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For the use of the term in cognitive science, see Functionalism (philosophy of mind).

Functional psychology or functionalism refers to a general psychological philosophy that considers mental life and behavior in terms of active adaptation to the person's environment[1]. As such, it provides the general basis for developing psychological theories not readily testable by controlled experiments and for applied psychology.


Functionalism was a philosophy opposing the prevailing structuralism of psychology of the late 19th century. Edward Titchener, the main structuralist, gave psychology its first definition as a science as the study of mental experience, of consciousness, to be studied by trained introspection.

William James founded this psychology. John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Harvey A. Carr, and especially James Rowland Angell were the main proponents of functionalism at the University of Chicago. Another group at Columbia, including notably James McKeen Cattell, Edward L. Thorndike, and Robert S. Woodworth, were also considered functionalists and shared some of the opinions of Chicago's professors. Egon Brunswik represents a more recent, but Continental, version. The functionalists retained an emphasis on conscious experience.

Behaviorists also rejected the method of introspection but criticized functionalism because it was not based on controlled experiments and its theories provided little predictive ability. B. F. Skinner was a developer of behaviorism. He did not think that considering how the mind affects behavior was worth while, for he considered behavior simply as a learned response to an external stimulus.

Contemporary descendants[]

Evolutionary psychology is based on the idea that knowledge concerning the function of the psychological phenomena (e)affecting human evolution is necessary for a complete understanding of the human psyche. Even the project of studying the evolutionary functions of consciousness is now an active topic of study.

Further reading[]

  • John R. Shook and Andrew Backe (eds.) The Chicago School of Functionalism Thoemmes Press, 2003 - facsimiles of source documents in Functional Psychology (3 vols.) ISBN 1855068648

See also[]


  1. Gary R. VandenBos, ed., APA Dictionary of Psychology (2006). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

External links[]