Psychology – A Timeline

Psychology – A Timeline

Fasten your seat belt and join me as we take a trip through the history of psychology. I spent over three decades as a clinician, a researcher, and an educator. As a part of my ongoing professional interest in mental health, or as it is often called today behavioral health, I looked into the history, the contemporary work, and the introduction of up and coming approaches. It became apparent that the field of psychology has three distinct eras.

Pre-Modern Psychology: This era takes us back many centuries to a time when psychology was viewed as a philosophy and not a science. The transition from the pre-modern to the modern was slow in coming, but come it did.

Modern Psychology: In the late 19th century, this transition from pre-modern to modern psychology took on a life of its own. The speed at which this change occurred was dramatic. The stamp of approval for psychology to move from a philosophy to a science was given. With it came the hope of providing a more meaningful life to those suffering mental deficiencies.

Post-modern Psychology: With new theories, energy, and vision, there were those in the psychological community that sought clarity to what had gone on before them. In particular was the search and research for a more integrative understanding of the human mind than those offered by Freud and others who remained committed to the psychoanalytic view of the mind.


While the practice of modern psychology remains strong there is a perceptual shift toward a more holistic form of psychology. As an example, if you look at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) it is easy to see that in many areas CBT has opened itself to the less empirical side of its structure. In treatment there is an increased use of mindfulness techniques (e.g. meditation). Support for the client has expanded to include others as well as their community.




For a belief system to become an accepted part of a culture, it must pass several tests along the way. In the case of psychology there was a natural tie in with the times and intellectual elite of Greece and Egypt. Early on psychology took its identity from the schools of philosophy. Here far ranging discussions regarding the role and function of human thinking were open subjects.

As a result of these dialogues, human thought began to be described as a duality, part physiological and part spiritual. Over the centuries, this duality has not changed a great deal other than to include the secularization of the spirituality.

Being linked to philosophy provided legitimacy and authority to its views. As a philosophy the questions asked of psychology were of the why nature. Once it transitioned to a science the more legitimate questions dealt with how things occurred.

It was around 1870 that the focus on the psychology of the human mind shifted from the pre-modern view of it being a philosophy of the more current theory of conscious and unconscious levels of functioning.




Around 1890 a steady stream of what since then was considered radical ideas and theories began to appear. While there were pioneers before him, the acknowledged father of modern psychology is Sigmund Freud. Over the past 125 years or so, the world of psychology has witnessed the development of several approaches to theory and practice in response to Freud’s work. Included within the modern framework are names and ideas like:

  • B. F. Skinner
  • Jean Piaget
  • Carl Rogers
  • Carl Jung
  • Erik Erikson

All saw the ongoing development of the human mind as the product not of duality, but of tasks associated with conscious and unconscious levels of functioning. While each one interpreted their findings differently there seemed to be a shared acceptance of Freud’s hypothesis that human thought functioned within its own structure. People achieved maximum functioning or they are dysfunctional in relationship to their development.

Today, if you ask a clinician what psychotherapeutic approach they use, many will self-identify themselves as flexible in their use of any specific modality.




In the early 1980’s there were some breakaway psychologists and physicians who were dissatisfied with their treatment options. Some believed that the emphasis on the individual as the “problem” was neither accurate nor fair. Others were searching for ways to include holistic methods into treatment. Included in this group was those who found that severe suffering of their clients was not responding to the modern approaches.

The goal was to treat the whole person rather than presenting symptoms. Those involved in this post-modern approach have received mixed reviews. There are those who see validity and additional methodologies in these approaches. At the same time, there are those who are highly critical of these approaches. They find fault with the lack of the western world understanding of the scientific method, including limited testing, proper research, and extended blind side comparisons.


What are Some of the Options?


The development of options to modern treatments is growing. Included in these treatments are approaches like:

  • Psycho-pharmacology
  • Integrative psychology
  • Use of interdisciplinary teams
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Positive psychology

The client’s role in treatment is also subject to change. In the post-modern world of psychology the clinical relationship is redefined. Among the new clinician/client relationship area commitment to activities like:

  • Equality
  • Empowerment
  • Self-determination
  • Inclusion of others
  • A more dialogical relationship

The most prominent influence on the development of post-modern approaches can be found in Far East philosophies and spirituality, in particular Buddhism. This should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Judeo-Christian traditions, but rather the inclusion of yet another perspective into the western treatment model.

In summary, the hope for post-modern psychology lies in its ability to move beyond treatment. One of the more well-known advocates for the acceptance of post-modern treatment, Andrew Weil, MD sums up the issue this way: “Please keep in mind the distinction between healing and treatment: treatment originates from outside, whereas healing comes from within.”


Author Bio: Dr. Anna Cohen is a psychologist in private practice. Dr. Cohen is a former psychology professor at the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.