Psychology is considered to be a relatively new as well as one of the oldest disciplines. It is relatively new, because it was only in the mid- to late 19th century that it emerged as a separate, independent discipline. It is really old, because even though it may not have existed as a separate discipline, psychology and its concepts have been studied for many years within philosophy and physiology. This aspect of psychology develops an intrigue and a certain level of curiosity about who exactly can be viewed as the father of psychology – that one person who can be said to be responsible for the development of psychology, for what psychology has become today.
One name that quite often comes up to be considered as the father of psychology, especially by lay persons, is Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the discipline of psychology, and there is no denying that he was a highly significant figure in the development of psychology. He is one of the reasons for psychology being highly popular. His ideas and concepts such as the unconscious mind, dream analysis, Freudian slip, repression, Oedipus complex, etc. have aroused a lot of interest in a wide range of people. Many of his concepts create a lot of excitement in people, even today.
Despite his popularity and strong impact, Freud cannot at all be considered as the father of psychology. In its initial years, psychoanalysis was not even considered to be a part of mainstream psychology. It played a role in including the study of abnormal behavior and mental disorders within psychology. But, initially, psychoanalysis was mostly a separate, isolated field. Thus, Sigmund Freud was not the father of psychology. He can only be called the father of psychoanalysis.
A person that can be strongly considered to be the father of psychology is William James. James was the major precursor to functionalism, the second classical school of psychology. Many consider James to be the greatest psychologist ever. He was the one who started psychology in the United States of America.
William James played a very significant role in the development of modern psychology. His book Principles of Psychology is still considered to be one of the best books of psychology and consciousness. His idea of social self has led to a lot of research in the field of social psychology.
William James’s idea of the unity of consciousness and the doctrine of pragmatism changed the course of the study of psychology. The doctrine of pragmatism suggests that the strength of a theory or concept can be viewed from its practical applications.
It was this very doctrine of pragmatism that led to the development of the discipline of applied psychology, which is considered to be the greatest legacy of functionalism. The doctrine of pragmatism is something that is very relevant in today’s time. There is a strong emphasis on practical applications in research in psychology.
Keeping in view the legacy of William James, it is suggested by many to consider him to be the father of psychology. However, by the time William James came into prominence within the discipline of psychology, psychology was already well on its way to be established as an independent discipline.
Additionally, James later on in his career had very little fondness for psychology. He considered himself to be more of a philosopher than a psychologist. Therefore, William James, certainly being the father of American psychology, but cannot be considered the father of psychology.
Like William James, two early figures of modern psychology, John B. Watson and William McDougall changed the course of psychology and left a long-lasting legacy. Watson brought about a revolutionary change in the discipline of psychology. He led to a complete change in the subject matter of psychology.
Before Watson, psychology emphasized on the study of consciousness. Watson, however, rejected the whole idea of consciousness to be studied in psychology and emphasized on overt behavior, environmental stimuli, and objectivity. The current, most widely used definition of psychology states that psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. The term behavior in the definition of psychology is largely because of Watson, whose ideas led to the establishment of behaviorism, one of the classical schools of psychology.
In today’s time, psychology is largely what Watson and his behaviorism had proposed. There is a lot of focus on objectivity and overt behavior. Watson surely left a lasting impact on the subject matter and discipline of psychology. The influence that Watson has had on contemporary psychology make many to consider him to be the father of psychology. However, by the time Watson began to gain popularity (early 1900s), psychology was already well established as a discipline. He certainly brought about a revolutionary change, which lasted for many years.
But Watson cannot be credited to be the person who led to the beginning of psychology as an academic discipline. Additionally, Watson did not have a very long career in psychology. Later, in his career, he worked extensively in advertising and marketing. Therefore, Watson was clearly the father of behaviorism, but not the father of psychology.
Like Watson, his rival, William McDougall, brought about a major change in the discipline of psychology. McDougall is said to have redefined the study of psychology. He introduced his hormic psychology suggesting that human behavior is purposive, that is, psychological activity has purpose, which is guided by instincts. Instincts are biological in nature; they are inborn patterns of behavior.
McDougall wrote extensively about the role of instincts in social behavior. By focusing on social behavior, McDougall widened the scope of psychology. He believed that psychology should be the study of all kinds of behavior and conduct. Contemporary psychology has been emphasizing on studying a wide range of aspects and contexts, and not just consciousness. Further, advances in research in genetics and neurosciences suggesting a biological basis of many social and psychological behaviors, is in a way extending McDougall’s idea of instincts.
McDougall, however, like Watson, gained prominence at a time when psychology had already been established as a separate discipline. In fact, McDougall, initially was planning a career in neurology. The works of William James had inspired him to get into psychology, which indicates that he did not initiate the beginning of psychology. McDougall can be considered a precursor to contemporary psychology, but not the father of psychology.
The aforementioned psychologists came into existence after psychology was well established as a discipline. Although William James came into prominence much earlier, he did not put in an extra effort in establishing a new discipline or school of thought. He later did not even associate himself with psychology.
The psychologist that did make a lot of effort in establishing psychology as an independent discipline was Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt had introduced experimentation as a method in studying psychology, making it a scientific discipline. He had made all efforts, including delivering lectures, writing books, and eventually establishing the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. For many years, this laboratory was the major center for psychological research. People from all over the world used to come at this laboratory to study psychology. Wundt is, thus, considered to be the person responsible in making psychology a separate scientific, academic discipline.
By establishing psychology as a scientific, academic discipline Wundt, however, had brought about the beginning of modern psychology. Psychology, as an aspect of philosophy, was already existing as a discipline. Wundt, then, is regarded as the father of modern psychology, not psychology.
A major rival of Wundt, Franz Brentano, also had a great impact on psychology. His idea of psychic phenomena and the unity of consciousness as opposed to Wundt’s elementism had a long-lasting legacy. Brentano went on to have an influence in the development of functionalism, gestalt psychology, phenomenological psychology, and humanistic psychology, all going along with the idea of phenomena and the unity of consciousness. In this way, Brentano’s legacy has had a huge impact on the development of the discipline of psychology.
Brentano, however, like William James, did not put in that effort and did not intend to establish a separate discipline. Also, like Wundt, Brentano’s contribution is considered to be more in the establishment of modern psychology.
All these psychologists, in many ways, have taken forward the ideas of scholars that were at an earlier time, and contributed to the emergence and development of modern psychology. It is then indicative that the father of psychology can be one of such scholars, someone whose ideas emerged in the premodern phase of psychology or what sometimes is called the prehistoric stage of psychology.
In this regard, the beginning of what turned into the discipline of psychology is often traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle is one of the first persons to give a systematic explanation of experience. He is regarded as the first philosopher to extensively write about topics that later became part of mainstream psychology.
Aristotle wrote about a wide range of topics such as memory, reasoning, sensation, motivation, morality, social behavior, education, development, geriatrics, sleep and dreams, language, and learning. All of these topics are covered in psychology, in today’s time, by the many different subfields in psychology. Further, Aristotle’s book De Anima (On the Soul) written in 350 BC, is often considered to be the first book of psychology. In the book, Aristotle gave an extensive explanation of behavior using the biological sciences. The explanation of behavior in terms of biology is a major part of psychology, today. As there is advancement in technology, there are more and more discoveries suggesting the biological root of behavior.
This suggests that Aristotle can be considered to be the father of psychology. After all, it all began from him. But Aristotle has been associated with almost every discipline. He has made contributions to physics, metaphysics, biology, logic, literature, political science, etc. In this case, it might not be very correct to consider Aristotle the sole founder of psychology.
Apart from Aristotle, Rene Descartes, the founder of modern philosophy, is credited to be the forebearer of psychology. Descartes’s notion of dualism, suggesting that mind and body are two separate entities and both influence each other had major implications for the discipline of psychology. Descartes contended that all bodily processes are in the realms of physiology and that all mental processes belong to psychology. In doing so, Descartes firmly defined the subject matter of psychology, suggesting that psychology is the study of the mind.
Descartes’s influence on psychology is also reflected in that he paved the way for the scientific study of conscious, the study of overt behavior, and psychophysiology. The successors of Descartes either elaborated on the mechanical aspect of his Cartesian thought or the cognitive side of it, both of which have been significant in shaping psychology. In this way, Rene Descartes directly stimulated the founding of the discipline of psychology.
Even though Descartes was highly influential in paving the way for the discipline of psychology, many of ideas have been found incompatible with scientific analysis. In comparison to that, the German philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s ideas were more aligned with scientific principles associated with the development of scientific psychology.
Spinoza is said to be the first person to treat human emotions (one of the major topics discussed in modern psychology) in great detail. The ideas of Spinoza, regarding emotions, have influenced one of the first major theories of emotions, which was proposed by William James and Carl Lange.
Also, the psychoanalysts, Franz Alexander and Sheldon Selesnick, in their book The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought & Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present, published in 1966, have, referred to Spinoza as the greatest pre-Freudian psychologist. This clearly makes him to be viewed as one the earliest recognized psychologists.
More importantly, Spinoza rejected Descartes’s idea of free will, and strongly believed in the principle of psychic determinism. This led to the stimulation of the scientific study of the mind, which played a major role in the beginning of the discipline of psychology. Spinoza is, in fact, regarded as the first modern scholar to view human beings in terms of psychic determinism. Due to this, Spinoza is given more credit as compared to Descartes in being the major precursor to the development of the discipline of psychology.
Apart from psychic determinism, the quantification of behavior is something that became important in making psychology a separate, scientific discipline. The German philosopher, Johann Friedrich Herbart is credited with this aspect of psychology.
|Johann Friedriech Herbart|
One of the main goals of Herbart was to describe the mind in mathematical terms. He wanted to use mathematics to describe behavior just like Newton did for the physical sciences. Herbart used calculus to describe mental phenomena. This made him one of the first persons to have a mathematical model for psychology. The use of mathematics in psychology by Herbart gave it a lot of respect, and played a very significant role in the development of scientific psychology. Most of the psychology in today’s time is about quantification of behavior. A lot of credit for this clearly goes to Herbart.
Further, Herbart’s book Textbook in Psychology, published in 1816, in many ways is often regarded as the beginning of psychology. Books on psychology were written before this, but they always discussed psychology to be an aspect of either philosophy or physiology. Herbart’s book, however, was the first book in which psychology was discussed as a separate, independent discipline.
Descartes, Spinoza, and Herbart represented the rationalistic thought, which had a significant influence in the development of psychology. Along with rationalism, empiricism also played an important role in psychology. Empiricism, in fact, is said to have laid the foundation for scientific psychology.
The founder of empiricism was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was convinced that the mechanistic principle can be used to study human beings. He was influenced by Galileo who explained the motion of physical objects using the mechanistic principle, that is, external forces acting on it. Hobbes argued that since humans are also a part of the universe, they also function in a mechanical manner, suggesting that humans are like machines.
This was the first time when the methods and principles of Galileo were used to study human beings. It, therefore, began the use of the methods of the physical sciences in behavior, which became a major factor in the beginning of scientific psychology. The methods of physical sciences were used by all the other empiricists, and then later by Wundt, which led him to make psychology a separate, independent discipline.
By using the mechanistic principle, Hobbes was also proposing the idea of materialism – all that existed (including human behavior) was physical, and determinism – all activity (including human behavior) is caused by external forces acting on the object. Mechanism along with materialism and determinism were very important in the beginning of scientific psychology, and in the rise of the classical schools of psychology of structuralism and behaviorism. Many of the behavioristic principles are still very widely used in psychology.
The idea of materialism and mechanism was later strengthened to a greater extent by the later empiricist and one of the greatest scholars of his time, John Stuart Mill. Mill argued that even though it may be difficult to predict human behavior, it is a matter of time when such predictions can be made with more accuracy. In this way, he is regarded to have advanced the idea of studying human behavior through natural sciences or what was referred to as the science of human nature.
|John Stuart Mill|
Mill further proposed for the development of the science of human character and called it ethology (not the same as modern ethology). According to Mill, his ethology would be about the formation of character and personality in specific contexts, and would be derived from the general laws of the science of human nature. This was his attempt to develop a highly accurate science for studying human behavior.
Mill wanted to give a lot of emphasis to individual differences. The study of individual differences became a highly significant aspect of modern psychology, and is still a major part of personality psychology. The idea of individual differences led to the idea of the trait approach. It also became very important in the rise psychological testing, which in itself has now become a major subfield of psychology.
Mill had made a proper outline of his ethology, but did not do much to further develop it. Nevertheless, this perhaps can be seen as an early attempt to have a separate, independent discipline to study human behavior, much before Wundt had been successful in it. In this way, John Stuart Mill becomes a highly significant precursor to modern psychology.
Another later empiricist and a close friend of John Stuart Mill, was Alexander Bain. Bain is also regarded as a significant precursor to modern psychology. Due to his strong influence, Bain is often referred to as the first true psychologist. Two of his books, The Senses and the Intellect, published in 1855, and Emotions and the Will, published in 1859, are regarded as the first systematic textbooks on psychology. These two books were considered to be standard textbooks in psychology for the next 50 years. He also founded the journal, Mind in 1876, which is considered to be the first journal that addressed psychological questions. It is still considered to be a prestigious journal in philosophy of psychology.
In his book, The Senses and the Intellect, Bain tried to explain how the biological processes are related to psychological processes. The book started with a chapter of neurology, which has now become a standard procedure in all textbooks of psychology. Bain, in fact, differed from the other empiricists in that he explained association as neurological processes. It was after Bain’s attempt that the relation between physiological and psychological processes became an integral part of psychology. This eventually brought the study of human behavior at the brink of being an experimental discipline, which is one of the main reasons for psychology to emerge as an independent, scientific discipline.
Alexander Bain setting the trend of the subject matter and textbooks of psychology as well as being considered to be the first true psychologist can, therefore, be considered the father of psychology. However, the contributions of other scholars before Bain cannot be ignored, and thus, considering Bain to be sole person leading to the development of the discipline of psychology may not be a very plausible argument. Along with Bain, all the other aforementioned scholars, namely, Descartes, Spinoza, Herbart, Hobbes, and Mill have also made significant contributions and in their own right can be considered the forebearer of the discipline of psychology.
Psychology is a multifaceted discipline; it deals with a wide range of issues. In different phases of the development of psychology there have been different individuals that can be referred to as the forebearer of psychology.
In this regard, specifying a father of psychology may be difficult and would rather be inappropriate. Instead, it can be said more appropriately that there cannot be one sole founder of psychology. The discipline of psychology has, in fact, had multiple forebearers.
This article can also be found on the blog Life and Psychology
This article can also be found on the blog Life and Psychology