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James and Functionalism

Another approach to psychology, formulated in the 1890s, was the functionalism of William James. James is often described as the father of American psychology. He regarded the mind as a process, a function of the organism. By the 1890s scientists were well acquainted with Darwin's basic idea that humans had evolved from simpler animals, and James related psychology to Darwin's theory. James argued that consciousness must have evolved because it was useful for something. In other words, it had a function. If we wanted to understand the origins and purpose of a psychological phenomenon, James suggested, we should ask what it was used for. James published Principles of Psychology (1890), which came in two large volumes, and Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892) , which came in one smaller volume. Also famous is James's work on the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

What was the main idea of James's functionalism?

William James

Because they are old enough not to be covered by copyright, books from this era can be reproduced on the web. The entire text of The Varieties of Religious Experience is on Michael Nielsen's Psychology of Religion web site at Psych Web at this URL:


Why do many present-day psychologists respect William James?

James is remembered as a great psychologist because he wrote well and because he had good judgment about what ideas would have lasting value. Many psychologists living a century or more after James found his insights "exciting" because they seemed so modern (Kimble, 1990). A reviewer of Principles of Psychology on called it "fresh as a morning flower." However, James himself did little research, and his examples came mostly from everyday life and from introspection, not from rigorous laboratory experiments.

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