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Father of psychology Essay

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Updated: Mar 27th, 2019

Psychology is the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things like feelings, desires, cognitions, reasoning, decisions, and the like. When these are phenomena are superficially considered, their variety and complexity leaves a chaotic impression on the observer.

Different individuals tried to organize these phenomena in order to come up with a uniformed discipline, the modern psychology. Due to the high number of contributors to this field, the actual founding ‘father of psychology’ is disputed. This essay examines a number of key figures associated with the psychology. The essay, however, singles out one figure that best fits the description of being the ‘father of psychology’.

Two of the earliest founders of psychology are Plato (428-347 B.C.E) and Aristotle (384-322). These two famous Greek philosophers had far-reaching influence on Western thought. Although neither is best known for his psychological ideas, both have had an impact on Western conceptions of the mind.

For instance, Plato believed that the truth lay in abstract concepts, or forms that could be grasped through reason alone. He argues that the data we get from our senses is impermanent and, thus, illusionary.

The notion of an inborn mental ability to grasp concepts and categories is consistent with modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience, although the dismissal of ‘sense data’ is not.

Aristotle was much enamored of the natural world and believed knowledge to come from systematic, logical reasoning about our observations of nature. He held that the capacity for logical reasoning is innate, but the content of our knowledge can only be grasped through our senses. In this way, Aristotle anticipated the foundations of modern science.

Plato also had ideas about emotions and emotional control that anticipated Freud’s theories of the ego and the id. Plato’s three-part division of the soul into appetite, reason, and temper has been linked to Freud’s division of the mind into id, ego, and superego.

Plato also believed in controlling the bodily passions in order to turn one’s desire toward loftier goals. This is described in his metaphor of the soul as a charioteer with a pair of winged steeds. One steed is immortal like that of the gods and aspires toward contemplation of spiritual beauty.

The other steed is mortal and plunges toward earth and toward animalistic passions and desire. The chariot must rein in the steed of animal appetites in order for the soul to gain true happiness. The earthly steed can be tied to the id and the charioteer to the ego. On more loss grounds, the immortal steed can be linked to the superego .

The ideas of the Greek philosophers were disseminated through the Roman Empire and remained influential until its fall in the fourth century C.E. By then, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and following the fall of Rome, the Christian church was essentially the only surviving institution.

Although many aspects of pagan philosophical thought were integrated into church teaching, anything that did not fit with Christian theology was considered heretical. Medieval Christianity laid emphasis on the next world than on our happiness within this one.

After the European Renaissance (15th -16th centuries), there was a sea change of cultural and intellectual values. Philosophers started to revisit those ideas to create a new way of seeing the mind. Although psychology as a discipline did not exist, philosophy was beginning to lay the groundwork for what could later become psychology .

There are a number of philosophers who lived during this era, and who made various contributions to the field of psychology. These include Descartes (1596), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704).

Basically, Descartes made the concept of the mind front and center of his philosophy. His famous phrase, ‘I think, therefore, I am’ links the mental function of thinking to the proof of his very existence.

He was a naturalist who carefully observed thyme natural world and even dissected animals to examine the relationships between the mental and bodily processes.

In fact, Cartesian dualism, the notion that the mind and the body are separate entities, continues to inspire debate to this day. Another medieval philosopher was Spinoza. He was a Sephardic Jew living in the Netherlands though he was later excommunicated from the Jewish community for what he termed as heretical writings.

Spinoza believed that our main psychological drive was the promotion and protection of our well being and survival. This idea anticipated evolutionary psychology. He also believed our three primary emotions to be pleasure, pain, and desire.

This signals the state of our well-being. This notion anticipated Freud’s pleasure principle. Spinoza also taught that our cognitive appraisal of a situation determines our emotional response. Simply put, how we think about any event will shape how we feel about it.

As such, it is possible to change our emotions by changing our thoughts. This is the basic principle behind cognitive therapy, which was pioneered in the mid-twentieth century by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis .

Another medieval philosopher, Thomas Hobbes was most famous for his political philosophy and his view of life in the status of nature as lonely, vicious, rough, and brief”.

He also harbored ideas about cognition and memory by believing that all our knowledge comes from our sense impressions. Reminiscences are the residue of the initial sense impressions, just like waves that continue even after the wind ceases.

He noted that ideas get linked in memory when the sense impressions first occur close in time. This concept of associative memory became the basis of behaviorism, a psychological movement that arose in the twentieth century. John Locke was another political philosopher of the medieval era. He divided ideas into two classes namely sensation and reflection.

By the time psychology came into its own as an independent discipline, the scientific revolution had been two centuries old. Much more was known about the nervous system, the brain and the chemical and electrical processes in the body than could have been dreamt of by the earlier philosophers.

The scientific method had continued to evolve and technology allowed for sophisticated instruments of measurement. As such, when psychology burst on the scene in the late 1880s, its proponents were eager to prove to this new field as worthy as a science as any other science as any other discipline.

As such, advancements in the field of psychology changed course from a philosophy-oriented discipline to a more scientific one.

One of the pioneering scientists cum psychologist to address psychological questions using scientific means was Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). Although he was not the first to adopt such an orientation, he was the first to establish a scientific laboratory devoted specifically to psychology.

This was done in 1879 at the University of Leipzig. Although a number of scientists had made contributions concerning our understanding of sensation and perception prior to Wundt’s, none of them considered himself a psychologist per se.

These included Ernst Weber, Herrmann Helmholtz, and Gustav Fechner. In deed, many have considered Wundt as the father of psychology. However, his orientation is perceived to be too scientific.

His focus was on mapping the mechanics of sensation with mathematical precision. He identified the components of the brain and laid the basis for the principle of structuralism. For this reason, Wundt is considered the father of psychology.

It should be noted that Wundt is not the founding father of psychology. This is because he did not discover the discipline, and can, therefore, not be termed as the founding father.

Wundt established psychology as science discipline as it is known today, and that is why he is considered the father of the discipline. Needless to say, his ideas were based on earlier contributions by scientists; hence, he owes much of his title to other pioneering figures such as William James, and Sigmund Freud.

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was born in Neckarau on August 16, 1832. He had Lutheran father who doubled up as his teacher and roommate. He went to a boarding school at the age of 13 before proceeding to University where he studied medicine.

He became a lecturer taught courses on physiology in the University of Heidelberg. He set up a lab at Leipzig to investigate human senses. The laboratory grew to include many rooms. Wundt also began a journal he called Philosophische Studien, as well as classes on physiological psychology.

The journal, published in 1881, contained experimental results from his laboratory. The psychological laboratory founded by Wundt became an important center for psychological training. Wundt’s students later set up laboratories in the major universities of Germany and the U.S. All these advancements resulted to the establishment of philosophy as an independent science.

Wundt Believed that the focus of psychology should be the study of the immediate, conscious experience, implying that people sense and perceive after a reflection in their inner minds. This view was strongly shared by one of Wundt’s students, Edward Titchener (1867-1927).

Titchener proposed that immediate experience could be broken down into elements of sensations and feelings. Titchener held that it as the role of the psychologists to identify these elements and then discover how they combine to produce meaningful wholes.

This approach was later named structuralism. Basically, psychologists should seek the structure of the mind by breaking it down into elementary parts, much as a chemist might try to understand a chemical compound.

In conclusion, although Wundt is considered the father of psychology, his approach to psychology is not beyond reproof. Critics of structuralism argue that while it is possible to observe directly and measure a chemical compound, it’s not easy to observe the internal workings of the human mind.

Mental events are subjective, personal, and difficult to record. However, structuralists realized this loophole with their approach and remedied using a technique known as systematic introspection. This method requires people tom provide rigorous self reports of their own internal experiences.


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Sydney, E., & Schultz, D. P. (2011). A history of modern psychology. London: Cengage Learning.

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