to adopt classic contemporary perspectives on scientific strategies in psychology, who were known for their reliance on controlled laboratory experiments and renunciation of any unseen/unconscious factors as causes of behavior.
The humanistic approach later became the ‘third force’ in the field of psychology and proposed the importance of subjective experience and individual growth. (Homme, L.E., 1965. Perspectives in Psychology)
As time goes by, the field of Psychology is progressing exceptionally. Essentially, psychology helps people primarily as it can explain why people behave the way they do.
With this kind of expert insight and understanding, psychologists can help people improve their stress management, decision making, and behavior based on understanding past behaviors to better predict future behaviors. This can help people have happier and healthier lives by attaining better relationships, more self-confidence, successful careers, and overall better communication. (Köhler, W., 1961. Gestalt psychology today)