The History of Psychology


The Era of Science in Great Britain


Adam SmithAdam Smith (1723-1790) The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments  (McMaster University Economics Archives) – Smith is most famous for his carefully crafted theory of economics in which he viewed the flow of wealth as being a matter governed by the natural success or failure of human enterprise and the psychology of individual progress.  This idea significantly influenced the later work of Charles Darwin in his conception of the laws of nature which produce species, intellect, and behavior.  It may be argued that Smith’s approach to economics creates the hallmark for British and, then, American thought – practicality.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (McMaster University Economics Archives) – Bentham headed the school of British “Utilitarianism” which guided social thinking about the Industrial Revolution and “pragmatism” which, in the hands of William James, resulted in the American school of psychological Funtionalism.

Thomas Young (1773-1829) represents the advent of modern physical science in England.  Principally know as a physicist, Young also proposed a theory of color vision  that Helmholtz later developed into the “tri-chromatic” theory of color perception (sometimes called the “Young-Helmholtz” theory).  It was proposed that humans see color as mixtures of three primary colors – red, green, and blue.  This is the underlying means by which color television works. 



Charles Bell (1774-1842) was an expert surgeon and contributor to what has become known as the “neurosciences”.  His astute observations resulted in, among many other findings,  the “Bell-Magendie law" (simultaneously discovered by Francois Magendie)—the demonstration of the motor function of anterior roots and the sensory function of dorsal roots in spinal nerves. 


malthusThomas Malthus' (1766-1834) Principles of Population (McMaster University) was one of the stimuli for Charles Darwin’s work.  Malthus described the relationship between the growth and diminishing of human populations as related to the production of food.  There is an obvious limit to how much food can be available and that limit, consequently, governs the proliferation of people.  Thus environmental exigencies control the development of species. 


Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

 John Stuart Mill's (1806-1873) Autobiography (McMaster University), On the Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism (Bjorn’s Guide to Philosophy) are representative of J. S. Mill’s important work.  The Autobiography traces a most eccentric childhood under the parenting of James Mill, John Stuart’s philosopher father.  J.S. Mill is noted for his theory of “mental chemistry” in which psychology is analogous to chemical relationships and interactions.  The younger Mill was also an early advocate of  women’s rights and other relatively liberal political doctrines.  Finally, he was a major contributor to the Utilitarian movement in English philosophy which contributed, later, to American Pragmatism and ultimately to Functional Psychology.  The predominant political figure of Mill’s time was Queen Victoria.

A young Mary ShelleyMary Wollstonecraft Shelley's (1797-1851) Frankenstein, The New Prometheus  (University of Virginia) explores a major question of the time: the moral limits to the advance of science.  The underlying clash between the classical and existential edification of human ability and intellect versus the romantic recourse to human feelings and love fills this important book.  Mary’s husband was the great romantic poet of human progress, Percy Shelley (right).  Mary composed her novel when she was eighteen years old.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 


sketch by Mary

Charles Babbage’s (1792-1871) "The Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers" (1832) (McMaster University) is one of the first books on industrial psychology – the study of how people and machines interrelate to produce goods.  Babbage designed the “difference engine” to make arithmetic calculations and is thus one of the founders computer science.



CharlesDickens1.GIF (9673 bytes)Charles Dickens  (Knowledge Matters) (1812-1870) was one of the most famous of British Novelists.  His fiction demonstrates a keen understanding of human psychology, particularly of the details of mental disorder and manipulation.  Dickens realistically portrays various sorts of schizophrenia, mental retardation, and anti social personality.  He was also a remarkable critic of the human condition.


Robert OwenRobert Owen's Principles of Character (1813-1816) demonstrates the fundamental philosophy that directed this significant social reformer.  He organized the  community of a large cotton milling complex in Scotland.  His concern was establishing an environment in which the whole family of workers was fostered and supported.  Plainly, Owens saw education and family support as directly linked to the success of the corporation.  This was a novel idea in the “industrial revolution” and was imitated widely.  (e.g., Gregg-Graniteville, South Carolina).


Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) Origin of Species,  The Descent of Man and The Voyage of the Beagle  (Knowledge Matters) and  The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (Malaspina) are the three monumental theoretical works which changed psychology as well as the Western world of thought even to  today.  Animals, including people, are the result of their abilities to cope with changing environments; they are “naturally selected” by their abilities to contend with the environment in which they live.  Not only our physical structures but our patterns of behavior are produced by the inheritance of characteristics which have succeeded in the survival of our progenitors. 

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913)  The Introduction of  New Species (University of Bergen) (1855) was the co-creator of  the theory of “Natural Selection” and selflessly persuaded Darwin to publish his work first. 



Herbert Spencer's (1820-1903) Man versus the State (1884, Herbert SpencerMcMaster University) and Laws in General (1864, Marxist Archive) – Spenser became a principal advocate for evolutionary thinking in psychology even though he argued against “natural selection”.  His work emphasized the evolution of psychological factors through the inheritance of acquired structure and behavior (“evolutionary associationism”), instinct and “teleological progressivism” (i.e., evolution continually works to improve species).  His biological speculation was historically less important than his psychological and political ideas.


Francis Galton (1822-1911) Hereditary talent and character, Statistics of mental imagery, and History of twins (York University) – Galton, promoting his conception of Darwin’s (his cousin’s) work, saw Natural Selection as so profound a force and humanity as so advanced a species that our evolution must be controlled by society.   Thus was created the Eugenics Movement in which society was to manipulate who should produce children.  Galton’s advances in statistics, generated by his psychological interests, resulted in the mathematics of correlation and the proposition of “the regression to the mean”:  exceptional parents (above or below average) produce children who tend toward the average. 

 Napa Valley, California vintage champagnes. Methode champenoise wines by Jack and Jamie Davies. Sparkling cuvees from historic grape vineyards, winery and caves made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Robert Louis Stevenson's  (1850-1894) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Biblomania) is a remarkable story which depicts the psychological struggle of good versus evil in a man. 



The most important musical composer of 19th century Britain was  Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).  Graduates are familiar with one of his most famous marches, “Pomp and Circumstance #1” (he wrote 5 of these).  More important, psychologically, is this composer’s “Enigma Variations” which is a musical study of the personalities of Elgar’s friends and loved ones. 

Photo of Bertrand RussellBertrand Russell (1872-1970) The Theory of Knowledge (Marxist Archive)





Please send your comments and suggestions to Dr. William J. House

Return to the top of this page

Return to House's Home Page

Return to Links