History and Systems of Psychology PSY502
Various schools of thoughts have emerged in psychology in the last two to three hundred years.
These schools differed from one another on the basis of what they reckoned as the subject matter of
psychology and how they explained it. One of the early major schools in the development of psychology is
the functionalist school.
Like the Structuralist school, Functionalists also defined psychology as the study of consciousness
but instead of explaining the structure of consciousness and describing its content, Functionalists focused
on, as the name implies, the functioning of consciousness. There are two branches of functionalists:
American functionalists; those who were on the American continent.
European functionalists; those who were on the European continent.
American functionalists are philosophers/psychologists who practiced on the American continent and
considered psychology as the study of consciousness, focusing on functions of consciousness.
William James was born in 1842 and he died in 1910. He was an American philosopher, brother of
the novelist Henry James. In 1872 he joined the Harvard faculty as lecturer of anatomy and physiology, after
1880 worked in the department of psychology and philosophy, continued teaching until 1907. In 1890 he
published his brilliant and epoch-making book Principles of Psychology, in which the seeds of his
philosophy are already discernible. James's fascinating style and his broad culture and cosmopolitan outlook
made him the most influential American thinker of his era.
James is considered the founder of the sort of thinking called functionalism. The basic question
that was raised by James when he purported his theory was that "what is the purpose of consciousness?"
Therefore unlike the Structuralists who emphasized on explaining the structure and the parts of
consciousness, James came up with a completely new point of view. He focused on why we need
consciousness. This need is the function that the consciousness performs, therefore his theories focused on
explanation of the functions of consciousness and he is known as the founder of functionalist school.
William James put forward the view that consciousness is not epiphenomena, means that
consciousness cannot be considered as something whose functions or working cannot be explained.
Consciousness has to have certain set patterns of functions and it shall always work according to those
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.
Explaining the function of consciousness, James 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 the view that not just consciousness but all human psychological functions have
a definite purpose. For example, fear in an animal creates movement in the body; laughter reduces tension
etc. Therefore, the importance of all these psychological functions as well as consciousness is due to their
functions. If these functions are disturbed, the organism cannot survive. Therefore, instead of focusing on
the structure of the consciousness, scientists should focus on the functions.
History and Systems of Psychology PSY502
His view was based upon his philosophy of pragmatism which means that the validity of an idea is
tested by its consequences. In other words, when we need to assay how valid an idea is we need to look at
the consequences of the application of idea. If the consequences are as expected, the idea is correct, if not,
the idea is wrong. Adopting a pragmatic approach, James was able to give the idea of the functions of
consciousness being more important.
William James is also known for his theory of emotions, now called James-Lange theory of
emotions. According to this theory, emotions are the consequences of perceptions of bodily changes. For
example, a person feels angry because he strikes something. The perception that is generated by this event
results in generation of certain responses which are emotions. In this case the emotion would be anger.
He also emphasized that repetition is most important for learning and it creates habits. Therefore,
we can develop habits by repeating certain acts. In other words, if we want to develop a habit of something,
we need to perform the thing again and again or repeatedly. Ultimately it would become a habit. These were
some of the contributions of William James.
The other prominent American functionalist was a philosopher, psychologist and above all an
educationist, John Dewey, born in 1859 and died in 1952. He taught at the universities of Minnesota,
Michigan and Chicago and at Columbia from 1904 until his retirement in 1930.
Since John Dewey was an educationist, his theories focused on the field of education. Dewey put
forward the view that education, particularly of children, should be based upon the needs of the children.
This means that children of different ages have different needs. The education system should concentrate
on understanding those needs and should adjust itself to meet the needs. In other words, while forming an
education system, the needs have to be focused upon. For further understanding, children have different
educational needs during his or her developmental stages. These needs need to be focused upon. This was
one of the greatest contributions of John Dewey. His point of view had a great impact on educational
practices in the States and globally.
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