Functionalism was a major paradigm shift in the history of American psychology.
As an outgrowth of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the functionalist
approach focused on the examination of the function and purpose of mind and
behavior. Rather than the
structures of the mind, functionalism was interested in mental processes and
their relation to behavior. Through his work at Harvard as a professor teaching
psychology courses and his writings related to the philosophy of pragmatism and
functionalism, William James became known as spokesman of this burgeoning
approach to psychology. His
influence was exponentially increased through the inspiration he gave to his
students. G. Stanley Hall, Mary Calkins, and Edward Thorndike are among
those who spread functionalist psychology to other universities.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was tremendously influential on
the establishment of functionalism. After
his famous voyage on The HMS Beagle, Darwin labored many years to produce the
book responsible for a dramatic paradigm shift:
The Origin of Species. Darwin’s
argued that the environment forces a natural selection upon its inhabitants and
favors those inhabitants that have adaptive characteristics.
The members within a species who have adaptive characteristics pass on
this survival component to their offspring while those members without the
adaptive characteristics begin to disappear.
The theory of a mechanistic universe proposed by Descartes
seemed to be crumbling under the weight of a chaotic and impersonal force of
evolution. The function of mind and
behavior was now looked upon as adaptive rather than innate.
Individual differences rather than universal laws of the mind and
behavior became the center of creative and scientific energy.
William James became a major proponent of this changing scientific focus.
VS. AMERICA: A DIFFERENT WORLD VIEW
One of the most influential approaches to psychology the
late, nineteenth century was structuralism.
Structuralism sought to determine the structure of the mind using a
method called introspection. The
primary proponent of structuralism was Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was concerned with mental thoughts and structures and
finding universal laws and principles. As
with his contemporaries Gustav Fechner and Hermann Hemholz, Wundt was primarily
focused on theoretical science and spent many hours in his psychology lab
conducting experiments and writing many articles and books.
As an American raised in an individualistic society,
James’s functionalism was more practical and fluid than Wundt’s ‘old
world’ structuralist approach . Instead
of structures of the mind, he was interested in consciousness and how it
functions in individuals, especially in relation to behavior. James’s psychology experiments with his students tended to
be more curious adventures in consciousness and practical application than
Wundt’s painstakingly technical and controlled laboratory environment.
These two spokesmen of their respective psychological approaches were not
timid in expressing their professional disdain for each other.
called James’s masterpiece of psychology, The
Principles of Psychology,
“It is literature. It is
beautiful, but it is not psychology.” (1)
is little of the grand style about these new prism, pendulum, and
chronograph-philosophers. They mean
business, not chivalry.” (2)
Regardless of their different approaches and personal feelings, they recognized
each others talent and creative output even if they disagreed on some
fundamental concepts of psychology. James
eventually stepped out of the psychological arena in order to pursue his first
intellectual love: philosophy.
James taught at Harvard university from 1878-1890.
During this time, he completed his renowned psychological work:
The Principles of Psychology in
which he elucidated his functionalist insight into such subjects as
consciousness, habit, and emotion. He
was also became over saturated with the subject of functionalism and psychology.
In commenting on the completion of this seminal work with his great wit,
literary style, and self-deprecation, he wrote:
No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book.
is worth being treated of in 1000 pages!
Had I ten years, more, I could rewrite it
in 500; but as it stands it is this or nothing-a loathsome, distended,
bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to two facts:
1st, that there is no such thing
as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W.J. is a
James was ready for a shift in priorities and ready to pursue philosophy and
writing. Following the publication
of his book, James spent more time in his pursuit of philosophy.
He was influenced by the philosophy of C.S. Peirce called pragmatism.
According to James’s colloquial definition,
asks its usual question: "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it
says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual
life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from
those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the
truth's cash-value in experiential terms?" (4)
philosophy of pragmatism reveals the underpinnings of functionalism’s focus on
practical applications and purposes in psychology.
He certainly dabbled in philosophy at different periods of his life,
including his teaching years at Harvard where his pragmatic philosophy
intertwined with his investigations into the practical applications of
psychology. He continued in later
years to influence the proponents of functionalism by writing books and essays
about pragmatic philosophy. His
books in this area include Pragmatism
(1907) and The Meaning of Truth (1909).
Fancher, R.E. (1996). Pioneers
of Psychology (3rd ed.). New York:
& Company. p. 247.
Ibid., p. 247
Ibid., p. 257-258.