Historical Foundation of Psychology Essay Sample

Although the philosophic underpinnings of modern psychology are important, and surely are necessary for a complete understanding of the development of the academic discourse in psychology, I will not undertake to elucidate the distant ancestors of our field. I must justify this position. I certainly believe that the Greek and later philosophers set patterns such as Socratic methodology, and the belief that the world is an entity that can be studied by its manifestations. Moreover, since there are many cultures in the world that do not subscribe to this European conceptualization of existence, it is obvious that without that basis modern, scientific psychology could never develop. None-the-less, the as sheer amount of possible and probable intervening influences preclude the reasonable and logical sequencing of that development. For example, it could be argued that the feudal economy was (at least partially) maintained by the primacy of the Catholic Church throughout Europe.

An equally valid argument can be made that that oppressive atmosphere was the major fertile ground for the radical reaction against non-rational or philosophies that were not physically or biologically based. And the enlightenment, which followed the renaissance, was particularly anti-religious as a continued reaction to the oppressive dogmatism of the religious establishment. This might been seen in Voltaire’s satire of Leibniz’s philosophy that “all is for the best in this best of possible worlds.” So we could say that the social-political-economic of the Middle Ages was pivotal in forming a scientific basis for psychology. Therefore, how can we reasonably assert that Wundt’s dedication to measuring of discrete mental and observable facts is a tradition going back to Greek philosophy or a manifestation of more contemporary sociopolitical factors. And whereas both arguments probably contain quite a bit of truth, the point borders on the moot. This sentiment is reflected by Harrison (1963).

Modern psychology does have as its immediate parentage two (or three) major contributors, which should be examined. These are the structuralism school of Wilhelm Wundt, and the functionalist school of William James. Behaviorism might be considered a separate development since Watson consciously attempted to put the two aforementioned scientists in the same category, but most historians consider the behavioral school as a development of functionalism.

Prior to the advent of psychology as an academic and separate research science, this field was examined by physiologists. Johannes Muller was a major figure in the early 1800’s and wrote the basic text for the preeminent centers of physiological studies in Germany of that time. In his work and textbook he outlined many experimental works and procedures, but it is significant to note that he retained a basic tenet that life’s basic structure was the soul. He even included calculations concerning the speed at which the soul enters that body in his textbook. It was his students Ernst Weber, Emil Du Bios-Reymond, Hermann von Helmoltz who vowed to never allow anything that can not be reduced to physical or biological processes in their research or writings.

Wilhelm Wundt is often considered the father of modern scientific psychology since he was the first to establish a laboratory that had a defined scientific process for investigating mental events. Equally important was his journal, that he published for the purpose of publicizing for the scientific community, the results of the experiments conducted at his laboratory. I think it important to examine the setting that Wundt found himself. Germany was the center of the academic world at that time. He was on the forefront of what was becoming a new area of science. There were other laboratories being opened but they were not for “psychology” rather for physiology. Muller, Weber, and Helmhotz were his mentors, and were physiologists. It was their reductionist outlook, and the idea that all of life’s processes can be reduced to physical and biological constructs that set the basis for Wundt’s experimental and empirical work. Many of the methods used by Wundt can be seen as almost natural outgrowths of the methods of these immediate German predecessors.

However, these noted researchers studied human characteristics that can be seen even today as more neurological than psychological. Such aspects of experience as the speed of neural transmission, the ability to differentiate between two points on the skin, are just two examples. (I think it interesting to note that the reintegration of physiology and psychology in the form of neuropsychology is extremely structural. Dr. Adams, in his lectures this week at the C-4 in Alexandria explains that in contemporary neuropsychology there is an effort to identify specific brain structures for specific emotional reactions. Though not Wundtian, is certainly seems structural.) However, testing reaction time is more than merely the speed of the neural transmission.

When Wundt discovers that it takes longer to react when there is a discrimination process involved the experiment become decisively psychological and not physiological. Then Wundt method of introspection can only be termed psychological, even though using trained introspectionists (as Titchener called them) would seem to bring the scientific validity of the conclusions into question. It is important to note that Wundt had some very un-Wundtian tendencies when viewed from our American perspective. He attempted in his later years to define a psychology of human interaction, which as we will presently see, is seen from this side of the Atlantic, is not in his own tradition.

If one is to look at the writings of early American psychologist, the philosophical battle for the definition of the science becomes extremely apparent. In Titchener’s (1898) seminal article he begins by outlining three “mutually interdependent sciences of morphology, physiology, and ontogeny” in the science of living things. That is the function, structure, and process of change in the realm of biology. However, while allowing for a value in descriptive (functional) psychology he posits that it, “cannot, in the nature of the case, lead to scientific finality.” After devoting some time to showing how it is not efficient to look at the higher functions of judgment (ala Brentano,) will (ala James,) or thought (ala Stout) he attempts to outline the very basics of cognitive life. These are the sensations which must have “two indispensable determinants of…quality and intensity.” He builds these elements into a cadre of elements and qualities that I think worth quoting. “I conclude, then, that the affective element of constituted of quality, intensity, and duration; the sense element (sensation or idea) of quality, intensity, duration, clearness, and (in some cases) extent.

Quality is intrinsic and individual; intensity and clearness are ‘relative’ characteristics; duration and extent are, very probably, extrinsic translations into a structure of the lowest terms of a functional series. And the corollary is that the ‘elements’ of the experimentalist, as they have been the first to urge, are artifacts, abstractions, usefully isolated for scientific ends, but not found in experience save as connected with their like.” This makes it clear that the subject of structural psychology was not and never intended to be natural, daily cognitive or emotional processes. Tichener (1899) makes this even more clear a year later in a reply to Caldwell, “The whole trend of our thoughts-habits, and the whole of linguistic tradition, favor a functional, and make against a structural consideration of mind. In our daily life and conversation, we have no temptation to think or speak of our mental states and processes in any other than a functional way.” His line of study, however, is solely to describe the “is” and not the “is-for,” since in his view the “is-for” is not scientific.

It has been argued that this Tichenerian postulation of the reduction of psychology to basic measurable processes is actually anti-Wundt (Danziger, 1972). Danziger expounds the Wundtian belief that psychology consists of two complimentary halves, individual and social. And although Tichener clearly lumped Wundt into the same mold as Kuple, Mach, and Avenarius, the later three went way beyond Wundt in their structural, reductionist conceptualization of psychology, as did Tichener himself. It is probably just due to the sheer influence of the name of Wundt, that Tichener misrepresented his mentor’s teachings.

American functional psychology had its formal beginnings with William James who established his laboratory at Harvard the same year that Wundt established his in Germany. Harrison (1963) considers James as forerunner of American functionalism. However, it’s roots can be traced back to Darwin through an essay written by Chauncey Wright on “The Evolution of self-consciousness” published in 1873 at the request of Darwin himself (Madden, 1974). Wright was a frequent visitor in the James’ home and although there were frequent disagreements between William and the older philosopher, the notion of pure experience, the very point that Tichener found unscientific, was attributable to Chauncy Wright. It was Wright’s idea, that James espoused, that the main causes of unconscious inference and reasoning are association by contiguity and similarity. It was the Darwinian concept that purposeful function was the means by which natural selection progressed in the animal kingdom that allowed for James to apply the function of animal behavior as a unit of scientific inquiry.

Charles Sanders Peirce is acknowledged, even by James, as another of the fundamental originators of American functionalism. Like James, he viewed mental processes in terms of the outcome and function, i.e. the pragmatic. Peirce was extremely well versed in Wundt’s writings, but even as early as 1867 expressed a dislike for the Wundtian introspective psychology, and preferred what he called an empirical psychology (Cadwallader, 1974). He advocated for a psychology that researched and defined complex mental processes. Where the structuralists might have believed that a computer can have true artificial intelligence, Peirce wrote in 1887, “how much of the business of thinking a machine can be made to perform, and what part of it must be left for the living mind, is a question not without conceivable practical importance.”

At the University of Chicago from 1896 there was a group of psychologists and philosophers who are universally recognized as the original nucleus of the functional movement. John Dewey was the Chairman of the department of Philosophy there (until he moved to Columbia University in New York), and significantly contributed to psychology with his famous paper “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology (1896). Dewey stipulated that behavior was more complex than stimulus-response. He saw that, for instance, when a child pulls her hand away from a burning candle, even the simplest analysis would put the sensori-motor behavior before the light stimulation. And on deeper analysis one must also include previous experiences with the candle to define the behavior. As such he actually preferred the term “organic circuit” to the term reflex arc.

This quick overview leaves a fantastic amount of comparison and mutually critical articles and concepts untouched. It does not do justice to the phenomenal amount of intellectual effort that was invested in defining psychology in those early years. I would like to end with two comments.

First I would like to give a summary. Tichener, in his personal fortress of Wundtian psychology fought the holistic, phenomenological, and practical, functional school of psychology as detrimental to the integrity of psychology as a science. The functionalists fought the Tichenerian brand of structuralism as insignifcant, and dead-end in that it could never lead to practical application.

Second, I need to make a comment that I can only properly allude to rather than properly cite. When I was researching this posting in the Library of Congress I saw an article in one of the journals that postulated that psychology at the turn of the last century was a Kuhnian paradigmatic science. As such, these academic arguments were not serving the purpose of defining the field, but refining the methodology of a mature science. When I saw the article I did not write down the reference because it seemed very far out of line with the rest of the readings that I was doing. At this point it seems like a valid point, and one to ponder.


Cadwallader, T. C. (1974), Charles S. Peirce (1939-1914), Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 10(3), 291-298.

Dewey, J. (1896), The reflex arc in psychology. Psychological Review, 3, 357-370.

Harrison, R. (1963). Functionalism and its historical significance, Genetic Psychology Monographs, 68, 387-423.

Madden, E. H. (1974) Chauncey Wright’s Functionalism, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 10(3), 281-290.

Peirce, C.S., (1887). Logical machines, American Journal of Psychology, 1, 165-170.

Additional resources:

Brennan, J. F. (1998) History and Systems of Psychology (5th Edition), Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

Hunt, M. (1993). The Story of Psychology. Doubleday, New York, New York

Robinson, D. N. (1997). The Great Idea of Psychology (Part 1). (audio tape). The Teaching Company.