William James and Functionalism

William James Functionalism

An American scholar William James is considered to be a pioneer of the functional school of psychology. Unlike his predecessors who claimed that it is important to focus on the elements (structure) of human consciousness to study it, James argued that the most important thing is its functions (Shergill, 2010). James influenced the sphere of psychology immensely. Although it is believed that his views were not developed enough to form a new school of thought, his ideas were later complemented by other scholars’ research, thus giving rise to functionalism as we know it today (Hergenhahn, 2008). In this essay, the researcher attempts to provide a brief overview of the William James’ functionalism and explain its importance for practicing psychologists.

William James’ Functionalism

So, when was functionalism founded? One cannot name the exact date when functional psychology emerged. So, it is useless to type “When did William James come up with functionalism?” in Google search. It was not a sudden breakthrough. Rather, the scholar worked on developing his main ideas for many years, complementing and adjusting his arguments as he gained more knowledge about human consciousness (Hart, 2012). William James’ structuralism criticism gave rise to his ideas. James maintained that dividing human experiences is incorrect, as no one has a simple sensation or feeling by itself. Consciousness is more complex than that, he believed. The scholar compared it with the continual flow, later called “the stream of consciousness,” which operated within certain biological functions. Consciousness is directly related to adaptation, as it allows human beings to fit into the environment and actively respond to its changes (Hart, 2012). These ideas later formed the new school of thought.

Characteristics of Functionalism Psychology

Functionalism has gained increasing popularity among psychologists. William James’ functionalism provided the basis for other scholars, thus leading to the formation of the distinct and influential school of thought (Hart, 2012). Its main ideas are as follows. First, functionalism postulates that no elements of consciousness exist. Second, functionalists argue that consciousness is the function of the mind that allows people to adjust to the environment. Third, they emphasize that in order to study consciousness, one needs to get insight into the unique needs and motivations of each living being (either a man or an animal). Moreover, a focus on practice has been made. John Dewey’s functionalism and other researchers’ studies highlighted the need to turn to practical psychology instead of purely scientific one. Using a variety of methods and contexts is crucial, argued scholars, as it allows exploring the human mind from different perspectives (Hergenhahn, 2008).

Functional psychology is widely used today. William James functionalism and principles of psychology have made it possible for practicing psychologists to take human experience out of the private (subjective) realm and open them to active analysis and investigation (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013). It is believed that functionalism broadened the scope of research and application of psychology and suggested new research techniques to collect valuable data. These include mental tests, questionnaires, psychological measures, etc. To summarize, William James created the foundation for the whole new school of thought that look at human consciousness from a different perspective. His ideas were extremely valuable since they allowed to broaden the scope of research and gain new knowledge about the human mind and its functional role.


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Hart, J. (2012). Modern eclectic therapy: A functional orientation to counseling and psychotherapy: Including a twelve-month manual for therapists. New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media.
Hergenhahn, B. R. (2008). An introduction to the history of psychology. London: Cengage Learning.
Shergill, H. K. (2010). Psychology. New Delhi, India: PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2013). Functionalism. Retrieved from

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