Functionalism is a psychological approach, popular in the early part of the twentieth century, that focuses on how consciousness functions to help human beings adapt to their environment.
Ancient philosophers theorized about the nature of the human mind. One view was that the mind is mysterious and unique within the human body, especially when compared to the rest of Earth's living creatures. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (385 BCE–322 BCE) claimed that the human soul is the form that allows the human body to fulfill its capabilities and purposes. Centuries later, early psychologists sought to determine the structure of consciousness just as chemists sought the structure of chemicals. Thus, the school of psychology associated with this approach earned the name structuralism. This perspective began in Germany in the laboratory of physician and physiologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920).
Before long, psychologists suggested that psychology should not concern itself with the structure of consciousness because, they argued, consciousness is always changing so it has no basic structure. Instead, they suggested that psychology should focus on the function or purpose of consciousness and how it leads to adaptive behavior. This approach to psychology is consistent with the approach of English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809– 1882) in his theory of evolution, which shaped the development of psychology as an area of study. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the school of functionalism developed and then later flourished in the United States, where it quickly surpassed Germany as the primary location of scientific psychology.
In 1892, American educator and psychologist George Trumbull Ladd (1842–1921), one of the early presidents of the American Psychological Association, declared that objective psychology should not replace the subjective psychology of the structuralists. By 1900, however, most psychologists agreed with a later president, Polish-born American experimental psychologist Joseph Jastrow (1863–1944), that psychology is the science of mental content, not of structure. At that point, structuralism still had some adherents, but it was fast becoming a lesser part of psychology.
The early functionalists included the pre-eminent psychologist and philosopher William James (1842– 1910). James promoted the idea that the mind and consciousness itself would not exist if it did not serve some practical, adaptive purpose. It had evolved because it presented advantages to humans. Along with this idea, James maintained that psychology should be practical and should be developed to make a difference in people's lives. James Rowland Angell (1869–1949), John Dewey (1859–1952), George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), and Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927) promoted the features of functionalism as they compared the rational observations and experiences that centered on their doctrine with the competing doctrine of experimental trial and error.
One of the difficulties that concerned the functionalists was how to reconcile the objective, scientific nature of psychology with its focus on consciousness, which by its nature is not directly observable. Although psychologists such as James accepted the reality of consciousness and the role of the will in people's lives, even he was unable to resolve the issue of scientific acceptance of consciousness and will within functionalism.
Other functionalists, such as Dewey, developed ideas that moved ever farther from the realm that structuralism had created. Dewey, for example, used James’ ideas as the basis for his writings but asserted that consciousness and the will were not relevant concepts for scientific psychology. Instead, human behavior is the critical issue and should be considered in the context in which it occurs. For example, a stimulus might be important in one circumstance, but irrelevant in another. A person's response to that stimulus depends on the value of that stimulus in the current situation. Thus, practical and adaptive responses characterize behavior, not some unseen force such as consciousness.
The dilemma regarding how to deal with a phenomenon as subjective as consciousness within the context of an objective psychology ultimately led to the abandonment of functionalism in favor of behaviorism, which rejected everything dealing with consciousness. By 1912, few psychologists regarded psychology as the study of mental content. Rather, the focus was on behavior. As it turned out, the school of functionalism provided a temporary framework for the replacement of structuralism but was itself supplanted by the school of behaviorism.
By contrast, behaviorists were uncomfortable with the functionalists' acceptance of consciousness and sought to make psychology the study of behavior. Eventually, the behavioral approach gained ascendance and reigned for the next half century.
Functionalism was important in the development of psychology because it broadened the scope of psychological research and application. Because of the wider perspective, psychologists accepted the validity of research with animals, with children, and with people with psychiatric disabilities. Further, functionalists introduced various research techniques that were beyond the boundaries of structural psychology, such as physiological measures, mental tests, and questionnaires. The functionalist legacy endured in psychology studies into the early 2000s.
Some historians have suggested that functional psychology was consistent with the progressivism that characterized American psychology at the end of the nineteenth century: More people were moving to and living in urban areas, science seemed to hold all the answers for creating a Utopian society, educational reform was underway, and many societal changes were occurring in the United States. It is not surprising that psychologists began to consider the role that psychology could play in developing a better society.
See also James, William.
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American Psychological Association, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002, (202) 336-5500, (800) 3742721, http://www.apa.org .
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