Great Ideas of Psychology

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

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
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 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
    Comprehending 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

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  • Download 48 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 48 lectures on 8 DVDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Portraits & illustrations
  • Objectives
  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Daniel N. Robinson

About Your Professor

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Dr. Daniel N. Robinson (1937–2018) was a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he lectured annually since 1991. He was 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...
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Great Ideas of Psychology is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love my courses I love listening to the various courses at my on rate. It’s great!
Date published: 2020-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best lecturers I’ve heard. This was the first course by Dr Robinson that I had taken. Enjoyed it so much that I decided to get his Great Ideas of Philosophy when it came available at a lower price. I would recommend it for anyone who might wonder about his or her own interest in the subject.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superlative Dr. Robinson is easily one of the five greatest teachers I've encountered in life. That includes 5 years studying Philosophy and Zoology. Having listened to the CD set I'm getting the DVD so I can give a copy to one of my grandchildren who is heading off to college this year. Having read the negative reviews I find them baffling. That there are any negative reviews is baffling. Dr. Robinson uses a vocabulary that fits the subject matter and does not talk down the listener. If you do not read philosophy or psychology I recommend keeping a dictionary handy even though many of the terms can be deciphered by context. His other lectures are equally great.
Date published: 2019-06-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Excellent Summary Greeat backgound and related information.. Focus is more advanced high school level. Need more direct connections to current clinical practices. Presentation should be more energetic and engaging.
Date published: 2018-12-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Terrible! My fault or the professor's? I have purchased over a hundred courses from The Great Courses (and listened to over 60! :) and have only ever returned two. This will be the third. Perhaps the fault is mine rather than Professor Robinson's in that I didn't sufficiently read the full description or the reviews. But to be fair, the description would still have led me astray, to wit, "[H]e brings clarity, coherence, and comprehensiveness to this stimulating treatment of psychological speculation, debate, and investigation through the ages". This course brought no clarity, less coherence, and even less comprehensiveness to the subject of "psychology", that is, the science of human behavior. Professor Robinson is clearly a great scholar of philosophy, and it appears he wanted to teach a course on the history of philosophy as it impinges (only occasionally) on the field of psychology. Consider some examples. Lecture 1 - Defining the subject - In a course titled "The Great Ideas of Psychology" one would have expected "the subject" to be psychology. Instead, this lecture focuses of the philosophical definition of "science". Professor Robinson does eventually get to the question of whether a science of human behavior or a science of the mind can even be a science. But this is purely a philosophical inquiry. He provides no definition of psychology that I could perceive. Lecture 2 - Ancient Foundations - Greek philosophers and physicians - the website description of this lecture is as follows: "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." All right. Fair enough. An honest description of the topic. Note: no actual discussion of psychology. Lecture 3 - Minds possessed - Witchery and the Search for Explanations - This is a lecture on the history of the persecution (and prosecution) of witchcraft. Interesting, no doubt, but no discussion of psychology. (Anyone reading the course overview and seeing this lecture title would hope for a discussion of the psychological theories as to what animated the underlying behavior: both of the prosecutors and the victims. One would be disappointed....) I could go on - lecture by lecture. Of the 48 lectures, 48 are devoted to philosophy, history, jurisprudential theory (on which Professor Robinson is, to my mind, no expert) occasional forays into the biological sciences, but no discussion of physiology. - I exaggerate, but only a little. I'd like to quote the course objectives from the guidebook: Upon completion of this course, you should be able to: 1. Identify the broad historical and conceptual foundations of psychology from its origins in classical philosophy to the present; 2. Identify the major research methods and findings that characterize contemporary psychology; 3. Explain the principal claims and the main points of contention between and among the major schools and systems of psychology, including the behavioristic, the psychoanalytic, the neurocognitive, and social constructionist; 4. Explain the dependence of these issues on the larger framework bequeathed by the history of ideas. With respect to number 1 - there was, to the best of my knowledge, no discussion of the "conceptual foundations" of psychology. History aplenty, but mostly philosophy, no psychology. Number 2 gets touched on, in that he does discuss several specific studies and goes into detail about their methodology. But everything in this arena is anecdotal. There is no effort to offer any structured overview or discussion of research methods per se or the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches or methods. Number 4 Professor Robinson knocks out of the park. If I'd wanted a history of ideas, there is lots of that here. I expected the entire course to focus on number 3 - the major schools and systems of psychology. I can say that despite listening to the entire course (to my eternal regret) and paying close attention, I can not "explain the principal claims and the main points of contention between and among the major schools and systems of psychology". I don't even know what they are! We do get some discussion of behaviorism (largely historical rather than theoretical) and psychoanalysis (anecdotal rather than theoretical or systematic). To the best of my knowledge, there was no discussion of the neurocognitive or social constructionists schools. They are certainly not labeled as such during any discussion and are not presented as "schools" or "systems" of psychology. Ultimately, this is the greatest failure of this course. There is no structured presentation of the schools or systems of psychology. Had there been, this course might have been interesting. Without it, this is a rambling discourse, largely focussed on the history and philosophy of human ethical guidance. But it is not a course on phycology. I do not have any real background in psychology, but I had hoped to get some from this course. I am completely disappointed. Perhaps some of the good reviews come from those who love philosophy, and they were happy to get another course on the history of philosophy. I cannot account myself among them.
Date published: 2018-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating For me, Professor Robinson is one of the best lecturers I have ever come across. I find his discourse and diversions fascinating; I shall buy every course you have with him. He could even read the Manhattan telephone directory and make it interesting. My interest is not in becoming a psychologist, and perhaps if it were, I should feel as do some of your less-than-favorable reviewers. But for someone interested in knowledge--with diversions to the mechanics of sight and hearing; origins of language, artificial intelligence, and the history of the insanity defense--these lecturers are tops. Yes, I say" he has some verbal ticks, "don't you see?" But then who doesn't? Highly recommended for the seeker of knowledge from an erudite lecturer with both deep and broad knowledge.
Date published: 2017-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I just finishing watching the course, "The Great Ideas of Psychology" yesterday. I was sort of confused by the first few chapters which seemed to be more like a philosophy course. Over the last few years, I have mail ordered several other courses on mathematics, astronomy, biology, Latin, chess, puzzles, photography, etc. I first learned about the ideas of psychology when I took an introductory course attending S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook on Long Island in the autumn of 1977 where I learned all the basic concepts, but I only received a grade of B in the course. I found this DVD course very fascinating in that it went into a lot more detail about the subject. I have found several of the mathematics courses very fascinating in that they reveal a lot of interesting aspects of number theory like concepts involving prime and irrational numbers that I never knew before. I have read a lot of nonfiction books and I have found these courses to include a lot more information than I could find from any book.
Date published: 2017-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr Daniel Robinson Dr Robinson has inspired me to go back to school for a second degree in a field that I am continually becoming more and more passionate about. I also recommend his other course "Great Ideas of philosophy"
Date published: 2016-01-22
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