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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: May 2019

6 - Early British Psychology


Intellectual and scientific life in Great Britain differed in important respects from that of Germany, and the psychology emerging in the two countries had little in common. German psychology arose, as we have seen in the preceding three chapters, in close contact with experimental physiology. In contrast, early British psychology grew along with the study of biological evolution and was not based on experiments. Whereas German psychology was organized and carried out at the country's many universities, psychological research in Great Britain was undertaken mainly by private researchers outside the universities. Cooperation between Britain and Germany in the study of psychology was hindered not only by the great differences between their schools of thought but also by intense political rivaly. Efforts to integrate the psychology of the two countries were made by US psychologists, as we shall see in Chapter 11.

The study of evolution led to an entirely new persepctive on human nature, and the formulation of the Darwinian theory of evolution was a milestone in the history of empirical psychology. In addition to starting the comparative biological study of psychology, Charles Darwin can also be credited with laying the foundation of the modern study of emotions and initiating the study of child development. However, while Darwin is undoubtedly the great name in the study of evolution, the idea did not originate with him but was the result of some broad general trends in European science. Familiarity with these trends helps us understand Darwin's thinking as well as the reception of his ideas by contemporary and later biologists.

Familiarity with the study of evolution before Darwin also helps us understand the role played by Herbert Spencer in the early study of empirical psychology. As Mayr emphasized (1982, p. 385), Spencer was not a great biologist. But this must not prevent us from examining his ideas about psychology. As we shall see in the chapter on US psychology, they are of decisive importance for the development of empirical psychology. Before I turn to Darwin, I shall therefore sketch the general historical background of British psychology and say a few words about the early study of evolution. Following that and a discussion of Spencer, we turn to Francis Galton's studies of the role of inheritance in the development of mental abilities, along with his studies of individual differences.

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A History of Modern Psychology
  • Online ISBN: 9781316272442
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