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Historical Perspectives in psychology

What is psychology?

Before looking too deeply into the history of psychology a word or two is needed about what psychology is.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (Andrew M. Colman, editor, Oxford, 2001) psychology is "The study of the nature, functions and phenomena of behaviour and mental experience."

The etymology of the word is that it comes from the combination of two Greek words, psyche meaning soul or mind, and logos meaning word, discourse or reason.

The English word psychology was first used in the book by Steven Blankaart The Physical Dictionary: Wherein the terms of Anatomy, the names and causes of Diseases, chyrugical Instruments and their Use; are accurately Describ'd , published in 1693.

Wikipedia defines the subject as "the science of mind and behavior."

The Wikipedia article further states that the "immediate goal is to understand humanity by both discovering general principles and exploring specific cases, and its ultimate aim is to benefit society."

Since the dawn of civilisation people have been interested to understand thought and behaviour with the purpose of improving both.

The other aspect of psychology which has been of concern to thinkers is psychological problems and the ways in which people have found it difficult to deal with society and the demands placed on them, for conformity or specific ways of thinking.

The attempted answers to all of the questions that these issues raised for thinkers was usually subsumed under either philosophy or religion. In the west especially thinking about humans and their particular place in nature was the subject of speculation by many of the Greek philosophers.

Since 1879, when psychologist Wilhelm Wundt established the first laboratory to study psychology scientifically, psychology has been seen as a scientific discipline on its own.

Since then psychology has developed in three major streams. These are, with some sub-divisions, psycho-analysis, behaviourism and third-stream or humanistic psychology.

In addition, even within these three broad streams, there is a division between psychology and psychiatry, even though there is considerable overlap.

The afore-mentioned Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines psychiatry as the "branch of medicine devoted to the diagnosis, classification, treatment and prevention of mental disorders."

Loosely one can say that psychology is focussed on "talk therapy" while psychiatry focusses more on pharmaceutical interventions, though this is not at all "hard-and-fast." Psychiatrists do engage in discussion and talking to their clients, and psychologists do occasionally resort to pharmaceuticals.

Freud and the psychoanalytic approach

Three great, and largely reductionist, thinkers have dominated modern thought since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848: Charles Darwin in the field of biology with the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species ; Karl Marx in the field of economics and politics with the publication in 1867 of the first volume of Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie ; and Sigmund Freud in the field of psychology with his 1895 publication Studies on Hysteria .

While Studies on Hysteria was an important beginning, Freud's theories really began to take shape with his next major work, The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung) , published in 1900, in which he introduced perhaps his most famous and most important contribution to psychology, the concept of the sub-conscious.

Also introduced in this work is Freud's concept of the "Oedipus Complex" which he would develop more fully later, especially in the seminal 1905 work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

Along with his rather more speculative writings Freud was always involved in helping clients through the practice of psychoanalysis. Indeed all his writings really were treatises on how to help clients deal with psychological issues in their lives.

The analytic approach famously used a couch on which the analysand (the client) lay while the analyst (the psychologist) sat behind the analysand's head, out of sight, while the analysand would speak, freely associating ideas. The analyst would listen and make occasional interventions, usually tentative theories about what the analysand was saying.

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Psychoanalysis developed as Freud worked with clients and discussed his ideas with a group of people who gathered around him in his hometown of Vienna. This group included another great figure of psychology who would later develop his own rather different ideas, the Swiss Carl Gustav Jung.

As the psychoanalytic approach developed it came to have three main components, which can be summarised as:

  1. a method of investigation of the mind and the way one thinks;
  2. a systematized set of theories about human behavior;
  3. a method of treatment of psychological or emotional illness.

In recent years Freud's theories have come under considerable attack. Even some psychoanalysts have rebelled against his theories. Nevertheless his place as the "father" of modern psychotherapy is still secure. Without the theoretical breakthroughs he made modern psychology would be unthinkable.

Pavlov and Skinner - the behaviourist approach

Around the same time that Freud was starting out on his journey of observation and deduction another doctor was beginning a study of the behaviour of dogs.

Ivan Pavlov was in fact primarily interested in physiology and was looking into the physiology of reflex actions in dogs when he noticed that the dogs began to salivate before being offered food. He soon connected the salivation to the ringing of a bell, and thus was born the idea of the conditioned reflex - a specific response to a specific stimulus.

Pavlov himself was not necessarily a psychological behaviourist - it took US-based psychologist J.B. Watson to pick up on Pavolov's ideas and apply them to psychology.

In 1913 he published an article entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" which has come to be known as the "Behaviorist Manifesto". The introduction to the article laid out most of the ideas on which the behaviourist approach is based:

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation.

Whereas Watson insisted that only behaviour could be a valid study for psychology, and labelled thoughts and feelings as "epiphenomena" which could not be studied scientifically, B.F. Skinner included thoughts and feelings as behaviours, thus taking a somewhat less reductionist view than Watson.

Skinner introduced the concept of "operant conditioning" as a development of "classical conditioning" proposed by Pavlov and Watson. Operant conditioning focuses on voluntary activities as opposed to the reflexes which are the focus of classical conditioning, though this is a huge generalisation and over-simplification of the ideas involved.

Many learning systems and theories have developed from Skinner's ideas, for example, the whole programmed learning approach is based on operant conditioning.

The concept of "past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour" is distinctly Skinnerian.

The "Third Way" - humanistic psychology

Soon after the end of World War II some psychologists were becoming dissatisfied with the essentially mechanistic approach of both psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Both of these approaches were essentially reductionist, reducing explanations of human behaviour to single factors.

For many psychologists this approach was a disservice to the complexities and depth of human beings, who felt that neither psychoanalysis nor behaviourism was adequate as an explanatory theory nor as a practice that could deal appropriately with what humans were or could become.

A leading figure in this emerging movement was Abraham Maslow, who in 1957 and 1958 invited fellow-psychologists to two conferences in Detroit at which themes such as self, self-actualization, health, creativity, intrinsic nature, being, becoming, individuality, and meaning were discussed.

Maslow is perhaps best known to most people as the developer of the "Hierarchy of Needs" but that is far from his only contribution to the study and understanding of what it means to be human. Another important concept he developed is that of "self-actualisation."

The changing focus of what psychology could be about is perhaps epitomised in this 1954 quote by the founder of the "person-centred" approach, Carl Rogers:

"When a person comes to me, troubled by his unique combination of difficulties, I have found it most worth while to try to create a relationship with him in which he is safe and free. It is my purpose to understand the way he feels in his own inner world, to accept him as he is, to create an atmosphere of freedom in which he can move in his thinking and feeling and being, in any direction he desires."

The difference both psychoanalysis and behaviourism is clear. The focus shifts from the theoretical to the immediate, from the psychologist to the person with whom the psychologist interacts as a person, not as a "subconscious" or a pre-conceived set of behaviours.

Having said that, it is also true that humanistic psychologists do not throw the baby out with the bathwater! The work of the humanistic psychologists builds on the understanding of human beings that has been developed by the psychoanalysts and the behaviourists. They do not take these as the last words on the matter, but as essential theoretical background.

The focus of the humanistic approach is on the potential of the individual and, by extension, the groups of which all individuals are part. Again a quote from Rogers, this time from 1972, puts this clearly:

"... I have found that if I can help bring about a climate marked by genuineness, prizing and understanding, then exciting things happen. Persons and groups in such a climate move awa from rigidity towards flexibility, away from static living towad process living, away from dependence toward autonomy, away from defensiveness toward self-acceptance, away from being predictable toward an unpredictable creativity. They exhibit living proof of an actualizing tendency."

The historical perspective

It would seem that no one perspective will ever have the full picture because it is just that - a perspective. Historically from the earliest times we have been concerned with questions about who we are, what we are, what our purpose and direction in life should be. Philosophers and sages have had their views and some resonate with one person, others resonate with another.

For each of us our task is to become more human, and that task involves always working for a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. This will involve also understanding both the psyche and our behaviour.

To quote the great Chinese sage Lao Tse:

It is as though he listened

and such listening as his enfolds us in a silence

in which at last we begin to hear

what we are meant to be.

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


Anjo Bacarisas II from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines on July 25, 2012:

I'm getting a degree in Psychology a semester from now and I love this hub. I get to learn a lot of things. But I do not diagnose myself too often because I think it's dangerous to become overly cautious about your own behavior and the behavior of other people. :)) Just a thought.

Lisa HW from Massachusetts on July 21, 2011:

I enjoyed your Hub. Maslow's the one whose ideas I view as the most reasonable. I've done my share of studying/reading in the area of psychology, but I'm not solidly enough familiar with Freud to really have a right to make the following comment (and yet, I need to make it LOL ): I'm glad his ideas are "under fire", and I have a feeling the field of psychology/psychiatry will finally move toward beliefs based more in common sense and solid understanding of human beings. Really, I think Freud was looking at the world, and his patients, through "issues-colored" glasses (and I don't mean "issues" that were his patients' :/ )

faith joy rojo on June 20, 2011:

it seems that theres no such fact about the mening of the above

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 13, 2011:

Onsight Island - thanks so much. Appreciated indeed.

Love and peace


Insight Island on March 04, 2011:

I think love psychology the more now, than ever.this is highly educative.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on December 06, 2010:

Audrey - thanks so much for the visit and the kind words. I do appreciate them. So glad that you found this Hub so good!

Love and peace


Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on December 04, 2010:

The study of Psychology has always fascinated me. So when I saw this hub, I tore right in. You have done a superb job here tony. It is excellent in every way and I appreciate the photos as well. So glad you wrote this hub. I will most likely have the desire to read it again so I have saved it. Thanks so much! :-)

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 28, 2010:

Libby - thank you so much for your kind words. I really am glad you found this one so good!

Love and peace


libby101a from KY on November 27, 2010:

Wonderfully written! Very informative! Voting up! I love psychology and this would be great for anyone in school or college studying the subject!! Awesome!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 27, 2010:

Salaam, Shahid, and thanks for the interesting comment. I appreciate your contribution here very much.

Love and peace


Shahid Bukhari from My Awareness in Being. on November 27, 2010:

From the number of Comments here, it is clear, how very interested, we are in Understanding human Psyche ... So far the half defined Science of Psychology.

In the Islamic definitive ... all Knowledge, Complexes, and Syndromes are an Intrinsic part of the Human Mind ... The Human Awareness in Being ...

Psychology attempts dividing these, into distinct Human Behaviors, where one behavorial characteristic is seen overlapping, or suppressing another, into a definable pattern ... or, the Instincts, overruling Reason etc..

The human Mind cannot be divided into Sections ... its Orientation can be ... into Right and Wrong ... the Fundamentals of Human Awareness ... In the purpose of Being.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 26, 2010:

Dimitris - thanks Brother! I agree - they must have been very courageous. They had to put with a lot of opposition from all sides, perhaps most from people with rather narrow religious views - surprising really since views like those were the cause of a lot of the kinds of problems these pioneers worked with, especially the "hysterics" with whom Freud worked a lot.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace


De Greek from UK on November 26, 2010:

Can you imagine how much courage was needed by the pioneers of what was a completely unknown science? Good job Brother Tony, as usual :-)

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 25, 2010:

Mysterylady - yes I had rather suspected that. Thanks for coming back!

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 25, 2010:

Alek - thanks so much. I really appreciate your comment.

Love and peace


mysterylady 89 from Florida on November 25, 2010:

Tony, from what I gather, individuation is similar to self-actualization. I was fascinated by Jung's idea of the collective unconscious - that we have within our psyche the memories of the entire human race.

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on November 25, 2010:

Really good post, Tony...well thought out and researched.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 25, 2010:

Vinod - thanks for the very kind words, sir! I appreciate them very much.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 24, 2010:

MT - coming from you I am deeply honoured! Thanks for stopping by and leaving such an awesome comment. And don't we just (have issues, I mean)!

Love and peace


Vinod from Hyderabad, India on November 24, 2010:

this is awesome - comprehensive in its sweep, engaging and useful!