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Posted: June 16th, 2020

The History Of Psychology and Philosophy

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Throughout the course of history, psychology has taken shape and formed into a field of science that is essential in modern times. Psychology’s origins are deeply rooted in the field of philosophy, dating back to the ancient Greeks with such recognizable names as Aristotle and Plato, who began contemplating the causes of human behavior before even physiology and anatomy would connect the brain to behavior. Many philosophers have attempted to explain the basis for our behavior, but few have been influential and ingenious enough to have not only changed the face of psychology, but lead it into a new direction and devise theories still considered germane today.

With the growing popularity of psychology in the field of philosophy, it was only a matter of time before psychology captured the interest of academics with a more scientific approach to determining and explaining the causes for human behavior. Following on the footsteps of Wilhelm Wundt and William James, the founding fathers of modern psychology, many scientists clamored to disprove current theories.

As centuries have passed, and our knowledge and technology continues to advance, few philosophers and scientists have been so close to the mark with their theories to have influenced the field so greatly and still remain a vital part of our research, experiments, and theories today. John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher, and Charles Darwin, a 19th century naturalist and scientist are two men who fall into that category. John Locke’s theories on how we gain knowledge were a turning point in child psychology in a time where children were meant to be seen and not heard. His beliefs still have validity today where the argument of nature vs. nurture comes into play. Charles Darwin catapulted functionalism to the head of the line in the field of psychology and opened up psychology to every field of research and data collection where human behavior is concerned. Darwin’s theory of evolution is still a major focus in many fields of psychology and was one of the most important developments, to this date, in the field of psychology.


John Locke was one of many philosophers of his time who believed that knowledge was gained through experience, and is often identified as the first of the great English empiricists. This title is often bestowed upon him due to his book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which one of his most substantial goals was to determine the limits of human understanding. While Locke’s most important life’s work was in the political arena, he put the same ideas to work in the field of psychology. Locke’s disdain for authority lead him to extend his beliefs beyond politics; he wanted people to use reason to search for truth rather than simply accepting the opinion of authorities, or hinge their beliefs on superstition. This is how he approached his study of cognitive functioning.

Locke did not agree with Descartes’ theory that knowledge can be innate, knowledge that we have gained without having experience and developed out of our consciousness. This is where his political ideas and his philosophical ideas crossed paths. It was Locke’s belief that we are obligated to acquire knowledge and not just accept what we are told; knowledge is not innate, our mind gains simple information and builds complex ideas. Locke subscribed to the same basic idea that as Aristotle had, hundreds of years earlier, that the mind is a blank slate, or tabula rasa, when we are born. He applied this concept to children, which was quite radical for that time. Locke argued that children are not innately bad, they are born with this blank slate, and their experiences are substantial in deciding their characteristics as adults. He believed that children developed bad thinking habits and in order to dissuade this, children needed to be taught to base their beliefs on strong, fact based notions rather than simply believing what is meant to be understood as fact.

This idea of a blank slate, is still argued by psychologists today. This is the same as the nature vs. nurture theory. Locke simply believed that everything is nurture, and who we become is based upon our environment and what we experience. He urged parents to spend time with their children, and guide them to help them develop into honorable members of society. While we now know, based upon years of research and study, that heredity and genetics are part of what decides our fate as we develop into adulthood, experience is highly implemental to our emotional and social development.

Locke’s argument was based upon two different types of experience, sensation and reflection. Sensation is based upon external experiences such as color, sound, and motion and reflection is based upon internal experiences, which cause the mind to reflect upon these sensations we have experienced and form thoughts and ideas, building our knowledge. This is where we collect our simple ideas, which then build and grow into complex ideas. Sensation helps us to form simple, very basic ideas. Reflection of those sensations causes us to add those stored simple ideas together to form a complex idea, thereby adding to our knowledge base. “The notion of combining or compounding ideas and the reverse notion of analyzing them marks the beginning of the mental -chemistry approach to the problem of association.” (Schultz & Schultz, 2008 & 2007 Pg. 41) Association is, simply put, learning.


Charles Darwin is probably one of the most renowned scientists who developed one of the most debated theories in history, the Theory of Evolution. Darwin’s ideas started formulating while he acted as the naturalist on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. While aboard the Beagle, Darwin kept meticulous notes of his observations, and collected countless biologic and geologic specimens that were sent back to England. From these notes and specimens, Darwin penned three books on South American geology, published numerous scientific papers on zoology, and began his notebook on the transmutation of species. After his return, Darwin began communicating with breeders, zookeepers, naturalists, and gardeners to collect facts and gather evidence to support his theory of evolution.

Two years later, Darwin became entranced by a two-year-old orangutan named Jenny, on display at the London Zoo. He was so taken by Jenny that he returned several times to observe and interact with her, until she died from an illness after only two years in captivity. Darwin’s reaction was that of profound astonishment evident in his notebook: “Let man visit Orangoutang in domestication, see its intelligence…and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence…Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a diety. More humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals” (as cited in Schultz, Schultz 2008 & 2007, Pg. 125).

Darwin was not the first scientist to broach the subject of evolution. Ancient Greek philosophers argued the evolution of all life forms from air and water. A century before Darwin was born, German philosopher Immanuel Kant had a theory that closely resembled Darwin’s. He surmised that all life forms came from one single ancestor, and lower life forms may have adapted and evolved as needed for survival. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, also wrote of the relationship of all forms of life. While evolution was not necessarily a new or original concept, but the evidence and data Darwin collected, accompanied by his Origin of Species, was enough to start the chain of events that changed the direction of psychology.

From Darwin’s theory of evolution came a deepening interest in studying the similarities of mental processes between humans and animals, prompting the field of comparative psychology, the study of animal behavior. Comparative psychology elicited the works of behaviorists Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, both of whom were highly influential in launching the behaviorist movement. Darwin’s theory of natural selection lead psychologists to delve deeper into researching individual differences amongst people in an attempt to find out why some thrived while others barely rise above average. Alfred Binet’s intelligence tests were developed while the focus on individual differences was burgeoning, as intelligence is a major focus for studying differences between individuals. Evolutionary psychology was obviously, spawned by Darwin’s theory. Evolutionary psychology is a field of cognitive psychology that is dedicated to explaining the causes of human behavior based upon adaptation and natural selection.

Darwin’s theory of evolution took the spotlight off structuralism, and shined it directly at functionalism. The structuralism theories and works of Wundt and Titchener were not answering the questions that the psychologists of the time wanted answered. This switch to functionalism, catapulted by Darwin, sparked a desire to apply psychology to everyday life and the issues people face and of how adapt and function in different environments.


Rene Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher and mathematician brought about a spreading desire to explain the mind-body problem. This was the beginning of modern psychology. What followed was a stream of philosophers formulating theories and scientists who helped to make psychology and specific field of science. Many of the theories of the founding fathers of psychology, whether philosopher, scientist, physiologist, purveyor of structuralism or functionalism, are outdated and have been proven to be highly inaccurate, or completely without validity. Few theories have been able to stand the test of time, regardless of their influence and contributions to the field. John Locke’s theories were the basis for a completely different view of child psychology and still hold validity today.

While Locke was not completely correct with his idea of tabula rasa, starting life with a blank slate, the notion that our experiences shape who we become and are highly influential to our development is still a valid argument. Nature vs. nurture is one of the most valid theories in psychology today, and Locke’s theory is derived from the nurture side.

Charles Darwin did not start the concept of evolution, the theory had been circulating for centuries before he even cracked open his first notebook. However, his theories of evolution and natural selection set the tone for studies and research that continues to thrive. His theory of natural selection is valid in that we are constantly adapting and changing as our environment and circumstances change. Darwin’s theory came from every area of study from geology to zoology, and biology to animal husbandry. Those avenues of information and the combining of knowledge from different fields and areas of science are still open to us and have been extremely beneficial in continuing to broaden our efforts to explain the behavior of our fellow human beings. Darwin’s theory highlighted the importance of studying individuals, and continues with behavior analysts and experimental psychologists worldwide. With the thoroughness and painstakingly detailed documentation and supporting evidence Darwin collected it would be difficult to pinpoint much that is not valid today from a psychological standpoint. The only true debates where Darwin’s theories are concerned seem to stem from religion circles and creationists, which has little bearing on the attempt to explain human behavior.

Reference Page

Schultz, Duane P. & Schultz, Sydney E., (2008, 2007), History of Psychology PS210, Cengage Learning: Mason, OH.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

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