The Earliest Psychologists (OLI)

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 mind and body. For example, 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 a tabula rasa) and that knowledge is primarily acquired through sensory learning and experiences.

-from OLI textbook-

The earliest psychologists were the Greek philosophers Plato (left) and Aristotle. Plato believed that much knowledge was innate, whereas Aristotle thought that each child was born as an “empty slate” and that knowledge was 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) influenced the belief that the mind (the mental aspects of life) and body (the physical aspects of life) were separate entities. He argued 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). This relationship between the mind and body is known as the mind-body dualism in which the mind is fundamentally different from the mechanical body, so much so that we have free will to choose the behaviors that we engage in. Descartes also believed in the existence of innate natural abilities (nature).

Another European philosopher, Englishman John Locke (1632–1704), is known for his viewpoint of empiricism, the belief that the newborn’s mind is a “blank slate” and that the accumulation of experiences mold the person into who he or she becomes.

The fundamental problem that these philosophers faced was that they had few methods for collecting data and testing their ideas. Most philosophers didn’t conduct any research on these questions, because they didn’t yet know how to do it and they weren’t sure it was even possible to objectively study human experience. Philosophers began to argue for the experimental study of human behavior.


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