Functionalism originated in the United States and initially coexisted with structuralism. Although functionalist beliefs diverged, their emphasis was always the same, the utility of consciousness and behavior in adjusting to the environment. The founder of the functionalist movement is usually thought to be William James (1842-1910). In addition to James, two of the most influential members of the functionalist movement were John Dewey (1859-1952) and James R. Angell (1869-1949).

The second paradigm of psychology was functionalism. As its name implies, the primary interest in this approach is in the function of mental processes, including consciousness. While not the creation of any single scholar, William James was clearly its most famous advocate. The functionalists tended to use the term function rather loosely. The term is used in at least two different ways. It can refer to the study of how a mental process operates. Functionalism never really died, it became part of the mainstream of psychology. James was the first American psychologist, he wrote the first general text book on psychology, and he remains one of the most well-liked and famous of all psychologists. While functionalism did not have a specific founder or leader, James is identified as its early spokesperson.

The main contribution the functionalists made to learning theory is that they studied the relationship of consciousness to the environment rather than studying it as an isolated phenomenon. They opposed the introspective technique of the structuralists because it was elementistic, not because it studied consciousness. The functionalists were not opposed to studying mental processes but insisted that they should always be studied in relationship to survival. Unlike the structuralists, the functionalists were very interested in applied psychology. Most functionalists believed that one of their major goals should be to furnish information that could be used to improve the human condition.

American functionalist psychology constituted an effort to model scientific psychology on the successes of English evolutionary theory. In part it was a response to the stagnation of Wundt’s psychological research program, which had been grounded in German experimental physiology. In part it was an attempt to make psychology more appealing within the highly pragmatic American context and to facilitate the application of psychology to domains outside of the scientific laboratory. There are applications of psychology that emerged from the functionalist ethos included child and developmental psychology, clinical psychology, psychological testing, and industrial/vocational psychology. Punctionalism was also the ground within which behaviorism rooted and grew into the dominant form of psychology through the middle of the 20th century.

As mentioned above, two of the most influential members of the functionalist movement were John Dewey (1859-1952) and James R. Angell (1869-1949). James Roland Angell was born in Burlington, Vermont. He came from an academic family, his grandfather serving as president of Brown University and his father serving as president of the University of Vermont and later the University of Michigan. As an undergraduate, Angell studied under John Dewey (1859-1952) at University of Michigan. He then worked for a year with William James (1842-1910) at Harvard, earning his MA in 1892. Two years later, he accepted an offer from Dewey to be a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He remained at Chicago for 25 years, where, during his tenure, the department became the primary training ground for functionalist psychologists. Two of Angell’s famous students include Harvey Carr (1873-1954) and John B. Watson (1878-1958). From 1921 through 1937, Angell served as president of Yale University, helping to establish its Institute of Human Relations.

Angell is said to have transformed functionalism from a movement into a working school, despite his protestations that the movement was too broad to be embodied within any single framework. In 1904, he wrote a highly successful book called Psychology: an Introductory Study of Structure and Functions of Human Consciousness. Within four years, it went through four editions, evidence of the growing popularity of functionalism.. His most important contribution to functionalist psychology was his 1906 presidential address to American Psychological Association entitled “The Province of Functional Psychology.” In this speech, he made three major points, drawing the battle lines between functionalism and structuralism. First, functionalism studies mental operations, not mental elements. Second, functionalism views consciousness in terms of its utility, mediating between an organism’s needs and the pressures of its environment. And third, functionalism regards mind and body as an inseparable unit.

In conclusion although there are three main people who contributed to the Functionalism theory, there are also others that play into this category as well. Functionalism is one of the major proposals that have been offered as solutions to the mind/body problem. Solutions to the mind/body problem usually try to answer questions such as: What is the ultimate nature of the mental? At the most general level, what makes a mental state mental? Or more specifically, what do thoughts have in common in virtue of which they are thoughts?

Olson M. H. & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to theories of learning. (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Darwinian Theory, Functionalism, and the First American Psychological Revolution
Green, Christopher D… American Psychologist, Feb/Mar2009, Vol. 64 Issue 2, p75-83, 9p, 2 bw; DOI: 10.1037/a0013338; (AN 36872963)