The History of Psychology


The Era of Science and the Twentieth Century

Modern American Psychology 

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Essays (Joan Johnson Lewis) was god-father to William James the founder of American psychology. Emerson established a uniquely American version of the Platonic doctrine of personal psychology.  A person’s goal should be to develop character and, thereby, overcome the foils of the material world.  His “transcendentalism” led to James’ and other American thinkers’ struggle to accommodate the necessary reliance on practical experience with the more ethereal qualities of consciousness and morality. 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) (Richard Lenat’s Thoreau Reader) furthered the idea of incorporating practicality with serious thought.  Like Rousseau, Thoreau actively distrusted the influence of society on the development of character and thus he added to the spirit of skepticism for authority and promoted independent action in American thought.


William James (1842-1910)- Included here are excerpts from Radical Empiricism, Varieties of Religious Experience, and James correspondence. The Stream of Consciousness (1892) from the Principles of Psychology, Does 'Consciousness' Exist? (1904), and The World of Pure Experience (1904) (York University) are representative works of this father of American psychology. 


Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887 (Guttenburg) – This Utopian thinker addressed the social problems of his times and imagined solutions and complications for the future in terms of the practical use of science and a romantic view humanity. 


JOHN PHILIP SOUSAJohn Phillip Sousa (1854-1932) (Dallas Wind Symphony Site) was a completely American trained composer who became know as the “March King”.  Much of his music is synonymous with American patriotism; indeed his “Stars and Stripes Forever” has nearly become a second National Anthem.    He also conducted the formed the National Marine Band, the “President’s Own”.

 Scott Joplin (1868-1917) Joplin was the son of a freed slave whose talents were enhanced by early formal music training.  He developed the “Ragtime” style to such a degree that he can be considered a “father” of American Jazz – the foundation of modern “Popular Music”. 

Babes in ToylandVictor Herbert (1859-1924), although born in Ireland, was one of the founders of American theatre music which led to Broadway Musicals and many influences on “Popular Culture” in America.  Much of his music is recognizable by most people today even if they don’t know who composed it. 


James McKeen Cattell's (1860-1944) Mental Tests and Measurements (1890, York University) represents his most important contribution to psychology – the application of mathematical technique to psychometrics.  Cattell was a student of Wundt and brought the European sense of scientific psychology to the United States.  He added the American motivation of practical use of science to solve problems.   

James M. Baldwin (1861-1934), James McKeen Cattell, and Joseph Jastrow's (1863-1944) Physical and Mental Tests (1898 York University)  and Baldwin’s A New Factor in Evolution  and Consciousness and Evolution (The Mead Project) are further examples of the American Functionalist’s concern with creating a useful psychology guided by Darwinian precepts.


John Dewey’s (1859-1952) The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology, The Ego as Cause, (York University) and Democracy and Education (Gutenberg) are representations of this unique thinker’s role in the development of psychology.  Dewey critically reviewed the older psychological explanations and created a framework within which useful concepts could be applied to help people.   Among Dewey’s contributions are “progressive education” and student centered curricula. 

 James Rowland Angell’s (1869-1949) The Province of Functional Psychology (York University), Psychology, and Reaction Time (Mead Project) represent the culmination of “Functionalism”.  The “Province” is larger than was conceived in European psychology and focused on the practical value of concepts and theories in psychology – a hallmark of American Psychology.


Edward Lee Thorndike’s (1874-1941) Animal Intelligence (York University) was the beginning of modern “reinforcement theory” in which Thorndike proposes the “Law of Effect”.  The theoretical stage was, thus, set for American Behaviorism. 


John Watson's (1878-1858) Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It (1913) (York University) was the manifesto for American Behaviorism.  Psychologists and biologists had been implementing this approach but Watson was the first to spell out what psychologists should do to have a truly scientific psychology.

Image of George Herbert Mead George Herbert Mead's (1863-1931) The Social Self (1913) (York University) represents the central idea of this pragmatist thinker.  Mead effectively advocates the inseparable nature of mind and society. This is particularly true in this interaction manifested in communication.



Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) – The Self in Scientific Psychology (1915, York University) – Calkins was the first female president of the American Psychological Association in a time when being a professional woman was extremely difficult.  In addition to this important social role, Calkins advanced many of the academic areas of American functional psychology. 


W.E.B. Dubois’ (1868-1963) The Souls of Black Folk (Gutenberg) established what he viewed as the principal problem for twentieth century America – “the color line”.  His work is a remarkably astute picture of the psychology of being a black person in the United States.




Terman at age 41, as an Army MajorLewis M. Terman's ( 1877-1956) The Uses of Intelligence Tests (1916) (York University) is an early prescription for the use of intelligence tests in schools and other institutions.  Significantly, he and his students developed the Alpha and Beta tests which were used in World War I to distribute soldiers into their most appropriate conditions of service.   Controversy continues about this activity but, arguably, Terman’s work placed the discipline of psychology into its most culturally influential position ever. 




G. GershwinFerdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) is widely viewed as the “inventor” of American Jazz music (He claimed that right himself).  His inventive combination of improvisation, amazing technique and sensuality certainly commanded this influential times.  Morton symbolized the self confidence that represented this innovative times in American history.  Art was to be popular, science had to be useable, and thought that couldn’t solve problems was useless and even ridiculous. 

Ferd 'Jelly Roll' MortonGeorge Gershwin (1898-1937) was the most notable  American composer of his time for combining  popular music (jazz and theatre music) with serious musical forms (symphonic and operatic music – Art Music).  He harnessed the spirit of rebellion against European forms and used those forms to create art which communicated to a large audience; his was truly “popular” music.   

Julius “Groucho” Marx (1890-1977) of the American comedy team ( the Marx Brothers) ridicules the formality of the traditional (European) approach to  Higher Education in  “Horse Feathers” (1932).  This disrespect for the old methods from the Continent was a significant aspect of the paradigm within which psychology developed in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States.  American culture continues to have a significant component of related “anti-intellectualism” but  non-conformity to traditions has also produced many novel and useful dimensions of thought.  American science and functional psychology are certainly among these innovations.

Gordon Allport (1897-1967) – Concepts of Trait and Personality (York University) – Allport was an important initiator of “trait” theory of personality which was the principal opposition to psychoanalytic theories.  Traits are the result of experience and direct or motivated our behavior.  The soundest personality is one in which “self awareness” is at a high level.


Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was an important “abstract expressionist” painter who controversially explored the relationship between randomness and order.  When does nonsense make sense?   Who is in charge: the artist/communicator  or the perceiver? These are fundamental questions that permeate modern Cognitive Psychology.

 Jackson Pollock (1912-56) #8, 1949




Edward K. "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was one of the most important composers of “New York” jazz.  Particularly his music in Harlem’s “Cotton Club” added an elegance to the new musical form that aided in jazz becoming America’s popular music.

Clark Hull (1884-1952) The Conflicting Psychologies of Learning – A Way Out, The Concept of the Habit Family Hierarchy and Maze Learning Part 1 and Part 2 (York University) are representative of this significant theorist of the psychology of learning.  Hull was one of the first psychologists to build elegant mathematical theory based upon careful experimental observation.  If a mark of good theory is testability, Hull’s is great theory. Psychological theorizing was no longer mere speculation



Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959) Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men (York University) marks the evolution of behavioral technique into excellent theoretical exposition.  Plainly influenced by the German “Gestalt” psychologists, Tolman proposed a “cognitive map” to explain the empirical fact that behavior can be modified by altering the circumstances of learning.  Learning and behavior are not the same.



Harry F. Harlow’s (1885-1981) The nature of love  (York University) is the research report on experiments with the nature of tactual stimulation in early development.  Food and other necessities for the continuation of life were well understood conditioned stimuli and sensual touch was certainly theoretically explored by the psychoanalysts.  However, Harlow demonstrated the salience of the comforting touch in the early life of primates with clear implications for humans.



Edwin R. Guthrie (1886-1959) Psychological facts and psychological theory  (York University), among other matters, persuasively expanded the ancient “law of contiguity” in learning theory.  No doubt, behaviors recur when they are associated with reinforcement.  Guthrie experimentally demonstrated the detail by which this principle works.  Photographs of cats in controlled learning situations showed how the precise actions of their whole body was controlled by the presentation of reinforcement.


B. F. Skinner’s (1904-1990) Are theories of learning necessary?

  And 'Superstition' in the pigeon (York University) represent this singular American psychologist’s approach and signal his impact on psychology and other disciplines.  Skinner’s radical empirical view was that an effective science of behavior must rely completely on observable experimental evidence – he viewed psychological theory with great skepticism.  In the functionalist tradition, Skinner’s work has resulted in many practical applications in education, training, and views of society. 

Kenneth B. Clark (1914-  ) and Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) The Development of Consciousness of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Preschool Children (York University) – The Clarks supplied the scientific evidence for the effect of segregation on the development of African American children.  Their work was instrumental in the Supreme Court case (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954) that resulted in outlawing segregation.  Kenneth Clark was the first African American president of the American Psychological Association (1970).

 Noam Chomsky (1928- ) Language and Mind (1968, The Value of Knowledge) – Arguably, Chomsky was one of the founders of the “Cognitive Revolution” in psychology.  His persuasive arguments for internal mechanisms in language development redirected many researchers’ efforts toward “mental processes”. 



Jerome Bruner (1915-  ) Value and need as organizing factors in perception (York University) shows the development of this cognitive psychologist’s view of how people gain knowledge.  Humans establish sets of organizing principles in terms of perceptual similarities and differences.  These categories, in turn, direct the way we accumulate new knowledge. 

 Thomas Kuhn (1922- ) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chapter 9, The Value of Knowledge) – Kuhn’s view of how science works changed the way most thinkers conceive of the progress of knowledge.  Indeed, “normal science” steadily and slowly accrues understanding.  However, there are periodic interventions of political power that resist changes from one world view to the next: the “paradigm shift”. 


Betty Friedan (1921- ) The Feminine Mystique; The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud (Chapter 5, Marxist Archive) – Friedan was one of the most articulate voices of the “Feminist” movement of the 1960’s.  As a part of her attack on the role of women in modern culture, in this chapter, Friedan criticizes Freudian psychology as a singular deprecation of women.   

Albert Bandura (1925- ) Transmission of Aggression Through Imitation of Aggressive Models (York University) – Bandura’s work covers a large panorama in modern psychology from social learning theory to personality development.  This famous work demonstrated that children’s aggressive behaviors may be easily caused by merely observing adult aggression. Modeling and “vicarious reinforcement” are significant matters in instigating a child’s behavior. 


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