Ancient Greek Philosophy: Introspection & Associationism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Psychology is not a discipline we often associate with philosophy, but they actually share a common heritage. In this lesson, we will explore the roots of psychology in ancient Greek philosophy.

The Origins of Psychology

The discipline of psychology is relatively young. The human mind is not. So, were humans simply unconcerned with how their minds worked prior to the development of formal psychology in the 19th century? Of course not! The human mind has fascinated people for as long as we can tell. In fact, psychology as we know it actually descends from some of the earliest intellectual movements in Western history. For that, we have to balance on the edge of science, and of philosophy.

Ancient Greek Philosophy

The first structured examinations of the human mind were not strictly scientific. Why? Because science, as we understand it, wasn't developed as a distinct discipline until the 17th century CE. European intellectual culture itself began much earlier, back around the 5th century BCE. In ancient Greece, all intellectual pursuits were studied holistically, as individual parts of greater human experiences. Thus, what we call science was originally part of philosophy, connected to Greek morality and systems of explaining existence. It was within these frameworks that the first attempts to systematically understand the human mind were made.

Socrates and Introspection

The studies of the human mind are almost as old as Greek philosophy itself, starting with Socrates, who died around 399 BCE. Socrates, often considered the founder of all Western philosophy, claimed that one of the oldest wisdoms in Greek thought was ''know thyself''. Know thyself. What does that mean?


Basically, Socrates' mantra (originally attributed to the divine Oracle of Delphi) is meant to evoke a simple idea: truth must be found within. In an era when moral structures were first truly being defined, Socrates argued that moral truth had to come from examining one's own sense of self and one's own mind. In psychology today, conscious reflection on your own feelings and thoughts is known as introspection.

Introspection and Plato

Introspection is a fundamental concept in psychology. The devotion to self-reflection dates back to Socrates, but we get an even better understanding of its importance from his student, Plato. Everything we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato, who also wrote out his own theories. Plato focused heavily on understanding how humans are capable of knowing things, and specifically how they are capable of knowing the truth. He reasoned that if moral, scientific, and philosophical truths existed then they must be knowable, but how are we to know them? His answer: reason and logic.


To Plato, human purpose was defined by the human ability to consciously rationalize thought. This was what allowed humans to find the philosophical truths of the universe. Of course, this meant that like Socrates, Plato saw introspection as one of the most important activities in human existence. Conscious examination of one's own thoughts and feelings was the foundation upon which all truths could be understood.

Associationism and Aristotle

Theories on the human mind did not stop with Plato. One of Plato's most distinguished students, Aristotle, also tackled the subject. Aristotle was more concretely focused than Plato, looking for definitive answers to his questions. Plato had proposed that the human mind worked partly because of various components associated with each other and produced thoughts and memories. Aristotle, looking for clearer explanations, took the study further. He developed a concrete theory on how elements of the mind interact, called associationism.


Associationism describes the belief that various components of the mind associate with each other to allow conscious memory. Aristotle described this through four methods, or laws. First is the law of contiguity, which claims that things close to each other in space or time will associate with each other in your memory. If you drank a soda then ate a sandwich, your mind is likely to associate those events. Second is the law of frequency, which states that things will become more strongly associated if they occur together more often. The more often you have a soda and sandwich, the more strongly your mind will associate those events.

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