Posts Tagged ‘Descartes’

Psychology: The Innovative Humanity-Turned-Science [Part 1]

February 21, 2012 1 comment

[My report for a school history project. It is in the rough stages, but due to time restraints, I will make changes in the future.]

It was a bleak December day for the University of Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. In the confined room of a dilapidated building on campus, professor William Wundt and two assistants were constructing a device that would measure the reaction and response time for a person to hear a ball hit a surface and then press a key.[1] The experiment was simple, yet its implications were revolutionary. For the first time in history, scientific experimentation would be formally conducted in the field of psychology, thus marking the origin of psychology as a science. This first laboratory setting would represent the grand-scale sweeping advance from psychology’s traditionally humanistic approach toward the well-supported organization of scientific investigation.

The cumulative sequence of events that contributed to psychology’s ultimate transition into a science lasted several centuries. It started with 17th century European philosophers who demanded the necessity for scientific experimentation as they expounded upon the need for direct evidence to substantiate ideas. Following them were the slightly radical thinkers whose contrasting notions somewhat hindered psychology’s future development while simultaneously predicting downfalls in the science-to-be. By this point, an influx of diverse thinkers had accumulated in Prussia—soon to be Germany—as it pulled on the role as the principal producer in psychology.

In the decades immediately before the changeover, now-universal key terms, such as “survival of the fittest” and “nature versus nurture,” emerged as intelligence and personal capabilities became hot topics on the psychology platform. When Wundt alas directed the first formal experimental psychology procedure, he created a laboratory that eternally transformed psychology’s future development and character. Germany—and more specifically the University of Leipzig—became evermore the “Mecca” of psychology as studiers flocked from around the world to share their ideas in this extended symposium.[2] A decade later, the immature science made its definitional debut in print, incidentally in America, which formally established its position among other technical disciplines.

Into the 20th century, psychology diversified. Yet in the following decades, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler eradicated much of Germany’s contribution to the study as he narrowed psychology’s focus toward the holistic German experience.[3] Psychology consequently transferred toward a revitalized structure in America. Here, rigorous reformers implemented their schools of thought, each of which proved an advantage, hindrance, or both, with regards to the science’s progress.

The ensuing result was a versatile humanity-turned-science that clutched the potential to revolutionize the world’s perception of human mentality. With a systematic means for providing evidence and a batter of multifaceted theories to keep it evolving, psychology has molded into a science, one with a profound strength and innate competitiveness that will keep it in the stadium of technical disciplines.


In the 1600’s, psychology’s leading thinkers provided the basis on which the science would evolve. One of the first was French philosopher René Descartes, who introduced a chain of proposals that would be construed into the structure for modern scientific investigation.[4] Soon after, he formulated theories on the interactions between the mind and body, which foreshadowed psychology experimentation with regards to the brain’s relationship with the body.[5] This interaction was the foundation for psychology, although the concept proved difficult to analyze because neither the mind nor the body could be perceived individually.

English thinker John Locke substantiated Descartes’ proclamations through the former’s comparisons of the mind as a blank paper. From this empiricism viewpoint, Locke believed that knowledge regarding oneself and others was derived from sensory observation, which was accordingly analyzed and reflected in the mind.[6] Through this approach, Locke introduced the concept of acquiring knowledge via examination.

While individualistic perception was still evolving, psychology’s future development was greatly shaped by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant during the ensuing century. In varying scenarios, Kant supported both empiricism and rationalism, which advocated human’s innate ability to reason. Yet Kant’s cumulative philosophies arguably vilified the soon-to-be science as he projected his ideas on human morality. The thinker asserted that one’s sense of morality was based on logic and reason as opposed to sentiment. He believed that humans experienced sensations exteriorly, which exposed their ethical conduct to fluctuation.[7] Kant’s widely acclaimed views plus his insistence that scientific psychology was impossible additionally wounded psychology’s reputation at the time. Because of the study’s inability to be mathematically expressed, Kant disaffirmed its viability as a science.[8] By slandering it, the theorist would compel some thinkers to stray away from psychology while simultaneously requiring future psychologists to rethink their notions.


Into the 1800’s—the century of the revolution—philosophy encountered biology in a smoothly concocted medley that would quickly pave way for scientific psychology’s debut. Optimistically contributing to the eventual science was English naturalist Charles Darwin, whose publications on evolution and animal thinking supplied the subsequent decades with novel ideas. His evaluations brought forth the general speculation on differences in traits and abilities within the human species.[9] In relation to psychology, these findings implied nature’s role in molding individuality.

One of Darwin’s most driving assertions was the evolutionary belief that all species were derived from a single primitive predecessor.[10] English polymath Francis Galton further developed this claim on evolution by analyzing how the single human species could result with so many disparities. In this manner, he procured the world-renowned controversy of the nature-versus-nurture debate that would soon become the fundamental force in psychology and the basis for virtually all investigations. The dispute questioned the amount that nature—one’s genetic make-up and characteristics from birth—shaped an individual in comparison to that of nurture—all surrounding conditions and situations after birth.[11] The debate instantly secured its grip as thinkers from the humanities and sciences volunteered their opinions on the subject. The question was consequently coined a psychology term as it strengthened the durability and flexibility of the burgeoning field.

An appendage to his foremost and most famous pondering was also Galton’s attempt to classify people based on their natural abilities. He noted the extensive variations of intelligence capacity and ability among individuals and accordingly observed case studies to further gauge the extent to which intellect could vary.[12] In the near future, human intelligence would become a chief point of interest in psychology due to its role in linking the brain’s doings with those of the body.

[1] David G. Myers, Psychology, 8th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2007), 3.

[2] Myers, 8.

[3] George Mandler, A History Modern Experimental Psychology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 128, Amazon Kindle e-book.

[4] René Descartes, Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 160.

[5] Descartes, 182.

[6] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), 1:121-4.

[7] Michael Rohlf, “Immanuel Kant,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 19, 2011, last modified May 20, 2010,

[8] Alan Kim, “Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 19, 2011, last modified June 20, 2006,

[9] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. Wordsworth Editions Limited (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998), 103.

[10] Frederick Burkhardt, Samantha Evans, and Alison Pearn, eds. Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3.

[11] Francis Galton, English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (New York: D. Appleton, 1890), 7-9, accessed November 19, 2011, Google eBooks.

[12] Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius (New York: D. Appleton, 2006), 11, accessed November 11, 2011, Google eBooks.

[To be continued.]