chapter  Chapter 9
25 Pages

The beginnings of scientific psychology

WithL.S. Hearnshaw

Scientific psychology was born in the universities of nineteenth century Germany, and has since spread from there over the whole of the developed world. This birthplace was not accidental. Scientific psychology is a product of the modern university, and the modern university, with its dual emphasis on teaching and research, was first established in Germany. As the historian James Bryce observed a century ago, ‘there is no people which has given so much thought and pains to the development of the university system as the Germans have done – none where they play so large a part in the national life.’ 1 As a result of the fragmentation of the German nation into numerous kingdoms, duchies, bishoprics and self-governing cities, and the lack, before 1870, of any effective central government, there were far more universities in Germany than in other European countries. In the absence of either a unified state or a unified church universities became a leading vehicle of national culture. With the eighteenth century development of the faculty of philosophy, to supplement the traditional faculties of theology, law and medicine, arose the idea of a comprehensive and encyclopedic ‘Wissenschaft, embracing all knowledge, humanistic and scientific. The University of Göttingen, established in 1734, was the embodiment of this ideal, and the equally important ideal of ‘Lehrfreiheit, the freedom of the university teacher to go about his teaching and research without interference or constraint, and also the freedom of the student to study as the spirit moved him, and to attach himself to the teachers of his choice, at this university or that, where he could obtain the best instruction. This element of freedom was an enormously important factor in the rise of new disciplines like psychology. It was, however, the foundation of the University of Berlin in 1810 by Wilhelm von Humboldt that really established the pattern of the modern university. This coincided with the reform of elementary and secondary education by Baron von Stein, the abolition of serfdom and the caste system, and the extensive modernization of the Prussian state following its humiliating defeat by Napoleon after the battle of Jena in 1806. The pattern of excellence in teaching and research established in the University of Berlin spread rapidly to other German universities, and as state-supported institutions, whose professoriate was appointed and paid by 125the various governments of Germany, they received liberal grants for books and equipment. Well-furnished laboratories were soon set up for research in physics, chemistry, physiology and other scientific disciplines. As Flexner observed in his book on universities, ‘no other country during the nineteenth century assembled equally eminent groups of scientists and scholars, provided them with equal facilities, or paid them equal deference.’ 2 It was, then, no accident that scientific psychology first took root in Germany.