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. 




      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.

Wundt called James’s masterpiece of psychology, The Principles of Psychology,

            “It is literature.  It is beautiful, but it is not psychology.” (1)

James retorted that

“There 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.  No subject

            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, tumefied,

            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 incapable.” (3)


Obviously, 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,


“Pragmatism 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) 


The 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).






(1) Fancher, R.E. (1996).  Pioneers of Psychology (3rd ed.). New York:  W.W. Norton

            & Company. p. 247.

(2) Ibid., p. 247

(3) Ibid., p. 257-258.

(4) found at as quoted from Pragmatism (1907)