Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3173

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Introduction to Psychology

George Sidney Brett (1929)
Authorized by the Minister of Education
First published in Toronto: Macmillan of Canada

Posted October 2001


Chapter I

Historical Introduction


The part which Psychology plays in modern education is so large and significant that the student should first obtain some idea of the reasons for this fact. · In this, as in many other cases, history is its own explanation; and a brief summary of the development of Psychology will be the most useful introduction to the subject.

The word "Psychology" first came into use in the fifteenth century, at the time when: modern ways of thinking first began to change the mediĉval traditions. To express the new idea it was necessary to go back to the language of the Greeks. The word "psyche" (known to many people from the immortal story of Eros and Psyche -- Love and the Soul) had a meaning not unlike that which we give to the word "self" when we say "he showed his true self". Like all primitive words the word psyche was very indefinite, but at least it meant all the qualities of a man which were not physical.  It meant the life which he lost in death (soul): it meant the secret place of his thoughts and fears and desires: it included almost everything that we call animation (Latin, anima, soul), including both action and understanding.



The greatest of the Greek philosophers were Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (387-33,2 B.C.). Together [p. 2] these two developed the idea of the soul into a comprehensive theory of the mind and its forms of activity. Plato definitely treated the subject as part of a theory of education, using this term to cover the whole development of man from infancy to maturity. Aristotle wrote a special treatise on the soul, and created a set of scientific terms still commonly used in their Latin forms, as, for example, sense, imagination, memory, intelligence.   He also made valuable studies of sleep, dreams, and some abnormal phenomena.  The emotions and impulses were also classified under such general terms as desire, wish, and will.

After this period people became more interested in the questions that belong to the sphere of religion.  For this reason the soul was treated as primarily the immortal part of man: its divine nature and its survival after death were points of more importance than its earthly existence or its immediate usefulness.   For sixteen hundred years very little positive knowledge was added to what the Greeks discovered.  This explains why the first movements toward the modern standpoint are marked by the revival of a language and a mode of thought which were essentially Greek in their character.



From the thirteenth to the end of the eighteenth century (1230-1750 A.D.) psychology was a part of philosophy, which at this time was separated from theology.  Francis Bacon  (1605 A.D.) most clearly stated the view that there should be a separate science of the natural or corporeal soul as distinct from the divine or supernatural part of man, thus making psychology a natural science altogether separate from theology.  This point of view, called naturalism, has persisted ever since.  It has tended to bring psychology [p. 3] nearer to physiology, because it regarded the soul as the name for a group of functions, such as sensation, perception, memory, and will, which were all dependent on the state of the body and more particularly of the brain.

Anatomy and physiology made rapid progress after 1543 A.D., and new ideas about the sense-organs and reflex action were introduced. These were so impressive that some writers were prepared to explain all animal or human actions as entirely due to the bodily changes: they declared that animals are machines, and later that man, too, is a machine.  Others were content to avoid these extremes, but they persisted in regarding all mental action  as subject to natural laws.  This school of writers relied chiefly on the process called association of ideas.  Our ideas, they said, are due to impressions on the senses, the order and connection of these impressions make up our experience, and what is called the mind is really the sum total of these experiences.

A great amount of valuable work was done by these writers, called collectively The School of Association Psychologists. But they made two fundamental mistakes. Since they thought too exclusively of the adult man and his well-formed ideas, they missed almost entirely the significance of growth and development.  For the same reason they overlooked the real activity of the mind. For them the mind was a collection of "ideas"; but what these ideas were, and how they depended on interests and emotions, were questions left unanswered.  A reaction then set in, and it began with Rousseau, whose work recalls in many ways the doctrine of Plato. Rousseau drew a picture of an ideal education, and described the training of a child whose character was formed by stimulating and guiding the natural instincts. This plan made the ideas secondary to the impulses and interests.  It created a new method of interpreting [p. 4] the life of the mind, to which we owe the later doctrines of Froebel and Pestalozzi, with the consequent development of the whole idea of the kindergarten, the garden in which the children may grow naturally and freely.

The importance of these men consists chiefly in the fact that they overcame the tendency to treat children as though they were adults.  The new point of view may be described as a theory of expression rather than impression. Pestalozzi said the teacher must work "from within and not from without". To do this the teacher must have a sympathetic understanding of the interests which are natural to children at different ages. Throughout the realm of Nature, growth is dependent on the activity which assimilates and constructs.  The object of all these men was to make education natural, not artificial.  To do this they introduced ideas and methods which provided for the activity of the senses and the feelings first, leaving the more abstract studies to a later age.  The first work on Child Psychology was produced in 1791 by Tiedemann, a sign that the new ideas were gaining ground.



The first part of the nineteenth century saw the creation of modern physiology, with the theory of the cell, and new experimental methods.  The old psychology persisted for a time with only slight changes.  The most popular product of this period was the psychology of Herbart, a system which united very skilfully the laws of association with later ideas of active interest and attention, and became the foundation of educational theories for half a century.  But this type of theory vanished when the problems of psychology began to be treated as a subject for laboratory investigation.  This [p. 5] the origin of "physiological psychology", a name which itself indicates the close relation between the study of the body and the study of the mind.

A slightly different standpoint is implied by the word "psycho-physics", which came into common use after 1860.  For general purposes, however, both words may be taken to mean the study of an individual's observable reactions.  An experiment may be conducted to discover how quickly or slowly a person reacts to a signal.  This obviously a simple way of discovering the co-ordination of a very complex set of conditions, including the action of the sense-organ, the rapidity of perception and the ability to initiate or control muscular response.

Experimental psychology is a fundamental and important branch of psychology.  The name of Wundt (1832-1920) will always be associated with its origin and development.  The student should notice, in the example given above, how closely it borders on physiology, and yet has elements with which the physiologist was not concerned.  It will be apparent that this is essentially a psychology of the laboratory, and can be achieved only there are such conditions are possible.  Also it is most obviously useful in the study of functions for which there are well defined organs, such as vision, hearing, touch.  The acts of remembering or liking are not so easily assigned to any particular organ, and so there seems to be a limit to the usefulness of the methods. But the word "experimental" may be used in a wider sense.  It then comes to mean any study of a function which is carried out by an exact method of observation. In this sense experimental work has been done on memory, intelligence, and emotions, but the methods have been devised in a manner very different from the earlier work. [p. 6]



The outstanding event of the nineteenth century was the growth of the biological sciences with their characteristic views on development.  Spencer (1855) and Darwin (1860)  were the great leaders of this movement. Anatomy is concerned with the structure of the organism.  Physiology is the science of the function and the operations of the organism in its various parts. Biology considers chiefly the whole activity of life (bios) of the organism defined as the sum of its relations to the environment in general.  For example, food-seeking, mating, and nest-building are typical functions in this sense.  As there are different forms of these activities, and they appear to be sometimes less and sometimes more complex, this degree of complexity is taken to be a sign of development, and the scheme is described as evolutionary.

Evolutionary biology changes the outlook in a variety of ways. For example, the senses can be described, not as mere channels of knowledge, but as the means by which the organism is related to the environment.  The emphasis is then laid on the fact that by the senses me receive different impressions. For this reason the word receptors is used for the sense-organs, and they are classified as extero-ceptors, intero-ceptors, and proprio-ceptors. When the source of the impression is external to the body, the sense-organ is called an extero-ceptor; for example, the eye or the ear, being affected by light or sound, can be called an extero-ceptor. There are also sensations which arise from internal conditions, such as hunger and other visceral activities: that part of the nervous system which gives us knowledge of these conditions is called the intero-ceptor system.  Finally, there is a third class of nerves called proprio-ceptors, [p. 7] These constitute the mechanism by which we co-ordinate the movements of the limbs. In a simple operation like standing erect it is necessary that we should be aware of the tension or relaxation of the appropriate muscles. In a more complex act like knitting, there are continual stimuli from the joints and muscles which act as cues for the movements which we can then perform automatically.

In this connection it is necessary to point out that the word "environment" is often misleading. It usually means any part of the world surrounding the body, being the French word for "surroundings"; but it can be used for anything which is an object to the mind, and in this sense muscular or visceral conditions must be reckoned in the environment of the perceiving subject. The important point to remember is that, in a biological scheme, the fact of knowing is secondary to that of doing: a response is simply a way of acting, which may or may not be exactly what is called knowing (cognition).

The fundamental ideas of adaptation and success or "survival" are applicable to any forms of action or behaviour. It was, therefore, natural that the evolutionary school, beginning with Herbert Spencer, should point out the advantages of studying animals. In this way Comparative Psychology became a distinct part of psychology.  Since it is almost impossible to use any material in animal psychology except the bodily movements, this is sometimes described as objective psychology.  The same is true of very young children, and in some respects may be true of all human beings at all times.  In any case it is difficult, from the point of view of method, to make a sharp distinction between the two divisions known as animal psychology and child psychology. [p. 8]

Since the word "responses" means "answers", and the psychobiologist would regard all possible actions as a form of response to stimulus, we must not hastily think that speech gives us a decisive difference. Language is a definite class of responses; but, though we may not be able to regard it as entirely different from all others, we must certainly regard it as a distinctive fact.   As a highly developed form of communication it gives the investigator a more complex and in that sense qualitatively higher class of facts to observe.

It used to be supposed that "introspection" was a mysterious power by which the soul perceives and understands itself.  This language is no longer in harmony with modern ways of thinking. But, while the emphasis may well be laid on "behaviour'', an important part in behaviour may consist of the report which a person is able to make of facts which cannot be presented in any other way.  If the dentist says to the patient, "Does that hurt you?" he expects to learn from the answer something which he has no other way of learning.  We should, therefore, retain this factor in our methods, and, while we may have our own opinions as to the value of such responses, we should not refuse to accept as useful evidence the reports which people give of their actual experiences.

The influence of evolutionism has been shown in another way. Instead of merely analysing an assumed "mind", as though there was a fixed type of rational thinking, the psychologist prefers to study the mind in the making.  To this method in general the name "genetic" is applied.  The nature of a science is often defined as well by its method as by its subject matter. Genetic psychology is not a distinct part of psychology so much as a distinctive method applied in the field [p. 9] of psychology. It naturally tends to become a study of the earlier formative processes, where growth and change are most evident; but the idea of genesis -- the coming into being of stable forms of mental action -- may be applied wherever such processes are found. For this reason genetic psychology plays a great part in the field of education.

Life as we know it is never solitary.  The human being is always in contact with other human beings, from the early days of dependence on parents or nurses, through the age of child companionship, up to the full relationships of adults.  For this reason all psychology is in some sense social psychology.  But, since it Is convenient to mark off the results which can be obtained in a laboratory or in any artificial set of conditions, there is a recognized distinction between experimental psychology (in this narrow sense) and social psychology. The term "social psychology" is, accordingly, used chiefly for the study of those instincts and emotions which are manifested in the social relations of individuals. These may also be experimentally studied, and it must not be supposed that the experimental method is excluded because the field is defined as social.  But in this field observation is more useful than experiments, because the ideal conditions for study are realized the original natural relations of persons one to another.

This historical sketch, though very brief, should make ear the reasons why the word "psychology" has had different meanings at different times, and also what it has come to mean at the present time.  The place of psychology among the sciences will be most readily understood ~y considering the relations between the different sciences of man and society as they appear in the following table: [p. 10]




In the last period of the historical development which we have described, there was conflict between two points of view -- the structural and the functional. The structuralist built up his description of the mind in terms of certain elements, such as sensations or images.  These mere treated as real things capable of being combined or fused or otherwise united to form whole mental states. The functionalist, largely influenced by the biological sciences, treated all the recognized forms of mental activity as processes.  This attitude has two distinct advantages:  it lays more stress on the fact that all mental states are active rather than passive, and it avoids the tendency to; speak as if there wore distinct agencies or faculties in the human being, such as memory or reasoning. We know that people remember, and we can discover whether they have visual or auditory memory, whether the memory is retentive or not: but this variability implies that the word "memory" does not denote a particular possession so much as a special mode of action.

The functional or dynamic point of view is now most [p. 11] usually adopted.  It is obvious that it is closely allied with the general attitude called "behaviourism".  The term "behaviourism" is used to emphasize the fact that psychology is a study of types of action and not a doctrine of the soul". In this sense all modern psychology is a science of behaviour.  But, in a narrow and technical sense, behaviourism is used for a type of psychology which aims to dispense with all such terms as thought, emotion, memory, or mind.  Without discussing all the problems raised by this effort to make psychology wholly objective and state it solely in terms of nerves, muscles, and glands, we may say that the tendency seems to lead to extremes that are difficult and unprofitable. The facts about memory, understanding, and reasoning can be studied objectively without reducing them (if it were possible) to physiological terms.  In the rest of this work the attitude will be that of the "behaviourists", who mean by that term that psychology is a study of the kinds of activity usually called mental.