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Philosophy Medieval Development

Could the history and philosophy of psychology be explained without taking development into account?

Psychology as a discipline has had a relatively short history, but the elements that comprise it have been topics of interest for centuries. Early references to psychological matters include discussions on personality and temperament by Greek philosophers, including Plato’s ‘Allegory of the chariot’, where two horses, one good representing “noble spirit” and one bad representing “the appetites”, pull the “chariot” of the personality. 

The charioteer representing “reason” drives by coordinating the actions of the horses, their direction and speed. Similarly, the same historical background can be seen with development, for long before it became a branch of what we now call psychology, people had theories of exactly how the development of infants and children occurred, with some early evidence of a nature-nurture split, Plato siding towards the former and Aristotle the latter.

For much of the last two millennia the concept of ‘preformationism’ was a popular view, that is that children are quantatively but not qualitatively different from adults. Medieval opinion was that a tiny person was contained in either sperm or egg and this was only refuted in 1677, with van Leeuwenhoek’s invention of a microscope that could see inside sperm cells and even then, some die-hard proponents insisted that the tiny person was just too transparent to be seen. In some historical drawings children are shown as being perfectly proportioned small adults and as seen in Harris and Liebert (1991), a cross section of a pregnant women’s womb at the time of preformationism, reveals a miniature adult standing up ready to exit the birth canal. 

Such ideas also cross over into philosophical thought, with philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Thomas Hulme, David Hume and John Stuart Mill having their own distinct ideas on the development of a child’s mind.  It is natural then that as psychology has grown and become established as a science, it has been closely linked with developmental study at many stages.  However, to ask if the history and philosophy of psychology could be explained without development is to examine, how much the discipline’s growth has been shaped by developmental research. 

Therefore, this essay will look at some of the vital points in the history of psychology that have involved development and will also consider the philosophical background. Psychology’s emergence as a discipline is as recent as the late 19th century and though it did not suddenly “come into being”, it was at this time that ongoing social changes and a pressure to recognise the utility of human sciences, led to its founding as a study in its own right. 

This coupled with the founding of the first formal psychology laboratory by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879 and publication of ‘The principles of psychology’ by William James in 1890, formalised the experimental aspect of the science and represented the “symbolic end of its ties to philosophical speculations” (Mandler, 2007).

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However, despite its relative recency, what we would now call psychological thought, has been around almost as long as the human search for knowledge, often under the larger umbrella of philosophy, in fact at the end of the nineteenth century, psychology was sometimes referred to as experimental philosophy.  The quote that “Psychology has a long past, but only a short history” (Ebbinghaus, 1908) refers to the fact that an interest in self-knowledge existed long before the category of psychology. Likewise, development is a subject that has generated and maintained much interest over the years.

Early psychology was not as we now view it; it was more closely linked with philosophy and theology, a desire for knowledge of the self in reference to a relationship with God. This was seen for example in the writings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and in ethical discussion such as Kant’s moral philosophy.  Development too had always been heavily involved in philosophy, for example, John Locke’s ‘Some thoughts concerning education’ (1693), was a philosophical document that became one of Britain’s most influential works on education, its impact lasted for well over a century and was acknowledged by most European writers on the subject (Crooks and Stein, 1991). 

Locke’s view that children’s minds should be educated in a very specific manner in order that they might become good citizens made him the first major advocate for the cause of nurture in the modern nature-nurture debate, which would later become one of psychology’s most contentious themes.  Locke’s ‘Essay concerning human understanding’ (1690) defined the infant’s mind as a “tabula rasa” - a blank slate, which contained no innate ideas and on which all understanding was to be written. Here is one of the first instances of psychology’s course being shaped by development and it also paved the way for some famous psychological thought including Watson’s behaviourism. 

The influence of Locke’s writings was acknowledged, but opposed, by the nativist Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in 1749 wrote his ‘Discourse on the arts and sciences’, which hailed the goodness of humanity in nature and which set out his philosophy with regards to education. In ‘Emile’ (1762), Rousseau suggested that children should be left to develop naturally as “noble savages”, free from the corrupting influence of European civilisation and the interference of formal education in particular. Rousseau’s fictional boy, Emile would develop and become educated by discovering and exploring the environment for himself, with subtle encouragement from his teacher or “caretaker” and by “being a child not an inadequate adult” (Gregory, 1987). In 1859, there came a huge shock to all of the sciences with Darwin’s ‘Origin of species’, which was the real beginning of evolutionary thought. 

Although Darwin’s controversial research had an impact on many areas of science, its implications for developmental science were clear. Darwin was challenging the uniqueness of man and positing the concept of instincts - innate, hereditary traits that suggested that development was not, contrary to Locke, entirely dependent upon the environment. Rather, Darwin suggested that development was (at least partially) pre-programmed by the genetic codes that we inherit from our ancestors. 

This had a huge impact for psychology; the idea that we were no different from animals meant that examining animal traits could be beneficial to learning about the human mind.  Variations and distortions of Darwin’s theory of ‘selected’ traits lead to interesting developments with social Darwinism and eugenics becoming popular fields of study. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, wrote ‘Hereditary genius’ in 1869, using statistical data to show that ability can be inherited and coined the term, “eugenics” to describe a process of directing human evolution through selective breeding in order to ensure that only the most positive traits are passed along. 

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Galton collected a great quantity of empirical data with developmental influence including information such as age of parenthood, family size, wealth and household location. He also invented gadgets for measuring physical properties and attempted to find correlations between psychological and physical characteristics, and the impact of heritable influence on both.

Galton bequeathed £45000 for the study of eugenics at London University, with the idea of it being a positive force for human development and evolution but the term “eugenics”, was much later to become unfavourably associated with Nazi Germany racial policies.

Darwin’s theory that mankind had evolved from other species previously thought to be distinctly different, provoked much research into child development. For example, behaviour of children was monitored by some scientists to see if they went through a chimpanzee stage and although this was shown to be an oversimplification, there became an acceptance that “development must be studied as part of human evolution” (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002 in Cole, 2005) .

At the same time as Darwin’s scientific revolution, socio-economic changes resulting from the industrial revolution led to a great deal of emphasis being placed on education.  Due to mass industrialisation in Britain and the desire for an educated workforce, the UK introduced universal, compulsory education in the 1870’s.  This meant that teachers and schools became accountable to government and effort was put into providing the best education possible and monitoring the progress of pupils. One aspect of evolutionary thought was that the ‘capacity’ of the young was important;  feeble minded children were seen as a threat to society (Richards, 2002) and there was fear surrounding degeneration of the ‘national stock’. 

This focus on child education and the best way to enhance it directly impacted on developmental psychology, as it gave the subject utility, something that it wanted in order to confirm its position as a science.  In 1905 Alfred Binet published the Binet-Simon scale, with the aim of identifying children who might benefit from a French state education. The adapted ‘Stanford-Binet’ test (Terman, 1925) with its measurement of intelligence quotient (IQ) is still used today.

This idea that traits could be measured was vital for psychology’s development, as it gave the subject a purpose that was commonly recognised as being useful and practical. It was further extended during the First World War when attempts were made for psychology to contribute towards the war effort.  Following the introduction of conscription, Binet’s intelligence tests were applied by Robert Yerkes to test the mental fitness of US army recruits. 

In 1917, 1.75 million men were tested in groups, using written tests for those who could write and picture-completion tests for those who couldn’t. The mass testing was a failure for the army, as it did not reveal anything about their required skills and it controversially assessed a large number of the recruits as being of subnormal intelligence. It was however a huge success for psychology with the tests giving the impression of developmental measurement, and helping to legitimise psychology. 

The tests are described by Smith (1997) as establishing “...psychology as the expertise of efficient human management”.  Yerkes’ tests affected the course of psychology by pushing it into the public arena and it also influenced the methods and underlying theories.  Previous pseudo-scientific tests such as phrenology, had been discredited by Magendie amongst others and Cattell’s (1891) tests of grip strength (called psycho-physical or anthropometric testing) had initially been popular but had fallen into disrepute when challenged for correlational validity by Wissler.

By contrast, Binet’s intelligence tests were shown to correlate well with a child’s school grades and also with their teacher’s evaluation (Gleitman, 2004) and the test provided a method of examining the child (and later, adults) that was not medical or pedagogical but psychological in nature.  Also for the first time, developmental measurement was possible outside a laboratory setting, whereas previous experimental psychology, for example Wundt’s studies of consciousness, had had to be carried out with extreme precision and accurate instrumentation (Mandler, 2007). 

Therefore Binet’s tests had brought psychology out of the laboratory into the real world and Yerkes’ recruit testing put psychology “on the map”.  Subsequently, Yerkes found that although the tests had not been successful for the army, he received many requests for them from other quarters.  Eventually, tests were developed to measure a wide variety of traits central to personality, ability and other individual differences, including work by Spearman (1926), Thurstone (1938), Wechsler (1939) and Gardner (1999). 

In this way, we can see how modern psychological methods have been deeply influenced by what were originally tests of development. Another major change in the direction of psychology that stemmed from Darwin’s developmental research was brought about by the behaviourism movement, which originated at the end of the nineteenth century.  Psychology up to this point had used introspective methods and studies of consciousness, but was now looking for a way to become more objective. Thorndike (1898) designed a series of experiments with puzzle boxes using cats, dogs and chicks to prove a law of effect, where incorrect responses were “stamped out” and correct responses were “stamped in”.

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This marked the beginning of a behaviourist school of psychology, formalised in Thordike’s ‘Animal intelligence’ (1911) and later expanded by Watson, who in 1913 argued that “people could be studied objectively, as are cats, monkeys and rats, by observing their behaviour” (Gregory, 1987). Pavlov’s experiments with dogs trained to respond physiologically to the stimulus of a bell, led him to develop his theory of classical conditioning and his book, ‘Conditioned reflexes’ (1927), introduced a theory of learning completely unlike anything that had preceded it. 

Pavlov’s ideas were quickly taken up by other experimental psychologists, as the concept of learned association was seen to be non-species-specific (following Darwin) and had applications for all aspects of human behaviour. Pavlov’s colleague Krasnogorski for example, used classical conditioning to demonstrate conditioned feeding responses with fourteen month old infants. Possibly the most radical and well known form of behaviourism was that of J.B. Watson whose ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ (1913) had an extremely profound effect.  It posited an entirely objective psychology based on prediction and control of behaviour, rejecting Wundt’s experimental self observation and focusing only on observable responses. 

It was strongly reflective of the philosophical idea of pragmatism, revealing truths that can be observed and experienced with physical consequences.  In terms of development, it was a strong argument for the nurture side of the “nature-nurture” debate and Watson followed this up in 1916 with developmental studies, leading to his famous “little Albert” conditioning experiment of 1920. Watson then set out the philosophy of behaviourism by saying, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…. regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1925). In terms of psychology, it brought about a whole new methodology, denying introspection and calling for a science that left no room for subjectivity.

There are also other events in developmental science that must be mentioned, as they have had a deep influence on the history and philosophy of psychology. Psychoanalysis is one obvious example with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) suggesting that, early experiences during development have the greatest influence on the individual in later life. This has drastically affected modern therapeutic work with both adults and children and has created a whole industry of developmental analysis, media and therapy under the Freudian banner. There are fundamental philosophical differences between Freud’s psycho-sexual developmental theories and those of his student, Erik Erikson (1902-1994). Erikson proposed a psycho-social approach in eight developmental stages, emphasising the importance of social interaction between child, family and society.

Piaget’s developmental theories are of particular note, providing an opposing view to behaviourism and having impacted education in a monumental way by allowing acceptance of a reliable, qualitative development and the idea, of structuring education in a way that reaches children at the level which they have currently reached. Contrary to preformationism, Piaget opined that children have fundamentally different ways of reasoning to adults, they are not miniature grown-ups and this can be evidenced by the mistakes they make and how they learn from them i.e. “the child as a scientist”.

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Jean Piaget (1896-1980) identified three biological processes, assimilation, accommodation and equilibration which helped identify how children interpret stimulus to make it understandable, how their understanding changes in reaction to the new stimulus and how they recognise the shortcoming of their understanding and adapt their mental structure to it. Piaget’s stage theory which suggested a continuous development in four stages and six sub-stages, is still a dominant force in educational psychology and is described by Gregory (1987) as “a dynamic model of mind, with active exploration seen as the basis for learning and understanding and discovery”.

Piaget’s stage theory also sparked interest in theory of mind, which is now important in investigating psychological disorders such as autism with Baron-Cohen (2008) for example, including an “emotional reactivity dimension” in his empathising-systemising (E-S) theory. Fodor (1983) spoke of modularity of mind which crossed the nature-nurture divide by looking at “cognitive development in terms of “mental modules, innate mental faculties that receive inputs from particular classes of objects in the environment..” (Cole, 2004).

The argument at present may seem to be strongly in favour of developmental science as being the leading factor in the historical course and philosophical theorisation of psychology, but development could by no means be said to be the only factor that has influenced the discipline.

Language, genetics and gender differences for example are three courses that form part of a modern psychology degree and all are subject to an enormous quantity of scientific research. However when we consider these and other matters of consequence, as part of the study of each, we must consider their developmental aspects. Hence in Naom Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar (1959, 1965) he provides evidence towards the nativist approach, identifying an inbuilt language acquisition device (LAD), with him writing, “…. many of the fundamental properties of these grammars are part of innate endowment” and by comparison, when looking at the nurture side of the debate, the absence of language in feral and isolated children such as Genie (Curtiss, 1981), we find that “there is a critical period for language acquisition” (Lenneberg, 1967). In other words, when studying differing approaches to the psychology of language, it is necessary to also study the developmental aspects.

Likewise with regards to genetics, in a speech given to the Birkbeck psychological society in January 2006, Robert Plomin spoke of the nature-nurture debate from the approach of an interdiscipline that he calls “developmental behavioural genetics”, which reminded the audience that in his opinion, “…the best way to study effects of environment on behaviour is through the study of genetic influences..” (Plomin, 1986). In gender differences, a popular concept is Kohlberg’s cognitive development theory (1966), a basic tenet of which is the idea that a child must go through three developmental stages before they grasp the concept of gender constancy, “which is the understanding that sex is biologically based and that changes in external features, behaviours or desires do not alter an individual’s sex” (Siegler, 2005).

The increase of interest in subjects such as personality in early twentieth century literature also cannot be underestimated, with popular and folk psychology bringing psychological ideas and constructs into the public domain. Similarly with psychologists such as William James (1842-1910), writing and publicising headline grabbing developmental papers, it has helped to make scientific studies available to a wider readership.

This in turn has enabled attention to be turned towards individual differences rather than implying as psychology (and philosophy to a lesser degree) had previously, that what applied to one could be generalised to all. This also applied to medicine, where diseases of the mind began to emerge and be recognised, singling out individual characteristics of conditions rather than labelling a whole subset of people as insane. It is hard to put a definitive measure on how far development as a science has influenced the history and philosophy of psychology, certainly, any account that did not include it would be very bare. 

For much of history, development and psychology have run alongside each other and have often been affected by the same social and scientific developments, a prime example of which is evolutionary thought.  Developmental ideas have been instrumental in shaping psychology as it is now, for without changes in developmental science, a lot of the changes in psychology’s influence and methodology could not have taken place.

An important theme in the philosophy of psychology is the question of innateness and this has probably the greatest of relevance to development. By considering the impact of developmental science we can also look at the best methodology for psychological research, whether it be introspection, behaviourism, mentalism or neuroconstructivism and give due diligence to each, as these issues are at the heart of the discipline. In considering both the history and philosophy of psychology, development forms an integral part of the explanation and without it any discussion of this amazing science would be drastically incomplete.

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