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             26 October, 2021

Category:  Articles » Reference & Education » Psychology


Historical Roots of Human Analysis

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2008-08-06 07:22:52     
Article by Karen McCauley


"The earliest view of the progression of events revolved around the action of spirits." One form of this approach is 'animism,' the perspective that "...everything contains spirits and so has a mind of its own...." Nature spirits were assigned definite form through the personages of the Greek gods and similar assemblies who were viewed as controlling the actions of nature and also humans. It seems that humans did not view their own behaviors as within their control but rather prey for the whims and wishes of external, supernatural forces. When a deity was angered, dire events followed on Earth. For example, it was after being not invited to a wedding celebration that Eris set into motion the Olympian beauty contest which led to Paris's obsession with Helen and the subsequent mighty Trojan War.

Religious concepts, such as the Hebrew god Yahweh, provide additional explanations of the events befalling humans. Any event in the history of an individual or a nation is perceived as being for a specific purpose and part of the cosmic plan of such a deity. "The Greek myths and the Bible, then, represent spiritualistic histories dealing with the intervention of supernatural forces into human affairs."

Obviously, such a spiritualistic view remains pervasive as we enter the 21st century. "Anyone who believes in the efficacy of prayer believes to some degree in the intervention of forces beyond humankind into human affairs and thus believes in some sort of spiritualistic theory of history."


Competing with the spiritualistic view is the theory which posits that it is the existence and work of individual 'great' men around which the course of history is determined. There are two subset views in this theory: the individual as an "emissary" of supernatural forces and the individual acting independently of or in opposition to the influence of the gods. One explanation of the internalized power is the concept of 'genius.' With the theory of evolution in the 19th century, a secular, biological origin was introduced - inheritance.

Sir Francis Galton (beginning 1869) developed an extreme personalistic view - "He believed that greatness is derived from this hereditary genius, that it was completely determined biologically, and that the environment into which the individual was born had little if any influence on the expression of this genius." Biography is a very common form of 'historical exposition.' Also included here is the embryo of the nature-nurture controversy which remains active even today.


This theory emerged from ideas about human societies. "...the underlying basis...is that society operates in a regular, lawful manner, and, if a certain set of determinants occur, a particular social outcome will also occur." Among the categories of these 'determinants' are the physical and the psychological. Numerous differences in societal behavior have been attributed to their local climate range and geographical location. Areas where climates are moderate and food is plentiful are less motivated to develop strategies to deal with harsh environmental conditions.

Psychological naturalism "...depends on the lawfulness of human ideas and behavior." A specific person from a specific background exposed to a specific situation is expected to react in a specific way "...if all the determinants are known." The extreme position of this view denies the existence of free will. The 18th century naturalistic concept was that "...God invented the universe, established the laws of nature, including those of human nature, and then walked away to let the universe go its own way." 19th century writer Leo Tolstoy posits history as "...unconscious life of humanity in the swarm (wherein man must) inevitably follow the laws laid down for him." Such a view was extremely environmental and one in which the social strata and inheritance of the individual were the determinants of behaviors which in turn formed the foundation for historical progress.

19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and 20th century philosopher E.G. Boring (1886-1968) summarized as Zeitgeist (the spirit of the times) the pattern of all past events which led to appearance of a new invention or concept. Karl Marx denied history as a meaningful determinant of progress and turned instead to economics as the major summation of societal forces. He stated: "In the social production of their lives, men enter into definite, necessary, relations that are independent of their will....the totality of these...forms the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a judicial and political superstructure arises."

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions tells us that psychology has no universally held paradigm, descriptive system or methodological approach. One solution to this problem is proposed by Robert I. Watson's 'prescriptive' theory which consists of 18 prescriptions or conceptual dimensions, each bounded by a set of opposing terms:

1. Conscious mentalism - unconscious mentalism
2. Contentual objectivism - contentual subjectivism
3. Determinism - indeterminism
4. Empiricism - rationalism
5. Functionalism - structuralism
6. Inductivism - deductivism
7. Mechanism - vitalism
8. Methodological objectivism - methodological subjectivism
9. Molecularism - molarism
10. Monism - dualism
11. Naturalism - supernaturalism
12. Nometheticism - ideographicism
13. Peripheralism - centrism
14. Purism - utilitarianism
15. Quantitativism - Qualitativism
16. Rationalism - irrationalism
17. Staticism - developmentalism
18. Staticism - dynamicism

Regardless of one's orientation or form of applied practice, there are persistent questions that permeate the field of psychology. Among these are:
What is the nature of human nature?

How are the mind and body related?
Nativism vs. Empiricism (heredity vs. experience)
Freedom vs. Determinism
Mechanism vs. Vitalism
Rationalism vs. Irrationalism

How are humans related to non-human animals?

What is the origin of human knowledge?
Objective vs. Subjective Reality (physical vs. mental existence)

The problem of the Self - What accounts for the unity and continuity of our experience?

What is the origin and nature of consciousness?

Science appeared on the scene as a way of answering questions about nature by direct examination and observation rather than by depending on religious dogma, superstition, past authority, or abstract though processes alone. Science has two major components: empirical observation and theory. What makes science so powerful is its combination of rationalism and empiricism which individually have limited usefulness in explaining human behavior. The underlying assumption of science is that the world and those who inhabit it behave in ways that are fixed, organized, lawful, and knowable.

The traditional view of science is that it involves empirical observation, theory formulation, theory testing, theory revision, prediction, control, the search for lawful relationships, and the assumption of determinism. Some modern philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, disagree with some aspects of the traditional view. For Popper, scientific behavior begins with a problem which in turn determines what observations will be made. Popper sees scientific method as consisting of problems, theories, and criticism. He says that to be scientific, a theory must be refutable (principle of falsifiability) and make risky predictions (which could be found incorrect). He criticizes Freud's and Adler's theories as being unscientific as they are not refutable and engage in explaining phenomena after they have occurred (Monday morning quarterbacking). Popper also says that the fact that no observation can be specified that would falsify astrology makes astrology unscientific.

Until the second half of the 20th century, most advanced societies widely held that scientific method guaranteed objectivity and provided them with truths about the world. Thomas Kuhn (1973) has done much to change that worldview of science by showing science to be a highly subjective endeavor.

Among others, Galileo (1564-1642) and Kant (1724-1804) have stated that psychology could never be a science because of psychology's concern with subjective experience.

1 Watson, R.I., & Evans, R.B. (1991) The great psychologists. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, p.3
2 Ibid.
3 Watson, p.4
4 Ibid.
5 Watson, p.6
6 Ibid.
7 Watson, p.7.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Fleischer, Helmut. (1969) Marxism and history. New York: Harper and Row, p. 144.
12 Kuhn, Thomas. (1973) Structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
13 Watson, Robert I. Prescriptions as operative in the history of psychology, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 7 (1971): 311-322.
14 Popper, K. (1963) Conjectures and refutations. New York: Basic Books.

Specialized in: Historical Roots - Human Analysis
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