Robert J. Sternberg
History of the Field of the Psychology of Human Thought
The history of the study of human thought can be understood in terms of a dialectical progression of ideas. Many of these ideas originated with the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, who, respectively, believed in the importance of rationalist and empirical methods for understanding human thought. Plato’s ideas formed the basis for mind-body dualism. During the Middle Ages, ideas about human thought were seen as deriving from what individuals thought they knew about their relation to God. In the Renaissance, the scientific method began to gain ascendancy. The rationalist and empiricist schools of thought gained exponents in philosophers René Descartes and John Locke, respectively. Immanuel Kant synthesized many of their ideas, showing that the methods of both rationalism and empiricism could be important in acquiring new knowledge. In the early modern era, structuralism argued for the importance of decomposing sensations into their most elementary constituents. Functionalism, in contrast, emphasized the “why” of behavior rather than its constituents. An offshoot of functionalism, pragmatism, suggested we look for how knowledge could be used. Associationism argued for the importance of connections between ideas; behaviorism, especially in its radical form, suggested that only observable behavior should be studied by psychologists. Behaviorists were particularly concerned with the role of environmental rewards in behavior. Gestaltists suggested that behavior be studied as wholes, because the whole is more than the sum of its part. Cognitivism, an important school even today, suggests the importance of understanding the mental structures and processes underlying behavior.