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Early Psychologists

11 September, 2015 - 10:12

The earliest psychologists that we know about are the Greek philosophers Plato (428–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC). These philosophers asked many of the same questions that today’s psychologists ask; for instance, they questioned the distinction between nature and nurture and the existence of free will. In terms of the former, Plato argued on the nature side, believing that certain kinds of knowledge are innate or inborn, whereas Aristotle was more on the nurture side, believing that each child is born as an “empty slate” (in Latin atabula rasa) and that knowledge is primarily acquired through learning and experience.

European philosophers continued to ask these fundamental questions during the Renaissance. For instance, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) also considered the issue of free will, arguing in its favor and believing that the mind controls the body through the pineal gland in the brain (an idea that made some sense at the time but was later proved incorrect). Descartes also believed in the existence of innate natural abilities. A scientist as well as a philosopher, Descartes dissected animals and was among the first to understand that the nerves controlled the muscles. He also addressed the relationship between mind (the mental aspects of life) and body (the physical aspects of life). Descartes believed in the principle ofdualism: that the mind is fundamentally different from the mechanical body. Other European philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), also weighed in on these issues.

The fundamental problem that these philosophers faced was that they had few methods for settling their claims. Most philosophers didn’t conduct any research on these questions, in part because they didn’t yet know how to do it, and in part because they weren’t sure it was even possible to objectively study human experience. But dramatic changes came during the 1800s with the help of the first two research psychologists: the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), who developed a psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and the American psychologist William James (1842–1910), who founded a psychology laboratory at Harvard University.