The Evolution of Psychology: Moving Towards Foundationalism

Marina's picture


According to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, foundationalism is the philosophical notion that “all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief” (Fumerton 1). The study of psychology has a deep and rich history when it comes to the methods of foundational and non-foundational thinking. Early non-foundational forms of psychology attributed mental illness to spirits and unknown evils that could only be cured through barbaric forms of neurosurgery and religious practices. This eventually led many thinkers to employ a more foundational approach as they began to observe the brain and its structure leading to more biological, concrete conclusions regarding mental illness. The evolution of psychology has not had linear progression overtime; rather it constantly recycles old ideas to provide insight into new discoveries. As history has shown, some recycled ideas have lead to the resurrection of antiquated notions such as demonology but other ideas, such as the Hippocratic tradition, have provided valuable insight for medically minded physicians and psychologists to use in their studies.

The beginning of the non-foundational method of thinking in psychology took place during the ancient era (1000 BC) of psychopathology. Mental illness was believed to be a spiritual ailment attributed to consorting with evil spirits or being possessed by demons. The common demonological beliefs of the period lacked any biological or medical basis and were not founded on any justifiable belief, thus revealing the reliance on non-foundational thinking to explain the unknown causes of psychopathy. Despite the lack of concrete evidence and observation, clinicians of the ancient era prescribed to these non-foundationalist beliefs and in an attempt to cure mental illness performed an early form of neurosurgery known as trephination. Trephination was a medical procedure used to treat head injury, epilepsy, or mental illness in which holes or openings were carved into the skull to release bad spirits from the head. Lazarus Riverius describes the procedure in his book Practice of Physick, “If all means fail the last remedy is to open the fore part of the Skul with a Trepan, at distance from the sutures, that the evil air may breathe out. By this means many Epilepsies have been cured, and it may be safely done if the Chyurgeon be skilful” (Gross 266). Riverious’ non-foundationalist idea that the “evil air may breath out” was in no way justified by any previous discoveries or investigations. Although he claims to have seen many to be cured through this procedure, Riverious still does not present any biological or medical proof of the etiology of mental illness. In addition, any improvement from the procedure could have just as easily been due to chance or brain damage from the procedure.

The use of the demonological model in psychology slowly retreated as the emergence of the classical period from 500 BC to 500 A.D. introduced an abundance of medically minded thinkers. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates was largely responsible for the great shift towards the medical model in psychology that took place during this period.  A staunch opponent to the demonological literature of psychology, Hippocrates advocated a more clinical approach to psychology beginning with his theory of the four bodily humors. According to Hippocrates, the four humors identified as phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile were the basic building blocks of personality. Hippocrates claimed that when in equilibrium the humors would produce a sane person, but when off balance they would produce a specific, usually negative change in personality. For example, if too much phlegm was present in the body, one would become sluggish and apathetic, if too much blood were present it would cause one to become moody, if too much black bile was present one would become depressed, and if too much yellow bile were present one would become anxious and irritable. Hippocrates claimed treatment for such imbalances could be achieved through lifestyle changes such as sleeping habits, diet, and exercise, but he also advocated the archaic procedure of blood letting in which a patient would be drained of blood in hopes of restoring balance among the four humors (Rescorla). In another great push toward the biological model, Hippocrates eliminated the notion that epilepsy was caused by divine intervention and argued it was a due to a neurological disorder (Green 3). Although the Hippocratic medical model was far from perfect, it was a substantial and dramatic push forward towards more foundational thinking and a great push away from non-foundationalist thinking and the study of demonology. Hippocrates substantial and promising findings led to even further investigation of the medical model bringing many other physicians to the forefront such as Herophilus and Erasistratus who were the first to differentiate nerves from the circulatory system.  Also, the celebrated Greek physician Galen’s published his book On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body that included early discussion of the physical construction of the brain including observations on the cerebral ventricles and the pineal gland (Green 4). Galen also made many discoveries in the area of the circulatory system through his dissection of animals (Rescorla). The Hippocratic tradition shed light on the more biological aspects of psychology and helped many thinkers to employ a more foundational approach to psychology that required observation and knowledge of the nervous system and its functions.

However, despite all the major breakthroughs that the biological model of psychology introduced, the Middle Ages ushered in yet another era of psychological thought inundated by the non-foundational approach of demonology. Similarly to the ancient era, Mental illness was attributed to the unknown, witches, and demons. Those unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness were considered pariahs and expelled from their communities and churches as they were thought to be consorting with the devil. Although the Middle Ages saw a large resurrection of ancient psychological thought, several prominent European and Islamic thinkers worked to revive and defend the biological model during this period. Avicenna, an expert Islamic diagnostician of the 11th century, and German physician Johann Weyer outright rejected the belief that madness was caused by evil spirits. Similarly, Paracelus, a Swiss chemist, argued madness was not of spiritual nature but rather a disease that could be treated clinically (Rescorla). The foundational methods of these physicians and philosophers led to the revival of the medical model in the 18th century. The scientific investigations and philosophical thinking of the renaissance brought an end to the demonological thinking of the middle and ancient ages while also bringing classification systems of mental disorders to the forefront. These classification systems were based on more clinical observations and thus were more justified and foundational in their diagnosis of psychopathy.

The 20th century has ushered in an unprecedented growth in the biological model of psychology as specific disciplines such as biological psychology and neuroscience have emerged dedicating research to the physical and neurological etiology of mental illness. The term “biological psychiatry” was first used in 1953 and attempts to explain mental illness through the functions of the nervous system by drawing from many other biological disciplines such as biochemistry and psychopharmacology to explain psychopathy (Rossman 1). This discipline of biological psychology is a clear extension of the Greek Hippocratic approach that took place in the classical period. Neuroscience is another major extension of the Hippocratic tradition of the classical period that dedicates much study to the function and structure of the nervous system as well as many other aspects of the brain.

Since its inception as a social science, psychology has gone through many cycles of thinking and investigation yet it always seems to reuse ideas from the past to influence future discoveries. The discipline of psychology has seen a slow but gradual move away from the non-foundational forms of thinking such as demonology as the biological and medical models have consistently shown improvements in the treatment and understanding of mental illness. Thus psychological thinking has become increasingly foundational as it has built a significant reliance on the justified and given functions of the brain as the source of investigation for mental illnesses and psychological disorders.


Works Cited

Fumerton, Richard, "Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <>.

Green, Christopher D. "Primary Source Reading Suggestions for History of Psychology Courses." Classics in the History of Psychology. 12 Sept. 2006. York University. 10 Mar. 2009 <>.

Gross, Charles G. "A Hole in the Head." The Neuroscientist 5 (1999): 263-69.

Rescorla, Leslie A. "Historical Overview: Through the Classical Period." Abnormal Psychology. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 21 Jan. 2009.

Rescorla, Leslie A. "History of Psychopathology from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century." Abnormal Psychology. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 26 Jan. 2009.

Rossman, Jennifer. "Biological Psychology." Associated Content. 03 Dec. 2007. 10 Mar. 2009 <>.


biba's picture

Evolution of Psychology”

“ Evolution of Psychology”

Points to discuss:

o Past development versus present development

o Current development of Psychology

o Standard of Psychology in Pakistan

Anne Dalke's picture


I’m delighted to have you take the most vexed word in our conversation so far, “foundationalism,” and apply it to the history of psychology. You’ve done a nice job, here, of tracing that history; I was struck, in particular, by the dimension of “recycling” (for example: the return of demonology in the Middle Ages, after it had disappeared in the classical period).

It is also very striking to me to think that—contra the critique of foundationalism that has been @ the heart of this first section of our course—the challenge to the search for fixed, predictable and predictive claims that will not alter—the discipline of psychology (by your account) has been moving in just the opposite direction: looking ever more vigilantly for foundational principles: biological, biochemical, psychopharmacological and neuroscientific explanations for human behavior.

The thing that confuses me, profoundly, though, is the way you use your key term (and this confusion seems to me somewhat akin to the mix-up between “essentialism” and “existentialism” in your last paper). You begin w/ the field of philosophy, which defines foundationalism as “noninferential knowledge.” I thought, reading your opening paragraph, that I understand clearly what that term means: it refers to a kind of knowledge that is not “inferred,” or “deduced,” from anything else. It is the “foundation”; there is nothing “beneath” it on which it “stands” (and so, it cannot be changed).

But the way you use the search for a “foundational” approach in psychology seems to reverse that meaning exactly: you trace an increased emphasis on observational knowledge, on concrete evidence, on clinical experience, and you call that process a move towards “more foundational” thinking. It is certainly a move towards finding evidence to support (“found”?) new treatments, but it does not at all seem to be the sort of “non-justified belief” that your philosophical dictionary gestures towards. It is, rather, most explicitly justified by evidentiary claims.

Paul Grobstein's picture

psychology, foundationalism, non-foundationalism

Interesting portrayal of evolution in psychology, with future building on past.  But, if "foundationalism is the philosophical notion that “all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief”", then isn't the history of psychology one of moving toward rather than away from "non-foundational forms of thinking"? 

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