History of Psychology Structuralism Functionalism

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Has psychology found a place in human existence? To some degree psychology has always found a place among human beings. Psychology in its purist form is a study of human nature. Why people do and function the way that they do? The possibilities fall under two major categories in the pre-modern and modern periods: 

Metaphysical causation

Naturalistic causation

Pre-modern Period 

1. Metaphysical Causation 

The earliest explanations of human nature were associated with religion. For example, the earliest details we have about the religious beliefs and practices of people living in Mesopotamia and Palestine indicate that all believed they were created in some way different from other people and separate from the remainder of creation. Psychological needs were reportedly met through adherence to the religion. Psychological distress was due to making the gods angry. Explanations of human behavior were based on the religion’s understanding of human nature.

2. Naturalistic Causation 

Greeks. The Greeks broke with the metaphysical explanations of psychology. Psychology was an extension of the naturalistic philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. Hippocrates provided an early and simplistic classification of human personality as either melancholy, sanguine, phlegmatic, or choleric and personality was determined by the levels of fluids or humors in the body.   Middle Eastern. Philosophers from other nations in the Middle East offered naturalistic explanations of human nature and human behavior. For example, a “school” of psychological research existed in Persia in the 8th century and in Egypt in the ninth century.   Europe. The Renaissance in southern Europe witnessed a revival of Classical Greek understanding of human nature. Human beings were not innately bad as was taught by the Church during the Medieval Period but were good and possessed incredible potential to do good. The Reformation in northern Europe during the 16th century revived a view of human nature and psychology that agreed with the premise that people are innately bad and psychology was influenced by that state but through a conversion to Christianity, they could be made psychologically healthy.  

The Modern Period

The Enlightenment beginning in the 17th century was the point at which psychology developed as a discipline separate from philosophy. The understanding of psychology was that no metaphysical explanations of human nature and motivation are valid. All psychological phenomena have naturalistic explanations. The search for those naturalistic origins of psychological phenomena proceeded in two directions:



3. Structure

Structuralism. Structuralism was the first “school” or approach to explaining psychology in Western Civilization during the Modern period. Structural explanations of psychological phenomena focus on the design to the brain. All psychological phenomena was related to chemical processes within the brain that were impossible to observe in the late 19th century except through introspection and interviews. Wilhelm Wundt opened the first lab in Germany in the late 19th century that was dedicated to researching the claims of Structuralism about human nature.  

4. Functional

Functionalism. Functionalism responded to Structuralism’s exclusive focus on the structure of the brain by adding the importance of environment. Functionalism proposed the human psychology should be studied based upon how the brain functions on behalf of the organism. William James and other proponents of Functionalism in the late 19th century saw psychological functioning as a tool for survival rather than a biochemical process.   

The Forces of Psychology 

The debate over structure and function led to four “forces” emerging in psychology. The first two “forces” continued the traditions of Structuralism and Functionalism. The third “force” was in rejection of the mechanistic view of the human psyche offered by Structuralism and Functionalism. The fourth “force” reflects the move away from Modernism that occurred in the late 20th century. 

5. Force One - Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theories constitute the first force of psychology. Psychoanalysis builds on the foundation of structuralism by stressing the internal world of the unconscious and conflicting naturalistic drives.  The psychodynamic theories of Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Erik Erikson share Freud’s view that early human development is largely a naturalistic phenomenon but some like Adler and Erikson recognize that environment plays a role in shaping psychological health too.  

6. Force Two – Behaviorism

Behaviorism and cognitive-behaviorism constitute the second “force” in psychology. Behaviorism builds on the assumptions of functionalism that human psychology is more a product of the environment than a creation of naturalistic forces. Behaviorism takes the most radical stance in its assumption that people are no more than highly evolved organisms who can be conditioned or trained to any behavior given the right set of rewards and punishments. Cognitive-behaviorists typically add the influence of cognitions in behavior choice.  

Philosophical Revival 

The 1960s witnessed a revival of linking psychology to philosophy. Namely, discouragement with the mechanistic explanations of human psychology motivated some like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May to revisit Existential philosophy in an attempt to regain some since of dignity and value for human beings. 

7. Force Three – Humanistic/Existential 

The Humanistic/Existential approach to psychology moved way from attempting to explain and condition behavior to focusing on perceptions, meaning, and positive relating to others. Carl Rogers’ therapeutic methods became the standard in how to build a therapeutic relationship with clients. The emphasis on finding meaning and purpose in life shaped the cultural thought in the U.S. for years to come.  

Postmodern Psychology 

The history of psychology has brought us to postmodern psychology. Postmodern psychology shares greater similarity with the Humanistic approach than previous views of psychology. Postmodern psychology is an extension of postmodern philosophy. Postmodern philosophy denies the validity of any body of truth that purports to apply to all people. Rather, each person has his or her own story and the story reflects reality for the person. Postmodern psychology rejects generalizations. 

8. Force Four – Multiculturalism 

Multiculturalism and narrative therapy resists cross-cultural generalizations about groups of people. Everyone must be viewed within his or her cultural context. Cultural forces rather than factors that apply to all people will influence psychological health.

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