How Empiricism Changed the Development of Psychology in the 17th Century

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HowEmpiricism Changed the Development of Psychology in the 17thCentury

HowEmpiricism Changed the Development of Psychology in the 17thCentury

Thedevelopment of the field of psychology is a process that has takenmany years. It has been achieved through the contribution of manyscholars, including psychologist and philosophers. Most importantly,the major assumptions of each of the psychological theories weredeveloped through the criticisms made by scholars as they agreed anddisagreed with the opinions of each other. Empiricism is among themajor concepts that made a significant contribution to thedevelopment of the field of psychology. It is a philosophy of sciencethat puts more emphasis on evidence (Hossain, 2014). This evidence isobtained through experiments, observation, or sensory experiences. Ithelped the stakeholders in the field of psychology to depart from theargument that evidence is sourced from revelation, intuition, andpriori reasoning. This concept is premised on the assumption thatknowledge is probabilistic and tentative, which means that it isrevised continually. This paper will address the concept ofempiricism, with a focus on how it contributed towards thedevelopment of psychology in the 17thcentury in Europe.

Rootsof Empiricism and Underlying Assumptions

Althoughthe concept of empiricism gained a lot of popularity in the field ofpsychology around the 17thcentury, its roots can be traced back to 322 BC. The process of itsdevelopment was premised on some concepts that were coined by a Greekphilosopher known as Aristotle (Marume, Jubenkanda, Namusi &ampMadziyire, 2016). This philosopher held that whatever is in the mindshould be in the same sense as letters that are written on the tablet(Marume etal.,2016). This notion resulted in the development of the concept of“tabula rasa”, which equates human mind to a tablet. The conceptwas developed over time until the 12thcentury, when a philosopher named Andalusian Muslim explained how thebrain of a human baby can gain a completely unique set of knowledgewhen isolated on a desert (Marume etal.,2016).

TheMuslim’s idea was used by the European psychologists in the 17thcentury to advance an argument that the human brain is like a blanktablet that gets written on by the sensations and experiences thatone goes through in a lifetime. The conflict between John Locke andGeorge Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop, is among the key events thatcontributed towards the popularity of empiricism since it attractedmore scholars and psychologists. Berkeley held that Locke’sargument that human babies were born with blank minds couldcontribute to atheism (Biener &amp Schlisser, 2014). However,scholars were more determined, and they supported the basicassumption and the principle of the concept of empiricism.

Roleof Empiricism in the Development of Psychology

Theconcept of empiricism changed the idea of what psychologistsconsidered as the source of knowledge. The main contributors of theconcept of empiricism in Europe, including John Locke, held thatknowledge comes through the experiences and sentiments (Biener &ampSchlisser, 2014). This notion was a significant shift from the ideathat was put forward by Aristotle, who developed the dynamic notionof human development. Aristotle held that the development of humanbeings is achieved through the unfolding of the inner teleology.Locke changed this perception by implying that human development(including the mental as well as intellectual capacity) should beattributed to the contribution of external inputs or perceptions thatpeople get from the experience (Lang, 2015). For example, moraldevelopment of a human being is shaped by natural pro-socialsentiments, coupled with the observations (experiences) of thebehavior of others. Therefore, knowledge is acquired and developedthrough one’s sentiments and what people observe in theirenvironment as they grow up.

Thedevelopment of the concept of empiricism also changed the field ofpsychology since the key contributors (including the Locke) managedto convince many scholars that mind is a blank slate. Locke referredto the mind as “tabula rasa”, which means that it is a blankslate (Lang, 2015). The intention of introducing the new concept wasto convince the stakeholders in the field of psychology that humanbabies are born with empty minds, which implies that there are noinnate ideas. Although some ideas (such as the principle of identity)are self-evident, it does not mean that they are innate. These ideasare gained through the aforementioned sources of knowledge, whichinclude sentiments and observation. In others, supporters of the ideaof empiricism held that experience is the only stylus that has thecapacity to write on the blank slate, which is the human mind or thebrain. This theorist considered sensation, which is external to thehuman mind, as the primary source of ideas. Reflection, which isinternal to the human mind, is considered as the secondary source ofideas.

Theadvancement and an increase in the popularity of the concept ofempiricism marked a significant shift in the field of psychology, byopposing theories that were being spread in the 17thcentury. For example, the basic principle of this concept discreditedthe Descartes’ theory of innate ideas. Descartes is a theorist whoheld in 1642 that ideas can be classified into innate, adventitious,or factitious (Mohammed, 2012). Locke’s ideas implied that bothadventitious and factitious ideas can be acquired through experienceand sensation in one’s lifetime. However, there is nothing likeinnate ideas since human children are born with empty minds. This wasa significant contribution to the field of psychology, in spite ofthe fact that it contradicted most of the theories that had beenspread during the seventeenth century. This changed the developmentof psychology in Europe since psychologists started focusing more onhow ideas are acquired during lifetime, instead of basing theirtheories on the notion that some of them are innate.

ThePerspective of a Rationalist

EmanuelKant is one of the major rationalists who objected the idea putforward by John Locke. The rationalist is a theory holding thatactions as well as knowledge need to be based on knowledge andreason, instead of emotional responses or beliefs (Hossain, 2014).Kant advanced the concept of “priori categories”, which holdsthat human babies are born with the understanding, which the theoristnamed as acumen (Hing, 2017). Some of these categories ofunderstanding include space, time, categorical imperative, andcausality. This perspective is the exact opposite of the notion putforward by Locke, who held that people are born with empty minds thatget filled up with knowledge that is acquitted from sensation andlifetime experiences. In addition, Kant advanced the concept of“priori knowledge”. This concept refers to the kind of knowledgethat one gains deductively as opposed to empirical means. Kant’sconcept discredited the idea of empiricism, which holds that credibleknowledge should be acquired through empirical means. Therefore,reason is not required for one to gain knowledge under empiricism.


Thedevelopment of the concept of empiricism was based on the ideas putforward by ancient philosophers (such as Aristotle), but it gainedpopularity in the field of psychology, especially in Europe in the17thcentury. Its basic assumption is that human babies are born withempty or blank minds. These blank tablets are written or filled withthe knowledge that people get through experience and sentiments. Thedevelopment and the wide acceptance of the concept of empiricism inthe 17thcentury discredited the theories that had been developed by ancienttheorists. Most of the previous theorists held that people are bornwith some knowledge that can be classified as innate ideas. Thepopular contributors to this idea (such as John Locke) managed toconvince most of the psychologists that knowledge is only gainedthrough empirical means that include sentiments and observation.


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