Pragmatism, Functionalism, And William James Psychology

By Nadia Khan|Updated April 11, 2022


William James was an American psychologist and philosopherwho is sometimes referred to as the “Father of American psychology.” James wrote and published extensively, and was the first to offer a course in psychology in the United States. As a leading thinker during the latter half of the nineteenth century, his theories were influential in both psychology and philosophy.

James’ intellectual pursuits were diverse, and he relied heavily on his personal experiences when crafting his theories. With an approach to psychology that was based firmly on his pragmatic philosophy, he produced a body of work that is still viable to many. James culled his information from many sources and schools of thought, carefully picking and choosing only information he believed to be useful.

Pragmatism and functionalism are two philosophies William James used to further his understanding of the world around him. James posited the pragmatic theory of truth, and used this philosophy to define and re-define, filtering answers to his questions through this theory. As a philosopher and psychologist, all his findings, theories, and inquiries were viewed according to his pragmatic theory of truth.

During his prolific career, William James ventured into all philosophical and psychological arenas. Although he was trained and certified as a medical doctor, James found that his true interest was in the workings of the mind. He began his professional life with a doctorate in physical medicine, after which he studied psychology and philosophy with the best and brightest minds of his day.

To James, the truth was subjective, and he delved into all mental pursuits with an open mind. During his life, he was a member of the Theosophical Society, and one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research. From spiritualism to pragmatic philosophy and the functionalist school of psychology, William James had something to add; he was eventually named the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

William James’ Principles of Psychology

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In 1890, James wrote published his book about psychology, The Principles of Psychology.The Principles of Psychology took twelve years to write,andthe resulting text consists of two volumes. During the last half of the nineteenthcentury, psychology was beginning to gain respectable ground in the United States,andthis book by William James helped to strengthen its hold.

Four main concepts are put forth by James in this book: stream of consciousness, emotion, habit, and will. Along with these four main concepts, James discusses theories and hypothesizes about centers in the brain receiving specific input from the physical senses. The concept of instinct is covered comparatively,andthe evolution of brain function, particularly the cerebrum, is also discussed.

The topic of psychology iscovered,andhis experience with illusions, both visual and auditory, are explained. The illusion is explained as a physiological response; pathways in the brain are formed through repeated behaviors and use, this leads to illusion when similar stimuli occur and are guided through the same pathways. James goes on to explain that the mind becomes accustomed to recognizing something that is repeated, and when stimuli are similar an assumption is made—this assumption is the “illusion.”

The four main concepts—habit, stream of consciousness, emotion, and will—make up the bulk of the work. Each of these concepts is complete with explanations and in some cases, empirical knowledge from James himself. These four concepts are a bit out of sync with modern psychology, but they still have their merit.

  • Stream of Consciousness – The metaphor “stream of consciousness” was coined by James, and it shows a shift in how consciousness was understood. It was no longer a “chain” of consciousness, strung together like the links of a chain. It was now a “stream,” always flowing and moving forward. To James, consciousness was and is continuous, and humans could never experience the same idea or thought more than once.
  • Emotion – William James founded a new theory of emotion, the James-Lange theory. This theory states that emotion is the reaction and result of bodily experience, and not a reaction to stimuli that trigger the bodily experience. When a stimulus triggers a physical response, the physical response triggers an emotion. This explanation of the nature of emotion has received continued criticism. Up until this theory was developed, the prevailing theory stated that the emotion triggered a physical response (e.g., you cry because you are sad).
  • Habit -It was understood that habits were formed in response to a desire, a want or need. Habits focus the mind on achieving the desire, want or need. James observed and added that habits are not always bad. Some habits are good, and this ability to form habits shows the power of the mind to focus and achieve.
  • Will -The argument of the validity of free will was debatable. To some, free will did not exist; the free will was just an illusion because the will bends to social, political, and religious ends structured to control the will. James relied on his personal experiences to express his understanding of free will. To him, free will was the ability to “attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind.” It seems his answer to the existence of free will was the ability to hold onto principles in the face of opposition and lack of support.

The book The Principles of Psychology was a comprehensive work covering the entire field of psychology as it was understood up until publication. Many individuals who work in the field of psychology today still find many of the concepts and theories in this book to be informative and interesting. Modern psychology has come a long way since the year 1890, but James’ brilliance is still respected and discussed today.

Pragmatism And Functionalism

To William James, pragmatism was a philosophy of truth. James was a pragmatist, and he understood truth through that lens. Pragmatism deals with the practical. William James believed that only practical aspects of life, those things that are beneficial and help to move us in the right direction, are worthwhile. Pragmatism as a philosophy of truth was something James believed in strongly.To him,the truth was arbitrary; it depends on belief.

Pragmatism was the approach James took whenever he was validating a theory of his own or others. The pragmatist movement, as a philosophical movement, was one James fell in with early in his career. It was an easy fit for James. He was a pragmatist at heart, and he scrutinized all the experience and information he accumulated, searching all the while for pragmatic answers to his inquiries.

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 Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt criticized functionalism as nothing more than literature, and James criticized structuralism as “all school and no thought.” When the criticisms faded, functionalism went on to influence the major schools of thought still in use today, such as the cognitive-behavioral and behavioral schools.

Functionalism focused on the human propensity 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.

William James’ Contributions to Psychology

William James has made enormous contributions to psychology. As the first person to offer a course in psychology in the United States, he helped to validate the science of psychology as something worth learning about. His work moved between philosophy and psychology, and he left his mark on both. As a philosopher, his firm belief in pragmatism helped him forge his path in psychology; and as a psychologist, he founded the school of functionalism.

During his long career, he published essays, and importantly, his compendium on psychology itself, The Principles of Psychology. His essays on theory both in philosophy and psychology helped secure a place for a science of psychology in America. The book itself did more than provide a compendium of scholarly knowledge for intellectuals; it provided text for teaching, and for learning.

Today, modern psychology has moved into the digital age, and psychologists as well as philosophers can publish theories on the internet for all to read. It is now easier than it has ever been to learn, and even earn a degree without ever stepping foot in a university. Technology has evolved and now therapistsand psychologists can be accessed from a smartphone.

Even withall the advancements in tech, great thinkers like William James are still viable sources of insight and information. William James never dreamed that ideas and theories would be exchanged across continents in the blink of an eye. His contributions to psychology helped lay the foundations on which psychology stands today.

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The field of psychology has advanced significantly since William James wrote The Principles of Psychology. As it continues to evolve, licensed therapists and psychologists will stay up to date on the best methods for guiding you on your mental health journey.

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