There are many theories and approaches existing in psychology. Throughout history, different ways of seeing and studying the human mind have come and gone . Initially, the concern of psyche scholars was to study what the mind is and how it is configured, looking for its core elements and basic structure. In this article we are presenting you the Functionalist theory of John Dewey.
However, in addition to this approach called structuralism, another appeared in which the main concern was to investigate not so much what or how it was, but what it is for and what functions it has. We are talking about John Dewey’s functionalist theory .
What is functionalism in psychology?
In the field of psychology, functionalism is a current of thought or approach that proposes the need to study psychic phenomena based on the functions they perform, and not on their structure . Rather than how, he focuses on what the different psychic functions exist for. This movement has as its main object the study of consciousness as an act and asks itself what we do and why.
It is considered that the mind has the main purpose of adapting the internal structure to the environment . At this point, you can see a strong influence of evolutionary theories, which, together with the pragmatism of the time, would end up configuring this current of thought. This comes from the hand of a keen interest in the effects of the environment on the psyche and evolution of man. It is based on the idea that behavior cannot be explained as an automatic response to a stimulus, the mind being a complex system in which different interrelated processes and states occur.
One of its main features is the use of a non-introspective methodology to objectively study consciousness and other psychic phenomena, accepting any methodology, as long as it has useful results. But nevertheless, the experimental introspection that used to be used from the structuralist perspective would be rejected as being invalid and natural (although William James advocates the use of introspection without training).
This approach to the study of the psyche would end up using association as the primary means of explaining complex behavior. This suggests later schools of thought, such as behaviorism , of which functionalism is in part a precursor. And is that functionalism would eventually integrate itself into different schools and would serve as a precursor to the development of different theoretical models, such as the aforementioned behaviorism or Gestalt psychology.
Functionalists would be pioneers in the study of learning , and it would be from them that the first mental tests would begin to appear (appearing with Cattell). Also individual differences and the study of psychopathology would be driven by this current of thought.
The Origin of Functionalism: William James
William James is considered the founding father of functionalism , although he never regarded himself as such and rejected the separation of psychology into schools of thought. This author considers that consciousness has as its main objective or function to choose behavior in a way that allows us to survive and obtain the best possible adaptation.
Consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges from action : we are continually making associations, changing focus and performing different mental operations in a flow that cannot be stopped.
William James’ main focus of interest was to adaptively modulate it in different contexts, profusely becoming interested in and investigating aspects such as the formation of habits. He believed that psychology should focus on everyday experiences, rather than on abstract phenomena and constructions (which are still products of the mind).
Furthermore, this researcher found it difficult to observe psychic changes that were not directly observable through behaviors or physiological changes, and that the psyche and the processes we perform have an evolutionary sense that allows for survival or would have disappeared.
It would also observe and take into account emotions in mental processes, as well as the existence of reflex arcs in the face of emotional stimuli. He conceived of emotion as the result of an automatic reaction , first appearing the physical reaction and then the emotional reaction.
John Dewey and his functionalist theory
John Dewey is another of the great founding fathers of psychological functionalism . This important psychologist would agree and start working together with one of William James’ disciples, James Angell (who greatly expanded functionalism into different fields), and would be one of the main promoters of the use of pragmatism and the functionalist approach in the world. educational field Indeed, together they would make the University of Chicago the center of the functionalist school.
This author considered education and learning as key elements for the human being and its development, being very involved in the achievement of social changes.
Dewey worked on and analyzed some of its most important aspects, such as the reflex arc , concluding that the traditional structuralist view based on dividing it into independent fragments, such as sensation, idea and action, was not able to explain the phenomenon, being useful only as mere description. From a pragmatic and functional point of view, John Dewey considered the need to understand this arc as a whole, rather than the simple sum of its parts.
He advocated a molar and dynamic approach, in which behavior must be taken into account while it works, rather than establishing random divisions and the fact that it evolves and varies over time. And if looked at together, the biological and adaptive role of physical reaction can be seen. He also considers, like James in his view of the workings of emotional reactions, that behavior is what allows sensations to be meaningful .
Taken to the world of education, he proposes that this type of separation into differentiated parts is what generates school failure , by not allowing the representation of a whole that integrates all information. Simple memorization is not functional or useful, as it does not have a survival-enabled meaning. He advocated a change in education that encouraged thought and exploration, versatility and activity. He also advocated inclusion.
For much of his career he had an influential role in educational psychology and psychopedagogy . In fact, he would advise governments of countries like China and Russia.
The contrast with structuralism
The main ideas of functionalism emerged at a time when the predominant position was mainly structuralist, emerging as a reaction to it. Functionalism proposed that instead of analyzing what and how the psyche is, one should study the function or meaning of the psyche and mental processes.
Titchener, the main founder of the structuralist school , intended to study the human mind from the basic elements or “atoms” that compose it. However, functionalism considered that there are no such elements, the psyche being something fluid and dynamic that cannot be divided or stopped.
Furthermore, based on structuralism, consciousness would be understood as shaped by different types of phenomena: sensations, affects and ideas. Functionalism considers that this division does not allow the totality of consciousness to be taken into account as it is and, therefore, does not allow a valid explanation of the phenomenon, as was the case with the reflex arc with Dewey.
Furthermore, although structuralism had an essentially theoretical focus, the functionalist theory of John Dewey and other researchers close to his perspective was more focused on analyzing and giving a practical response to the events that occur in everyday life.
We hope that you have understood the crux of the Functionalist theory of John Dewey.