Pragmatism, Functionalism, And William James’s Psychology

Updated January 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Born in 1842, William James was an American psychologist and philosopher who 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 19th century, he developed theories that were influential in both psychology and philosophy.

James’s intellectual pursuits were diverse, and he relied heavily on his personal experiences when developing 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 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 ideas, filtering answers to his questions through this theory. Most of his findings, theories, and inquiries were viewed according to his pragmatic theory of truth.

During his prolific career, William James ventured into a variety of philosophical and psychological areas. 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. He was a part 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 contributed prolifically to the field of psychology; he was eventually named the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

William James’s Principles Of Psychology

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In 1890, James published his book about psychology, The Principles of Psychology. This work took 12 years to write, and the resulting text consists of two volumes. During the last half of the 19th century, psychology was beginning to gain respectable ground in the United States, and this book 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 various theories and hypothesizes about centers in the brain receiving specific input from the physical senses. The concept of instinct is covered comparatively, and the evolution of brain function, particularly the cerebrum, is also discussed.

In The Principles of Psychology, James also covers his experience with illusions, both visual and auditory. The illusion is explained as a physiological response. According to James, pathways in the brain are formed through repeated behaviors and use, which 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. 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). This new theory stated that emotion is the reaction and result of bodily experience, and not a reaction to stimuli that trigger the bodily experience. According to James, when a stimulus triggers a physical response, the physical response triggers an emotion. This explanation of the nature of emotion has received continued criticism. 

  • Habit: It was understood at the time that habits were formed in response to a desire, a want, or a 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 is still debatable today. To some at the time of James (and today), free will did not exist; 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 on to 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’s contributions are still respected and discussed today.

Pragmatism And Functionalism

To William James, pragmatism was a philosophy of truth. James was a pragmatist, and he tended to understood truth through that lens. Pragmatism deals with the practical. William James tended to believe 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 and depended 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 tended to scrutinize 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.

James was influenced by his early physiology education and the work of Charles Darwin. Functionalism focused on the human propensity for individualism, and this heavily influenced how education was structured. Functionalism was built around a more systematic approach to understanding mental processes. William James developed functionalism to search for consciousness and behavior.

William James’s Contributions To Psychology

William James 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, he had a firm belief in pragmatism that helped him forge his path in psychology, and as a psychologist, he founded the school of functionalism.

During his long career, James published essays in addition to his abovementioned compendium on psychology, The Principles of Psychology. His essays on theory both in philosophy and psychology helped get a place for a science of psychology in the United States. The book itself did more than provide a compendium of scholarly knowledge for intellectuals; it provided a 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. Even with all the advancements in technology, great thinkers like William James can still be viable sources of insight and information. His contributions to psychology helped lay the foundations on which psychology stands today.

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