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What is Psychology? Complete Definition

Table of Contents

Complete Introduction, Definition of Psychology

Introduction of psychology
Introduction of psychology


Welcome to Psychology

Psyche and Science = Psychology

Science of behaviour and mental process

The human organism is a complex piece of the entity. The beautiful thing about this is that the whole unit works in a unified manner. i.e. well connected, interrelated, and integrated. An important characteristic of a living organism is that it reacts to the environment. We may have often wondered why other people do not think exactly as we do. When we have felt a certain thing was right and we were absolutely sure about it, to our surprise some others differed from us.

Some of us find it difficult to make friends easily and get on well with others while others do these differ from one another, not only in their physical characteristics such as height, weight, etc but also in their psychological characteristics. To live emotions, and to forget unwanted and undesirable experiences. Human lives in the environment curious about the world around themselves. The study of psychology should help us to get an insight into the intricacies and glories of what we call human nature.

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What is Psychology
What is Psychology

There are many false notions about psychology and psychologists. One of these false notions is the belief that psychologists are “mind readers”, like an astrologer who predicts fortune and can estimate character at a glance. Another misconception is that they are authorities of mental telepathy, or fortune telling. The depth knowlegde in psychology definitely enhances these understanding. However, how psychology came to be known as an independent field of study is not easy to explain.

Defining psychology is not a simple matter because of its wide scope of broad concern and the philosophical differences among its practitioners. Psyche and science combine to form the word psychology. Today, psychology is defined as the science of behavior and mental processes. Before arriving at this modern definition, psychology went to a very difficult period. Many controversies, doubt, and confusions dominated the faculty. Several schools or “ism” came into existence in defining this term. Different renowned philosophers and psychologist are involved in the process of defining psychology.

The word psychology was actually derived from the two Greek words ‘Psyche’ and ‘Logos’. Psyche meaning ‘soul’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘discourse’. Psychology was thus literally the study of the soul. Defining psychology had undergone several stages and meaning while coming to the modern definition. All those stages can be categorized into four main stages.

  • Philosophical stage
  • Structural stage
  • Behaviorist stage
  • Modern stage

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Philosophical Stage(Soul/Mind)

Psychology’s ancestor’s date to the early writing of the world. Before 300 B.C., the ancient Greek naturalist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC) theorized about learning and memory, motivation and emotion, perception and personality. He was interested in the pursuit that led him to become one of the most famous and influential philosophers of Greece. Aristotle used the term ‘“psyche” to refer to the essence of life. Plato, another philosopher’s (427-347BC) contribution is equally important in defining psychology was not distinguished from philosophy. Although, the Greeks called psychology “science of the soul”, they never tried to establish psychology as a science.

Later on, it was felt that the soul had no physical existence. It could not be touched, seen, or felt. It had mystical, unscientific characteristics that could not be observed or experimented. The word “soul” did not have religious implication such as it has today. The soul, for some, was an inner flame, others a form of motion, while for others a function of bodily processes. It was regarded as the philosophical and abstract phenomena of the concrete facts of life-based on reality and a more scientific study of psychology.

As the word “soul” was criticized, these philosophers began to translate ‘psyche’ as mind and psychology were then defined as “a study of the mind”. Psychology started to be called the science of mind. However, the word mind was again criticized as having the same difficulty as in explaining the soul. Thus, the definition was rejected on the following grounds.

  • The ancient Greek philosophers could not come into the unanimous definition of mind and its nature.
  • The word mind was regarded as the branch of mental philosophy so it could not be regarded as an independent branch.
  • Psychology as the ‘science of the mind’ was not clear whether it was a positive or normative science.
  • The study of mind talked only covert behavior and did not include the overt behavior of the organism which is a major part of the study of contemporary psychology.

The definition as the ‘science of the mind’ had many complications and was again rejected with a search for an appropriate replacement of the word.

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Structural Stage(Consciousness)

During the 19th century, the young science of psychology had undergone great revolutionary works with different pioneers in the field. Until 1879, psychology could not achieve its complete independent status. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), a German physiologist and a philosopher, established the first psychological laboratory at Leipzig University in Germany, making him ‘father of experimental psychology’. Before him, there was enough psychology but no psychologist.

Wundt for the first freed psychology from the clutches of philosophy and physiology. He could for-see psychology as a respectable and independent science. Wundt, in his book “Heritage” (1862) regarded psychology as the science of internal and immediate experience i.e. as the science of consciousness. He focused on inner sensations, feeling, and thoughts. His basic tool was introspection, which means self-examination of one’s own internal feeling and mental processes. Wundt’s lab of Leipzig became the Mecca of students who wished to study new psychology as a mental science.

Edward Titchener (1867-1927) a strong follower of Wundt, expanded Wundt’s work. He wanted to identify the basic elements of conscious experience. With Wundt, Titchener worked to determine the structure of mind through controlled introspection, describing elements of experience which was later on called structuralism. This method of psychology laid emphasis on a foundation toward making psychology a true science.

As Wundt and Titchener wanted to study the structure of the mind, another young professor of biology and philosophy, named William James (1842-1910) wanted to study the functions of consciousness at Harvard University. James was concerned with what the mind could do rather than its structure. According to James (1842-1910), studying the elements of the mind could tell us nothing about how it functions to help us to adapt to the demands of life. Thus a school of thought known as ‘functionalism’ emerged based on his work. William Jame’s book “: Principles of Psychology” (1890) described consciousness as having four main characteristics which were a criticism of Wundt’s ideas.

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  • Consciousness is selective to individuals motive.
  • It is personal; one has to rely on other person’s reporting which may be socially colored and not revealing the truth.
  • It is a continuous activity; cannot be broken into units for study.
  • It is very dynamic and changing, which is why we cannot bring the same state of mind again and study.

Besides these facts as pointed out by James, psychology as the study of conscious experience was lacking in some aspect.

  • It did not include the study of subconscious and unconscious processes which constitutes a major portion of human nature.
  • The psychology of consciousness was not including animal and human overt behavior.
  • It was also not clear whether psychology is a positive or normative science.

With these background defining psychology again went into controversies and confusions. Thus until the 1920s, psychology was defined as the “Science of mental life”.

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Behavioral Stage (Behavior)

J.B. Watson (1878-1958) the American psychologist rejected the ideas of structuralism and functionalism and based his approach to psychology on behavior. He was deeply influenced by the work of Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov’s(1929) conditioning on dogs, British philosopher and naturalist Charls Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory on “origin of species” (1859) that described natural selection and theory of evolution, and also Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) ” Hereditary Genius” (1869) that related the importance of individual differences.

These works paved the way to study the behavior of the organism. Watson (1913) felt that it was impossible to study private mental processes like consciousness because only outward behavior could be measured and scientifically understood. He dismissed introspection as a method to psychology, instead argued on the favor of objective observation and redefined psychology as the “science fo observable behavior”. According to Watson, we cannot observe a sensation, feeling or thought but we can observe people’s behavior as they respond to different situations. Science is rooted in observation, and because of the emphasis on the precise measurement of overt behavior, Watson called the new school of thought, founded on his principle as “behaviorism”. According to him, the behavior is complex and capable of analysis into simple stimulus and response.

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Behaviourist definition propagated behaviour as:

  • Objective which can be felt and seen.
  • Can be observed and verified
  • Studying overt behavior of both animal and human being including children, old, normal, abnormal.

Watson’s one-sided, partial and restricted belief on “objective behavior” aroused several criticisms. He was criticized on the ground that he was inadequate to explain the scope, aim, and the subject matter of psychology. The following were some of the points argued against him:

  • Every detail study of human behavior is not possible to study. Human behavior cannot be predicted through animal behavior because they differ in several respects.
  • Behaviorism describes behavior as an overt mechanism, failing to consider it as the covert entity. External behavior is easy to study but internal behavior is very difficult, and without combining both the external and internal pieces, a clear picture of an individual is impossible.
  • Behaviorism takes in a very narrow sense; Watson viewed it as stimulus-response (S-R) unit when it should have been taken as stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) unit.
  • The behavior of an organism is obvious and natural in natural condition but changes when an individual senses that she/ he is being observed, making the data unreliable for concrete results.

Thus from the 1920s into the 1960s psychology was thought of as the “science of observable behavior”.

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1 thought on “What is Psychology? Complete Definition”

  1. I always wanted to learn Psychology. Did you know that the body language transfers 90% of the message more than the words? Anyways, this is a great piece of information Harry.


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