Unit 1
Philosophical Roots of Psychology

Here we explore the roots of the field in the philosophies of Rationalism and Empiricism, derived from ancient Greek thought. The ideas of Socrates and Plato were expressed in the statement, "esse est percipi," that is, "Essence precedes existence."

What does this snippet of early Greek thought tell us? Plato believed that the ideas contained in things are more fundamental to them than the things themselves. This suggests that how we should come to know anything is to turn inward, to examine what we understand to be a thing's essence. As far as the field of psychology is concerned, what it means is that we should all study our own minds if we are to study psychology.

We might ask, is the essence of being a person a precondition for our existence? What exactly is our human essence?

The reawakening of Plato's ideas in Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am," must be considered. Descartes believed that in order to have sure knowledge of anything, human nature included, one must first turn inward. Thus, his awareness of his own thought, his own human essence, was, he believed, the most fundamental proof of his very existence. In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud was to analyze his own thought through the method he developed called psychoanalysis. There he found a rich world of forces and fantasies, urges and inhibitions. He described these in the first comprehensive theory of personality and psychotherapy. Freud's means of analysis relied on his capacity for Rationalistic examination of his observations, and he is, in this sense --as a rationalist-- the heir to Socrates, Plato and Descartes.

Aristotle's exploration of the rules of logic and his interest in classification of the natural world is often noted as the origin of Empiricism, carried into the age of the Enlightenment by Bacon and Locke. The idea that we are "tabula rasa," blank slates just waiting to be "written upon" by life experience, came to us from John Locke. The position that we are merely the products of what we learn from the environment was thus introduced.

J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner in the 20th century, led a dedicated branch of psychology, the Behavioral perspective, to this idea. It was their dedication to getting the facts about human and animal behavior directly from carefully controlled observation in the laboratory, that made it possible for psychology to place one foot squarely in Empirical science. While Sigmund Freud had taken a more Rationalistic tack, saying that people think, feel, dream and desire on many different levels of awareness, Watson and Skinner insisted that psychology stick to that which could be objectively observed: behavior.

Freud's rationalistic method, called psychoanalysis, and his theory make up the Psychodynamic perspective in psychology. His work suggests that Descartes might have better said, "I think, therefore I am complex!" Psychology emerged from these philosophical roots as the science dedicated to understanding the mind, and the art of helping and healing through understanding each other.

Skinner's dedication to empiricism, and that of many others, created a boom in empirical psychological research that is still going on today. Psychology today, in the 21st centtury, is a science that uses the methods of a science -laboratory research, controlled studies, outcome measurement, statistical analyses, etc. It is also an art, the delivery of care to those who need help with mental disorders and life adjustment. Yet its deepest roots are in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle.

There are other key philosophical issues that will come up from time to time in this course. Here are three:

Nature versus Nurture

Mind versus Body

Free Will versus Determinism



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Nature versus Nurture