Psychological Schools of Thought



The field of psychology was established as a formal branch of knowledge with the works of Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and Herman Ebbinghaus around 1880s (Kowalski, 2004). Psychology did not exist as a separate discipline before this period, but had been regarded as a branch of philosophy. The development of psychology as a discipline was also influenced by other philosophers and scientists whose work established the philosophical and scientific assumptions of psychology. Scientist Charles Darwin and philosophers Descartes and Locke were the most influential in this respect (Hayes, 2000). This paper identifies the approaches to psychology and their assumptions.

Schools of Thought of Psychology

The field of psychology was first developed as a scientific discipline against the philosophical background provided by influential philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Scientist Darwin among others (Hayes, 2000). An increasing number of philosophers became interested in discovering how human mind worked and began to investigate it experimentally from the 17th century onwards (Pronko, 199). The field of interest of these philosophers was first referred to as experimental philosophy; however, as it became highly developed as a field of knowledge in its own right, it gained autonomy as a discipline of psychology (Pronko, 1999).

The schools of thought of the emergence of psychology as a discipline represent the classical approaches of psychology. There are many schools of thought of psychology; however, I will discuss only three psychological schools of thought most influential and they include; behaviorism, the psychoanalytic school of Freud, and humanistic psychology (Kowalski, 2004).

Behavioral School of Thought

Behaviorism approach to psychology challenged the introspection’s approach to psychology, that is, how the mind works. Watson was the influential proponent of this approach, where he published a paper in 1913 outlining psychology from the behaviorist point of view (Kowalski, 2004). Watson’s behavioral approach was based on the assumption that psychology should be scientific.

He thought that introspection was vague and deficient of objectivity. It was not possible to study the mind, as one could not see directly into it. On the other hand, behavior could be observed directly. Behavioral approach limits itself to the study of behavior, thus, Watson reasoned psychology would produce observations which could be verified by other people, and which were not susceptible to prejudice and distortion (Hayes, 2000).

Psychoanalysis School of Thought to Psychology

Psychoanalysis school of thought of psychology was concerned with how problems of psychology could be understood. This approach started with the work of Freud Sigmund. Freud invented new way of understanding mental illness, based on psychoanalytic techniques. The approach emphasized on the analysis of the unconscious mind and how it affects an individual’s thinking and physical well being (Kowalski, 2004).

It challenged the generally accepted proposition before that for the most part, the human mind was rational, and could be governed by ordered thought and mental discipline. Freud offered a way of understanding some unique aspects of human nature which were impossible to explain in rational means. Freud’s approach was based on the assumption that the mind consisted of three parts; the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego represented the interface between the mind and reality, while the id consisted of buried impulses, desires, and emotions, and which required ratification of all its needs. The superego on the other hand, was the social sense of duty and responsibility and conscience (Hayes, 2000).

Humanistic School of Thought to Psychology

Humanistic school of thought of psychology emerged in clinical psychology after WWII. Humanistic approaches view on human beings compared differently from either behaviorists of the psychoanalytic approaches to psychology. Largely, humanistic psychology was based on insights gained through psychotherapy, where patients persisted in calling themselves as whole people with intentions, plans and ambitions, instead of viewing themselves as battling ids and superegos, or as a collection of stimulus, that is, response links and behavioral contingencies (Kowalski, 2004).

Key proponents of humanistic approach were Abraham Maslow, who studied human motivation and Rogers, who developed a human personality model and a psychotherapy approach which emphasized the significance of the patient’s personal decisions, views, and ideas. Humanistic approach assumed the holistic nature of personality. It challenged the fragmented picture presented by psychoanalysis of a mind in perpetual battle with itself. It also challenged the atomistic picture of human picture advocated by the behaviorists. Self actualization was another assumptive concept in humanistic school of thought of psychology (Hayes, 2000).

Biological Foundation of Psychology

The study of biological psychology dates back with the discovery of physiological psychology by a Persian psychologist Avicenna in early 980-1037. The treatment of emotionally related sicknesses led Avicenna to recognize physiological biology. He was able to produce a system of looking at how the brain and the nervous system work, and how individuals’ experiences can be influenced by physiological processes and mechanisms.

Much of the discovery in this field has been devoted to investigating stress, and mechanisms by which individuals respond to threatening circumstances. The understanding of these responses puts an individual in a better position to cope with or minimize stress when it rises (Hayes, 2000). Physiological psychology also looks at the nervous system, and specific areas of the brain that are involved behavior and cognition. It is also concerned with how sensory information is processed and analyzed, on its way to the higher regions of the brain. For instance, Rene Descartes put forward the idea of explaining animal and human behavior. Other philosophers such as William James argued that the understanding of biology is necessary for the study of psychology (Kowalski, 2004).


In sum, psychology as a discipline developed from philosophy. Descartes was one of the early philosophers of the mind with most influence in this development. The idea that individual’s mind and body are separate and independent of one another was propagated by him.

Locke also left his influence on the field of psychology. He advanced that all knowledge was obtained through senses and that people did not inherit knowledge or instincts. His view came to be commonly referred to as empiricism which had great influence on psychology. Empiricists assumed that internal processes such as thinking were unobservable, and unimportant. Rather, they were only reactions to external stimuli. Charles Darwin also exerted great influence on psychology through his theory of evolution (Pronko, 1999).


Hayes, N. (2000). The Foundations of Psychology. London: Cengage Learning EMEA.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2004). Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

Pronko, N., & Bowles, J. (1999). Empirical Foundations of Psychology. New York: Routledge.

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