Research Paper on William James and Functionalism

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PSY 101
4/7/13

“William James and Functionalism”

I. Introduction

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist

who had trained as a physician. He was the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United

States. James wrote influential books on pragmatism, psychology, educational psychology, the

psychology of religious experience, and mysticism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of

diarist Alice James. In the summer of 1878, William James married Alice Gibbens. William James was

born at the Astor House in New York City. He was the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and

independently wealthy theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day.

The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several

of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and

critics. James also worked on many theories included functionalism which is the second paradigm in

Psychology. According to William James, functionalism assumed that the human mind served an

adaptive role. It explored the function of thoughts and behaviors.

II. What is functionalism in Psychology?

Functionalism is a theory of the mind in contemporary psychology, developed largely as an

alternative to both the identity theory of mind and behaviorism. This theory is built on the premise

that human mental states (beliefs, desires, pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role

— that is, they are causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs

. Functionalism is a theoretical level between physical implementation and behavioral output.

Therefore, it is different from its predecessors of Cartesian dualism (advocating discrete mental and

physical substances) and Skinnerian behaviorism and physicalism (declaring only physical

substances): It is only concerned with the effective functions of the brain.

Since mental states are identified by a functional role, they are said to be realized on multiple levels.

In other words, they are able to be manifested in various systems as long as the system performs the

appropriate functions. While computers are physical devices with electronic substrate that perform

computations on inputs to give outputs, our brains also act as physical devices with neural substrate

that perform computations on inputs which produce behaviors.

“The Principles of Psychology” is a monumental text in the history of psychology, written by William

James and published in 1890. James's psychology included four methods: analysis (i.e., the logical

criticism of precursor and contemporary views of the mind), introspection (i.e., the psychologist's

study of his own states of mind), experiment (e.g., in hypnosis or neurology), and comparison (i.e.,

the use of statistical means to distinguish norms from anomalies).

III. The paradigm of functionalism

The subject matter of psychology: Psychology is the study of mental activity (e.g. perception,

memory, imagination, feeling, judgment). Mental activity is to be evaluated in terms of how it

serves the organism in adapting to its environment.

The methods of psychology: Mental acts can be studied through introspection, the use of

instruments to record and measure; and objective manifestations of mind, through the study of its

creations and products, and through the study of anatomy and physiology.

The functionalists tended to use the term 'function' rather loosely. The term is used in at least two

different ways. It can refer...
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