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The Personalistic vs. the Naturalistic Viewpoint Essay

As far back as the time when man first discovered ways to communicate with one another he has attempted to understand and explain the course of historical events. In considering the historical development of scientific psychology two main views of the historical progress the field of science have emerged: personalistic theory and naturalistic theory. The personalistic theory often times called the “great man” theory holds that a chosen few individuals are unique in that they are endowed with an extraordinary inner quality giving them the ability to do extraordinary things. When applied to scientific history it is believed that this quality allows them to shape the course of that history with nothing more than their ideas. This internal power is most commonly referred to as “genius”. It is the belief that man himself is a free agent who chooses his behaviors to not only shape his own life but also the lives of those whom his behavior affect (E.G. Boring, 1950).

Personalistic views are still widely held even today. More often than not when someone is asked to name who’s ideas and beliefs have changed the course of history they are able to do so with no problem. Some of the more commonly known individuals include Napoleon, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, J.F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. All have left their mark by influencing the world around them and perhaps around our world also. The focus, then, of personalistic theory is on the ideas of certain individuals deemed great by society. The naturalistic theory, on the other hand, holds that history is shaped and changed not by individuals but by the times in which those individuals lived. It is this notion that “the times” is what makes it possible for the ideas of individuals to be accepted or rejected, heard or stifled.

The focus, then, of naturalistic theory is on the social conditions prevalent at the time an individual puts forth an idea or ideas that influence the flow of history. The social conditions of an era or a period of time can be defined as the intellectual, moral, economic, and cultural climate of that time. This is also known as the Zeitgeist. This concept discourages belief in the personalistic theory by reminding us that even the most eminent scholars and inventors have often been bridled by an unreceptive Zeitgeist. It supports the notion that if an individuals new ideas deviate to far from the commonly accepted beliefs and practices of the times those ideas will not be recognized or supported by the majority at that time. They may however be supported at a later time showing that the Zeitgeist is the determining factor for acceptance. A case in point dating back to 1763. At this time Whyte suggested the idea of conditioned response. Because of the spirit of the times his idea was ignored. However it was presented again in the early 1900’s by Pavlov and in the spirit of these times it was accepted.

Therefore, the historical development of science can be viewed as a combination of both theories because it takes both the exceptional ideas and the force of personality of great individuals as well as the accepting Zeitgeist in which these ideas are formulated to create a landmark change in history. The zeitgeist of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was particularly significant to the development and growth of modern psychology. Having the greatest influence in Europe was the development and production of new kinds of machines, specifically clocks and automata. Automata was the term given to devices built to emulate the movements and actions of humans. One of the most elaborate is the defecating duck. It was invented in 1739 by Jacques de Vaucanson in Paris, France.

The “duck” was a mechanical apparatus designed to look like a duck and to imitate the basic animal behaviors of a duck including vocalizing, eating, and then relieving itself by defecating. de Vancanson became very wealthy by charging an admission fee to view it and because something like this was hardly ever seen, people from all over Europe lined up to see it. It ignited a novel appeal to all kinds of machines that were being made not only for entertainment purposes but also for use in science and industry. Machines were now becoming familiar to people from all walks of life all over Western Europe. They were becoming an accepted way of life. The most important of all these machines to the history of modern psychology was the mechanical clock. Clocks at this time were sensational and amazing and had an enormous influence on human thought throughout all of society. They captured the essence of the doctrine of mechanism which was the underlying philosophy and the zeitgeist of the seventeenth century.

The theory of mechanism held that natural processes were mechanically determined and could be explained through the sciences of physics and chemistry. It led the prominent thinkers to imagine and explain the universe in terms of operating as a great machine predictable, precise, and regular. Clocks shared these same characteristics, therefore, they became models of the universe for scientists and philosophers. One of the most noted philosophers agreeing with this idea was Rene Descartes(1596-1650). Descartes was born the second child in a family of two sons and one daughter on March 31, 1596 in France. He contracted tuberculosis from his mother who died from the disease just days after his birth. At the age of eight he was sent to a Jesuit school and was educated in both mathematics and the humanities. His formal education also consisted of studying the disciplines of physiology and philosophy and exhibited a great deal of talent in these areas.

Throughout his early years of education Descartes was excused from the religious services that were held in the morning because of his health issues. He used this time to meditate and read and he continued this custom throughout the course of his entire life. Because of the inheritance received from his father Descartes was able to devote his life to study and travel. In 1612 he left the Jesuit school and went to Paris. Here he engaged in the frivolities of life for some time until he grew bored and returned to the study of mathematics. At the age of 21 he left Paris and joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau as a volunteer. One year later he was transferred to the army of Bavaria. On November 10,1619, he had a series of three dreams. He saw them as a message from God telling him to spend the rest of his life in pursuit of certainty of knowledge.

From that point on Descartes decided that he would accept only that of which he could be certain. He ended his military service and returned to France. Once again, life in Paris was too unsettling for his taste so he sold the properties he inherited from his father and bought a country home in Holland allowing him the solitude for which he so ached. This need for privacy led him to move to different houses twenty four time over the next twenty years always keeping his whereabouts secret. All he apparently needed was to be close to a catholic church and a university. During this twenty year period Descartes spent his time writing about mathematics and philosophy. It was through these writings that Descartes began to cultivate fame. In September, 1649 he went to Stockholm at the request of Queen Christina of Sweden who requested his service in tutoring her in philosophy. His acceptance proved to be a fatal decision. The winter was unusually cold and four months later Descartes contracted pneumonia and died. It was February 11, 1650. Fortunately his ideas live on to this day.

The correlation between mental and physical qualities or the “mind-body problem” contributed significantly to the zeitgeist of the seventeenth century and Descartes’s efforts to resolve this contentious debate. It was unarguably his most important contribution to modern psychology. The underlying question was: Does the mind influence the body or vice versa? Up until this time scientists believed although the mind had a substantial effect on the body the body exerted minimal effect on the mind. The mind and body had separate natures. Descartes argued that the mind does in fact influence the body but the body has a much greater effect on the mind than previously thought. He believed that the mind and the body interacted, that they influenced one another. As a result of his work science began to focused on the scientific study of mental processes. Another of Descartes’ monumental contributions to modern psychologywas his idea that external objects can bring about an involuntary response. The phenomenon has been termed reflex-action theory.

A clear example would consider a person’s reaction of putting their left arm across the passenger in a car when coming to an abrupt stop. It is not the drivers intention but the movement still occurs. Descartes ideas evolved out of his awe of automata. When living in Paris Descartes would frequently visit the royal gardens where numerous mechanical figures and their movements would occupy his time and thoughts for many hours at a time. His fascination led to his analysis that the human body operated in a like manner. The theory of reflex-action paved the way for today’s behaviorl stimulus-response (S-R) psychology. Descartes idea of reflective behavior illustrated by the mechanical interpretation of the human body was fully supported by seventeenth century physiology. The influence of the zeitgeist is clearly evident.

Descartes went on to propose that there are two kinds of ideas produced in the human mind. They are derived ideas and innate ideas. This work is termed the “doctrine of ideas”. It states that derived ideas are brought about an external stimulus being applied to the mind, or brain, such as the sound of the bark from a dog, or the tickling feeling of a feather to the skin. Derived ideas then arise from the experience of our senses. Innate ideas are those that are independent of the experiences of the senses but realized through appropriate experiences. For Descartes these ideas included God, the self, perfection, and infinity. Descartes doctrine of ideas goes on to have profound effects in several areas of modern psychology along with his other contributions mentioned in this writing go on to have profound effects on many of the areas of modern psychology.

Boring, E.G. A History of Experimental Psychology, (2nd Ed.), New York:Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950.

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