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Essence and Theoretical Backgrounds of Functionalism: Analytical Essay

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Functionalism is: “the principle that the most important thing about an object such as a building is its use rather than what it looks like” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press.

Functionalism is a psychological approach concerned with the mind and the way the mind function and the way it adapts an organism to its environment. This approach was established by James, an American scholar, in the 19th century with inspiration from Darwin's theory of evolution. This approach came as a reaction of structuralism.

How it was inspired be Darwin's theory? how it opposes structuralism? what is its relation to affordance? how it differs from other theories? and how it was criticised?

Many scholars prepared the world to Darwin's theory and thus to functionalism; starting with Aristotle who recognized the similarities among different species; a human hand was analogous to the wing of a bird. Also, John Baptiste Lamarck, who is a French naturalist, started the 'behavioural theory of evolution; in order to an animal to adapt to its environment, his body could be exposed to some modifications which were inherited by succeeding generations. Claiming that a giraffe didn’t use to have a long neck, but it was developed over the generations due to the need of reaching higher, for leaves. (Schultz & Schultz,2008)

Darwin's theory of evolution:

In the 1850s, Darwin wrote a book called 'On the Origin of Species, based in his observations after travelling around the world, when he noticed odd patterns in the distribution and features of organisms and each animal species was well-suited for its environment and role; such as the finch species and its beaks in the Galápagos Islands; the ones that ate large seeds had large, tough beaks, but those that ate insects had thin, sharp beaks. Darwin explained the pattern of similar but nonidentical finches, that they gradually adapted to their conditions over a long period of time, which led to the formation of new species. (Schultz & Schultz,2008)

So, he proposed that species is subjected to 'descent with modification' or simply evolve to became better suited to their surrounding environment; resulting that all species share a common ancestor (similar) with a set of a unique set of genetic differences between them ( non-identical).

Darwin’s central idea in this theory of biological evolution was natural selection; that the feature of an organism that helps it to survive and produce are more likely than other features to become common in a population over time, including their behaviour, in brief species change and evolve over time according to the conditions of the environment such as the predators and food sources present; some individuals will have inherited traits that help them survive and reproduce because it has been naturally selected.

in this theory, Darwin changed the focus of psychology from the structure of consciousness to the function of consciousness in adapting people to their environment; which made the basis of functionalism; as, functionalists believed that humans evolved in the same manner as other animals and that psychologists should study the adaptive significance of the mind rather than studying the structure of the mind. (Schultz & Schultz,2008)

In the 19th century interest in evolution was strong in the United States, the application of evolutionary theory to human knowledge was first introduced by Herbert Spencer in his synthetic philosophy - Social Darwinism- when he coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest, arguing that all aspects of the universe were evolutionary including human character and social institutions and he believed that if no action was taken to interfere with the natural order of things, the human perfection is inevitable.

William James (1842-1910):

The founder of functionalism and American psychology, even though he didn’t want to be known as a psychologist, he published his book 'the principles of psychology in 1819, James said that the book proved that there was no such thing as a science of psychology; he even stated that psychology was 'merely quote an elaboration of the obvious.

Even though this book was such a success as James offered a different perspective of looking at the mind, which opposed the view of psychology at that time, his alternative view agreed with the functional approach to psychology; the study of the adaptation of living people to their environment.

James had an interest of how the mind functions to help us adapt to the environment. So, he establish functionalism as an approach to psychology, which state that the mind evolved to help us adapt to the world around us, and that the focus of psychology should be the study of those adaptive process and concerned with how behaviour and mental abilities serve in enabling people to adapt to and live in their environment. James sees consciousness as a continuous stream or flow of images and sensations, and any tempting attempt to divide it can only distort it. (Schultz & Schultz,2008)

Even though functionalism was not founded as a school of thought, the University of Chicago and Columbia University became closely associated with functionalism. James and functionalism widened psychology to include animal behaviour, religious experience, and abnormal behaviour and promoted educational psychology.


Functionalism came out in response to structuralism. Structuralism was the first school of thought in psychology, founded by Edward B. Titchener; the main structuralist, who gave psychology its first definition as a science of the study of mental experience, of consciousness, to be studied by trained introspection.

Titchener was one of Wilhelm Wundt's students, who started the world's first experimental psychology lab, he also was structuralist

Structuralism's main idea was to break consciousness down into manageable parts in order to understand the structure of consciousness using the 'introspection' technique. the problem with this approach is that it is too subjective.

Functionalism came out supporting the idea that we have traits and abilities but rather than trying to understand the experience of these traits and abilities we should study the purpose they serve and understand consciousness rather than trying to break it down into pieces. . Asking why? what is the purpose? How does it help in some way? focusing on how behaviour functions rather than what is the structure of the mind.

William James in functionalism focused on how the consciousness functions not about the structure of the mind, as when buying a car, its structure isn’t important but how it functions is important. He also focused upon the way humans adopt to the environment; their role and behaviour played an important role to be better to the environment.

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This school of thought examined that people adopt their behaviour in order to satisfy with their needs.

John Dewey, A psychologist, philosopher and educational innovator, He wrote 'psychology' in 1887, which was over shared by William James' principles. In 1896, he published 'the reflux arc concept in psychology' emphasizing the adaptive value of mind and consciousness. He said that the functionalism stimulus-response relationship determines the goal of the behaviour and that responses always occur in a functional context.

Probabilistic functionalism

Probabilistic Functionalism is one of the central ideas about environmental perception; this approach was established by Egon Brunswick, who proposed the 'lens model'; in which information about a setting manifests itself as objective cues , which are selectively perceived, and lead to a final evaluative conclusion by the perceiver.

Brunswik's theory is considered functionalist in nature as different perceivers will select and weight different cues. but the successful perceiver selects the most important cues in order to function effectively in a setting. probabilistic functionalism defines environmental perception as 'the attempt to extract a useful image of a place from a large number of potentially useful environmental cues, particularly in a setting that is new to a person, each cue has a particular probability of being accurate.

Brunswick added to his theory the idea of Ecological validity due to the variability in the use of individual cues. This refers to the degree of “truth” of the probabilistic relations between an objective environment and the cues that the individual select, in order to lead the perceiver to an accurate perception of an actual space.

Perceptual errors and illusions in an environment may be experienced by anyone, as cues could contribute accurately in the assessment of an environment, or could lead to false impressions, according to the degree of congruence with ecological validity, which is considered as an indicator for the perceiver’s understanding of an environment and how much it accurately reflect the objective environment. As most people's perceptions seek to keep them safe, so they learn to pay attention to cues that validly represent a safe and functional path through work and life. Reflect the objective environment. As most people's perceptions seek to keep them safe, so they learn to pay attention to cues that validly represent a safe and functional path through work and life.

Affordance by James J. Gibson

Even though the concept of 'affordance' cannot be found in William James or John Dewey thought, but the assumptions of functionalism intersect with it. functional psychology perception became realizable, both comprehensible and experimentally feasible, because of the concept of affordance. affordances are perceived functional properties of objects, places and events of an environment in relation to an individual perceiver as useful for a particular purpose.

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers... [perceivers]... what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.” by Gibson. Thus, functional properties set up the possibilities for action in the environment. '

She meant that affordances specify the behaviours permitted by these objects in the environment. As she that the environment is made up of arrangements of substances and surfaces, which provide affordances to perceivers. Such as a flat horizontal expanse in front of a person affords walking or horizontal surface situated about 45 cm above the ground affords sitting, and a surface of water affords swimming.

Gibson's approach highlighted the role of the environment in human perception and rely on substances and surfaces, Gibson insisted that the designers should focus on the substances and surfaces rather than the form as the building users do not pay attention to form and shape, but to affordances.

The difference between affordance by Gibson and probabilistic functionalism by Brunswick is that Gibson believed that the environment provides perceivers with a direct functional assessment of some elements. While in probabilistic functionalism by Brunswick, the assessment being processed through a set of cues that are weighted and interpreted.

Comparison between functionalism and other schools of thought and theories

The different schools of psychology represent the major theories within psychology that emerged when psychology was considered a science, differentiated by the debate over how to explain the human mind and behaviour.

The first school of thought in psychology, established by the German psychologist Edward Titchener. is structuralism, concerned with breaking down the mind into it fundamental parts or ‘structure' that could be studied to explain the behaviour, using the introspection technique. While functionalism came as a reaction for structuralism, stated that the mind and consciousness existed for a purpose, It functioned on the mind's functions and adaptations and focuses on the purpose that the traits and abilities serve rather than trying to understand the experience of these traits and abilities

Gestalt psychology was also a response to structuralism, where it is believed that you must look at the whole of experience Instead of breaking down thoughts and behaviour to their smallest elements. Functionalism differs from gestalt and structuralism that it did not have a single leader.

Behaviourism is focused on observable behaviour that can be explained by environmental causes, considering behaviour simply as a learned response to an external stimulus. It agrees with functionalism in rejecting the method of introspection and that behaviours are functionally described. Behaviourism contradicts with Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Functionalism critique

Functionalism was criticised mainly from the structuralists, as it did not adhere to structuralism’s subject matter and methods. Titchener and his followers argued that functionalism was not psychology at all because it deviated from the introspective analysis of the mind into elements. also, because of the diverse uses of the term function.

Functionalism was criticized also by Wundt; 'It is literature. It is beautiful but it is not psychology.

Structuralists also objected to functionalists’ emphasis the practical application in psychology, without making it distinct from pure science. Another criticism has been provided by Henle who had pointed out that functionalism had become too eclectic.

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Essence and Theoretical Backgrounds of Functionalism: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
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