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An Intellectual History of Psychology by Daniel N. Robinson
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Apr 01, 12

really liked it
Read in March, 2012

Daniel Robinson is a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and at Oxford, a prolific writer and superb lecturer, and a thinker in many fields. He has produced many courses in the Great Courses series through the Teaching Company. This book was originally published in 1976 and last revised in 1995. In it Robinson explores the intellectual history of the field of psychology from the pre-Socratics to the present day. This is not a psychology text but rather a study of the roots and trends of the field of study since its inception. Robinson begins by wrestling with the conundrums of definition, positing that understanding Psychology as a realm of inquiry and as a scientific discipline requires understanding its history, its roots in philosophy that inevitably structured its subject matter and its methods. Robinson’s thoughts are both profound and dense, every sentence inviting rereading in order to glean fully the fruit contained therein. This book is not a summary or a gloss but rather a deep exploration of intellectual inquiry into the nature of human self and its characteristic functioning.

Working chronologically, Robinson first explicates the topic from the point of view of what he calls “Philosophical Psychology,” tracing trends and issues from the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, Patristic Psychology, and Scholastic Psychology through the Renaissance. In the second part of the book, entitled “From Philosophy to Psychology,” he addressed three sometimes overlapping “movements”: Empiricism, Rationalism, and Materialism. Herein he delves deeply into the figures and ideas that were pivotal in each of these areas, including the influences upon them of their times and cultures, and he is particularly adroit in clarifying how each attempted to respond to the arguments of the others. He is also aware of and emphasizes the differing trends in different parts of the Continent, and he traces the trajectory of each.

In Part 3, “Scientific Psychology,” Robinson discusses the increasingly authority of science during the nineteenth century and the movement from systems to specialties during the late 1800’s and the first two decades of the twentieth century. He finishes with a detailed review of contemporary formulations.

One comes away from a reading of this book with a greater understanding of the contrasting and overlapping trends within the field, not only how they exist today but the journeys by which they arrived at the early 21st century. Always Robinson is more interested in the history of ideas than in detailed critiques of particular positions, and this provides a helpful overview for someone outside of the field. This is a book requiring slow and careful reading. Robinson is articulate and erudite, always clear, never confusing. He speaks and writes carefully, choosing his language meticulously, and it is a joy to follow his thinking.
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