How Functionalism Differs from Structuralism

Functionalism and structuralism are closely related in that structure, physical—seen, felt, touch—are often created for functions, or needs. Function relates to usage of ideas, things, and gives meaning to structure. Someone need not ask, as an example, the purpose of sloping sidewalks that are even with the pavement? They will know they are for those in wheelchairs.

“Form follows function” is an idea perpetuated by the architect Louis Sullivan that shows the connection between the shape of things and the action of things. Function is an action; structure is the shape of the thing that performs the action. They are complimentary. The purpose of a thing is the defining quality of an item. Its structure or how it is built works, or should work, toward its function. Thus functionalism differs from structuralism as purpose differs from shape.

Considering how things work and comparing how they differ from how they’re also changer thoughts and thinking. This creates pathways for creative philosophies that elevate simple ideas from more complex explanations and postulations. (On the internet there is controversy over the origin of who said “Function” and whether or not it is correctly interpreted.)

Whatever context the words function and structure are used, whether in scientific investigations, business or in academic curricula, function is relative to the actions of a something, and structure is in reference to how this something was made or put together. The ism suffix signifies it is no longer acting or being built but is in a state all its own. These two terms can be applied to nearly all actions. 

And this state, as research indicates, is psychology. It’s a scientific category seeking to learn how thoughts are formed and how they function. Yet, undeniably, after being inducted into this scholarly and immense unknown field of research, function and structure ceases to be simplistic terms signifying purpose and shape. Architects and creative individuals are forever tampering with the structure of buildings to not only make them more functional but aesthetic pleasing as well.

Despite all the hammering and nailing of the builders, when the finished product is inspected, it may fall short of the preferred perfection. It’s the way of humanity and the world of nature and its natural resources as it now stands. Psychology aims to find the leaks, the disruptions, the flaws in the original structure and to reassemble the parts, at least in theory, toward a better functionality. How do they do it? Their territory is functionality of the thinking process according to how a person’s DNA has structured it.


Functionalism as a psychological entity is “a study of consciousness.” John Dewey (1859-1952) is its founder and teacher. It has a direct relationship to structuralism, in that it opposes its assertion that an analysis of mental functions is impossible. Put alongside structuralism, functionalism is commonsense oriented and believes, that “if correct methods were used,” it was possible to probe the inner workings of the mind and come up with answers to conflicting emotions and perplexing situations.

John Dewey, a philosopher in addition to being a psychologist, is a recognized contributor to workings of the mind. No doubt he used his own mind and his way of thinking to hone in on thoughts, how they burst upon the scene unannounced, and how they often answered their own puzzling problems if sufficient time was allowed for analysis and observation.

A psychological concept “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” is credited to him. The mind as he saw it was continuously flowing with ideas. At first “a sensory perception then a process follows and then that is preceded by a response.” An explanatory sentence taken form his concept further explains:  “More specifically, the ability of the hand to do its work will depend, either directly or indirectly, upon its control, as well as its stimulation, by the act of vision.”


The heyday of structuralism was from 1890 to 1920 and its proponents were Wundt and Titchner. Paying close attention to conscious activities was a process directed toward finding correlated relationships between actions and structure of thoughts. Actions were analyzed since there were no profound reasoning of subconscious motivations for behavior as would come later.

These mannerisms and patterns were used to decipher probable causes of why such and an individual’s brain physiology caused behavioral deviations or functional abnormalities.  Crudely put, it runs in the family might be one explanation of aberrant behavior. Less emphasis might be on therapy and cognitive reasoning as it is now since ongoing mental research outdated the theories of structuralism.

Wilhelm Wundt 

Wundt was not only the founder of structuralism he was the first to teach “physiological psychology.” In 1867 he published Principles of Physiological Psychology, making psychology in general its own “unique branch of science with its own questions and methods.” In fact he was the first man to be called a psychologist. And structuralism, in essence, ushered in this new science.

Edward Bradford Titchener was a student of Wundt, of Germany.  “In 1895 he became a professor of psychology at Cornell University.  He had great admiration for Wundt’s work, but brought his own version of Wundt’s psychology to America.”

Argue as they will, the subconscious exerts influences on conscious behavior, and turn that around conscious actions determine to a certain extent the actions of the subconscious. This is physiologically possible because the human brain is constructed with nerve pathways where messages are carried both ways, going and coming. What one thinks, often is what one becomes, is one example.

Yet this ability to think is directly related to how well the brain was structured. If insufficient building blocks or interferences caused inadequacy in some of its vital parts, then the functioning potential is lessened. Therefore the conclusion is that structuralism and functionalism cannot be totally separated, regardless of how the scientists have divided them into separate entities. Each relies on the other.