This paper will look at functionalism as an evolution of psychology in the United States that was primarily influenced by the works of William James. James was a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and similarly, functionalism reflects the desire to explain the mental and behavioural processes that aid the individual to adapt to the environment. The characteristics that defined functionalism would be discussed, along with a few concepts, such as the consciousness, that functionalists support. The contribution of functional psychology to the broader field of psychology will look at the reasons of that the school of thought was adopted by psychologists even as its presence was diminished by the rise of behaviourism. The evolution of psychology continues to include concepts of functionalism, one of the surviving building blocks of psychology.
Psychology evolved from philosophy and religion, and functionalism is a school of thought that started in the United States of America (U.S.). It is interested in the role of consciousness and behaviour in adapting to the environment. Its history and evolution will be looked at and principles discussed. This paper will also briefly show the contribution of functionalism to mainstream psychology that is known today, as well as discuss if the principles are effectively being addressed today.
The history of functionalism can be broken down into four stages (Sahakian, 1975). In its first stage in 1640, psychology was taught together with ethics, divinity, and philosophy. This was largely attributed to the universities set up imitating the British universities, which were concerned about the propagation of religious beliefs. Psychology was poorly defined, until the start of the “American Enlightenment” in 1714 due to John Locke’s publication. Locke spurred Samuel Johnson to write a book on psychology that included modern-day topics. The second stage saw psychology further distinguished from philosophy in 1776 with the influence of Scottish commonsense philosophy that argues that an individual’s senses and thoughts were valid, to run against philosopher Hume’s idea that nothing is certain and the moral and scientific laws were simply mental constructs. The Scots started writing textbooks that included psychology-specific topics such as perception and memory and emphasized on the individual. Textbooks began to include similar topics in the U.S. and transited out of the school of philosophy and theology. The third stage took place in 1886 during the period of U.S. renaissance and saw the growth of psychology to be an independent discipline and an empirical science. The emphasis of science, practicality, individuality, and focus on evolutionary theory formed the school of functionalism. The formation is the fourth and final stage of early U.S. psychology. Functionalism was argued to have begun with either John Dewey’s article The Reflex Arc in Pschology (1896) or William James’s book The Principles of Psychology (1890). In that period, functionalism competed with structuralism, which are remarkably different from each other. The former has its assumptions based on Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and seeks to understand how the mind and behaviour enable an organism to adjust in its environment while the latter has its assumptions based on British and French empiricism and seeks to understand the structure of the mind. Their methodologies were different, with functionalism including any informative sources, and structuralism primarily using introspection.
Functionalism is not a well-defined school of thought. There, however, are commonly-agreed characteristics of functionalism: it opposes the investigation into the elements of the mind; it seeks to understand the function of behavioural and mental processes; it wants functionalism to have practical applications; it seeks the broadening of psychology methodology; it is interested in motivation and its factors; it is more interested in the differences in the psyche of humans rather than similarity; it is heavily influenced by the writings of William James, who strongly believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
William James’s publications exert a heavy influence in functionalism. He believed that alternative methods of investigation should be explored when an aspect of human thought process cannot be effectively explained. James’s concept of stream of consciousness holds five ideas, namely, consciousness is: personal and reflects an individual’s unique experiences; continuous and cannot be divided up for analysis; constantly changing; selective; and functional. He strongly opposed the idea that thought can be analysed and defined as an element as consciousness is a unique and dynamic personal landscape that cannot be universal and inspected by its individual parts. The pervasive idea is that consciousness aids an individual to adapt to the environment, a reflection of Darwin’s theory of evolution on James, and thus on functionalism as well.
James suggested that habits and instincts form a person’s behaviour and can be developed through repetitive behaviour. In the study of science, he believes that the assumption of determinism should take hold, however, for better study of human, free will should be assumed. James is also a proponent of pragmatism, which mandates that any idea will be judged by its consequences. The empirical self, also discussed by James, consists of: the material self, which is anything one could possess; the social self, which is the self known by people; and spiritual self, which is the different states of consciousness, including the associated emotions.
Functionalism contributed to the discipline so significantly that it is no longer a school of psychology as its principles are widely embraced into mainstream psychology. Psychologists saw its logic and practical ideas and merged them into part of mainstream psychology. Another reason behind its diminished presence as a school of thought is due to the rise of behaviourism, which became even more widely embraced. Functionalism contributed to the field of psychology through its various principles, particularly its persistence in investigating in the ‘why’ of the way the brain works to answer a bigger question of how it adapts to the environment. It led to a greater understanding of why humans think in a particular manner and also gave rise to an increased interest in learning and motivation.
To this day, psychologists continue to try to explain the mental and behavioural processes of humans. Knight argued that science and psychology must achieve reciprocity between its theories and methodologies in a way that substantiate each other. In order to fulfil the criteria, the reliability of its theories and methodologies must be comparable. Psychology, according to him, has its strength in rigorous methodologies and weakness in the construction of theory. According to Mike Knight (1994), the worth of a theory should be judged in relative to the ratio of questions to answers. He reasoned that a malfunctioned theory would bring up more answers than it seeks. The past has shown that malfunctioned theories often had their hypothesis based on the behaviour instead of also drawing upon another wealth of knowledge to form assumptions about the said behaviour. Going by Knight’s reasoning, Darwinian functionalism should then be a worthy branch of psychology. Questions about the function of the mind have always been asked by psychologists and are yet to be adequately accounted for.
Elmer Culler had earlier said that the psychological study of our experience is sure to be artificial and abstract as humans are governed by a world of values (1923). This can be a reason why the curiosity about mental and behavioural processes continues as empirical studies would only apply to those whose mental confines are similar to those studies. Richard Henson named two types of inferences: function-to-structure deduction and structure-to-function induction. He sought to use neuroimaging to show that brain mapping would only show us the “where” that carries out the functions, and not the “how”, something that James was interested in. At the same time, Henson highlighted that neither imaging nor behavioural data are more superior, but imaging can help to support theories. This would improve Knight’s perception of psychology that theory construction is weak. The absorption of functionalism into mainstream psychology allows technology to one day address an interest of functionalists: the understanding of behavioural and mental processes.
In conclusion, William James has contributed substantially to the role of functionalism in today’s psychology. Many principles of functionalism have successfully been transplanted into mainstream psychology. The inclusion of technology in psychology also meant that it can now be studied in a holistic view. William James, should he be alive, would probably further question the role of technology in psychology, which he had believed to be a discipline that defines itself by giving an explanation to human behaviour and thoughts.