Historiography of psychology views it as simultaneously an old and young discipline. The first people to study the questions that relate to modern psychology were ancient Greek philosophers 2500 years ago. However, the discipline of psychology itself was only born in the nineteenth century when scientific methods were applied to philosophy, thus creating modern psychology. The reason why mental processes were analyzed using methods of major sciences lies in Rene Descartes’s thesis that the human body is matter, which functions on physical laws (Schultz and Schultz 33). Depending on the way one chooses to analyze how history unfolds, it is possible to follow either the personalistic theory or the naturalistic theory.
The personalistic theory focuses on the achievements of individual psychologists. For instance, Wilhelm Wundt was the one who invented the name “psychology.” Wundt saw himself as an agent of Zeitgeist, which refers to a combination of intellectual and cultural features of a particular time. However, Wundt’s understanding of psychology was met with criticism, with groups of psychologists forming their orientations and concepts. These alternative approaches to psychology became known as schools of thought, serving as the foundation for new psychology. For example, Wundt’s follower Edward Bradford Titchener offered his interpretation – structuralism. Titchener’s most noteworthy idea was that scientists could mistake the object of observation for the mental process – the stimulus error.
The naturalistic theory prioritizes circumstances over the achievements of individuals. Each scientist exists in a combination of economic, political, social, cultural, and intellectual factors, which can be summarized as contextual forces. If these forces create favorable conditions, then it is inevitable that an idea will be born. Regardless of whether the development of psychology was the result of individual geniuses or circumstances, the discipline of psychology started to become more consolidated among scientists. Yet, many psychologists still have not reached a consensus on the most essential questions and answers, which would eventually become paradigms.
According to a historian of science Thomas Kuhn, each science undergoes stages in its development. For a scientific revolution to fully transpire, paradigms should be formed. Scientists in each period attempt to create an explanation for psychology according to contemporary contextual forces. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, such a force was the mechanism. It presupposed that each process could be clearly explained by physics or chemistry. For example, James Mill argued that the mind is essentially a highly sophisticated machine. Later, Wundt would propose that the mind is so self-organized that it can synthesize elements of consciousness into thought processes.
A similar approach was used by the framework of positivism, which stated that only facts proven by scientific experiments are reliable. However, whereas physical processes are evident, psychological ones are more complicated to distinguish. For example, Wundt’s method of observation, known as introspection, revolved around the examination of one’s mental state. However, critics of introspection point to the inevitable bias of the observer, which prevents the objectivity of a scientific fact. Therefore, it became necessary to separate experience independent of the experiencing person from the dependent one, such as introspection.
Psychologists’ desire to understand the human mind led to the creation of the concept of contiguity which allowed scientists to explain that human memory functions by association. Therefore, scientists needed more insight into the human mind, which came from brain physiology. Hermann von Helmholtz provided some of that useful insight with his studies of vision, hearing, and neural impulses. One of the ways of studying the brain was electrical stimulation used by Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig in 1870. Electrical stimulation of the brain allowed scientists to observe motor functions. At the same time, German scientists were especially successful in applying physiology to psychology. The reason why German scientists distinguished themselves the most lies in their inductive approach to science. They made conclusions based on the observations of specific facts rather than testing if a particular theory is valid within specific circumstances. Similarly, Reverend Nevil Maskelyne pointed out the importance of the role of the human observer in astronomy, which later would be extrapolated to all sciences.
Schultz, Duane, P., and Schultz, Sydney, Ellen. A History of Modern Psychology. Cengage Learning, 2016.