A Short History of Western Psychology

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The roots of western psychology can be traced to Greek philosophy. The word psychology itself is derived from the Greek words ‘psyche’ which means soul and ‘logos’ which means study. Psychology thus started as a part of philosophy and became an independent discipline much later.

Plato and Aristotle where among the first philosophers who thought about the mind. Plato believed that body and mind are two separate entities and mind could exist even after death. But he was positive in that education can bring change to the basic nature of the mind. Aristotle, who was the disciple of Plato, followed the feet of his teacher and believed in the body-mind duality. But he thought that of each of these is the manifestation of the other. He, but, was pessimistic about the role of education in changing the fundamental nature of humans.

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, who originated the Cartesian system of coordinates or the coordinate geometry, also believed in the body-mind duality. But he was open enough to consider that there is an uninterrupted transaction between the body and the mind.

In the eighteenth century AD, John Locke, a British national, proposed that knowledge depends upon the experience based on the sense organ and that thinking is not innate. He also considered that the mind of a newly-born child is like a clean-slate on which anything can be written. Locke believed that knowledge occurs only when the sense organs interact with the outer world.

These two ideas – the body-mind duality and the ‘clean-slate’ mind - have been the strong roots of the western psychology for many decades. Only in the twentieth century western psychologists, especially JungMaslow and others, were able to break free from this limiting concepts.

In the twentieth century AD, German scientist E.H.Weber attempted a scientific approach in the study of the mind by his finding of the quantitative relation between stimulus intensity and the resultant sensory experience. This was later known as the Weber’s law.

Almost in the same period, G.T.Fechner, who is called the father of quantitative psychology, coined psycho-physics which is the quantitative study of external structures and sensory experience.

Then came Darwin with his revolutionary ‘origin of species’ which influenced psychology and human thought.

In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt, a German scientist, established the world’s first psychological lab at Leipzig, Germany. His aim was to prove that there is a physical activity for every mental activity. He opined that psychologists should study sensation, perception, and emotions.

In the first decade of the 20th Century AD, the Russian psychologist Ivan P. Pavlov made a path breaking finding when he was studying the digestion process in dogs. Before the experimental dog was given food, a bell was sounded. When this was repeated several times, the dog started salivating the very moment it heard the bell sound. Pavlov called this the conditioned reflex. This was one of the greatest findings that made radical changes in the field of psychology.

Major Schools of Psychology


Titchner and his followers said that conciseness can be analyzed into three—sensation, perception and feeling. Titchner and his followers are called structuralists and their main method for study of mind was introspection.


William James, the father of American Psychology, J.R.Angels and John Dewey argued that psychologists should study the function of the mind and not its structure. These group of psychologists are called functionalists.

Freud and Psycho Analysis

Sigmund Freud of Vienna, who is considered as the father of modern psychology, originated a new method called the Free Association TechniqueFreud considered that mind has three parts – the conscious, the pre-conscious and the unconscious. He considered that 90% of the mind is the unconscious mind. He argued that Id (unconscious mind) is the seat of repression, and instincts. Freud further considered that behind any behavior is the libido energy.

He divided the personality into three – id, ego, superego. Of these, Id goes after pleasure and thus is said to be governed by the pleasure principle. Ego which is the organized part of Id is driven by the Reality Principle. Superego connects the id to the external world and is considered the conscience.

Later, Erich FromeKaran HorneyErik Erikson, Harry Sullivan and Otto Rank improved upon the ideas of Frued and so they are called Neo Fruedians.

Alfred Adler and Individual Psychology

Alfred Adler gave the focus to society because he thought that since we are social animals we should give emphasis on social factors. He argued that, the will to power and superiority are thus more important than sex or will to pleasure. So, the individual will try to overcome the deficits he has or he thinks he has. He will try to show superiority or ambition. Inferiority complex is the most important concept Adler added to psychology. His psychology is called Individual Psychology.

Jung and Analytical Psychology

Carl Gustav Jung, like Adler, was in the psychoanalytical camp in the beginning, but later parted with Freud to create his own (school of) psychology called the Analytical Psychology. He dismissed the Freudian theory that the only motive that drive the unconscious is sex. Jung extended the concept of the unconscious beyond the individual. Thus he said that there is a collective unconscious besides the individual unconscious. He postulated that the racial memory of centuries is precipitated in the unconscious of each individual. According to him, the main ingredient of the collective unconscious is the archetype.


John B. Watson, also of America, proposed that psychologists as scientists should study observable human nature and not the concepts like mind, consciousness etc.

He and his followers tried to explain behavior based on stimulus and response. They are called behaviorists and their school of psychology is called behaviorism. Tolman, Hull and B.F.Skinner are the later behaviorists. Skinner originated operant conditioning which is one of the most used techniques for psychological therapy today.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt Psychology was a reaction to the over emphasis of reductionistic methods in psychology. The gestalt psychologists were against this blind reliance on analysis and reductionism. They believed that behavior should be understood in a holistic way. Max WertheimerWolfgang KohlerKurt Kafka were the first proponents of this school psychology.

Humanistic Psychology

Some psychologists believed that neither Frued et al nor the behaviorists could include the complexity and uniqueness of man their studies of psychology. So a group of psychologists gave human experience more importance and they are called humanists. They argued that man is a subjective animal. The humanists counted that the motives for development and to become perfect are more important than sex, power etc. They brought back the dignity of man that Frued and others undignified.

They denied Freudian unconscious or behaviorstic environment as the ultimate basis of behavior and said that man is not a slave of either the unconscious or the situation. Gestalt psychology, Indian PsychologyPsychology of ConsciousnessEnvironmental PsychologyPara Psychology are the schools of psychology that are included in Humanistic psychologyGordon W Allport, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow are some of the early proponents of humanistic psychology.

The Three Major Forces in Modern Psychology

There are three major forces in psychology. Freudian Psychoanalysis and the offshoots from it are considered the First Force in Psychology. This has been very dominant in the earlier part of the 20th century but has given way to the second force in psychology called behaviorism. Currently, behaviorism is also slowly reaching its end. Slowly, holistic and more natural ways are coming to the main stream. This is the third force in psychology – the Humanistic Psychology. Many experts foresee that by the first or second decade of the 21st century, humanistic psychology will become the dominant major force. This is because that man will slowly come to realize that the origin of bliss is in himself and so man will turn to himself for truth, beauty, happiness, success, and achievement. Neither Freudian psychology nor Behaviorism can be of definite help in this stage.