History of Psychology – Summary, Background and Currents

We explain the history of psychology, its antecedents, modern psychology and its various currents.

wilhelm-wundt history of psychology
Wilhelm Wundt created the first experimental psychology laboratory.

What is the history of psychology?

Psychology is a social science that deals with studying and understanding the human mind and behavior. Despite its formal origins in the 19th century, it is considered the modern continuation of a long philosophical tradition of questioning the origins of consciousness and what exactly it is that distinguishes us from animals.

The antecedents of psychology go back to classical antiquity, especially the Greco-Roman, since many of the great thinkers of the West emerged within that Mediterranean society.

Philosophers like Socrates and Plato, in the V and IV century BC. C., important questions were asked about what it is to be human, and they came to the conclusion that there should be a “soul” to oppose the body, and that the mental, intellectual and moral aspects of the individual resided in the first, while that the second was the seat of the passions and the most “animal” aspects of the human being.

This opposition between body and soul, or rather body and mind, was fundamental to Western culture and many religions, such as Christianity, took it at face value. It also allowed the appearance of medical studies of the body, many of which also had ancient beginnings, distinguishing as the centuries went by more and more what was a bodily ailment from what was a “spirit” ailment.

To do this, of course, it was necessary to overcome the religious paradigm of medieval Christianity, which attributed any disease that was not strictly corporeal, to demonic possession or other mystical explanations.

Prayer and exorcism were the most common method of dealing with ailments. However, numerous ancient treatises on the matter had survived, such as the famous theory of the four humors, which assumed diseases as a product of an imbalance of the four fundamental fluids of the human body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

The term “psychology” emerged during the Renaissance Western, taking up the pagan Greco-Roman heritage. It was formed, precisely, by the Greek words psyche, “Soul”, and logos, “speech”.

Thanks to this reunion of the West with itself, and to the work of philosophers such as René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Espinoza (1632-1677) or John Locke (1632-1704), who deepened and questioned the body / soul dichotomy, the The modern scene was ready for the first steps to be taken towards the formalization of the sciences, and among them, psychology.

Other important precursors in the matter were the Croatian Marko Marulic (1450-1524), and the Germans Rodolfo Goclenio (1547-1628) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Also noteworthy are the previous forms of psychiatry, which from the mid-18th to the 19th century were practiced under the name “alienism.”

“Scientific” psychology, that is, modern psychology, was born in the nineteenth century, hand in hand with the increase in medical and biological knowledge, especially neurological and psychophysiological. The studies of scientists such as Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), Paul Pierre Broca (1824-1880) and Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) were key in this regard.

Also important was the revolution caused by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), whose theories of the origin of species were soon applied to human society itself, often with disastrous political results. In any case, it is important to understand how new scientific perspectives turned to the study of the human mind itself, between many other things.

The first experimental psychology laboratory was founded in 1879, at the German University of Leipzig, and was the work of the philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). This event is considered the founding milestone of modern psychology, that is, its definitive separation from philosophy, embarking on a properly scientific path.

The positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who valued the experimental sciences above any other approach to reality, had an immense influence on this.

This is how they arose the first two streams of psychology:

  • Structuralism defended by Wundt.
  • Functionalism proposed in the United States by William James (1842-1910).

During the first decades of the existence of psychology, three new aspects would be added:

  • Psychoanalysis, developed by the famous Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).
  • The Psychology of Gestalt, proposed by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) and Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967), among others
  • Behaviorism, whose highest representative was the American John B. Watson (1878-1958).

From this initial scenario, new proposals and considerations arose regarding the human mind and what should be the ideal approaches for its rigorous and scientific study. Advances in medicine, moreover, allowed the modernization and formalization of psychiatry, and a new horizon of experimentation was opened for the study of consciousness.