Philosophical Antecedents

1 Where to begin?

The questions which motivate many to study psychology are ancient. Thus one could easily justify starting with the Greeks: Plato, Aristotle, and many less well known thinkers who had views on consciousness, perception, memory, and emotions — all topics of contemporary interest [1] . And while that choice would lead to interesting discussions and readings, and while it would give rise to an informed context for modern debates, it would not advance those debates. The same questions reappear across the centuries, are not resolved, and leave little sense of progress. One should look closer to modern times to frame the stage for scientific psychology’s origin.

But one should not leap too far. Jumping all the way to Wilhelm Wundt and 1879, the year that is commonly used to mark the founding of Experimental Psychology, would omit a statement of the problem that a scientific psychology was meant to solve. Psychology emerges from philosophy, both abstractly, the contents of the inquiry, and concretely, from its people and departments. Why? What was wrong with the contemporary state of the art that demanded new methods? In fact, demanded a new science? One that connected the knowledge, procedure and rigor of physiology, with the bifurcated domain of rationalist and empiricist mental philosophy.

In looking to the stories of Descartes and Locke we see early statements of the rationalist and empiricist positions. We are greeted by questions, such as the one that was posed by Molyneux, that are still generating modern discussion and research. And by picking this time we enter history when it becomes possible to conceive of science per se. Prior to Galileo one could argue there was no science [2] .

2 Philosophers and Psychology

2.1 Descartes (1596 - 1650)

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes by Jan Lievens. Downloaded from The Bodleian

Descartes was a genius and polymath. His inclusion here rests not on the content of his substance dualist claim that mind and matter were two different things, but on the fact that in making this claim he was pulling together the topics of introspective philosophy and physiology. Descartes maintained that matter was physical, and the mind was not. They were two substances (Res cogitans and Res extensa) yet they interacted. Mind could influence matter and thus thought could determine behavior. In this rapprochement between brain and spirit Descartes presages the creation of a science of psychology which will take thought and its physical basis as its content.

Descartes is also relevant for his metaphysics. He famously proposed Je pense, donc je suis. I think therefore I am. [3] His method of doubt, and the specific conclusions he reached from employing it may be more pertinent to epistemology, but for scientific psychology they demonstrate the critical use of introspection. Descartes imagined some trickster was deluding his senses. What was it he could believe given the risk of this deceiving demon? We have all been deceived by dreams and illusions - at least momentarily. Given that, is it not possible that all is illusion? That all we perceive is false. That all we know is wrong. No, replied Descartes. There is always something that thinks, and that is constant in its identity across time. I think. Therefore I am. There can be no doubt of this concludes Descartes (and many others). It is an example of the careful use of one’s own internal conscious representations and reasonings as the basis for a scientific claim. This will be the method most central to early scientific psychology, and we can take this example of its early deployment as a herald for the scientific psychology to follow.

2.1.1 Some Biography [4]

If the above show how the ideas of Descartes, his rationality and his use of introspection, indicate the science yet to come, we can also see in Descartes’ life the practices that would be developed to support all the sciences including psychology.

He was born the son of a sort of lawyer and regional politician. His mother died within a year of his birth, and Descartes was raised by a grandmother. He was deemed sickly. Possibly tuberculosis, and possibly contracted from his mother. He had two inheritances: one monetary and one his intelligence. The latter seems to have been the way he purchased indulgences. Even at a Jesuit school there was a tolerance for his sleeping in and working in bed.

Some words by Descartes about his own schooling.

He acquired a degree in law in Paris. Even in those days guardians were interested in making sure that an education provided you a way to make a living, and also in those days young men and women entertained questions about purpose and meaning. Descartes seems to have had his existential crisis in his early twenties. What good was his knowledge? In his confusion he volunteered for the army [5] , and became a mercenary for Holland against Spanish forces in the Thirty Years War. While developing and teaching artillery techniques he still seems to have been indulged in a degree of military tolerance. Because it was at this time that he apparently retired to his oven to meditate and in the course of three vivid dreams developed his mental philosophy.

2.1.1.1 Math is the heart of science

With Galileo one first begins to grasp the centrality of mathematics for scientific inquiry. Mathematics was always valued as an intellectual pursuit, and for its practical benefits, but the idea of using mathematics to model the world in the way a globe or orrey does had to wait for the Renaissance.

Descartes is the name behind the Cartesian coordinate system. An accomplished mathematician, Descartes’ coordinate system is a component of his revolutionary demonstration of the inherent connection between algebra and geometry. Algebra presents math as formulas. Geometry as drawings. Descartes showed how you could move back and forth. Take your compass and draw a circle on the page of radius \(r\). That image can also be expressed as a function \(x^2 + y^2 = r\). Work in the “domain” that is most convenient and then convert back into the other. Troubled by a geometric problem? Translate it into algebra. Solve the hard part there, and then translate the solution back into geometry.

These mathematical experiences are key to all scientific inquiry. To study something you must be able to measure it. Mathematizing experience is for Kant the essence of a science, and even if we don’t go as far as Kant we can see the idea of trying to quantify experience as a key feature of the nascent struggles to move psychological investigations beyond its idiosyncratic character. Herbart is one of the first to try and give a mathematical tone to psychological theorizing, and it will be Fechner and then Helmholtz who successfully fuse quantification with measurement to generate theories of thought. In Descartes we see the early development of mathematical ideas as providing a dictionary for translating between scientific domains.

2.1.1.2 Interested in the mind? Study the nervous system.

Descartes was an early empirical neuroscientist. Empiricism implies observation, but it is not the same as experimentation, which is both more systematic and more narrowly focused. Early Renaissance science often emphasized demonstration over investigation, but this may have been a necessary early stage. Descartes did get his hands dirty doing real scientific work. He was the first to demonstrate the inversion of the retinal image by the lens. He did this by extracting the eye of an ox and thinning its posterior aspect until it was virtually transparent. Then he could look through this eye to see the image projected on the retina. This is a demonstration you could repeat today.

Descartes was interested in trying to unite his philosophical dualism with his knowledge of the nervous system. In addition to his work in empirical optics, Descartes was also a student of reflexes. Touch something hot and you pull back before you are aware of having thought about it. Descartes was of the view that reflex mechanisms were sufficient to account for all the complexity of animal behavior [6] . In coming to the conclusion that reflex mechanisms were sufficient to explain complex behavior, Descartes was clearly a product of his time [7] . In the 1600s great progress was made on mechanization. Little machines were made that followed determined mechanical rules implemented by wheels, cogs, and springs that often produced, via the composition of such simple mechanisms, apparently complex behavior such as the duck that would eat, drink and defecate. Descartes probably witnessed the operation of the Latona Fountains where a complex system of levers and pipes led to triggered reactions and responses, and also the automata of Saint Germain. An example of the potential complexity of these mechanical creations and their ability to mimic animal behavior can be seen in this video of singing bird pistols.

2.1.1.3 Denouement
Rene Descartes' Skull

The skull of Descartes. Downloaded from The Lancet

Descartes, like many of his contemporaries, had to fear retribution for his scientific ideas from the Catholic church. A mechanical account of behavior could be seen as antagonistic to religious teachings. And, along with others of his contemporaries (e.g. Locke) he took refuge in Holland. The Dutch were relatively free thinking and tolerant, and played host to many scientists potentially exposed to accusations of heresy.

To provide himself a home and a salary Descartes contracted to tutor Queen Christina of Sweden. Christina was an educated woman when that was rare and royal females were treated more as sexual bargaining chips. She was also, unfortunately for Descartes, a believer in early hours and possessed a robust constitution. Descartes did not, and it was not too long after wintering in Sweden and arising at 5 am that he died of pneumonia.

His accomplishments though bred fame, and the French ambassador cut off a finger of Descartes corpse for a souvenir. A lead casket was sent from France to return the great man’s remains, but being too short they left his head behind. Fortunately it has been found (since 1821).

2.1.2 Lessons for Scientific Psychology from Descartes

From ancient times the mind of man was linked with his spiritual aspect, that is his soul. When empirical practices were more widely adopted, and combined with improved practical technical skills the arts and sciences flourished in what we call the Renaissance. In this milieu a person of Descartes great intellectual ability could contribute to multiple fields including math and neuroscience. He could also elaborate a view of mental philosophy that provided a rational argument for ones’ mental existence, and he could also provide a paradigm in which the mental and physical were separate, but interactive so that both a knowledge of the nervous system and a knowledge of mental structure would be necessary for a complete understanding of human psychology.

We can also learn the lesson of humility. Despite his greatness Descartes made obvious mistakes. Mistakes not only obvious with hindsight, but mistakes that should have been apparent to him if he had not been driven by the need to confirm his opinions, but rather to test them. Having decided that mind and brain were two distinct, but interacting, substances he felt compelled to offer details of their communication. His hydraulic account of muscular action is not too implausible. Muscles seem to swell when used, perhaps they become engorged by some routed fluid he proposed. Given the hydraulic fountain and automata of his day that seems a reasonable conjecture. But where did the control of these fluids come from, and how could this non-physical mind interact to direct this physical flow? Descartes persisted in pushing his hydraulic account ever higher until we are forced to consider minute lacunae (too small to be observed) that are affected by minute (too small to be observed) vibrations of a central cerebral structure, the pineal gland, which seems to have been selected based more on aesthetic considerations than rational ones. The pineal gland was the location where mind influenced brain, and from whereon all was physics and fluids. But if the pineal gland is the special organ of thought, and if only man (and none of the lower animals) possess this faculty then there should be no particular reason to find pineal glands littered about in all the mammals, including oxen, the exact creatures that Descartes dissected to procure his eyes. He knew the animals had pineal glands, yet he omitted to confront this challenge to his account.

Pineal Gland

Descartes depicts the pineal and its fluidic vibrations Downloaded from Treatise on Man Archive.org

2.1.3 tl;dr Descartes

Rene Descartes links the mind to the brain through his philosophy, analysis, and empirical investigations of the nervous system. His rational, dualist account can be seen as one side of the philosophical coin from which a scientific psychology will develop.

2.2 John Locke (1632 - 1704)

2.2.1 Some Biography [8]

Similar to Descartes, Locke had lawyers in the background. He was middle class, and it was through patronage that he could attend Westminster school. Locke’s father had fought on the side of the Puritans, and it is possible that Locke may have witnessed the beheading of Charles the First. Ability came to his aid and he was able to attend Oxford on scholarship.

Locke studied medicine. Several of the founders of scientific psychology were medical men by training, if not by practice. For example we will see that Helmholtz, Munsterberg, and Broca, among others, were trained as medical men first. Some of this was probably an artifact of the education system of the time, but it is also interesting to wonder how the early approach to psychology as a science might have been shaped by this clinical perspective and training, and why then, apparently paradoxically, what we consider as “mental” illness was not a popular topic for psychological research? Although, Kraepelin, the father of modern psychiatry, was Wundt trained, he was not practically speaking an experimental psychologist.

2.2.1.1 Discussion Question
Why should it be the case that so many early scientific psychologists would have been trained in medicine when, as we shall see, very little of early scientific psychology had anything to do with clinical care?

It appears that Locke may have been a bit of a dilettante mingling his interests in natural philosophy with those of politic philosophy. His medical training took place at a time when there was a move away from didactic education to practical training. It may seem odd now, but one once learned how to practice medicine by reading books in Latin. But the years of political upheaval and unrest in England provided some diversion and allowed for new developments in medical education. Thomas Willis [9] was the apparent founder of this approach to be more practical and empirical in medicine. This approach may have appealed to Locke and informed his views more generally. At the time Locke was being educated and working British science was also institutionalizing. The Royal Society was founded in 1660.

For Locke personally, it appears that his future was secured when he assisted in the successful drainage of the liver cyst of Lord Ashley (1668). An interesting side note is that the Lord wore a silver drainage tube thereafter. We know know that metallic silver has antimicrobial effects, and this could have contributed to the longevity and success of the surgery.

Perhaps courageously, perhaps unwisely, Locke chose a time of civil war and beheaded kings to write a rather opiniated treatise on government. And as a result of the these turbulent times Locke decided it was worthwhile to find somewhere other than England to live and work for awhile. He decided on Holland (as had Descartes). Following his return from exile Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [10] , which is what we can take to be one of the important antecedent documents for what will become a science of psychology.

Locke’s last years did not have the drama of Descartes, but they both shared discomfort in the end. Locke had some sort of lung disease that made it difficult for him to bear the air of London in any but the better months of spring and summer. He died in 1704 and was buried in Essex.

2.2.2 Lessons for Scientific Psychology from Locke

Locke’s empirical approach to mind is echoed by the philosophers, such as John and James Mill, who will argue for a science of the mind, and emphasize on sensations and images as the core materials from which a mind is built. This notion of simple elements combined to make complex mental constructs is not an accidental metaphor. The first true theoretical movement in scientific psychology will be structuralism.

This contrast of Locke’s nascent structuralism with Descartes rationalism is useful for examining many issues in contemporary psychology.

2.2.2.1 Discussion Question
Locke’s philosophy is called empiricism. What is the difference between empiricism, positivism, and experimentalism?

One of Locke’s most important points for scientific psychology is one of the first ones he makes in his Essay.

Let us suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper [11] , void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast Store, which the busy and boundless Fancy of Man has painted on it, with an almost enless Variety? … To this, I answer, in a word, from Experience; Book II
2.2.2.2 Discussion Question
How does this position differ from Descartes’?

This furnishing according to Locke comes because we observe outside things and inside things. The outside things are the things in the world, rocks and the like, while the inside things are our own thoughts and ideas. The former might be called sensations, and the latter reflections. There are simple ideas and complex ideas the latter being made from the former. The sensations we have of objects can inhere in the objects themselves, such as their position, and such sensations are primary, but our sensations can also be secondary by virtue of depending on us. The color of the rock is not inherent in the rock, but comes from my observation of it.

See how Locke’s ideas merge with our modern idea of what it means for something to be a science. Scientists observe. For Locke our minds are the products of a process of observation combined with a capacity for reflection. There is nothing there aught what experience puts into it. Because the mental is derived from the physical some obvious and strong predictions can be made.

2.2.2.3 Writing Assignment - Molyneux

Do you understand?

Write about Molyneux

2.2.3 tl;dr Locke

Where Descartes represents the rational approach to human psychology: we are thinkers who can rely on native dispositions to deduce true states about our mental life; Locke represents the empiricist counterweight. He are born with no native ideas. We are blank and then stamped by simple sensations that we elaborate through experience and reflection into ever more complex mental constructions.

2.2.3.1 Discusion Questions
  1. For Locke there are two sources of knowledge. What are they?
  2. What distinguishes a simple idea?
  3. Was Locke a behaviorist?
  4. What are some arguments against the blank slate theory of human knowledge (and what is the philosophical term that describes the study of the limits, nature, and origin of human knowledge)?
  5. What is the difference between a primary and a secondary quality?

2.4 Question for Review, Discussion, and a Scavanger Hunt

  1. Make a case for whether Locke or Descartes should be considered the first true psychologist?
  2. How did Locke and Descartes differ in their opinions on the source of all knowledge?
  3. For Locke what is the difference between sensation and reflection?
  4. Why is the work of empirical philosophy relevant for the development of scientific psychology?
  5. What was the date and who was the author of the first North American textbook of Psychology?
  6. What is the difference between science and empiricism?
[1]Two textbooks that give reasonably extended treatments of these ancient sources are The Great Psychologists by Robert I. Watson (which can be found very cheaply on line), and Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology by B. Michael Thorne and Tracy B. Henley, which is newer, but more expensive.
[2]A useful question to consider at this stage is whether or not you agree with this statement: Before Galileo there was nothing we would call a science. To have an opinion on that you will not only need to know a little bit more about Galileo and what it was he did, but also what is meant by the word science. What makes something justifiably called “a science?” You might find this interview with David Wootton relevant.
[3]Yet another way in which Descartes was a forward thinker was in writing his science, at least initially, in the vernacular (Galileo did this too). Rather than latin (Cogito ergo sum) his first phrasing of “I think therefore I am.” was in French. By writing in his national language he made his writing more accessible to those without a classical background. Paradoxically, this may have made some of his work less accessible to the non-French for whom Latin was the international language of scientific discourse. Of course, one could always relay on breeding. What educated European of the time wouldn’t have had at least a basic reading level knowledge of French, German, and Italian?
[4]My own notes on Descartes life are all secondary and acquire piecemeal. I can’t recall the sources for most of them. They are just a big pile of facts that I use to lecture. However, Idid find this site that offers a very nice overview.
[5]Wittgenstein too volunteered for the army. What is it with famous philosophers and enlistment? This same website has a nice article about Descartes military experience.
[6]In a way one could see the behaviorism of the early 20th century as a continuation of the Cartesian program, but this time expanded to include humanity along with the brutes.
[7]What does the word Zeitgeist mean?
[8]The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an excellent resource) has a nice biography of Locke.
[9]Thomas Willis is often thought of as the founder of neuroscience. He probably rendered the first clinical description of myasthenia gravis, and really impressed the locals when he appeared to bring a woman back to life. That is a great advertisement for a physician. But mostly his advances seem to have rested on his documentation of the cases he saw, his collation of similar cases, and his continuity in seeing what happened to his patients over time.
[10]There are several copies of this on the archive.org website. This one has a nice picture of the author and looks impressively old.
[11]Although it is incredibly common to refer to Locke’s claim as saying that the mind was a tabula rasa (or a blank slate). That terminology actually comes from Aristotle’s De Anima.