The contributions and weaknesses of William James to psychology as a scientific field

Essay, 2019
7 Pages, Grade: A







William James contributed much to the development of functionalism and modern psychology. He proposed the theory functionalism as a revolt against the weakness of structuralism by Wundt and his student Techerner. The theory could help to explain how human behaviors can be influenced by the functions of the mind not structures of the mind. William James borrowed the concept from Darwianism of nativism. He believed in nature as the cause of behaviors which influence the brain to cause different types of disorders if damaged. James made functionalism popular in America which caused him to be regarded as the father of American psychology. His work influenced so many researchers especially cognitivists who were studying memory. The weakness of functionalism influenced the rise of behaviorism in early 20th century. It was also criticized for not being psychological and lacking objectivity. This paper seeks to examine the three contribution of William James to functionalism and its weaknesses.

Functionalism is defined as a school of thought that directly explains the utility mental process to human behavior. William James founded the school of functionalism. This school of thought in psychology was developed in direct response to the school of structuralism and the work of Wundt. Wundt criticized functionalism as nothing more than literature and James criticized structuralism as all school and thought. When criticism faded, functionalism went on to influence major schools of thought still in use today such as the cognitive behavioral and behavioral schools. Functionalism focused on the human for individualism and this heavily influenced how education was structured. James was influenced by his early physiology education and the work of Charles Darwin. Functionalism was built around a more systematic approach to understanding mental processes. William James developed functionalism to search for consciousness and behavior (Farrell, 2011).

William James has made enormous contributions to psychology. Functionalism formed as 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 (Feldman, 2006). Some of the important functionalist thinkers included William James and John Dewey (Gross, 2010). This explains how James influenced the development of functionalism.

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 (Friedman, 2010). However functionalism was criticized perhaps most famously by Wundt. It is literature. It is beautiful but it is not psychology (Sharpsteen, 2012). William James further contributes to the development of functionalism and psychology (modern) as he challenged and ultimately thrown out by functionalism. James argued that psychology should not focus on the structure of the consciousness but its functions. Darwin was the inspiration here and keeping his theory of natural selection in mind, James concluded that since consciousness is a uniquely human characteristic, it must serve important functions for us otherwise it would never evolved (Gross, 2010). This explains how James contributed much to the development of psychology.

The functionalists started studying the functions of consciousness and as a result we now have diversity in psychology with fields like developmental and child psychology emerging. So basically functionalism gave a practical slant to modern psychology by throwing light on how psychology helps us cope with challenging situation (Sharpsteen, 2012). This is James’s major contribution to functionalism and psychology at large. James contributed to functionalism theory as argued that all behavioral origins begins within the nervous system prompting all scientists of human behavior to possess basic physiological, understanding, something very well understood by the functionalist founder James (Farrell, 2011).

The contribution of James to functionalism is to usher three parts of functional psychology into the modern day psychology. Utilizing the Darwinian ideology, the mind was considered to perform a diverse biological function on its own and can evolve and adapt to varying circumstance. Secondly, the physiological functioning of the organism results in the development of the consciousness. Lastly the promise of the impact of functional psychology to the improvement of education, mental hygiene and abnormal states (Sharpsteen, 2012). This shows how James contributed to functionalism and psychology (modern).

In opposition of Titchener’s idea that the mind was simple, William James argued that the mind should be a dynamic concept. So James’ main contribution to functionalism was his theory of the subconscious. He said there were three ways of looking at the subconscious in which it may be related to the conscious, first the subconscious is identical in nature with states of consciousness. Second, it is the same as conscious but impersonal. Lastly, he said that the subconscious is a simple brain state but with no mental counterpart (Gross, 2010).

According to an illustrated history of American psychology, James was the most influential pioneer. In 1890 he argued that psychology should be a division of biology and adaptation should be on area of focus. His main theories that contributed to the development of functional psychology were his ideas about the role of consciousness, the effects of emotions and the usefulness of instincts and habits (Teo, 2007). William James put forward the view that consciousness is not epiphenomena, means that consciousness cannot be considered as something which functions or working cannot be explained. Consciousness has to have certain set patterns of functions and it shall always work according to these patterns. Therefore, if we consider consciousness to be an epiphenomena, it would be wrong. Consciousness needs to be studied and understood in order to explain its functions.

James also made functionalism being able to explain the function of consciousness, he put forward the view that consciousness creates adjustment between the organism and the environment. This means that the organism needs to adjust and adapt its environment in order to survive. This adaptation process is carried out with the help of consciousness. Consciousness helps the organism to understand the environment and cope with the changes in it.

James was also of view that not just consciousness but all human psychological functions have a definition purpose. For example fear in an animal creates movement in the body, laughter reduces tension. Therefore, the importance of all these psychological functions as well as consciousness is due to their functions (Feldman, 2006). Functionalism through James contributed much to the development of other schools of thought which include behaviorism and even the modern psychology (cognitive) and cognitive neuroscience and the models of memory (Atkin and Shiffrin 1968).

James’s functionalism however has a lot of weaknesses cited by different scholars who regards functionalism as unscientific since James is thought not to have carried an experiment to come up with this theory. It is criticized for not being psychological. The theory of functionalism is said to be subjective since its mentalism is said by behaviorism to be unobservable (Gross, 2010).


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The contributions and weaknesses of William James to psychology as a scientific field
Zimbabwe Open University
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william, james
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Temba Munsaka (Author), 2019, The contributions and weaknesses of William James to psychology as a scientific field, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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