The Origins of Modern Psychology

Ideas do not simply appear in a vacuum. Artists, philosophers and writers are often reacting in some way to what went before, to the great thinkers and creators who have worked in their field. All systems of thought, all disciplines, all bodies of knowledge have a past. And psychology is no different.

The Ancient Greeks

As with so much else, the study of the mind began in Ancient Greece. Indeed, even the word psychology comes from the Greek ‘psyche,’ or soul. And Greek thinkers approached the subject as a scientific problem. In other words, they did not seek mystical or religious explanations. For example, Empedocles, one of the very earliest Greek philosophers, developed a wholly materialistic understanding of the psyche. For him, all thought and perception were dependent on changes in the body. In his work On the Soul, Aristotle also set out a materialistic view, one derived from his love of biology.

And it was the Greeks who first established the idea of mind and matter as two separate entities. In the Phaedrus, for example, Plato uses the famous charioteer metaphor. The ‘soul,’ he argues, is like a charioteer pulled by two horses: the first represents physical passion, the second the higher emotions.

Descartes and Newton

Ideas are shaped by the paradigm within which they are developed. ‘Paradigm’ is a rather ugly word that simply means the fundamental, deep-rooted, underlying beliefs dominating a particular culture. These are usually so deep that they are rarely challenged. When they are, and new ones put in their place, a different paradigm appears. The paradigm in which modern psychology has evolved was established by two men above all: Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton.

Descartes was a French philosopher, born in 1596 and dying in 1650. He argued that mind and body belong to different realms. The body is part of the material world (what Descartes called the ‘extended thing’) and is governed by the same laws that govern the movement of planets, stars, birds, trees, and so on. But mind is composed of a fundamentally different substance (the ‘thinking thing’) and exists in a parallel but separate world. This idea has been nicknamed the ‘ghost in the machine’ and has often been ridiculed, but it has nevertheless shaped both the course and nature of modern psychology.

Isaac Newton was an Englishman and Cambridge University graduate (the same university Charles Darwin was to graduate from two centuries later). Newton discovered the physical laws governing the movements of Descartes’ ‘extended thing.’ Newton and Descartes, along with others like Francis Bacon, established what is known as the ‘mechanistic paradigm.’ Those who read Newton ceased to understand the Universe as a strange, mystical place inhabited by spirits and animated by powers beyond human understanding. Instead, the universe now resembled a great machine governed by precise mathematical laws.

Modern Psychology

Of course, philosophers have always been interested in the mind and in what we would now call ‘consciousness.’ Indeed, men like Spinoza, Leibniz, and the British empiricists Hobbes and Locke, all developed theories on how the mind worked and how it interacted with Descartes’ ‘extended thing’. But psychology as popularly understood, meaning a scientific discipline devoted solely to understanding the nature of the mind, began in 19th century Europe. And, like so many systems of thought, modern psychology was influenced by the mechanistic paradigm.

To understand this, it would be helpful to consider two examples: Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis. Behaviorism was founded by John Watson in the early 20th century and later developed by B.F. Skinner. Whereas Descartes was interested in both the ‘ghost‘ and the machine, Behaviorists concentrated on the machine alone. Psychology, for Watson, should focus on the facts. Rather than seeking to understand some spooky, immaterial essence, the emphasis should be on behavior. Observe, study, and analyze human behavior and you would understand human psychology. There was no need to discuss things like ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’. In a sense, the Behaviorists approached human beings as they would approach any other animal. Zoologists study the behaviour of Chimpanzees and Gorillas – why not do the same with humans? Fritjof Capra describes Behaviorism as a ‘Newtonian psychology,’ in other words, one that approaches human beings as Newton approached the universe. If the universe is a great machine obeying certain fixed laws, then perhaps human beings are the same. Just as the movement of planets can be reduced to laws of gravitation, so human behavior can be reduced to conditioned responses.

Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud towards the end of the 19th century, did not begin in the University. It developed in a clinical setting as a way to heal neurotic patients. Many thought of Psychoanalysis as something new. With its theories about an unconscious, it seemed a way of counteracting the mechanistic view of reality. But Freud was a firm believer in reason, a man who despised organised religion and saw mechanistic science as the great hope. Like Newton and Descartes, he saw reality as composed of mind and matter. And he sought to map the unconscious as Newton sought to map the cosmos. Just as Newton described the ‘force of gravity’ so Freud had his own forces: Libido and Destrudo. And just as Newton described the way material objects were moved by such forces, so Freud described the way the ego is shaped by damned up libidinal energy.

Modern psychology, like any other body of ideas, has been shaped by the culture in which its theorists were raised. Some now argue that the old paradigm, set down by Descartes and Newton in the 17th century, is coming to an end. In the early 20th century, a revolution occurred in physics, one that has profoundly shaken the world of ideas. When the smoke clears, some argue, a new paradigm will emerge. The psychology of the future is likely to be as incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the early 21st century as Freud would be to an Ancient Egyptian.

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