Course Description

A study of the main concepts and major schools of psychology in their historical development. This course traces the development of psychology from its earlier status as a branch of philosophy to its present status as a special science.

Clearly, the course assumes that history is important. This is not a widely shared assumption in our current cultural context – for historical reasons! So in a number of senses, what the course wants to do is to engage the questions: How, and Why does history matter? And why and how does history matter for psychology, for science, and for our global culture of today? 

From these initial discussions, the course will launch into the historical development of the contemporary Western worldview within the context of “Western civilization” from which the theme ‘psychology’ – both as a subject matter (in the ‘semi-theoretical’ form within a culture’s self-understanding of ‘the psyche’ (i.e. psychology)), and as a formally instituted, scientific research discipline (Psychology) – emerges. While the former “small p psychology” is therefore as old as any human society, the latter “big P Psychology” is only about 150 years old. Or in the words of the famous quote by early psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, “psychology has a long past but a short history”. Richard Tarnas’ highly praised Passion of the Western mind provides a succinct narrative of the history of the Western worldview from its Greek roots through to the present. (Note, already, the crucial significance of Christianity that Tarnas, who is not a Christian, assumes – use of the term “passion” – as he focuses on a most modern concern: “the mind”)  This historical development leads to our current situation: in which science holds the crucial power that informs our worldview, our cultural self-understanding. (Note this is crucially different from science being a worldview!) 

This, in a nutshell, is what needs to be understood if we are to understand ourselves, for our contemporary historical situation is a situation without historical precedent. This is so for a number of reasons: One is that in all cultures throughout history, a culture’s self-understanding (worldview) was traditional, and within all traditions except our own, it was invariably religion that held the crucial power informing cultural self-understanding. Western history makes prominent a particular and peculiar distinction: science and modernity over against religion and tradition. One potent consequence of this history, which is a second major reason that contributes to the unprecedentedness of the present: scientific & technological progress in the last two centuries in the Western world have created globalization, a single world-system rather than a regionally-divided world. Sadly, the most potent manifestation of this creation is our global climate crisis: the current world-system is destructive and unsustainable.

Therefore we have to direct a few probing questions to this history. A key question: what is historically distinctive about “Western civilization” such that something without historical precedent emerges within it? There are some fascinating evolutionary pre-history components proposed by Jared Diamond that inform substantially this thorny question of distinctiveness. Consideration of these lead to the historical question proper: the closest to such a precedent is found in ancient Greece, where Western civilization is considered to begin. However, this distinctiveness claim is complicated, insofar as the Greek precedent proves shared across some other ancient civilizations (Israel, India, and China) – to a sufficient extent that Karl Jaspers’ calls this ‘precedent-setting’ or revolutionary era “the Axial Age”; i.e., as constituting the dividing line between a very long pre-history before, and the after of the world history which follows. 

Tarnas’ opening Section I starts from classical Greek philosophy as the ‘revolution’ that initiates the Western tradition that leads to our historically unprecedented present. In addition, given the importance of this founding moment, we will look at Plato’s Apology and the figure of Socrates as founder of philosophy in some more detail. Philosophy as ‘revolution’ seeds the soil of Western thought and practice in a way that bears fruit in 17th century Europe as the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and later again in our current, modern understanding of self (Tarnas, Section V). Within this development, Christianity is not some minor player, but deepens, extends, and transforms the legacy of classical Greece into the far more elaborate and powerful matrix of a “European” civilization (Tarnas, Section III). Tarnas structures his narrative in terms of the domination of a worldview, followed by its dissolution-transformation as basis for the next (Sections I & II, III & IV, and V & VI, are thematically paired in this way). By Section IV, the medieval Christian worldview & dissolution-transformation set the stage for the “revolutions” that found “the modern West”. 

Greek questions as to the rationality of the soul as the site where human being meets the cosmos develop into the Christian concern with faith as the struggle for salvation or damnation, with the soul as the site where sinful human being relates to an omnipotent God, developments that set the stage for the modern conception of self and mind. Another key question to direct to this history, then, in particular for students of psychology: what is the historically changing cultural self-understanding of ‘the psyche’ within Western civilization that stands alongside historically enduring themes about ‘the psyche’? This course traces psychology through the historical changes and development of our understanding of selfhood and identity, its relation to modern science, up to the emergence of Psychology in the late 1800s. 

While the chronologies of psychology and Psychology are the same – from ancient Greece to the present – the accounts run parallel to each other and do not, at least not obviously, interact or converge. This is a problem that is also one of the central problems of Psychology – we are both the (psychological) ‘objects’ studied, as well as the Psychologists who are doing the studying. This problem is usually described as the problem of ‘reflexivity’, and depends essentially on ‘the nature of the soul’. Scientists who study the natural world do not have this problem, but scientists who study the human world do. It is in history that that reflexivity becomes expressed. Thus Psychology faces a peculiar problem: it can ignore the reflexivity of its human subject matter, and thus study ‘human nature’ as if it is part of the natural world, but then psychologist’s own role as scientists becomes unscientifically taken-for-granted; or they can take the reflexivity of their human subject matter seriously, in which case ‘human nature’ is deeply intertwined with history, and their own role contextualized… but then are they still ‘objective scientists’? What is the relation between one’s non-objectified, non-objective backgrounding worldview, non-objectively present as historical background, and the work of objective science that is psychology’s ideal? 

Required Texts:

Plato. (1959). The apology. In Plato: The last days of Socrates, pp. 43-76. Trans. by H. Tredennick. London: Penguin. (Available on Moodle.)

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The passion of the Western mind: understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York: Ballantine.

Taylor, C. (2003). Introduction. In Taylor, C., (Ed.), From the beginning to Plato: Routledge History of Philosophy Vol. I, pp. 1-8. London & New York: Routledge. (Available on Moodle.)

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