Mind and Body: Historical Conceptions of an Enduring Issue in Psychology

The relationship of mind and body has been argued and debated by philosophers and psychologists for over centuries since the Golden Age of Greece. This article overviews some of great thinkers’ ideas and theories about mind, soul, body, and the world, and how these entities connected to each other. Significant philosophers of different times and their thoughts of body and mind are outlined, compared, and discussed by tracing the historical development of philosophies and theories for this topic during the periods of the Golden Age of Greek philosophy, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 18th-19th centuries.

The Golden Age of Greek Philosophy

In the Golden Age of Greece from around 500 to 300 BC, a great momentum of civilization was achieved in art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. Pythagoras (ca. 580 -500 B.C.) was the first philosopher who postulated a theory of dualism in humans as he claimed that “in addition to the flesh of the body, we have reasoning powers that allow us to attain an understanding of the abstract world” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 35). According to Hergenhahn (2009), Pythagoras’ view of clear-cut mind-body dualism made a salient influence on the Golden Age thinkers.

Plato (ca. 427 - 347 B.C.), the founder of the Academy, inherited Pythagoras’ view of mind-body dualism. In fact, “many of Plato’s doctrines were developments of Pythagorean theory” (Greenwood, 2009, p. 48). Plato as a dualist believed that human mind existed independently of nature in the form of essences. On the basis of Plato’s view, human mind, which also referred as the spirit or psyche, is an non-physical and immortal entity which is restricted in a human body temporarily, therefore Plato claimed that “true knowledge can be attained only when the purified psyche surmounts the corruption of the material body” (Greenwood, 2009, p. 48). Plato’s philosophy supported separation and independence of mind and body. Plato also indicated that because of mind-body dualism, all knowledge existed as innate intelligence within the mind thus knowledge could be obtained through self-reflection. (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.), who was Plato’s student, challenged Plato’s theory on the existence of innate ideas. Aristotle held a different notion that “the mind at birth was a tabula rasa, a blank or clean slate on which experience would write” (Schultz & Schultz , 2011, p. 36) Coming from a medical family, Aristotle attributed mind, body, and the nature of things from the root of biological and organismic perspectives. As Smith (2010) stated, “this biological cast of mind colored his whole philosophy” (p. 6). With embrace of both rationalism and empiricism, Aristotle supported existence of mind as essences but he insisted that “the mind must be employed before knowledge can be attained” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 50).

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, or Medieval Times, in Europe lasted from 500 AD to 1500 AD with the first half often referred as the Dark Ages. During the Dark Ages, the works of pagan scholars such as Pythagoras and Aristotle were denigrated and condemned, and even worse, many of the classical Greek texts were destroyed or lost (Greenwood, 2009). According to Hergenhahn (2009), when mysticism, superstition, and anti-intellectualism dominated Europe, both commerce and learning declined, thus “little or no progress was made in science, philosophy, or literature” (p. 82). During that time, the medieval Christian Church became extremely powerful, unchallengeable, and “hostile to scientific thinking, to the point of the active persecution of scientists” (Greenwood, 2009, p. 79).

While Europe stalled in the dark, the Islamic and Jewish influences raised. Avicenna (980 - 1037), an Islamic scholar and physician, developed the hierarchical account of the nutritive, sensitive, and rational psyche. Avicenna followed Aristotle “in distinguishing between passive and active reason and maintaining that active reason is immortal” (Greenwood, 2009, p. 80). As a dualist, Avicenna acknowledged the separation of immaterial souls and material bodies. He claimed that the capacity of the immaterial or spiritual psyche made passive reason. Unlike Aristotle, Avicenna supported the idea of supernatural qualities of mind beyond body called the active intellect. For Avicenna, the active intellect allowed humans “to understand the cosmic plan and to enter into a relationship with God” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 83).

The so-called Dark Ages in Western Europe came to an end around 1000 when theory and learning started to revive. As the lost literatures of early Greek philosophers were rediscovered, Peter Abelard (1079 -1142) reviewed and translated Aristotle’s works. By that time the Church became more open to forms of knowledge other than scripture and revelation while Aristotle’s works had been thoroughly assimilated by Christian theologians (Greenwood, 2009). Eventually, the reconciliation of faith and reason was achieved by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who argued that reason and faith could be studied separately and respectfully. Aquinas’ work facilitated emergence of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance revived creativity in the arts and thoughts of humanism. Renaissance humanism “turned the focus of human inquiry away from God and heaven toward nature” (Leahey, 2000, p. 386). As Leahey (2000) explained, the Renaissance interest in understanding nature elicited the Renaissance naturalism which illustrated a view that “humans have no souls, so that our personalities will perish with our bodies” (p. 386). For the Renaissance naturalism, human mind, similar to the magnetism, was produced from natural powers held within living bodies rather than infused or delivered from the soul to the nature.

Stimulated by the scientific revolution during the Renaissance, Rene Descartes (1596 -1650) built “an influential framework for thinking about mind and body fundamental to the founding of psychology” (Leahey, 2000, p. 387). To address the mind-body relationship, Descartes attempted to set the psycho-physical problem “in the form of the conception of a natural relation between mind and body, considered as two separate substantial principles” (Baldwin, 1905, p. 151). Descartes held a mechanical based view that the material world was like a clockwork machine ruled by standard mathematical laws. Based on his observations on physical and biological functions of human beings, Descartes claimed that human mind, behavior, and internal functions of the brain could be explicated from a mechanical perspective (Hergenhahn, 2009). According to Descartes, humans were souls united to mechanical bodies; on the contrary, animals were soulless machines. As revealed in his famous words “I think, therefore I exist,” Descartes asserted that thinking (including self-awareness and language) was the only mental function assigned to the soul. Descartes’ view was supported by the findings of modern research which demonstrated the difference between humans and nonhuman primates in their capabilities of learning languages and expressions.

The 18th-19th Centuries

During the period of the 18th-19th centuries, many new philosophical theories and ideas emerged. John Locke (1632-1704) was the most influential empiricist to many subsequent British empiricists who followed Locke in accepting a mind-body dualism (Hergenhahn, 2009). Locke “distinguished two sources of experience, sensation and reflection: sensation reveals the outside world, whereas reflection reveals the operations of our minds” (Leahey, 2000, p. 389). According to Locke, sensation includes perception, thinking, reasoning, and willing. When the mind perceives in itself or objects in the surrounding environment, the thinking process generates a mental image which Locke called idea (Hergenhahn, 2009).

French sensationalism had much in common with British empiricism. Julien de La Mettrie (1709 -1751), a French sensationalist, believed that “the mind is much more intimately related to the body than Descartes had assumed” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 163). La Mettrie claimed that the universe was filled with nothing but matter and motion. In La Mettrie’s theory, thoughts and sensations are also nothing but movements of particles in the brain (Hergenhahn, 2009).

The idea of positivism became widely accepted among intellectuals because of rapid scientific development during that time. The concept and work of positivism were mainly built by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Although Comte endorsed dogmatic empiricism, his positivist system differed from British empiricism. Comte treated the publicly observable properties of physical objects as the subject matter of scientific knowledge rather than the privately introspectable sensations. Comte was contemptuous of introspection as a scientific method and denied the possibility of a psychology based upon it (Greenwood, p. 722). According to Comte, the individual mind is only an illustration because it is neither observable nor physical (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as a rationalist believed that it was an innate category of thought rather than the sensation that provided the experience of time and space. He claimed that “we do not simply experience sensations as they exist on the retina or in the brain” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 194). To address the mind-body issue, Kant emphasized that the mind of innate idea was the dominant force which could create a whole experience in the process of perception. But he also argued that it was necessary to link the mind to the sensory elements of the body in order to actively organize the perceived elements to form the mental states of a coherent experience (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).


The study of conceptions of mind-body relationship is both intriguing and very important for understanding of the root and development of psychological science. Throughout history the mind-body dualism had become the influential thought in the Western philosophy. Originated by Pythagoras and enriched by Plato, the idea of mind-body dualism had been inherited, challenged, and modified by many philosophers thus various forms of dualisms were presented during different times of the history. Regardless of the variations from one school to another, the core concept of mind-body dualism is that mind exists in non-physical forms independently from body. Some dualism schools support the idea of immortal souls; others treated mind and its process as a biological or mechanical function.

The Renaissance, a glorious period of human civilization, was preceded by rediscovery of Aristotle’s lost works near the end of the Middle Ages. Aristotle’s philosophy for emphasizing on observation and experience of sensation impelled creativity in development of arts, science, and new thoughts. During this period, Descartes’ philosophy emerged and became an ever influential thought by its unique view of body, mind, and soul. As a dualism, Descartes identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness outside of body. On the other hand, Descartes viewed human body, brain functions, and the world in the forms of materialism because he intended to attribute the universal as a material world which was regulated by mechanical and mathematical laws.

The success in science during the 18th-19th centuries brought hope to philosophers for resolving mind-body issues by methods implemented in natural science. These approaches led to new philosophical ideas such as empiricism. The British empiricists, the French sensationalists, and the positivists were in common that they believed that all knowledge could be obtained from experience, and they rejected the concept of innate ideas. The positive aspect of empiricism was that it introduced scientific knowledge to study human behaviors through observations and experiments.

The review of historical ideas of mind-body relationship showed that philosophers started to study human nature through speculation, intuition, and generalization from inner experience. However, a foremost transformation gradually took place when subsequent scholars intended to wield the tools and methods already successful in the biological and physical sciences to address the issues about human nature (Schultz & Schultz, 2011). This transformation encouraged researchers to apply well controlled observation and experimentation to study the human mind. Because of the transformation, the science of psychology emerged when new empirical methods made mental research detached from its philosophical roots.


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Leahey, T. H. (2000). Psychology: Renaissance through the Enlightenment. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology, Vol. 6 (pp. 386-394). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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