Psychology: Structuralism and Functionalism

Jay W Jackson. Psychology Basics. Editor: Nancy A Piotrowski. Volume 2. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2005.

Structuralism and functionalism were two of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. To understand these early perspectives, it is important to consider the sociohistorical context in which they developed. Psychology as an independent scientific discipline was founded in 1879 by German scholar Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) at the University of Leipzig. Wundt was a medically trained physiologist appointed to the department of philosophy at Leipzig. In 1879, he established the first-ever laboratory devoted solely to the experimental study of psychological issues. The German Zeitgeist was conducive to this development. For example, the education reform movement encouraged the development of university research and promoted academic freedom. Furthermore, German scholars at the time accepted a broader definition of science compared to their counterparts in many other European countries.

Wundt defined psychology as the scientific study of conscious experience and organized it into two broad areas: experimental psychology (the study of sensation and perception, reaction time, attention, and feelings) and Völkerpsychologie (cultural psychology, which included the study of language, myth, and custom). Wundt made an important distinction between immediate and mediate experiences. Mediate experiences involve an interpretation of sensory input (“I see an apple”), whereas an immediate experience consists of pure and unbiased sensory experiences (“I see a roundish, red object”). Wundt emphasized the process of organizing and synthesizing the elemental components of consciousness (the immediate experiences) into higher-level thoughts. Because this process of apperception was considered to be an act of will or volition, he often referred to his system as voluntarism.

One of Wundt’s students, Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927), an Englishman who earned his Ph.D. under Wundt in 1892, ascended to prominence by establishing the structural school of thought in psychology as a professor at Cornell University. Functionalism soon arose as a school of thought that opposed structuralism.

Titchener, it should be noted, considered structuralism to be a refined extension of, and largely compatible with, Wundt’s work. Because Titchener was the main translator of Wundt’s work into English and was widely considered to be a loyal and accurate representative of Wundt’s system, the term “structuralism” at the time was used as a label for both Titchener’s and Wundt’s work. This interpretative error, which is still propagated in some textbooks, was not fully realized until the mid-1970’s, when scholars started to examine Wundt’s original work in detail. There are some important differences between Titchener’s structuralism and Wundt’s system of voluntarism. First, Titchener rejected the idea of a branch of cultural psychology. Second, structural psychology neglected the study of apperception and focused almost exclusively on the identification of the elements of consciousness. Finally, in a structuralist framework, the elements of consciousness themselves were of utmost importance; mediate and immediate experiences were considered the same event, viewed from different vantage points. There was no need for a volitional process.


For Titchener, psychology was the study of consciousness. Whereas physics was said to be concerned with assessing environmental events from an objective, external standard, psychology was concerned with examining how humans experience such events subjectively. For example, an hour spent listening to a boring speech and an hour spent playing an enjoyable game last exactly the same length of time—3,600 seconds—but, psychologically, the second event goes by more quickly.

In structuralism, consciousness is defined as the sum total of experiences at any given moment, and the mind is defined as the sum of experiences over the course of a lifetime. In order to understand consciousness and thus the mind, psychology, according to structuralism, must be concerned with three primary questions: First, what are the most basic elements of consciousness? Just as chemists break down physical substances into their elemental components, psychologists should identify the basic components of consciousness. Second, how are the elements associated with one another? That is, in what ways do they combine to produce complex experiences? Third, according to Titchener, what underlying physiological conditions are associated with the elements? Most of Titchener’s work was devoted to the first goal of identifying the basic elements of consciousness. The primary methodology used toward this end was systematic experimental introspection.


A primary goal for structuralism was to identify the basic elements of consciousness. Titchener reasoned that any science requires an observation of its subject matter, and psychology was no different. As detailed in Titchener’s classic work Experimental Psychology: A Manual of Laboratory Practice (4 vols., 1901-1905), introspection involved the systematic analysis and reporting of conscious experiences by highly trained researchers. Such individuals were trained to report on the most basic of sensory experiences and to avoid the stimulus error of reporting perceptual interpretations. For example, to report seeing “an apple” or having “a headache” would be a stimulus error. It would be more accurate, psychologically, to report seeing a “roundish, red object” or experiencing a “throbbing sensation of moderate intensity in the lower right part of the head.” This methodology was used by Wundt, but Wundt emphasized quantitative judgments (such as size, weight, duration, or intensity), whereas in Titchener’s system, descriptive reports were emphasized.

Titchener concluded that there were three basic elements of consciousness: sensations, images, and feelings. Sensations were the most fundamental and were the building blocks of all perceptions. In his An Outline of Psychology (1896), Titchener listed more than forty-four thousand elementary sensations, including approximately thirty-two thousand visual, twelve thousand auditory, and four taste sensations. It was held that these indivisible sensations could be combined in any number of ways to produce unique perceptions and ideas. Images are the building blocks for ideas and reflect previous sensory experiences. It is possible to have an image of an apple only because of past experiences with a particular combination of sensations. All feelings were viewed as reducible to experiencing a degree of pleasantness or unpleasantness. (In contrast, Wundt postulated two other dimensions: strain/relaxation and excitement/calmness.) A feeling, when combined with certain sensations, can give rise to a complex emotional state, such as love, joy, disgust, or fear.

Later in his career, Titchener asserted that each element of consciousness could be characterized with regard to five basic dimensions: quality, intensity, protensity (duration), attensity (clearness), and extensity (space). Quality refers to the differentiation of sensations (an apple may be red or green; the water may be hot or cold). Intensity refers to the strength or magnitude of the quality (the extent to which the apple is red or the water is cold). Protensity refers to the duration or length of a sensory experience. Attensity refers to the clarity or vividness of the experience and reflects the process of attention (sensations are clearer when they are the focus of attention). Some sensations, especially visual and tactile ones, can also be characterized in terms of extensity (that is, they take up a certain amount of space). Feelings were characterized only in terms of quality, intensity, and protensity. Titchener believed that feelings dissipated when they were the subject of focused attention and therefore could not be experienced with great clarity.


Structuralism faded away after Titchener’s death in 1927. However, the basic tenets of structuralism had been under attack for years. First, there were serious problems with introspection as a scientific methodology. The results of such studies were frequently unreliable, and there was no way of objectively verifying the content of someone’s consciousness. The controversy over imageless thought was important. One group of researchers, most notably a former follower of Wundt, Oswald Külpe (1862-1915), at the University of Würzburg, concluded, using introspection methodology, that some thoughts occurred in the absence of any mentalistic sensations or images. This was completely at odds with structuralism, and researchers loyal to the structuralist position were not able to replicate the findings. On the other hand, researchers sympathetic to the Würzburg school were able to replicate the findings. Obviously, a theoretical bias was driving the results. It was widely concluded that introspection was lacking the objectivity needed to sustain a scientific discipline. Other methodologies were discouraged by structuralists, in part because of the limited scope of psychology they practiced. In essence, structural psychology was limited to the study of the elements of consciousness in the healthy adult human. There was no place for the use of nonhuman animals as subjects, no child psychology, and no concern with the psychology of physical or mental illness. In addition, Titchener was against applied research, that is, conducting research to help resolve practical problems. He felt that this would detract from the objectivity of the study, and that academic researchers should be devoted to advancement of pure knowledge. Finally, structuralism was criticized for focusing almost exclusively on the elements of consciousness without taking into serious consideration the idea that consciousness is experienced as a unified whole, and that this whole is different from the sum of the elements.

Today, two major contributions of structuralism are recognized. The first is the strong emphasis that Titchener and his followers placed on rigorous laboratory research as the basis for psychology. While other methods are used by modern psychologists (such as case studies and field research), the emphasis on experimentation in practice and training remains dominant. Second, structuralism provided a well-defined school of thought and set of ideas that others could debate and oppose, with the ultimate result being the development of new and different schools of thought. The most prominent opposition to structuralism was functionalism.


Unlike structuralism, functionalism was not a formal school of psychological thought. Rather, it was a label (originally used by Titchener) applied to a general set of assumptions regarding the providence of psychology and a loosely connected set of principles regarding the psychology of consciousness. In many respects, functionalism was defined in terms of its opposition or contrast to structuralism. For example, functionalists believed that psychology should focus on the functions of mental life (in contrast to the structuralist focus on elemental components); be concerned with using psychology for practical solutions to problems (structuralists were, at best, indifferent to this concern); study not only healthy adult humans (the main focus of attention of structuralists) but also nonhuman animals, children, and nonhealthy individuals; employ a wide range of methodologies to investigate psychological issues (structuralists relied almost totally on introspection); and examine individual differences, rather than being solely concerned, like the structuralists, with the establishment of universal (nomothetic) principles.

While structuralism was imported to the United States by a British scholar (Titchener) who received his psychological training in Germany (under Wundt), functionalism had a distinctly American flair. The American Zeitgeist at the time emphasized pragmatism and individuality. Such qualities made American psychologists especially receptive to the revolutionary work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) on evolution and its subsequent application (as “social Darwinism”) by anthropologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) to education, business, government, and other social institutions. Other important developments that influenced functionalism include work by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) on individual differences in mental abilities and the work on animal psychology by George Romanes (1848-1894) and C. Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936).

William James

William James (1842-1910) is considered the most important direct precursor of functional psychology in the United States and one of the most eminent psychologists ever to have lived. James earned his M.D. from Harvard University in 1869 and subsequently became keenly interested in psychology. Despite his severe bouts with depression and other ailments, he accepted a post at Harvard in 1872 to teach physiology. Shortly thereafter, in 1875, James taught the first psychology course offered in the United States, “The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology,” and initiated a classroom demonstration laboratory.

James published the two-volume The Principles of Psychology in 1890. This work was immediately a great success and is now widely regarded as the most important text in the history of modern psychology. Given the expansive-ness of Principles—more than thirteen hundred pages arranged in twenty-eight chapters—it is impossible to summarize fully, but it includes such topics as the scope of psychology, functions of the brain, habit, methods of psychology, memory, the consciousness of self, sensation, perception, reasoning, instinct, emotions, will, and hypnotism. In this text James presented ideas that became central to functionalism. For example, in the chapter “The Stream of Consciousness,” he criticized the postulate of structural psychology that sensations constitute the simplest mental elements and must therefore be the major focus of psychological inquiry. In contrast, James argued that conscious thought is experienced as a flowing and continuous stream, not as a collection of frozen elements. In critiquing introspection, the methodology championed by the structuralists, James asserted,

The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it … The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how darkness looks.

With this new, expansive conceptualization of consciousness, James helped pave the way for psychologists interested in broadening the scope and methods of psychology. What was to emerge was the school of functionalism, with prominent camps at the University of Chicago and Columbia University.

The Chicago School

The Chicago school of functionalism is represented by the works of American scholars John Dewey (1859-1952), James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), and Harvey A. Carr (1873-1954). Functionalism was launched in 1896 with Dewy’s Psychological Review article, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology.” Here Dewey argued against reducing reflexive behaviors to discontinuous elements of sensory stimuli, neural activity, and motor responses. In the same way that James attacked elementalism and reductionism in the analysis of consciousness, Dewey argued that it was inaccurate and artificial to do so with behavior. Influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection, Dewey asserted that reflexes should not be analyzed in terms of their component parts but rather in terms of how they are functional for the organism; that is, how they help an organism adapt to the environment.

Angell crystalized the functional school in his 1907 Psychological Review paper, “The Province of Functional Psychology.” In this work, three characteristics of functionalism were identified: Functional psychology is interested in discerning and portraying the typical operations of consciousness under actual life conditions, as opposed to analyzing and describing the elementary units of consciousness. Functional psychology is concerned with discovering the basic utilities of consciousness, that is, how mental processes help organisms adapt their surroundings and survive. Finally, functional psychology recognizes and insists upon the essential significance of the mind-body relationship for any just and comprehensive appreciation of mental life itself.

Carr’s 1925 textbook Psychology: A Study of Mental Activity presents the most polished version of functionalism. As the title suggests, Carr identified such processes as memory, perception, feelings, imagination, judgment, and will as the topics for psychology. Such psychological processes were considered functional in that they help organisms gain information about the world, retain and organize that information, and then retrieve the information to make judgments about how to react to current situations. In other words, these processes were viewed as useful to organisms as they adapt their environments.

The Columbia School

Another major camp of functionalism was at Columbia University and included such notable psychologists as James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962), and Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949).

In line with the functionalist’s embrace of applied psychology and the study of individual differences, Cattell laid the foundation for the psychological testing movement that would become massive in the 1920’s and beyond. Under the influence of Galton, Cattell stressed the statistical analysis of large data sets and the measurement of mental abilities. He developed the order of merit methodology, in which participants rank-order a set of stimuli (for instance, the relative appeal of pictures or the relative eminence of a group of scientists) from which average ranks are calculated.

Woodworth is best known for his emphasis on motivation in what he called dynamic psychology. In this system, Woodworth acknowledged the importance of considering environmental stimuli and overt responses but emphasized the necessity of understanding the organism (perceptions, needs, or desires), representing therefore an early stimulis-organism-response (S-O-R) approach to psychology.

Thorndike represented a bridge from functionalism to behaviorism, a new school of thought that was led by John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) and emerged around 1913. Thorndike was notable for his use of nonhuman subjects, a position consistent with Darwin’s emphasis on the continuity among organisms. He is also famous for his puzzle box research with cats, which led to his Law of Effect, which states that when an association is followed by a satisfying state of affairs, that association is strengthened. This early operant conditioning research was later expanded on by the famous behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990).


Functionalism paved the way for the development of applied psychology, including psychological testing, clinical psychology, school psychology, and industrial and organizational psychology. Functionalism also facilitated the use of psychological research with a wide variety of subjects beyond the healthy adult male, including infants, children, the mentally ill, and nonhuman animals. Finally, functional psychologists used a wide variety of methods beyond that of introspection, including field studies, questionnaires, mental tests, and behavioral observations. These developments were responsible, in part, for the United States becoming the world center for psychological study by 1920. The term “functional psychology” faded from usage as it became clear that, by default, being simply a psychologist in the United States meant being a functional psychologist. The shift in psychological thought instigated by functionalism set the stage for the next major evolutionary phase in American psychology, behaviorism.

Sources for Further Study

Behnamin, Ludy T., Jr. “The Psychology Laboratory at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 318-321. This is a nontechnical and brief introduction to laboratory research in psychology from 1879 to 1900. The author discusses the importance of the laboratory for establishing psychology as a scientific discipline separate from philosophy.

Boring, E. G. A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950. This is the classic text on the history of psychology, written by one of Edward Titchener’s students. The first edition of 1925 is also widely available.

Donnelly, M. E. Reinterpreting the Legacy of William James. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1992. This book explores how James’s masterwork might have been revised in light of his later pluralistic, pragmatic approach to psychology and philosophy. A distinguished group of psychologists, philosophers, and historians contribute twenty-three chapters that probe this and other questions in a broad-based collection focused on the relevance of the works of James.

Hergenhahn, B. R. An Introduction to the History of Psychology. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. Another excellent standard textbook on the history of psychology. Written for college students; includes in-depth chapters on structuralism and functionalism.

Leys, R., and R. B. Evans. Defining American Psychology: The Correspondence Between Adolf Meyer and Edward Bradford Titchener. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Adolf Meyer was a highly influential psychiatrist who exchanged a series of letters with Titchener in 1909 and again in 1918. This book represents an interesting firsthand look at how the new science of psychology was being discussed and situated among other disciplines.

Shultz, D. P., and S. E. Shultz. A History of Modern Psychology. 7th ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt College, 1999. A clear, well-organized history of modern psychology, placing schools of thought within their social contexts.

Watson, R. I., and R. B. Evans. The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Psychologists and schools of psychology from ancient Greek times to the present. Chapters 19 and 20 specifically focus on structuralism and functionalism.