Reid — the central figure of the Scottish “common sense” school — in his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), expressed the hope that mental philosophers would “produce a system of the power and operations of the human mind no less certain than those of optics or astronomy.” from Dixon

Early studies in the field of the human mind and intellect took the form of speculative discussions and philosophical debates, with few attempts to apply concrete, scientific methodology to the subject. Psychological analysis focused largely on the intellect as a separate function of the self, and theorists viewed the mind and the body as two disparate, unrelated mechanisms. Little attention, if any, was paid to the relationship between the intellect and actual, physical reality. Theories on the relation of mind and body, mental health and personality abounded, but it was not until the mid-1800s that psychology took the scientific form we are familiar with today.

Among the most influential Victorians to propose the study of the mind as a basic framework for most scientific efforts was Thomas Brown. Even before Freud and Jung, his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Mind (1820) advocated that psychology should be the "common center [of] every speculation, in every science". While this suggested the importance of psychology as a scientific discipline, it was Alexander Bain's The Senses And The Intellect, published in London in 1855, that could be said to mark the advent of modern psychology. After centuries of largely philosophical theory, Bain's extensive research of everyday human behavioral patterns and experience provided the foundation for a new form of reality-based psychology. This new method of studying human cognitive functioning served to introduce the school of associationism, the correlation of sensations and experience (commonly known as "consciousness"), and the actual physical actions being carried out. Bain wrote in this seminal text: "Mind ... possesses three attributes, or capacities. 1. It has Feeling, in which term I include what is commonly called Sensation and Emotion. 2. It can Act according to Feeling. 3. It can Think" (Bain, 1855). From then on, the majority of serious psychologists would no longer ignore the real world of human experience and action when dealing with the functioning of the mind.

An even more revolutionary, but no less influential publication in 1885 was Herbert Spencer's The Principles of Psychology. While maintaining a similar faith in the association of biological and mental functioning, Spencer took a far more abstract and theoretical approach in his studies. Much of his writings were based on speculation and philosophy alone, springing largely from his own considerations and conversations with others. Despite the lack of scientific grounding, his work proved to be seminal, spawning ideas like J. H. Jackson's concept of the nervous system and its evolutionary nature, and Baldwin's circular model of adaptation. One of Spencer's most famous phrases was "survival of the fittest", which later formed the basis of a controversial branch of psychology/philosophy called Social Darwinism.

Together with an experimental framework developed by Continental European psychologists like Helmholtz and Wundt, Spencer's evolutionism and Bain's associationism began to create a new form of psychology based on the observable biological functions of the human body as well as psychological concepts and experiences; a measurable, researchable science, rather than a branch of speculative philosophy.

Further reading

Bain, Alexander. The Senses and the Intellect. 1855, London.

Brown, Thomas. Lectures on the Philosophy of the Mind. 19th ed. 1851, Edinburgh.

Faas, Ekbert. Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychology. 1988, Princeton

Psychology Section, Thoemmes Press Online


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Last modified 8 March 2008