How Structuralism and Functionalism Influenced Early Psychology

Some of the Earliest Influences on Psychology

Edward Bradford Titchener
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When psychology was first established as a science separate from biology and philosophy, the debate over how to describe and explain the human mind and behavior began. The first two major schools of psychology to emerge during this time were known as structuralism and functionalism. While neither of these schools held up long as psychology progressed as a science, they did make important contributions to the development of modern psychology.

Structuralism, Functionalism, and the Origins of Psychology

Structuralism emerged as the first school of thought and some of the ideas associated with the structuralist school were advocated by the founder of the first psychology lab, Wilhelm Wundt. One of Wundt's students, a man named Edward B. Titchener, would later go on to formally establish and name structuralism, although he broke away from many of Wundt's ideas and at times even misrepresented the teachings of his mentor.

Almost immediately other theories surfaced to vie for dominance in psychology. In response to structuralism, an American perspective known as functionalism emerged from thinkers such as Charles Darwin and William James.

In 1906, Mary Whiton Calkins published an article in Psychological Review asking for a reconciliation between these two schools of thought. Structuralism and functionalism were not so different, she argued, since both are principally concerned with the conscious self.

Despite this, each side continued to cast aspersions on the other. William James wrote that structuralism had "plenty of school, but no thought," while Wilhelm Wundt dismissed functionalism as "literature" rather than science.

Eventually, both of these schools of thought lost dominance in psychology, replaced by the rise of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanism, and cognitive psychology through the beginning and middle part of the twentieth century.

In order to understand how these early schools of thought influenced the course of psychology, let's take a closer look at each one.

What Was Structuralism?

Structuralism was the first school of psychology and focused on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components. Researchers tried to understand the basic elements of consciousness using a method known as introspection.

Wilhelm Wundt, founder of the first psychology lab, is often associated with this school of thought despite the fact that it was his student, Edward B. Titchener, who first coined the term to describe this school of thought.

While Wundt's work helped to establish psychology as a separate science and contributed methods to experimental psychology, Wundt himself referred to his view of psychology as volunteerism and his theories tended to be much more holistic than the ideas that Titchener later introduced in the United States. Titchener's development of structuralism helped establish the very first "school" of psychology, but structuralism itself did not last long beyond Titchener's death.

The Strengths and Criticisms of Structuralism

By today’s scientific standards, the experimental methods used to study the structures of the mind were too subjective—the use of introspection led to a lack of reliability in results.

Other critics argue that structuralism was too concerned with internal behavior, which is not directly observable and cannot be accurately measured.

However, these critiques do not mean that structuralism lacked significance. Structuralism is important because it is the first major school of thought in psychology. The structuralist school also influenced the development of experimental psychology.

What Was Functionalism?

Functionalism formed as a reaction to structuralism and was heavily influenced by the work of William James and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Functionalists sought to explain the mental processes in a more systematic and accurate manner.

Rather than focusing on the elements of consciousness, functionalists focused on the purpose of consciousness and behavior. Functionalism also emphasized individual differences, which had a profound impact on education.

Some of the important functionalist thinkers included William James, John Dewey, Harvey Carr and John Angell.

Strengths and Criticisms of Functionalism

Functionalism was criticized perhaps most famously by Wundt. "It is literature. It is beautiful, but it is not psychology," he said of functionalist William James’ The Principles of Psychology.

Functionalism was an important influence on psychology. It influenced the development of behaviorism and applied psychology. Functionalism also influenced the educational system, especially with regards to John Dewey’s belief that children should learn at the level for which they are developmentally prepared.

A Word From Verywell

While neither of these early schools of thought remain today, they both had an important influence on the emergence of psychology as a modern science. Wundt and Titchener's structuralism played a role in the drive to make psychology a more experimental science, while James's functionalism helped focus psychology on the process of actually solving real problems. By understanding the focus of structuralism and functionalism, you can gain a greater appreciation of how psychology arrived at the point it is today.

Sources:

Fancher, RE & Rutherford, A. Pioneers of Psychology: A History. New York: W.W. Norton; 2012.

Schultz, DP & Schultz, SE. A History of Modern Psychology. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2016.

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