In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Psychology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Bibliographies
  • Compendia and Readers
  • Timelines and Rankings of Eminence
  • Illustrations, Artifacts, and Archives
  • Biography and Autobiography
  • Professional Organizations
  • Journals
  • Critical Voices
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Unity versus Diversity of Psychology
  • The Transition from Science to Technology, 1880–1970
  • Organizational History (APA and APS)
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • International and Indigenous Psychologies
  • Gender
  • Teaching of Psychology
  • Future Directions

Psychology History of Psychology
David C. Devonis, Wade Pickren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0064


At its inception as a specialty within psychology in the first decades of the 20th century, the history of psychology was usually conceived as an extension of the history of philosophy, with perhaps some special attention given to the development of modern science. Within the last thirty years, the history of psychology has come of age and has become as diverse as its sprawling subject: historical studies have proliferated as psychologists’ activities have expanded and diversified. Alongside the original purpose of delineating the evolution of psychology from the historical roots of science, philosophy, medicine, and other intellectual traditions, recent histories of psychology have been very concerned with describing and explaining the social, organizational, and political context of psychological events and theories. Thus, the scholar of the history of any area of psychology would do well to become acquainted with other specialized literature not only of the specific area of psychology in which the historical events take place, but also of the political, social, and economic systems which condition them. Those with an interest in the history of any area of psychology which is not represented in any part of this necessarily selective article should adopt the attitude of confident pioneering which characterizes the leading historical scholarship in psychology today, school themselves in some basic techniques of historical investigation, and contribute to the further deepening and elaboration of our rich historical record. The timeframe of this article is the period from 1900 onward, mainly in the United States and Western Europe. This article contains a brief orientation and a section on the history of psychology as represented in Textbooks, classic and modern. There are also several sections expanding on the range of essential reference resources: Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Bibliographies; Compendia and Readers, along with collections of primary-source excerpts; Journals and blogs; Illustrations, Artifacts, and Archives; Timelines and Rankings of Eminence; Biography and Autobiography; and background about major Professional Organizations connected to the history of psychology. The philosophical context is represented by sections containing critiques of standard textbook history, sections that contextualize psychology’s history within the philosophy of science (see History and Philosophy of Science), a section on disciplinary taxonomy organized around the question of the Unity vs. Diversity of Psychology, and a section on several “crises” in 20th-century psychology. There is a selection of works surveying the transformation of psychology from science to applied technology (see the Transition from Science to Technology, 1880–1970). Histories of Subfields—theoretical and applied, with a special section on clinical psychology—are included, along with sections detailing the history of psychology in the contexts of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture as well as Gender. Finally, the section on Future Directions includes a selection of works pointing toward areas of potential future development in the field.

General Overviews

The selections included here are provided for those who are consulting this article with no prior experience who are seeking a basic orientation to the history of psychology. (It is of course recommended that those embarking on the study of the history of psychology be familiar with some of the essentials of historical scholarship and that they will consult other relevant bibliographies in history in this series and elsewhere.) Hebb 1974, a transcribed talk, is a succinct, practitioner-oriented view, though given nearly forty years ago, of psychology’s then-recent history, while Ash 2003 is lucid and logical in organizing the story of the changes that have occurred in historical approaches to psychology during the recent past. Add to these Roger Smith’s synoptic account (Smith 2013) of the development of psychology within all of its various contexts—philosophical, political, scientific, religious, and psychotherapeutic. Taken together, these selections provide a consensus view of the course of psychology’s history and mention virtually all the ideas and concerns currently in play among historians of psychology.

  • Ash, Mitchell G. 2003. Psychology. In The Cambridge history of science. Vol. 7, The modern social sciences. Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, 251–274. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521594424

    An overview of the development of modern psychology from Continental sources, 1850 to the early 21st century, with emphasis on the change in historians’ views of this development.

  • Hebb, Donald O. 1974. What psychology is about. American Psychologist 29.2 :70–79.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0035838

    Hebb’s article outlines what is still the current consensus on the roots of psychology—the psychobiosocial model and the reasons why psychology is, behavior and brain notwithstanding, ultimately the study of the mind. It is a witty précis of the psychological enterprise including virtually all the common tropes, metaphors, and individuals central to the history of psychology. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Smith, Roger. 2013. Between mind and nature: A history of psychology. London: Reaktion.

    Concise and elegant portrait of the field from its beginnings in Descartes’s philosophy of mind to the early 21st century, weaving together multiple strands of influence with emphasis on the interactions between psychological theorists and their milieus.

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