Structuralism Functionalism William James Cognitions

The Enlightenment discarded metaphysical explanations for human behavior. Concepts such as “soul” and “sin” fell out of fashion. Instead, attention turned to seeking rational and naturalistic explanations for mental processes and behavior. Structuralism and Functionalism were the initial theoretical attempts to explain psychological and sociological phenomena from a naturalistic perspective. Though similar in their assumptions that mental processes motivate behavior, the two views differed in explaining human cognition.


Wilhelm Wundt, founder of Structuralism, and his associates emphasized the biological structure of the brain as the origins of consciousness or the mind. Structuralists proposed the various structures or segments of the brain organized in a systematic manner due to biochemical processes and drives to motivate behavior. In other words, human behavior was a product of organic processes. Evolution influenced the mind and cognitive processes through the structural and chemical changes introduced over time.


The explanation of the brain was simplistic and those who embraced the prospect that evolutionary learning could influence the mind rejected the entirely organic approach to the mind. Functionalism grew out of the work of William James and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Functionalism recognized biological structures in the brain were complex, but argued for more than biology as the cause of mental processes. Mental processes such as decision-making were influenced by perceptions and learning.


The primary disagreement between the two schools of thought involved the mechanisms responsible for cognitions or mental processes. Structuralism deterministic assumptions that biology is everything naturally limited cognitions to biological explanations. Their argument incurred natural limitations because the mental processes and decision-making seemed to be more complex to many naysayers and the limitations of technology in the nineteenth century left most of their hypotheses in the realm of conjecture.

Functionalism was the reaction to biological determinism in explaining cognitions. Functionalism expanded the definition of the cognition to include all of the factors that contribute to mental processes and decision-making. For instance, interests grew in studying perceptions and the influence of presuppositions in the processing of information. Psychological/emotional needs were explored such as the desire to gain acceptance by appearing competent and confident (saving face).


The legacy of Structuralism continues in cognitive psychology. Biotechnology enabled cognitive psychology to advance knowledge of the brain’s structure far beyond the understand of Wundt and the early Structuralists. However, Structuralism failed to play a significant role in the development of counseling theory during the twentieth century.

Functionalism was the foundation of modern psychology and counseling theory. Theories that emphasize the influence of beliefs in cognitive processes such as cognitive-behavioral theories build on the tradition of Functionalism. Functionalism has prompted reactions by other theories. For instance, Behaviorism denies the need to understand the multiple processes that influence cognitions and relies on the premise that behavior is mostly learned in response to the presence of rewards and punishment.


Structuralism and Functionalism attempted to explain human cognitions free of metaphysical beliefs and terminology. The two theories offered alternative explanations for cognitions. If Hegel’s dialectic is correct then a clear understanding of the issue can probably be found in the synthesis of the two.