The wider picture, where did it all start? - summary of chapter 1 of Historical and conceptual issues in psychology, by Brysbaert, M and Rastle, K (second edition)

Foundation of Psychology
Chapter 1
The wider picture, where did it all start?


This book describes the growth of psychology as an independent branch of learning and tries to comprehend the essence of the discipline.

The invention of writing

The introduction of written records represents one of the most important moments in the development of science.

The preliterate culture

Preliterate civilisation: civilisation before writing was invented.
Though these civilisations have not left us with written testimonies, it is possible to discern several important features of them by studying existing cultures that do not use writing.
This research revealed three important characteristics of knowledge in these kinds of cultures:

  • Although cultures without literacy know how to make tools, start fires, obtain shelter, hunt, fish, and gather fruit and vegetables, their skills are not based on an understanding of how things work, but rather on practical rules of thumb of what do do when.
    • There knowledge is confided to ‘know-how’ without theoretical understanding of the underlying principles
  • The fluidity of knowledge
    Knowledge of the actual history of the tribe is limited to two generations and the function of the oral tradition is mainly the transmission of practical skills
  • The existence of a collection of myths and stories about the beginning of the universe, life and natural phenomena, in which human traits are projected onto objects and events.
    • Animism: explanation of the workings of the world and the universe by means of spirits with human-like characteristics.

The first writing systems

Written language appeard separately in at least four cultures:

  • China (around 6000 BCE)
  • Egypt (around 3200 BCE)
  • Sumer (around 3200 BCE)
  • America (around 300 BCE)

These four written languages were preceded by protowriting, the use of symbols to represent entities without linguistic information lining to them.

Characteristics of writing systems

From an early stage, writing systems were a combination of pictograms and phonograms.
Pictogram: an information-conveying sign that consists of a picture resembling the person, animal or object it represents.
Phonogram: a sign that represents a sound or a syllable of spoken language.
Phonograms were gradually replaced by simpler signs symbolizing meaningful sounds in language, (phonemes or syllables).
The use of phonograms to represent phonemes led to the alphabetic writing systems.

Logograph: a sign representing a spoken word, which no longer has a physical resemblance to the word’s meaning.

Written documents form an external memory

Writing and the accumulation of knowledge

The importance of writing lies in the external memory written reports provide about the knowledge available at a certain point in time.
This is important because it allows an accumulation of knowledge.

  • New thinkers do not have to rediscover what was previously thought, they could just read it.
    This does not mean that insights are never overlooked.

    • But, insights can be retrieved if one is motivated to look for them.

Written records not only made more information available, they also subtly changed the way in which knowledge was preserved.

  • Before the advent of writing, important legends were memorised as verses
    • The rhythm and rhyme of the poem helped the narrator remember the correct phrases, so that the contents did not change too dramatically from one storyteller to another
  • Written texts allowed cultures to relax on the formal constraints and concentrate on the content

The reader

Who can read?

Written records only have impact if somebody can read them.
For most of history, the number of people who could read was relatively small.
In addition, the early scripts lacked an important characteristic that makes alphabetic languages easier to read: spaces between words.
Only in the eight century did writers start to put spaces between words.

  • Before this, nearly all readers read aloud or at least had to mumble while reading.

The influence of orthography

Reading acquisition is easiest in languages which a transparent relationship between spelling and sound.

Reading without critical thinking

For a long time students were taught to read and understand texts exactly as they were.
They were in no way encouraged (and were often discouraged) to question the writings or to compare them to other writings).

Scholastic method: study method in which students unquestioningly memorise and recite texts that are thought to convey unchanging truths.
The scholastic method was prevalent in schools up to the twentieth century.

Interim summary

  • Features of the preliterate civilisation:
    • Knowledge confined to know-how without theoretical knowledge of the underlying principles
    • Fluidity of knowledge
    • Collection of myths and stories about the beginning of the universe (animism)
  • Written language appeared separately in at least four cultures, in each case it was preceded by proto-writing
  • Writing consists of a combination of pictograms and phonograms
  • Written records form an external memory, which allows an accumulation of knowledge
  • For a long time the number of readers was limited. In addition, they were not encouraged to think critically about what they were reading (scholastic method)

The discovery of numbers

Another development that has been crucial for the growth of knowledge is the discovery of numbers.

The limits of visual perception and the special status of the number five

The ease of understanding the numbers one to three

The possession of goods required to ability of count them.
It is reasonable to assume that quite early in their evolution humans could make distinctions up to three, which were represented by one, two, and three makings.
Newborn babies and all kinds of animals can distinguish between one, two and three entities: subitising.

Larger numbers and the need for grouping the tallies

A problem with tallies to represent numbers is that they rapidly exceed the limits of perception.

  • Analogue codes start to fall apart for larger quantities (like IIII or IIIIII)
    A first solution was a grouping of the tallies, IIII I.
    This method was used independently in several cultures.
    The most popular grouping has a base five.
  • The number five is the first entity that really exceeds the perceptual limits
  • The number five coincides with the number of fingers on a hand.
    • Gradually, the base number five started to get a different symbol.

Giving numbers names and symbols

The names one to ten

Humans had a struggle before they could come up with a handy numerical system.
Names for numbers existed before languages began to split up.

The problem of naming the teens


Due to groupings of the tallies, at some point it was realised that large numbers were best represented as multiples of smaller numbers, so-called base-numbers.
The most frequently chosen base number was 10 (double five).

Representing numbers by symbols

Once the different numbers had their names, it was a small step to represent them by different symbols.

The discovery of place coding

Although the Greek and the Roman number notation was a major achievement, it was not the most parsimonious or transparent system. The length of the symbol series was not systematically related to the base 10 structure of the numbers.
A much better system was developed in India.
Here, people started to work with nine different symbols to represent the numbers one to nine.
In addition, they used the place of the symbols in the digit string to represent powers of 10.

Place coding system: system in which the meaning of a sign not only depends on its form but also on its position in a string.
Works only if there is a symbol for the absence of a quantity at a certain slot (zero).
In the beginning, this was solved by inserting spaces between symbols.

Interim summary

  • Knowledge depends on counting and measuring. The first written forms of counting consisted of lines (tallies) in the bones and stones
  • Because it is difficult to discern more than four lines in a glance, the tallies were grouped. The grouping usually occurred in fives
  • Gradually a separate symbol was used for five and multiples of five
  • Later numbers systems were based on multiples of 10
  • Number names indicate that the intention of numbers was a slow process; it took quite some time before a useful system was discovered
  • The Greek and Roman number systems were suboptimal because their notation did not assign a meaning to the place of digits. Such a place coding system was developed in India. This required the symbol for 0.

The fertile crescent

The presence of written records marks the distinction between prehistory and history.

Fertile crescent: region in the Middle East with a high level of civilisation around 3000 BCE; included the Ancient Mesopotamian and the Ancient Egyptian civilisations.
Mesopotamia and Egypt started keeping written records and developed a number system.
Whether the inventions in both regions occurred independently, or they influenced each other, is still a matter of debate.

Ancient Egypt

Two main contributions from the Egyptians

  • Geometrical knowledge
  • The devising of a calendar consisting of 12 months of 30 days and and extra 5 days at the end of the year

Ancient Mesopotamia

Mathematical knowledge was more sophisticated in Mesopotamia.

Conditions for growth of knowledge

  • Political stability
  • Urbanisation
  • Patronage
  • The availability of a writing system that was easy enough to be learned by enough people so that a critical mass could be reached.

Interim summary

Civilisations in the Fertile crescent:

  • Ancient Mesopotamia: mathematics (algebra, astronomy, calendar)
  • Ancient Egypt: geometrical knowledge, calendar, hieroglyphs

The Greeks

In the beginning, the Ancient Greeks borrowed heavily from Egypt and Mesopotamia.
But they soon added their own knowledge.

The start of philosophy

Ancient Greece was probably the first culture that started to ask serious questions about the nature of the world they lived in.
Philosophy: critical reflection on the universe and human functioning: started in Ancient Greece.


Plato was the first thinker to call philosophy a distinct approach with its own subject and method.
He wrote his philosophy in dialogues.

The realm of ideal forms

Plato made a distinction between:

  • The realm of eternal, never-changing ideal forms
  • The realm of ever-changing material reality in which the forms or ideas are imperfectly realised and which we perceive.

We perceive nothing but the shadows of the objects.

Plato considered the soul and the body as two distinct and radically different kinds of entity.
The soul defined the person.
The soul was immortal, made of the leftovers of the cosmos-soul.
It travelled between the stars and the human body was temporarily inhabited.

  • Because human souls were part of the cosmos-soul, they had knowledge of the perfect realm.
    • Therefore, humans could access to the true ideas, by focusing on the innate knowledge brought by the immortal soul.
  • For Plato, the true path to knowledge was the inward path of reasoning rather than the outward path of perception.

For Plato, the most prestigious knowledge was mathematical and geometrical knowledge.
In these disciplines new information derived from a set of principles by means of reasoning.

The three parts of the soul

Plato defended the idea that the soul was divided into three parts

  • Comprised reason
    This allowed humans to get access to the realm of ideal forms
    Guided humans to a virtuous life in search of abstract, non-worldly perfection. This was the ideal fulfilment of human nature
    Reason was situated in the brain
  • Sensation and emotions (like anger, fear, pride and courage)
    Mortal and situated in the heart
    To avoid it polluting the divine soul, a neck separated the two
  • Lower part of the soul.
    Appetite and lower passions (lust, greed, desire)
    Localised in the liver


Aristotle was a student of Plato, but deviated in important ways of his mentor.
He wrote about a great variety of topics.

Three types of knowledge

Aristotle divided knowledge into three kinds:

  • Productive
    Concerned with making things
  • Practical
    How men ought to act in various circumstances, both in private and in public
  • Theoretical
    Further divided into three classes
    • Mathematics
    • Natural science
    • Theology

Theoretical knowledge starts with axioms

According to Aristotle, theoretical knowledge consisted of a series of axioms from which the remaining knowledge was derived by means of logic.
The axioms were self-evident truths about nature, which were acquired through observation and intuition, and of which the final cause could be discerned.
Final causes: the purpose of things in the universe.

Aristotle’s universe consisted of

  • The earth in the centre, surrounded by the moon
  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • The sun
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • The fixed stars

Two region were distinguished in the universe:

  • Sub-lunar region
    From the earth to the moon
    Everything here was a mixture of four elements

    • Air
    • Earth
    • Fire
    • Water
      Everything here showed constant change
      Each of the four elements had a natural place and all objects had a propensity to travel in a straight line to their natural place. No other motions were possible unless they had an external cause.
  • Super-lunar region
    From the moon to the end of the universe
    • Filled with aether, a divine and incorruptible element
    • Contained stars moving in perfect harmony

Knowledge of the organisation of the universe and the propensities in it, together with perceptual information, provided humans with the axioms from which all other knowledge could be derived via logic.
Aristotle developed a system of how to thing logically, to decide what reasoning resulted in true knowledge.


Aristotle called elementary statements ‘propositions’.
They consisted of two terms related to each other, either in an affirmative way or in a negative way.
Syllogism: argument consisting of three propositions; the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The goal of logic is to determine which syllogisms lead to valid conclusions and which do not.

In his writings Aristotle set out to enumerate which syllogisms invariably led to true conclusions and which led to false ones, thereby defining ways of reasoning that are valid and others that are not.

The role of observation

Aristotle struggled with the role of observation in the generation of knowledge.

  • On the one hand, Aristotle attached much importance to careful observation and documentation.
  • On the other hand, Aristotle was clear that observation alone was not enough for true knowledge.

Theoretical knowledge for Aristotle first consisted of knowledge derived from axioms by means of logic.
Observations helped to formulate the axioms.
The axioms were more fundamental that observations, they defined the essence of things, what is was to be that thing within the universe.

Perception was the source of knowledge, but was not knowledge itself.

On the soul

The psyche discriminated living from non-living things.
It consisted in three kinds:

  • Vegetative soul
    Present in all living things, including plants.
    Enabled organisms to nourish themselves and reproduce
  • Animal souls (or sensitive souls)
    Provided the owners with locomotion, sensation, memory and imagination
  • Rational souls
    Only humans
    Enables them to reason consciously and lead to virtuous lives

The foundation of schools

Something the Greek society introduced was a class of literate individuals who hired themselves out for teaching and who transferred the culture.
As a result, reading and writing were quite widespread in Ancient Greece.
It resulted in creation of four prestigious schools.

The shift to Alexandria

The Greek culture underwent a big expansion under Alexander the Great.
The Greek culture was propagated over a much wider area, expanding from Egypt to India and including the whole Fertile Crescent.
This created a new dynamic of interactions, the Hellenistic culture, and which continuous after Alexander the Great’s death when the empire fell apart.

Much of the new dynamic took place in Alexandria.
Here thinking was more influenced b y mathematics and became much more specialised than the grand, universal philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

Interim summary

  • Ancient Greece was the birthplace of philosophy and saw major advances in medicine.
  • Two great philosophers were Plato and Aristotle.
  • Plato and Aristotle founded schools (Academy and Lyceum) which together would educate students for centuries. The two other schools were the Stoa (with an emphasis for self-control) and the Garden of Epicurus (which emphasised the enjoyment of simple pleasures)
  • Under Alexander the Great, there was significant expansion and interaction with other cultures, leading to what is called the Hellenistic culture and a shift to Alexandria, where knowledge became more mathematical and specialised.

Developments from the Roman empire to the end of the Middle ages

The Romans

Assimilation of Greek culture

By 200 BCE the Roman empire had already expanded well outside the Italian peninsula and had started to annex the Greek provinces.
The Greek methods and learning were transferred to Rome, where there was already a strong Greek presence and where many educated people mastered Ancient Greek and visited the Greek schools as part of their education.

Emphasis on practical knowledge

One major difference between the Romans and the Greeks was that the Romans were much more interested in practical questions than the philosophical debates that preoccupied the Greeks.
Therefore, the transfer of Greek knowledge did not so much involve the subtleties of philosophy, but subjects of practical value and intrinsic appeal.
For the same reason, the Roman legacy is much more dominated by technological inventions and improvements than by their profound philosophical writings.

The Byzantine Empire

Towards the end of the second century CE, the political stability and patronage in the Roman Empire began to fade away.
Rome remained the capital of the West Empire, but the heart of the civilisation shifted to the east, the Hellenistic world, where the Byzantine Empire was founded.
Is capital was Constantinople.
During much of history it was also known as the Empire of the Greeks because of the dominance of the Greek language and culture.
This lasted till 1453.

Preservation of the Ancient Greek legacy

Byzantine science never reached the same level as that of the Ancient Greeks.
The main contribution of Byzantium to the history of science seems to have been the preservation of the legacy of the Ancient Greeks.

Role of religion

For centuries, religious orders and schools were the main conservators and proponents of the intellectual achievements.
They were not interested in natural science and considered it to be inferior knowledge. Their attention was directed towards religion-related and cultural topics.
As a consequence of the change of focus, the brightest pupils were directed away from scientific issues and science was often associated with paganism.

The Arab empire

Expansion of the Arab empire

The Arabian peninsula had been untouched by Alexander’s military campaigns, and as a result it was not much affected by Byzantine culture either.
In the late sixth century Mohammed was born and preached Islam.
By the time of Mohammed’s death his 632 followers had taken over the Arabian peninsula and were pushing northwards.

  • By 661 they had occupied the Fertile Crescent and Persia.
  • By 750 they controlled the north of Africa and nearly all of Spain, were Cordoba and Toledo became important intellectual centres.

Scientific achievements

Interest in science increased when in 749 the dynasty of the Abbasid family came to power and a period began of stronger political stability and patronage.
Around this time the translation of Greek works in Arabic started.

The remains of the Western Roman empire

Science arguably received its biggest blow in the western part of the Roman empire, including Rome itself.
Already before the Roman Empire fell to the German tribes there was a sharp decline in scientific endeavour because of the political upheaval and economic downfall.

Decreased access to Greek knowledge

One factor that contributed to this decline was the diminishing knowledge of the Greek language.

  • The motivation to learn a second language decreases as a function of economic dominance.
  • The ‘universal language’ of science closely follows the shifts in economic dominance

Because the Romans dominated other nations, it became increasingly unnecessary to study languages other than Latin.
As a result, a language barrier emerged between the Romans and Greek science.
Only the works that were thought to be of interest to the Romans made it into Latin and were preserved.

The contribution of the Catholic church

After the fall of Rome in 476 and the takeover by Germanic tribes, the Catholic church became the patron of learning through the creation and support of schools.
But, science was not at the forefront of the education.
In addition, Catholic education was not the sort to foster critical thinking in students.
As a result, scientific knowledge not only stalled but fell back from the level it had reached at the height of the Roman empire.

Dark ages: name given in the Renaissance to the Middle ages, to refer to the lack of independent and scientific thinking in that age.

Interim summary

Ancient Romans:

  • Assimilated the Greek methods and knowledge
  • Were more interested in technological advances than in philosophy

Byzantine empire

  • Eastern part of the Roman empire
  • Preservation of the legacy of the Ancient Greeks

Arab empire:

  • Founded on Islam, contained the Fertile Crescent
  • Translation and extension of the Greek works
  • Particularly strong on medicine, astronomy, mathematics (algebra) and optics
  • Occupied most of Spain

Western Roman empire:

  • Largest decline in scientific knowledge
  • Catholic church main preserver; not very science-oriented
  • In the Renaissance referred to as ‘dark ages’

Turning tide in the West

The foundation of schools and universities

The revival of learning in the West has a long history

  • There were efforts by Charles the Great around 800 to improve the education in his Carolingian empire.
  • As a result of better agricultural techniques there was a population explosion between 1000 and 1200. This resulted in renewed urbanisation and the foundation of larger cathedral schools with broader educational aims.
  • These schools increased the appetite for knowledge in the intellectually able, which created a marked for independent teachers, called masters.
  • To improve their living conditions, teachers organised themselves in guilds, which they called ‘universities’.

Students who finished the master’s programme at the universities had the right to teach everywhere, which led to increased mobility of the masters and a harmonisation of the curricula.
At the same time, scholars became aware of the much richer cultures on outskirts of Western Europe and the translation of Arabic and Greek texts into Latin reached a high point.

Inclusion of Greek and Arabic texts in the curricula

Many of the Greek and Arabic books were integrated within the curriculum without problems, as they were clearly superior to what was available and often filled a void.
There were more difficulties with Aristotle’s work.
For many scientifically-minded scholars, his views and methodology were more inspiring than those of Plato and the Christian theology built on it.

  • Aristotle claimed that the universe was eternal, whereas the bible claimed an beginning (Genisis) and end.
  • Aristotle saw the soul as the actualisation of the potentialities of the body, which could be interpreted as meaning that the soul was unable to exists without a body and that, therefore, ended together with the body.

The issues were more than isolated differences of view.
They arose because Aristotle had come to his conclusions on the basis of observation and reasoning (logic) rather than biblical revelation and church tradition.
As these were the elements in Aristotle’s philosophy that attracted the scholars, other disagreements were soon to follow.

A cultural movement based on imitation of the Greek and Roman civilisations

The availability of the ancient texts not only influenced scientists but society as a whole.
Renaissance: cultural movement from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century based on a rediscovery and imitation of the classical Greek and Roman civilisations.
This started in Italy.

This period saw the return of scientists in Western Europe of a stature high enough to be remembered today.

The protestant reformation

The renaissance saw the birth of Luter who revolted against the perceived greed and corruption of the Papacy.
This led to the Protestant reformation.
Protestant reformation: movement against the Roman catholic church, which was important for the development of science, because it emphasised the need for education, critical thinking, hard work and worldly success.
This resulted in large parts of Europe no longer being under the control of the Roman Catholic church.

Book printing

Interwoven in all these developments was the introduction of book printing in Europe.
Four ways in which printing changed the lives of people interested in knowledge:

  • Knowledge came much more within reach
  • Because books were so rare, there was a constant danger of loss or destruction.
  • Manually copied books contained many transcription errors, particularly when they involved scientific materials
  • Scholars could work on the same copy of a book

Colonisation of the world

The new explorations brought the Europeans in contact with other cultures and inventions.
It led to one of the first firm indications that Aristotle was not infallible.

Interim summary

Post-medieval developments in Western Europe

  • The establishment of (cathedral) schools and universities
  • Increased mobility of the scholars
  • Discovery of the ancient Greek and Arabic texts
  • Growing impact of Aristotle’s work

A cultural movement:

  • Increased interest in and imitation of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures (Renaissance)
  • Increasing status of science and scientists

The Protestant reformation

  • Rebellion against the dominance of the Catholic church
  • More importance given to education, critical thinking, hard work and worldly success

Book printing

  • Rapid and Massive availability of reliable information

Colonisation of the world

  • Need for technological and scientific innovations
  • Discovery of new worlds

Focus on: the limits of history writing

Biases in history writing

Too much centred on persons

A typical characteristic of historical writings is that they tend to focus on individuals.
As a result, the history of science is presented as a succession of discoveries and insights made by geniuses that far exceed the intellectual level around them.
In all likelihood, other individuals would have come to the same conclusion around the same time or shortly after.

Zeitgeist: word used in the history of science to indicate that the time was right for a certain discovery; the discovery did not originate from a single genius, but from a much wider development leading to the discovery.

The Matthew effect

Matthew effect:the tendency to give more credit to well-known scientists than they deserve; increases the perceived impact of these scientists.

Hindsight bias

A tendency to assume that individual scholars knew more than they actually did.
On the basis of what we know now, we assume that the same knowledge was shared by the person who first described the phenomenon.
We also have a tendency to believe that the evidence presented by that person was much more convincing than it actually was.


Authors have a tendency to attach excessive weight to the contribution of their own group and the group of their readers.

History reviews are summaries of summaries

The biases described above are particularly strong because very few general history books are based on a full analysis of the original sources.
Rather, they build on other books that summarise part of the history to be described and try to maximise the clarity and the persuasiveness of the message.

History writing: rewriting or streamlining the past?

History writing and reshaping the past

In Kuhn’s view, science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, and science as we know it now is only one of the possible interpretations of reality.
As a result, the present review of the history of science is the view of twentieth-first-century scientific psychologists writing for an Anglo-Saxon audience.

History as writing and simplifying the past

An interpretation is that all biases happen, but are motivated by the need to make the knowledge digestible given the constraints under which it has to be transmitted.
History is a simplification of what has happened because it has to be summarised.

Interim summary

  • History writing always involved simplification and streamlining
  • Therefore, biases easily slip in:
    • Centred on persons rather than on zeitgeist
    • Too much credit is given to a small number of people (Matthew effect)
    • Facts are interpreted on the basis of what happened afterwards (hindsight bias)
    • Too much attention is given to the contribution of the author’s own group (ethnocentrism)
    • History writers often rely on summaries and interpretations made by other writers
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Historical and conceptual issues in psychology, by Brysbaert, M and Rastle, K (second edition) - a summary


This is a summary of the book: Historical and conceptual issues in psychology, by Brysbaert, M and Rastle, K. This book is about the history of Psychology and how now-day psychology came to be. The book is used in the course 'Foundations of psychology' at the second year of

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