Running head: DESCARTES INFLUENCE ON PSYCHOLOGY Descartes Influence on Psychology DESCARTES INFLUENCE ON PSYCHOLOGY Rene Descartes was a famous French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher throughout the mid 1600’s. He is often regarded as the father of modern philosophy; however, his highly influential ideas have also impacted many other scientific fields, including the world of psychology. Descartes contributions in philosophy and biology have had a significant influence on modern psychology.
He introduced new theories about the mind and the body that, while not always correct, undoubtedly changed peoples’ views and sparked a whole new approach to looking at the mind. There is one thing Descartes knew for certain, Cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am. ” He said that the one thing he could be sure of was his act of doubting, which he explained as a mental process. This philosophy gave rise to much of his theories on the mind. During the 1600’s most people felt the mind and body functioned as one single entity.
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They felt the mind was sort of like a puppeteer that pulled strings in order to control the body. Descartes introduced a new idea. He theorized that the mind and body are actually two distinct essences that function separately but interact closely. He claimed the body is responsible for physical aspects of the self while the mind is responsible for aspects of thinking. By separating the mind and body and making the brain the main point of the minds functioning, he changed the way in which the mind was studied and influenced others to discover new ideas about the brain and the way in which we think and acquire knowledge.
He essentially opened the doors for studying the mind, which is the basis of modern psychology. Early empiricists argued that the mind is shaped by sensory experience and that humans start off with a sort of blank slate, or tabula rasa, which develops through experience. Descartes took a more nativist approach, arguing that we acquire knowledge through innate ideas. He claimed knowledge is derived from the mind, or ideas of the intellect, and that god placed them there. We see evidence of these conflicting philosophies in today’s controversy of nature versus nurture.
Psychologists today still DESCARTES INFLUENCE ON PSYCHOLOGY argue over whether we start off knowing nothing and learn through experience, or whether we have these sort of “innate ideas” that we are born with. Descartes quote, “I think therefore I am,” gave support this idea of the individual mind and its precedence over sensory experience and thinking by defining knowledge in terms of doubt. He did not learn how to doubt through experience, it was a concept already in his mind.
His theory inspired much opposition by empiricists and later influenced theories of perception found in the gestalt school of psychology. Gestalt psychology emphasizes that the whole is made up of a sum a parts, and that the whole is essentially greater than the sum of each part. This parallels Descartes theory that the mind and body function separately, but interact to form the self. Descartes research in biology also had a significant impact on the world of psychology. He argued that the mind is responsible for thinking processes while the body is responsible for much of life’s functions, including movements.
This suggested that some movements are not a result of the mind, but rather a reflex of the body. He ultimately established that the brain is important for behavior and thinking. This further supported Descartes claim that the mind and body are separate and fueled later research on the nervous system and its relationship to the mind and brain. It can also be argued that these contributions paved the path for modern behavioral psychology and more specifically the concept of stimulus-response. This type of psychology focuses on how people behave.
Modern behavioral psychologists test this idea that the brain in responsible for behavior and thinking by manipulating situations and studying reactions. Descartes had a very mechanistic view of the brain. He believed the body works similar to machines as it is material and follows laws of physics. He suggests that mind and body interact at the pineal gland. He predicted that there are tube-like structures inside our bodies that tighten under DESCARTES INFLUENCE ON PSYCHOLOGY certain conditions and allow fluid, what we know today as cerebrospinal fluid, to spill through, causing a reaction.
While we know today that his predictions were essentially incorrect, his research influenced other to explore the way in which in the mind works. Descartes did a lot of his studies about biology by using animals, just as many researchers in psychology do today. He opened up the possibility of using animals as subjects in comparison to humans by looking at both their anatomy and behavior. Descartes research sparked of a lot of attention. There were people in opposition to Descartes and others who took his ideas further to discover the truth.
Much of his work has since been discredited; however, it is because of him that so many forms of science have evolved into what they are today. He opened the door for research on the mind and brain and how it works in accordance with the body. His ideas about the way the mind works sparked others to study it themselves and discover their own results. He essentially started a new movement in science by merging his philosophy with his research in biology to ultimately form the basis for what we know of today as psychology.