William James – Founder of Functionalism, the Fore Runner to Cognitive Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology and possibly Positive Psychology

According to Coon and Mitterer (2011) William James 1842 – 1910 is one of the founding fathers of psychology and  was against the school of thought know as structuralism; which looked into the how the mind operates through sensations and ‘introspection’, so to explain this I will use the hand and arm as an example.  In structuralism they would look into the muscles, blood and tendons to see the ‘how’ and what makes it work but the school of Functionalism would look at the ‘why’ we have a hand and arm in context with the environment and how one adapts to it. This was very Darwinian in nature and fueled the Functionalist movement in studying how the homo sapiens adapts to the environment albeit with complications.  This also coincided with the use of animal research as Darwin believed that studying other species might inform us of valuable knowledge about human beings.  And so this spear headed animal research in Germany, Russia and the USA (Coon and Mitterer 2011).

Will James was also the first US psychologist to open up a psychology/experimental lab, although not first in the world.  That glory belongs to Wundt who arguably is the God father of psychology according to Schultz and Schultz (2008), he opens the first lab in Leipzig, Germany. Will James developed his inaugural work in two volumes called Principles of Psychology in 1890 which was instrumental in creating the idea that psychology is a science. He followed a pragmatic approach believing that if an idea worked then-Just do it! And was a radical empiricist believing all things are worthy of study in his drive to learn about the purposive and selective nature of human beings (Hergenhahn 2009)

And finally Will is a great man because he coined the term ‘Self esteem’ and studied the idea of ‘self’ from three domains: the material self, Social self and spiritual self.  He looked at individual ideas about the body, family and other material items; then he looked into how others define or characterizes another and society’s view on individuals and finally the subjective state of consciousness feeding into a spirituality.  Before his work no one referred to a ‘self’ but rather individuals viewed themselves as part of a collective.


Coon, D., Mitterer,J. (2011) Psychology a journey. Australia. Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009) An introduction to the history of psychology (6th Edn). Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Schultz, D.P., Schultz, S.E. (2008). A history of modern psychology (9th Edn). Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Cengage LearningPlaceholder Image

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