Foundations of Psychology Founding Fathers of Psychology History of Psychology

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There are many colorful characters throughout history whose ideas and arguments have served as the building blocks for the field of psychology. Thanks to Aristotle and  Rene Descartes to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and many in between, we have achieved significant progress in our adventure toward understanding the human mind.

There have been numerous philosophers whose ideas and observations have contributed to the formation of psychology as a discipline. Over the centuries, ideas have been expanded upon to produce the roots for many schools of thought. The concept of mind and body being somehow coordinated also prompted many philosophers like Descartes to attempt to explain the connection. However, not everyone agreed with his particular train of thought.

Rene Descartes

Descartes was probably best known for his ideas about dualism. Descartes argued that the mind and body were separate entities; the body being a mechanistic entity, while the mind which used no space at all for its existence, seemed to possess the ability to function independently. According to many scientists, the body relies upon the mind for its very existence, although the reverse may not necessarily be true.

Of  the many terms used to describe Descartes, interactionist is one that continues to intrigue scientists today (Goodwin, 2008). The interaction between mind and body, and perhaps more importantly, the influence of one on the other, is something that many find fascinating. Indeed, it is possible to become physically ill, merely by thinking about something unsavory.

Because of his extensive, yet sometimes flawed ideas about the mind-body connection, Descartes is considered one of the first physiological psychologists (Goodwin, 2008).

John Locke

Another well-known philosopher, John Locke, had his own ideas about how the human mind worked. He dismissed Descartes idea about ideas being innate as preposterous, while arguing that ideas themselves can only result from having experienced something. Locke said, “all of our knowledge about the world derives from our experiences in it” (Goodwin, 2008, p.39).

More specifically, John Locke proposed that experience and sensation were the basis of forming ideas about things. (Goodwin, 2008) We perceive things that are interpreted by our senses as being ‘this or that’ and ideas are then formed accordingly. Ideas then, according to Locke, must be preceded by sensations about things. Whether the sensation is a smell, how something feels, or what we think about the color of it; an idea is built around what our senses tell us about it.

David Hume

David Hume was another pioneer in the field of psychology. Like Locke, Hume also spoke of the association between our experiences of things and the perception of them.  “Hume proposed three laws of association: resemblance, contiguity, and cause/effect” (Goodwin, 2008, p.47).

Of particular interest, Hume’s ideas about cause and effect may be used to sum up his and Locke’s ‘ideas’ about sensation and experience. One must follow the other – sensation to idea, and the idea itself cannot be formed without the cause/sensation having first been experienced. The physiological connection was examined more thoroughly by John Stuart Mill who touched upon something he could not know as being significant at the time.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, in his efforts to explain one of his concepts, used the metaphor of a chemical reaction to make his point clear. Using this metaphor to describe the association between impressions and ideas, Mill said “When many impressions or ideas are operating in the mind together, there sometimes takes place a process of a similar kind to chemical combination” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 53) Today we know  with absolute certainty that this is exactly what takes place in the brain to produce some disorders. For example, chemical imbalances in the brain can cause a lack of serotonin activity, which in turn causes some people to become depressed. Similarly, the overproduction of dopamine can cause symptomatic behavior in people who have Schizophrenia. While the metaphor of a chemical reaction was just that, a metaphor, and far removed from the point Mill was trying to make, he would be proud to know that he unwittingly stumbled upon something monumental in the field of mental health.

The majority of ideas put forth by the early philosophers have been retained, elaborated on, and pondered for significant periods of time by numerous brilliant minds. Whether Locke agreed with Descartes or not, the whole process of the development of psychology as an independent discipline is akin to the ideas set forth by Descartes. Ideas have been reduced to simplest form, then rebuilt to form the foundations that stand today, as the cornerstones of human understanding.


Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

More about this author: K. L. Hosking

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