Functionalism

29.04.2015 |

Episode #2 of the course “Major Schools of Thought in Psychology”

Functionalism was a competing school of thought that arrived shortly after Structuralism developed. It was heavily influenced by the work of both Charles Darwin and William James. John Dewey, Harvey Carr, and John Angell were also considered members of this school. While Structuralists considered the elements of consciousness, Functionalists focused on the underlying purpose of behavior and consciousness. They concentrated their efforts on empirical, rational thought instead of an experimental approach, questioning the capabilities of the human mind instead of how they got those capabilities. The practical implications of such research were extremely important for this school of thought.

Functionalists argued that there was no basic structure to consciousness because it is constantly changing. That also meant, they argued, that attempting to “map consciousness” was a pointless endeavor. Because psychology was still developing as a science when Functionalism and Structuralism appeared, there was significant debate as to whether psychology should focus on the structure of brain or on the science of mental content. Most scientists later agreed that the focus should be more on thought instead of attempting to build a common structure.

William James argued that the mind and consciousness would not exist unless they had some kind of adaptive purpose (showing the influence of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories). He argued, much like Darwin, that the mind developed because it served adaptive, practical purposes. That also meant, he argued, that psychology should focus on the practical implications of thought.

Functionalism also focused on individuals by assuming that everyone approaches thinking and problems differently. This idea laid the groundwork for more individualized education approaches. It also led to the behaviorist school of thought later. Functionalists like John Dewey argued that thought creates behavior, so people should focus on studying behavior instead of trying to observe consciousness, which is extremely difficult to study.


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