History of Psychology – William James

The second “father of experimental psychology” was American doctor and philosopher William James. James viewed psychology as a natural science, believing in the same way as Wundt that feelings and reasonings could be analysed by their smaller features. However, James is regarded as the founder of Functionalism, the second psychological school of thought, not as a Structuralist.

Functionalism started from the same point as, and was a reaction to, Structuralism. Functionalism was slightly different because it focused on the purpose and adaptation of consciousness rather than just the process of breaking it into smaller elements.

James was influenced by philosophy more than by the mechanical viewpoint of Structuralism.  He studied much more philosophy than Wundt, in areas like the definition of truth, or the free will-determinism debate. However, some of his philosophical studies became aligned with Functionalism, such as his pragmatic logic that a belief was “true” for a person when it functioned in, and guided them in, their world.

Similarly, he also studied the psychology of religion, believing that religious beliefs were necessary because they endured through culture and time, and functioned in people’s lives; religion was therefore a “means to an end” in the same way that science is.

James viewed mental processes as much more complicated than the structuralists did, arguing that using introspection to study mental processes was equivalent to “seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks”.

He instead supported the early Buddhist view of a “stream of consciousness” that is continually changing; that our personal consciousness can never think exactly the same thought twice.

Another area James studied was emotion, and he became one half of the James-Lange theory of emotion. The James-Lange theory says that events cause biological reactions, while emotions are only a result of those biological changes, not due to the original event- “the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble …” This theory, despite seeming counter-intuitive, actually has some scientific merit, just not to the extent James and Lange proposed.

Although James did not have a band of followers in the same way as Wundt, his influence came from the way he changed public opinion of Psychology, turning it from a reductionist laboratory science into an expansive philosophical, personal, and in some cases poetic, debate on our minds and how they function.

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