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

2 - The Scientific and Intellectual Environment of the Mid-1800s


During the first half of the 1800s there was rapid growth in the natural sciences. In physics, scientists continued to build on the breakthrough of two hundred years earlier. Chemistry was transformed into a quantitative science and experienced an explosive expansion. Around the mid-century, physiologists began to apply principles from physics and chemistry to the study of bodily processes and provide it with a new and fruitful basis. It also became evident that scientific knowledge would be of great use in everyday life. The electric telegraph, electromagnets, electrical motors, and generators were constructed, and chemical products of practical value were produced. It became obvious to many that science would radically change society, and this naturally increased interest in it among politicians and leaders in industry and finance. At universities and research institutions, financial support for research increased, and schools gave more emphasis to the teaching of science.

A New View of Body and Soul

The progress in physiology was of special significance to psychology, which in Germany and Russia had originated as a physiological psychology. Pioneer psychologists, such as Fechner, Helmholtz, Wundt, James, Janet, Freud, and Pavlov, were trained as medical doctors. Of particular importance for psychology during the 1860s and 1870s were discoveries showing that a close relationship must exist between brain functions and mental phenomena. This relationship suggested that it might be possible to study aspects of consciousness through a study of the brain.

The new knowledge of the brain undermined the traditional view that humans consist of body and mind. It actualized the problem of determinism and free will and led to vigorous philosophical debates about the religious and legal institutions of society. At the end of the century, Western intellectuals seemed no less concerned with the relationship between body and mind than with the relationship between humans and animals made prominent by the theory of evolution.

Attempts to solve the mind–body problem raised not only intricate philosophical questions, but also complex methodological and philosophical questions, and contrasting views of the nature of consciousness soon arose among psychologists. Some of these problems remain unsolved. To gain an understanding of how earlier psychologists regarded the subject matter of their science, we must examine the way in which they looked at the relationship between mind and body.

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A History of Modern Psychology
  • Online ISBN: 9781316272442
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