Psychology’s Fascinating Controversy: Structuralism Vs. Functionalism

Psychology’s Fascinating Controversy: Structuralism Vs. Functionalism
December 18, 2019 No Comments Uncategorized Yvonne Judge

Structuralism Vs. Functionalism

Join the conversation on structuralism vs. functionalism.
Join the conversation on structuralism vs. functionalism.

A great debate raging in psychology today is structuralism versus functionalism. In order to talk about something as vast as the history of psychology, it is helpful to categorize the knowledge (Green, Feinerer & Burman, 2014). Two large categories of knowledge that were vying for dominance in the late 19th century are structuralism and functionalism. Understanding these two schools of psychological thought and the individuals who pushed them forward helps one to understand the development of psychology as a field.


As a school of thought, structuralism was more interested in the parts and components of the mind, consciousness and the brain, than in the functions they served (Green, 2009). Some structuralists reviewed only the pieces as they saw them, and others tried quantifying the pieces and how they related to each other. To better understand this school of thought, it is helpful to understand some of its important members. Three instrumental figures in functional psychology are Gustav Fechner, Wilhelm Wundt and Edward P. Titchener.

Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner trained as a physician and passed his medical exam, but instead of studying medicine, he became a structural psychologist. Fechner had an avid interest in quantitative psychology (Meischner-Metge, 2010). Fechner was a pioneer in psychological mathematics, which he referred to as psychophysics. One example of this is Fechner’s theory that the body’s kinetic energy could be measured and used to determine the level of mental functioning present at a given time. Disinterested in function, he was primarily interested in how the body and soul were connected and their structure.

Wilhelm Wundt

Even though Wilhelm Wundt was a contemporary of Darwin, he did not incorporate Darwin’s theories into his understanding of psychology (Green, 2009). Instead, he rejected Darwinism, believing that all minds are alike, and that any deviation from this sameness was an abnormality. Since all minds were the same, they could be easily studied via experimentation. Unfortunately for Wundt, and for structuralism, the results of his reaction-time studies gave inconsistent results. So, instead of helping to experimentally prove the structure of the mind, the failed research helped to give rise to more functionalist thought.

Edward Titchener

On of Wundt’s most avid followers in the US was Edward Titchener. Titchener believed that structural psychology was the most important area of psychological study (Green, 2009). According to Green (2009), “Titchener preached a doctrine of decomposing seen objects into their presumably constituent sensations, images, and feelings”. He believed that studying function of the mind and brain was impossible until the structures were understood. Titchener was one of the few to refer to his own work as “structural psychology”. Other than providing functionalists with someone to debate, Titchener’s psychology did not have much reach outside of his own university. It is assumed here that the main reason that structuralism received as much influence as it did at the time is that E. G. Boring, a student of Titchener, wrote a widely-used history of psychology textbook. In his textbook Boring included a review of structuralism and its debate with functionalism.


Whereas structuralism tried to divide the mind into its component parts and understand how they worked together, functionalism took a more wholistic approach (Angell, 1907). The school of thought was influenced by Darwinism, and for this reason, functionalists wanted to understand how the mind helped creatures adapt to their environments. Functionalism overtook structuralism in the late 1800’s and became the dominant school of thought in the early 20th century (Green, 2009).

Functionalism became the dominant school of thought for many reasons. First, structuralist research was beginning to stagnate due to the difficulty of performing this type of research with the available technology (Green, 2009). Functionalist research, on the other hand could be done easily using methods such as observation. Functionalism was also more intellectually appealing to American researchers because it was less theoretical and had real-world applications. Functionalism also had its downside. Because of its link to evolutionary theory, functional psychology brought about the beginning of the eugenics movement. This was the thought that humans should be made better by selective breeding or sterilization of those who would lead to inferior offspring. Despite its roots in Darwinist thought, eugenics runs counter to the evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest, instead, being nearer to creationism as a kind of intelligent design, putting man in the role of the designer. Another downside of functionalism is that it led to intelligence testing that was inherently biased against women and minorities.

To understand this school of thought, it is helpful to understand some of its founders. Three of the important figures in the development of functional psychology are Williams James, John Dewy, and James Rowland Angell.

William James

According to Green (2009), “William James is always identified as the “school’s”

primary inspiration”. While he was not considered a member of the functionalist school, he contributed to its formation. James did not intend to start a new school of psychology. Early in his career he gave an excellent review to a textbook by the structuralist Wilhelm Wundt. James own thoughts, however, showed a decidedly structuralist leaning. Like other structuralists, James was influenced by Darwinism, believing that consciousness must help an animal survive or it would serve little purpose. For this reason, he thought that consciousness must allow an animal to choose its actions instead of depending solely on instinct.

John Dewey

John Dewy, along with James Rowland Angell, was one of the leaders in Chicago’s functionalist movement (Green, 2009). Dewey’s main area of study was educational theory, and he integrated evolutionary theory into his discussions on the topic. Dewy studied an animal’s mental functions and how those functions helped it to adapt to its environment. He believed that animals responded to others not only based on instinct and need, but also based on the significance that the animal placed on them. Perhaps Dewey’s greatest achievement was publishing “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” in 1896. This document is thought to be the paper that founded functionalism, and was written in response to a 1986 discussion by James Rowland Angell and Addison Moore.

James Rowland Angell

James Rowland Angell was the psychologist most covered in this week’s readings. Angell often compared the structuralism vs. functionalism debate to religion, equating structuralists with outdated Catholic beliefs and functionalists with Protestant reform (Angell, 1907). He felt that functionalism was infinitely more useful to psychologists, as it could be easily proved without dissection of the subject and had real-world applications. He also thought that the function of psychology could be easily discussed without structural theory, but that discussion of the physical or psychological structure of the mind had no meaning without understanding function. For this reason, he emphasized the importance of the connection between mind and body in his writings


Structuralism and functionalism are a useful way of categorizing early psychological theories (Green, Feinerer & Burman, 2014). Originally, psychology was dominated by structuralism, but in near the turn of the 20th century, gave way to functionalist thought (Green, 2009). Functionalism dominated the profession up until the 1940s. Reading about structuralism and functionalism helps students of psychology to understand the various schools of thought in the profession’s history. It also helps students to take a wider view, understanding that both structure and function are important to modern psychologists. As can be seen from the history of the structuralism vs. functionalism debate, too much dogmatic dependence on one school of thought can cause poor research and slow down progress in the field.


Angell, J. R. (1907). The province of functional psychology. Psychological Review, 14(2), 61–91.

Green, C. (2009). Darwinian theory, functionalism, and the first American psychological revolution. American Psychologist, 64(2), 75–83.

Green, C., Feinerer, I., & Burman, J. (2014). Beyond the schools of psychology 2: a digital analysis of psychological review, 1904-1923. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 50(3), 249–279.

Meischner-Metge, A. (2010). Gustav Theodor Fechner: Life and work in the mirror of his diary. History of Psychology, 13(4), 411–423.

Meischner-Metge, A. (2010). Gustav Theodor Fechner: Life and work in the mirror of his diary. History of Psychology, 13(4), 411–423.

About The Author
Yvonne Judge
Yvonne Judge Yvonne Judge is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist and Marriage and Family Therapist Trainee. She has also worked in business for 20+ years and enjoys coaching and building teams. Yvonne is the owner of Columbus Hypnosis Center in Columbus, Ohio and works as a therapist for Focus Counseling Clinic in Grandview Heights, Ohio. In her spare time, Yvonne enjoys creating art and doing volunteer work through Mental Health America.