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Great Ideas of Psychology

Great Ideas of Psychology

Professor Daniel N. Robinson Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Course No.  660
Course No.  660
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

If you've ever wanted to delve more deeply into the mysteries of human emotion, perception, and cognition, and of why we do what we do, this course offers a superb place to start. As you hear these lectures, you hear the entire history of psychology unfold. And you learn that the subject most of us today associate with names like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and B. F. Skinner really began thousands of years earlier.

In the hands of Professor Daniel N. Robinson, this course roams far and wide, encompassing ideas, speculations, and point-blank moral questions that might just dismantle and rebuild everything you once thought you knew about psychology.

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If you've ever wanted to delve more deeply into the mysteries of human emotion, perception, and cognition, and of why we do what we do, this course offers a superb place to start. As you hear these lectures, you hear the entire history of psychology unfold. And you learn that the subject most of us today associate with names like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and B. F. Skinner really began thousands of years earlier.

In the hands of Professor Daniel N. Robinson, this course roams far and wide, encompassing ideas, speculations, and point-blank moral questions that might just dismantle and rebuild everything you once thought you knew about psychology.

Witness the Debate over Psychology's Very Existence

In fact, you not only learn what psychology is, but even if it is, as Professor Robinson discusses the constantly shifting debate over the nature of psychology itself.

You see one school of thought after another enter the fray, trying to determine how this strange thing called the human "mind" is to be understood, studied, and treated:

  • Are we an entity that simply perceives an external world and piles one experience upon another in order to learn?
  • Could such a process even happen without an intervening rationality to make sense of it all?
  • Or is "mind" itself merely an unobservable illusion, leaving the science of psychology with little more to study than the actual physical realities of body and brain?

It's a debate that has raged for centuries, and to take this course is to see the question and its implications with a new clarity.

A Multidisciplinary Teacher of Exceptional Skills

Originally trained as a neuropsychologist, Professor Robinson's decades of lecturing and distinguished scholarship have also established him as an authority in the fields of philosophical psychology, the history of psychology, and the junction of psychology and law.

So it is no surprise that he brings clarity, coherence, and comprehensiveness to this stimulating treatment of psychological speculation, debate, and investigation through the ages.

We think you'll agree that he has crafted a fascinating and immensely thought-provoking course—one that is philosophically well-grounded, scientifically informative, and engagingly presented by a true master of the teaching art.

It is a course, in short, for the "seeker" in you, designed to satisfy your need to know, your willingness to self-examine, and your restless curiosity about the world around you.

In fact, the array of ideas, cases, and issues you encounter is so remarkable, embracing so diverse a spectrum of thinkers and subjects, that you might find it hard to believe you're taking just a "psychology" course.

Some of What You Will Learn

Lecture by lecture, Professor Robinson navigates from one subject to the next, and you follow along as he recreates a Platonic dialogue; explains brain physiology; or explores the intricacies of middle ear construction, the psychological underpinnings of the Salem witch trials, and the history of the insanity defense.

Among other things, you learn:

  • how a brilliant young scientist's temporary blindness led to pioneering research in sensory psychology
  • why some survivors of hydrocephaly can function normally despite having lost as much as two-fifths of their brain mass
  • what Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem suggests about claims for the existence of Artificial Intelligence
  • how the once-prestigious, now-derided "sciences" of phrenology and mesmerism contributed to psychological knowledge
  • why David Hume held that causality itself is essentially a psychological phenomenon, and what his fellow philosopher and Scotsman Thomas Reid argued in response
  • what happened when a Stanford psychologist and his students decided to study "being sane in insane places" by getting themselves committed to a mental institution
  • why Aristotle believed that a virtuous civic life is the prior condition of individual psychic flourishing
  • how the brain is able to "rewire" itself to compensate for particular traumas at an early age
  • if high heritability determines how much the environment influences the value of a trait.

Three Powerful Traditions

Professor Robinson explains how the different traditions of psychology and their rich intellectual histories relate to the "great debate of the ages" about being, knowledge, freedom, and the sources of and standards for human conduct.

Thus you learn how the three great intellectual traditions of materialism, empiricism, and rationalism—each one an answer to the basic questions of being and knowledge—powerfully influence the theory and practice of psychology to this day.

Along the way, you'll meet Freud, Skinner, Jung, Watson, Piaget, Erikson, and other giants.

But you also learn why Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Kant must also be counted among the founders of psychology.

An Exceptional Range of Brilliant Thinkers

And that's only a small sampling of the exceptional range of brilliant thinkers whose ideas have contributed to the subject of this course.

You encounter these great minds as you:

  • study the contributions made to the understanding of human knowledge, volition, and the mind-body problem by great philosophers and scientists, including Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and Mill
  • probe the sources of our capacities for altruism, learning, language, conformity, and aggression
  • share correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, David Hume and Thomas Reid, and Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung
  • think through a thought experiment on human freedom
  • review the insights gleaned from famous neurological cases such as that of "Broca's brain"
  • sail to the Galapagos Islands with Darwin
  • ponder the insights and perplexities of psychoanalysis with Freud
  • ponder the provocative discussion of the moral implications of a true Artificial Intelligence—a thinking computer—and whether such a machine would have "rights," including the right not to be turned off; i.e., the right to life.

As Professor Robinson remarks at the end of that particular lecture, "If you don't have at least one sleepless night over these possibilities, then I've been less than clear."

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    Defining the Subject
    Is psychology really science at all? A look at the controversy that has engulfed psychology for centuries. x
  • 2
    Ancient Foundations—Greek Philosophers and Physicians
    The ancient philosophers—in wrestling with the problems of knowledge, good and evil, governance, and how mankind should live—lay the foundations for the discipline of psychology. x
  • 3
    Minds Possessed—Witchery and the Search for Explanations
    A look at how abnormal conduct—whether considered insanity or the act of a "witch"—has attracted society's special attention, sometimes with horrifying consequences. x
  • 4
    The Emergence of Modern Science—Locke's “Newtonian” Theory of Mind
    A new emphasis on experimental investigation produces great achievements in natural science and technology, as well as insistent questions about whether the same methods can explain the workings of the mind and society. x
  • 5
    Three Enduring “Isms”—Empiricism, Rationalism, Materialism
    An examination of the great debate over how knowledge and belief come to be and what this means for the definition of psychology. x
  • 6
    Sensation and Perception
    An introduction to the methods by which sensation and perception are investigated and measure, including an introduction to the science and psychophysics. x
  • 7
    The Visual Process
    One of the more scientific sides of experimental psychology is revealed in this look at the discipline's most studied and best known system—a true miracle of organization and function. x
  • 8
    A look at another of the body's most acute senses—and the threats posed to this complex and delicate system by the constant auditory assault of 20th-century industrial and urban life. x
  • 9
    Signal-Detection Theory
    The more difficult a discrimination or detection task is, the harder it is to measure. A look at how signal-detection theory is providing answers, especially in the particularly difficult area of measuring perception. x
  • 10
    Perceptual Constancies and Illusions
    Can we really trust our senses? A surprising look at how knowledge and perception work together. x
  • 11
    Learning and Memory: Associationism—Aristotle to Ebbinghaus
    A first look at the fascinating area of memory and how it works, including an introduction to the use of "mnemonics." x
  • 12
    Pavlov and the Conditioned Reflex
    The famous "salivating dog" experiments were a harbinger of the behaviorist era to come but went well beyond what we learned about in school. x
  • 13
    Watson and American Behaviorism
    An impatient crusader casts his vote for a pragmatic and scientific psychology confined to observable behavior. x
  • 14
    B.F. Skinner and Modern Behaviorism
    A first look at one of the most influential and controversial psychologists of our time and his theory of conditioning human response. x
  • 15
    B.F. Skinner and the Engineering of Society
    Skinner's theories as the model for completely changing child-rearing, education, behavior, and ultimately, society itself. x
  • 16
    Skinner publishes his theory of language and the resulting critique, led by the then-unknown Noam Chomsky, points the way toward a more "cognitive" interpretation of psychology. x
  • 17
    The Integration of Experience
    For most developed species, survival requires more than passive absorption of disconnected stimuli. An examination of how experience is organized to help creatures actually live. x
  • 18
    Perception and Attention
    If perception weren't selective, we would drown in an unending flood of stimuli. A look at how we filter the input from the outside world down to what is important. x
  • 19
    Cognitive "Maps," "Insight," and Animal Minds
    Is man the only animal that can think? A fascinating glimpse of both sides of the argument over anthropomorphic explanations suggest a surprising answer. x
  • 20
    Memory Revisited—Mnemonics and Context
    A return to the subject of memory for a deeper discussion of how we process, store, and recover experience, including the problem of "eyewitness" testimony and reconstructed memories. x
  • 21
    Piaget's Stage Theory of Cognitive Development
    A search for an explanation of how our mental powers are formed leads to the influential work of Jean Piaget and his theories of cognitive development in children. x
  • 22
    The Development of Moral Reasoning
    Is moral development different from cognitive development as a whole? An examination of what we know about how moral reasoning evolves. x
  • 23
    Knowledge, Thinking, and Understanding
    How we solve problems—how we actually function in our daily lives—including the essential psychological short-cut that makes the process possible. x
  • 24
    Comprehanding the World of Experience—Cognition Summarized
    A summary of the finding that laid the foundation for the "cognitive revolution's" alternative to the empiricistic psychologies favored by the behaviorist school. x
  • 25
    Psychobiology—Nineteenth-Century Foundations
    What is the relationship between physical and mental processes? A look at how researches have answered the question, including the strange system of phrenology and its role in the foundation of modern "brain science." x
  • 26
    Language and the Brain
    Injuries to the brain—and resulting functional deficits—have taught us a great deal about brain function and organization, especially regarding the way language is processed. x
  • 27
    Rationality, Problem-Solving, and Brain Function
    A continuing examination of the workings of the brain, including the organ's remarkable ability to compensate for damage early in development. x
  • 28
    The "Emotional" Brain—The Limbic System
    Pleasure. Pain. Motivation. Rage. Fear. What we know about the fascinating part of the brain associated with these and other emotional states. x
  • 29
    Violence and the Brain
    Is criminality really a pathology better understood in scientific than in moral terms? Is insanity truly a defense? x
  • 30
    Psychopathology—The Medical Model
    Is all psychopathology, all "mental" illness, ultimately the consequence of a medical or biological disturbance? A look at this viewpoint and the criticisms it has faced. x
  • 31
    Artificial Intelligence and the Neurocognitive Revolution
    Yes, computer programs can now contend with world-class chess players—to a point. But can computers be made to actually think? A beginning discussion of the pros and cons, along with the staggering ethical implications. x
  • 32
    Is Artificial Intelligence "Intelligent"?
    Do the proponents of artificial intelligence understand what "intelligence" really is? Many say no. x
  • 33
    What Makes an Event "Social"?
    Why a purely scientific examination of events involving people is impossible—and how researches have developed the kind of model necessary to interpret the meaning of these social events. x
  • 34
    Socialization—Darwin and the "Natural History" Method
    How we examine a species within its own natural context, accounting for its defining features by matching these with the conditions faced by members of the species. x
  • 35
    Freud's Debt to Darwin
    Darwin's works are among the most "well-worked-over" in Freud's restored London library. This lecture explores the influence of the world's most famous naturalist on its most famous psychiatrist. x
  • 36
    Freud, Breuer, and the Theory of Repression
    Hysterical symptoms are unlike those produced by genuine neurological disorders. This lecture discusses the discovery of the "talking cure" and how it led to Freud and Breuer's theory of repression. x
  • 37
    Freud's Theory of Psychosexual Development
    Freud's explanation of psychosexual development as the individual's progression from infantile stages of sexual gratification—such as thumb-sucking—to adult heterosexual activity. x
  • 38
    Critiques of Freudian Theory
    Freud believed that psychodynamic processes are universal and largely independent of culture and society, but his biological interpretation has been rejected in favor of socially and culturally oriented theories. x
  • 39
    What Is "Personality"?
    The question has still not been answered definitively and has furnished the grist for many since-refuted theories. This lecture examines the debate. x
  • 40
    Obedience and Conformity
    Several classic experiments have shown the powerful influence of social context on conduct and have offered a strong challenge to both the dominant theories of personality. x
  • 41
    Why do some people act heroically? Once again, social context proves critical in determining human behavior, though a highly developed self-perception can help a person rise above the common in unlikely circumstances. x
  • 42
    Prejudice and Self-Deception
    Acts of prejudice call for a reinterpretation of context and even a reinterpretation of self to justify the action. An exploration of the darker side of human behavior. x
  • 43
    On Being Sane in Insane Places
    What is sanity? What is insanity? As a chilling study demonstrates, the answers often depend on who is controlling the labels. x
  • 44
    The history of I.Q. and other so-called "intelligence" tests offer valuable lessons in what is and is not "predictable." x
  • 45
    Personality Traits and the Problem of Assessment
    Is there really a test that can reveal the "underlying personality" of an individual? A look at the fundamental problem of devising such a measuring stick. x
  • 46
    Genetic Psychology and "The Bell Curve"
    The issue of whether a given trait is rooted in genetics or the environment—long a controversial issues in the public arena—is when predicting the potential of an individual. x
  • 47
    Psychological and Biological Determinism
    An exploration of the notion of determinism reveals it to be both counterintuitive and, in some respects, self-refuting. x
  • 48
    Civic Development—Psychology, the Person, and the Polis
    In many ways, the fullest and most systematic theories of psychology are still those provided by Aristotle. An exploration of how rational creatures can flourish when the biological, social, and political are truly integrated. x

Lecture Titles

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Daniel N. Robinson
Ph.D. Daniel N. Robinson
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University

Dr. Daniel N. Robinson is a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and he also held positions at Amherst College and at Princeton University.

Professor Robinson earned his Ph.D. in Neuropsychology from City University of New York.

He is past president of two divisions of the American Psychological Association: the Division of History of Psychology, from which he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Division of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, from which he received the Distinguished Contribution Award.

Professor Robinson is author or editor of more than 40 books, including Wild Beasts & Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, An Intellectual History of Psychology, The Mind: An Oxford Reader, and Aristotle’s Psychology. He is former editor of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Dr. Robinson has also published widely on the constitutional history of the U.S. and its philosophical foundations, with original research appearing in the International Journal of Constitutional Law and The American Journal of Jurisprudence. He is coeditor of The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework (London: Continuum, 2012).

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Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 42 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Thank god for the return policy I couldn't get past the third disc before calling customer service. The material itself is of interest to me, but unfortunately professor Robinson's lecture style is too tedious to bear on a morning commute. He is obviously quite learned, but his lectures serve more to demonstrate the breath of his knowledge than to actually convey any new information to the listener. May 23, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best lecturer I have encountered Prof Robinson is best lecturer I have encountered (and I was on the Harvard faculty for 9 years). He has a wonderfully engaging stryle and a wry sense of humor that keeps the listener tuned in at all times December 21, 2012
Rated 3 out of 5 by Psychology is still in the dark ages The best value of this course is the wide variety of expertise show by the presenter and the fact that it shows that psychology is still in the dark ages even though it considers itself to be a science. I got my B.A. in psychology in 1968 and everything was behaviorism. I wanted to know how to model successful behavior and how the brain/mind works. I got my Ph.D. in biological psychology hoping to find the answers and still didn't. NLP did a much better job. And this course doesn't even go into such critical things as how your beliefs are filters to reality or ideas such as the law of attraction. In 1968 psychology wanted to be a science and its model was Newtonian physics. That had been obsolete for many years, but there are many aspects of quantum physics that model how psychology should really be. But don't expect that in this course. However, the course is absolutely great in illustrating where psychology is today. So if that's what you want, I recommend it. April 21, 2012
Rated 4 out of 5 by A very good sweep of a vast subject I am a fan of Professor Robinson and loved his philosophy course. This course is not as good but it is still highly worthwhile for anyone seeking to put the subject of psychology into its historic and academic context. The Professor's strength in philosophy shines through as he offers analysis into the way the different schools of psychology approach their subject area and methodology. It is startling to see for example the sway that the behaviourist school had for much of the twentieth century reduces man to mere machine and a stimulus-response one at that! I welcome further courses on specific aspects of psychology ie altruism, crime and personality etc March 19, 2012
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