The History of Psychology in Serbia


  • Serbian Language
  • English (UK)

Prof. Ivan Jerković, PhD

University of Novi Sad 

Faculty of Philosophy

Department for Psychology


There are several approaches to writing about the history of psychology. The history of psychology may be examined as the history of ideas of psychological phenomena addressed also nowadays by psychology and their development may be shown. On the other hand, we can deal with the phenomena that used to be in the focus of interest once, while they are considered obsolete in terms of program today (e.g. vivisection of conscience), historically outdated (e.g. drapetomania), constitute outdated scientific delusions (phrenology, masturbation insanity), ideas that are in a way incorporated in other psychological concepts nowadays (intuition as subliminal perception) or belong to another science (e.g. pellagra psychosis). Psychology can also be approached as a discipline that found its position in the academic community and is being considered a scientific and educational discipline. The third approach relates to the professional profiling of psychology, acclaiming the profession of psychologist and setting up formal conditions and procedures for someone to acquire the professional title in question. All these three approaches to the history of psychology can be justified respectively, although a historical throwback to each of them does not go far enough in the past. There is, obviously, also an approach to the history of psychology through biographies of important authors in the subject matter. This approach requires more space and authors always risk omitting an important name or not paying enough attention to a renowned author with merits. Although we will mention some names significant for the history of psychology in our country, in this text we will not be listing well-known psychologists and analyzing their work, despite mentioning several names but without deliberate determination of their hierarchy in the development of our psychology, their scientific importance or any particular contribution to science. 

Dealing with psychological phenomena has the longest historical timeline and it practically goes back to the dawn of civilization and appears in first written traces on humans, questioning themselves and the world around. All of this occurred while there was still not a single trace of psychology as educational discipline and in particular as profession. We could say that this part of the past is marked with myths, religion and early philosophical attempts to grasp the world (Jovanović, 2012). One should emphasize even today psychological examinations do not exclusively belong to the domain of psychology; they are also found in the scope of interest of philosophy, physics, neuroscience, genetics, theology etc. In a certain sense, everyday life incites people to investigate motives and actions of other people, the efficiency of learning, partner relations, pedagogical issues, what is “normal”, etc. Whilst subjects of other contemporary topics are discussed mostly when experts in a particular field gather, psychological topics are discussed every day, over a coffee with a friend, with wife, with child after a parent/teacher meeting in school, after different losses, death, war suffering or romantic breakups. One need not be an expert to say something about this topic or have their own opinion. People have nothing to say about the polymerization method nor need to, just like they do not need to say anything about the production of cement or wavelengths of radio programs. The experience that most people have about these phenomena is non-existent, hence there is no need to reflect on them. Every day each human has first-hand experience in what psychology studies and often asks questions about the related things: how to understand people, how to predict someone's behavior, how to control one's feelings, what factors influence these phenomena, how to control oneself but also others, how to achieve the desired outcomes and similar. Unlike these “eternal” topics to reflect upon, psychology is an educational discipline with a considerably shorter tradition, while the one of psychology seen as a profession is the shortest. We will try to provide a brief overview of the development for each of these aspects of psychology. 

Speaking of the psyche, the soul occupied the central position for both Christian and pre-Christian thinkers, as well as its manifest forms, actions, ways of communication with the world. In that animist time, the soul acted and was in a way connected to the world; with the aid of rituals, it could contribute to its own well-being, it was found in humans as well as in animals. At times, the soul was perceived as being opposed to the body or it was valued as something sacred (Mueller, 2005). The soul is rarely encountered in modern psychological terminology, what used to be explained as the activity of the soul is nowadays operationalized through a variety of different concepts (perception, motives, personality etc.). While sophists were the first to stress the human subjectivity, the institutionalized Christianity brought to the fore the concept of submission to the Creator, an act which will, at the end of the times, lead to salvation. The rationalism of the Antique was in recession in front of the Christianity and self-observation and prayer substituted for observation and critical analysis (Mueller, 2005). Psychological topics of that period were found in practical instructions on the proper conduct of the authorities towards the church, of the subjects towards the authorities, parents towards children etc. In our culture, this tradition is properly illustrated by the Code of Tsar Dušan or different concepts of child in Serbian culture (Trebješanin, 1991). The renaissance brought a new interest for antique rationalism and the birth of modern world, as defined in the Western culture. In his doctrine, Descartes shrank the Man in his totality that became the subject of studies (Mueller, 2005). However, that concept went slowly, hand in hand with the “witch hunt” (Szasz, 1982), children were considered different than adults in qualitative sense, they were exposed to different distresses and were neglected (Aries, 1989). It was not before the 18th century that the rational approach finally tipped the scales; so did also the care for human’s welfare and declarative striving of its improvement both through individual strivings and through the care provided by the state. Essential for the history of psychology was the growing expansion of schooling and educational networks, constituting a new hope for a better world (Kostić, 1978). The presence of that need can be seen from the statistical data on literacy in Serbia for the year 1866, showing that only 4.18% of the population was literate, in rural areas not more than 1.63% (Isić, 2003).  

This brings us to the part of the psychology story about its presence in the teaching curricula. Practically, no mass education existed before the General School Regulation (Allgemeine Schulordnung) promulgated by Maria Theresia. Schools were attended by rare talented individuals, church school students formed for the needs of administration in clerical church authorities, noblemen with financial pre-requisites for such an enterprise, and generally – no one else. As remarkably illustrated by Jakov Ignjatović in his books written in the spirit of realism, the feudal era was characterized by limited mobility of the population, almost all needs could be satisfied within a small area, and everything one needed to know could be learnt through “incidental education“, in the form of apprenticeship. Except for craftsman skills, there were very few professions requiring formal education: physician, lawyer, priest, the list being certainly not too long, and these professions had a serious competition by non-qualified laypersons. The aforementioned Regulation (enacted in 1774) prescribed that all children of appropriate age were obliged to attend school. In the practice of the Austrian Empire of that time (later Austro-Hungarian Empire), this meant that school was obligatory (nowadays, this would be interpreted as a right) for all children regardless of their nation, class, status, sex, language or religion. It was a progressive and revolutionary idea for that period, based on the hopes of the enlightenment that educated subjects would understand better the nature of the social order and would accept it with comprehension (Kostić, 1978). Education was separated from church by the regulation, it became a task of the state and was performed in national languages. This abrupt growth in number of students lead to a considerable need for trained teachers, so that in parallel with the establishment of schools the issue of qualified teaching staff was solved. At first, these were trimestral courses (so-called “normal courses”) for training the teaching staff in emerging schools. Three names important for the history of Serbian education and Serbian psychology are worth mentioning – first pioneers in modern Serbian education – Avram Mrazović, Stefan Vujanovski and Todor Janković Mirijevski. All the three were trained in Vienna by the most important figure in education of the time – Felbieger (Kostić, 1978). Avram Mrazović picked Sombor, his birth town, to be his base, and launched over there the so-called “normal course” for future teachers. This activity would result in the foundation of the Teachers' School in Sombor, followed by the Academy of Pedagogy, the subsequent Teacher Training Faculty and ultimately the Pedagogical Faculty. Accordingly, we can say that the systematic education of Serbian population has been organized by the state for 237 years now, given that the first training for teachers was organized in Sombor in 1778 (the remaining two were in Osijek and Timisoara). The first preserved reports on conducting a “normal course” dates back in 1787/1788 and it also provides information about the structure of subjects: methodology, mother tongue (called „Illyrian“ at that time), penmanship and grammar, German language and mathematics. The curriculum of the Teachers' School in Sombor from 1855/1856 shows that there was no psychology among the subjects. Psychology is encountered for the first time in the school curriculum for 1874/1875 under the name Psychology and Logics, but it was taught independently from Logics in a separate semester (Makarić, 1978). This certainly does not mean that psychology was not spoken of in schools even earlier, but it was only about its status among other school subjects. 

Educated Serbs from the Austrian Empire, actually from the territories belonging to Hungary (mostly covering the territory of Vojvodina) were a significant momentum for the development of education and schooling system in Serbia in the 19th century. There are detailed accounts of this in the form of feuilletons written by the chronicler of psychology and expert in its history, Mihajlo Roter, who published a series of texts in the „Psihološke novine“ (“Psychological Newspaper”), the journal of the Serbian Psychological Society at the end of seventies and the beginning of the eighties of the 20th century. Although in the 19th century the Serbian nation lived in different territories and countries, they were linked through education. Such is the example of one of the students of Avram Mrazović in Sombor, Ivan Jugović (born as Jovan Savić), who was the successor of Dositej Obradović as Serbian minister of education at the beginning of the 19th century. After the Lyceum in Kragujevac was established in 1838, as the precursor of the „Velika škola“ (Grande École, higher education establishment), Philosophy with Logics and Psychology was taught by Konstantin Ranković, Novi Sad native who finished the studies of philosophy in Szeged and law in Budapest. Besides psychology, he also taught physics, mathematics and German. In the meanwhile, the Lyceum moved to Belgrade (1841) and evolved into a higher education establishment (Grande École), and Milan Kujundžić succeeded Konstantin Branković. He taught esthetics, pedagogy, history of philosophy and psychology. His educational background was philosophy and this marked his approach to psychological topics. Alimpije Vasiljević started teaching philosophy and psychology at the Grande École after finishing philosophy and theology. He wrote the first psychology textbook for the needs of higher education. He was a proponent of positivist trends and valued Wundt's experimental approach. In this education establishment, Vasiljević was succeeded by Ljubomir Nedić, although he was better known and appreciated as translator and literary critic. His PhD thesis was mentored by Wundt in logics. Despite not being a psychologist in his education records, like in the case of his predecessors (although he was closer to it compared to all of them), before Ljubomir Nedić there was no decisive commitment to new trends in psychology such as experimental psychology (Todorović, 2002). In 1899 he was replaced as teacher by famous Branislav Petronijević, who will have the honor to be the first psychology teacher after the Grande École in Belgrade became the University in 1905. He was a schooled philosopher but also knew very well psychology and practiced it as an experimental science (Đorđević, 1963). At that time, the criticism of structuralist psychology of Wundt and Titchener had already advanced, and functionalism as a viewpoint in psychology sought new paths to research psychological phenomena and the application of research results in everyday life (Pečjak, 1984). In this context, the position of metaphysical orientation limited Petronijević's ability to adapt to new trends. In spite of that, he showed respect to psychological research of his time, which he knew well, and he played a key role in the establishment of the first studies of psychology at the University of Belgrade in 1927 (Knežević and Vojvodić, 1963).  

Establishing a university is always an opportunity for each field to take a place among academic disciplines; it was no different in the case of psychology. At that time, a psychologist was still seen as a researcher, potentially an experimenter, and not as a professional, competent for a particular activity. Even the perception of a psychologist as a scientific experimenter was insufficiently acclaimed. This is supported by unsuccessful attempts of Paja Radosavljević, first Serbian doctor of psychology, to become a professor at the Belgrade University at the time of its establishment (Đurić, 1998). He came from the village of Obrež in Srem, and after finishing the general-program secondary school in Zemun (called “realka”), he enrolled in the Teachers' School in Sombor. He finished the second and the third year in the town of Pakrac, and completed his teacher training in Osijek. Since education of teachers did not leave possibilities to enter many universities, Paja Radosavljević had to enroll at the University of Jena, where he stayed one year, and after two years of break he spent working as a teacher in Mostar, he moved to Zurich in 1902 and continued his education at the Zurich University. He stayed there by the time he defended his doctoral thesis in the mentorship of prof. Ernest Meumann, famous at that time. Paja Radosavljević made his research titled „Time Progression of Forgetting” (“Napredovanje zaboravljanja sa vremenom”), where he examined some of the Ebinghaus's findings. The fact that we consider Paja Radosavljević to be our first psychologist can be concluded primarily from the title and the content of his dissertation, which demonstrates evidently that Paja Radosaveljvić was the first Serbian psychologist with a PhD degree, regardless of the fact that the vocation of psychologist did not exist in the same connotation as  today. Sometimes his name is mentioned in the history of pedagogy as well, mostly due to the fact that he dealt with psychological bases of teaching (Jerković, 2009). After obtaining his PhD degree, he was hired by the Sombor Teachers’ School, where he had already spent one year as studying. He did not stay long that time either; as a national romanticist and scientific innovation enthusiast he was disliked both by school and church authorities and school colleagues so he soon quit, trying to make his long cherished desire come true – to study at the Faculty of Pedagogy of the New York University and dedicate himself to scientific research. He became doctor for the second time at the New York University in 1908 (Iskruljev, 1971). The same year, Paja Radosavljević returned to the country and held a lecture at the Serbian Society for Child Psychology in Belgrade, published by the participants as notes titled “New Pedagogic Ideals in the Light of Science” (“Novi vaspitni ideali u svetlosti nauke”). Despite the lack of academic staff at the newly founded Belgrade University, Paja Radosaevljević was not offered to become a professor, although he had made his way and became renowned among the professional and academic public of the time. Some consider that it was due to the lack of funds in the Ministry of Education’s budget, and some argue that ignoring Paja Radosavljević had to do with a persisting philosophical, speculative and Herbart-like tradition (Hilgenheger, 1993) in our psychology and education at the beginning of the 20th century, all of which resulted in excluding Paja Radosavljević from the interest of school authorities of that time, for being a vehement critic of such viewpoints despite having two PhD theses. It is also thought that critical texts published by Paja Radosavljević about the reviews and research of Branislav Petronijević and Jovan Cvijić influenced irreversibly these two influential teachers of the Belgrade University to “forget” about him (Iskruljev, 1971). Changes in education are always followed by resistance (Spevak, 2001), because neither education nor science itself are just rational, logical products of thinkers, deprived of emotions and interests (Sinđelić, 2005). Paja Radosavljević died and was buried in the USA. 

Psychology at the Belgrade University was taught similarly as it was the case at the Grande École until a separate teaching department for psychology was founded (the so-called group XXVI) in 1927 (Roter, 1963). Borislav Stevanović came back with his PhD dissertation (in 1926) from the London University and became in 1928 the chief of the Seminar for experimental psychology. Prof. Stevanović achieved a significant merit in Serbian psychology with his work in the standardization of the Binet-Simon scale in our population and introduced our psychology in global trends of that period. The existence of a separate department for psychology contributed to an expansion in content and even more in staff; it also opened the door to hiring assistants. The first assistant at the psychology study group was Živorad Vasić. Psychology students were not numerous until the World War II and only six graduates were recorded in that period. They were actually the first professional psychologists in our country, trained in accordance with the curriculum designated specifically for psychology. The first psychologists in our country were: Miroslava Šaponjić, Živorad Vasić, Miloje Savić, Vasilije Milojević, Radmila Antić and Miloš Jovičić. The first PhD dissertations in psychology were also presented at that time. Slobodan Pavlović's PhD thesis was titled “Prilog psihološkom proučavanju školske mladeži“ (Psychological study of the school youth, 1932), and Radmilo Vučić's PhD was “Obrazovanje volje” (The formation of will, 1939). After World War II, the study of psychology was briefly disrupted given the fact that psychology, being an idealist science, was to a certain extent considered a suspicious area in the new countries of the communist block (Mitrović, 2003). However, the studies were reinstituted shortly afterwards and a new generation of students enrolled already in 1951. Ever since, the psychology studies at the Belgrade University have seen a rapid development and have grown to become one of the curricula with highest demand in Serbia.

For a long time in Yugoslavia, it was possible to study psychology only in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana (Rot, 1984). After Belgrade, the first Serbian university to have founded the psychology studies was Niš – in 1971. During the first year, this group was dual and included psychology and pedagogy, but starting from the following year, at the students' initiative and the initiative of the Serbian Psychological Society only psychology was kept. Lecturers usually came from Belgrade. At some point, this study group was cancelled (1987-1997) and once reopened, it relied, unlike previously, mostly on its own teaching staff, who had acquired in the meanwhile the professional experience and academic titles. The psychology studies were introduced in Novi Sad in the school year 1982/1983 and at the State University in Novi Pazar also in 2006. At this moment, it is possible to study psychology at five state-owned and four private faculties in our countries. The curricula are largely similar at all the faculties in the country and it could not be said that any of them is specialized for any particular field of psychology, probably dictated by the fact that graduates could find a job in rather heterogeneous fields.

The growing number of psychology students lead to profiling within the profession itself (Rot, 1978). Psychology was not considered an acclaimed auxiliary profession until World War II (Berger, 2007) and it was only that it achieved success in massive selections of candidates for the needs of the war, after the USA entered the war against the Axis powers, that it eventually proved the success of its concepts and procedures and offered skills in high demand at the market. It is true that the process of acclamation lasted a certain time, and one can say that it started after Binet successfully demonstrated the practical use of psychological concepts and instrumentaria in resolving concrete problems. After Binet's successful resolution of the problem of testing and selection of children that were not capable of following the standard school curriculum, psychology recommended itself to the public and the academic community as a science based, practice oriented and reliable activity, which will help resolve diverse practical problems. Since then the perception of psychologist as a separate vocation has grown stronger, as a science based and practically oriented to the beneficiaries of its services, so that the education of such experts started expanding and they acquired a reputation of consultants in different life circumstances. The analysis of consciousness onto indivisible components, the way that Titchener conceived, promoted and defended psychology, became part of the past already in the first half of the 20th century. Afterwards, the affirmation of psychoanalysis and behaviorism referred to public to reflect on the activity of experience and personal history on very heterogeneous phenomena in psychological life, ranging from the mechanisms of developing and maintaining psychopathological symptoms to the explanation of phenomena of identification with authority in the family and effective upbringing procedures. All this created the foundations for emerging needs for psychologists in education, clinical psychology, industrial psychology, marketing, social protection, public opinion polls, resolution of traumatic experiences in victims of natural and other disasters etc. 

Apart from the fact that the number of psychologist saw a rapid growth, the employed psychologists in Serbia needed professional gatherings, professional development, protection of professional interests, promotion of the profession in the public and it was to that end that they organized themselves under the umbrella of the Serbian Psychological Society, which has had the continuity since its establishment in 1953, as a section of the Psychological Association of Yugoslavia (Stojanović, 2003). The professional title of a psychologist at that time was “professor of psychology“ and the members of the Society worked their arduous way to have the reality in the field acknowledged in legislation – the fact that psychologists had massive engagement in health care institutions and in social protection, and more and more in industry as well. This struggle was completed with success and current professional title is graduate psychologist. Nowadays, the Serbian Psychological Society has its own entity dealing with supplying psychologists the necessary instrumentaria for work, scientific and academic publications, and it also organizes training in diverse areas of applied psychology. So far, our psychology gave two academicians in the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts – first chief of the Department for Psychology at the Belgrade University Borislav Stevanović and Aleksandar Kostić

Producing historical overviews is generally not a purpose on its own; instead, they attempt to project the future development by observing the trends from the past. Our psychology followed the major world's trends throughout history and can be expected to persist in this further on. Forecasting future is difficult, but currently it seems that psychology relying on its natural science roots, genetics, biochemistry, physiology will stay in the spotlight for a while. It might be possible to determine the existence of historical cycles occurring one after another, placing the emphasis at some moment to the social aspects of man's functioning and at another one on the physical processes, in other words, the future of psychology might be a constant rhythmical shift from one to another. Anyhow, while psychology exists as an independent science, experience, impression and behavior will remain in the focus of its interest (Hothersall, 2002). When it becomes obsolete to speak about human in these categories, psychology will start to be perceived by future generations like alchemy was perceived by us – an imaginative step in the wrong direction. 





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