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Influenced by William James, functionalism is basically a theory relating to the actual nature of the mental states. In fact, this theory holds that the mental states can be indentified more by whatever they do and not what they entail. While its original motivation may be derived from comparisons of computers with the minds, the major argument for this theory highly relies on the indication of how superior the theory is to the main competitors, behaviorism and the identity theory. This paper analyzes functionalism in details including its characteristics, the main basis and critics.

Functionalism explains more about the mental process in an accurate and systematic manner. It is a theoretical level between implementations that are physical and the behavioral output. To a greater extent, this theory considers consciousness elements whereby it focuses on the reasons of consciousness and behavior (Green, 2009). There are various tenets of functionalism. According to James, stream of consciousness is the first tenet and the element of thought. It reflects an individual’s thought therefore it is a not easy to search for elements that are common in most minds. Stream of consciousness cannot similarly be divided for scrutiny because it is continuous. Actually, one cannot cut an idea across and expect to have a glimpse at its section. This is because the idea rushes and brings us up to the conclusion before we even think that (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Consciousness is argued to be changing constantly despite the fact that it is continuous. According to James’ arguments, a person cannot have an idea that is same twice. The ideas provided by the conscious are ever changing including the fact that our conscious always selects where the events that enter our conscious are selected while others prohibited. At every stage, the mind is a theatre of possibilities that are concurrent, whereby the consciousness compares, selects some and suppresses by reinforcing and inhibiting attention. The most important tenet is that consciousness is functional (Hergenhahn, 2009). It is the most important aspect of functionalism helps people to adapt to the environment.

Another foundation of functionalism relates to habits and instincts. In fact, there are beliefs that what govern the human behavior are the instincts. Functionalism holds that the reasons as to why people behave in a strange way such as lying down on hard floor when there are soft beds where they can lie is because of the ad hominem (doing something that appeals to emotions and prejudices rather than for intellectual reasons). Such behaviors are influenced by experience, whereby habits are developed by instinct like patterns. They are repetitive therefore causing pathways in the brain to be more entrenched (Hergenhahn, 2009; Green, 2009). Habits are functional since they shorten the movements needed to attain certain results hence the behavior accuracy is increased, fatigue is reduced, and the need to attend actions that are performed is limited.

The next basis of functionalism relates to emotions. Perceptions causes the body to react, an experience termed as emotion. Such perceptions by the mind are facts resulting in expressions by the body. Actually, what follow the perception are the changes within the body. Common sense then comes into play, whereby in individuals become frightened and run away after seeing threats. On the other hand, anger causes us to cry, a sequence that is objected and which proves that the other does not induce the state in one’s mind immediately. The manifestations of the body must first be introduced between, hence individuals act based on what they want to feel (p.344).

The last basis revolves around pragmatism. This basis reveals functionalism’s underpinnings focusing on applications that are practical and with a purpose in the field of psychology. It asks of the concrete difference granted in one’s life in the truth of something. Beliefs, thoughts and ideas are thus to be judged with their consequences. Any belief, whether religious or scientific, that creates a life that is satisfying and effective is worth holding. The basis emphasizes that truth is supposed to be dynamic and that it should be gauged by its effectiveness in circumstances that keep changing. This method insists on looking at the value of each word said, from ones experience places it at work then judges it. It is a more work program if it appears of less value. It thus focuses more on experiments and introspection, considering any method that shades light in the complexities of the human being existence. For instance the tender minded intellectualists are more optimists, full of ideas and believed in free will. The soft minded, on the other hand, are based more on materialistic, sensationalistic, pessimistic and irreligious facts. What pragmatists do is taking from the lists what would work best on the matter at hand since the validity of an idea is based by its usefulness. According to Stanovich (2010), no idea, thought or religion should be either accepted or rejected if its usefulness is not looked into.

Functionalism has similarly received significant criticisms. In the 1960s, functionalism was criticized for not accounting to changes in the society. It also ignored inequalities that caused conflicts and tension. These inequalities included gender, race and class. The basis of functionalism that claims consciousness is dynamic and keeps changing has also been criticized by parsons. According to Brysbaert & Rastle (2009), Parson believes that change occurs in a manner that is smooth. He similarly claims that individuals adapt to the role of bargaining when they interact with situations that keep changing, and a Norma that further guides actions is created. Likewise, adaptations fail to adjust due to shocks and the radical changes that occur immediately and new systems are formed as the old ones are dissolution. Moving equilibrium thus describes the social change while emphasizing on the need for order in society.

Other critics have argued that functionalism does not contain any sense of agency, whereby Individuals’ roles portray them as puppets. Functionalism, as other critics argue, allows agency, however, there are no explanations as to why individuals choose the norms that are accepted or even reject them. The circumstances that lead them into choosing and the reasons for such are not described.


Functionalism is without a doubt one of the most influential theories that have tried to explain why people behave the way they do. According to the analysis, it is evident that functionalism focuses more on the functions of the mind rather than the mind itself as a structure. Functionalism relies on its foundations comprising of pragmatism, habits and instincts, consciousness and emotions. Despite its attempt to explain human mind and behavioral patters, it has received considerable criticisms from some critics. Critics argue that James argument that consciousness is dynamic, he says that change occurs but it is not gradual it takes a lot of time. The study of functionalism in psychology is important as it gives us the reasons as to why we sometimes behave in a certain way.


Brysbaert, M., & Rastle, K. (2009) Historical and conceptual issues in psychology. Essex: Pearson.

Green, C. (2009). “Darwinian Theory, functionalism, and the first American psychological revolution.” American Psychologist, Vol 64(2), 75-83.

Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology
. Boston: Allen & Bacon.