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FUNCTIONALISM is the analytical tendency within the social sciencesmost notably, sociology and social anthropologythat exhibits a particular interest in the functions of social or cultural phenomena. In its most traditional form, functionalism has claimed that all items and activities in a system should be explained in reference to their objective consequences for the system as a whole. Thus the pivotal meaning of function is the objective consequence of an activity or phenomenon for the system of which it is a part. A secondarybut nonetheless significantmeaning of function in social science is similar to the use of the term in mathematics. When it is stated that x is a function of y, it is meant that x varies in direct proportion to variation in y. In social science this perspective on the concept of function has to do with interrelatedness. The dominant and the secondary meanings are linked as follows. The notion of function as consequence for the state of the system suggests that all phenomena in the system are considered, at least initially, as being relevant to the system's persistence. It is then but a small move to the postulate that all phenomena in a system are interrelated and that a change in one aspect will have implications for all others and for the system as a whole.

The Early French School

The functional analysis of religion played quite an important part in the development of the functional orientation in social science as a whole. Of more immediate relevance, however, is the fact that the functional analysis of religion has also played a very significant part in the development of the sociology and anthropology of religion. The functional orientation has a long history, but it was during the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the seeds were fully sown for the explicit crystallization of sociological functionalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many eighteenth-century French philosophers and protosociologists were interested in the possibility of a form of society that would operate according to principles of rationality and enlightenment, without what they saw as the impediments of religious dogma and clerical predominance. On the other hand, many of these thinkers were also concerned with what could take the place of religious faith and practice in a prospective rational-secular society. Thus one of the earliest and most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), maintained that a society needed a civil religiona religion concerned not with the traditional matters of faith and practice in relation to a supernatural being or realm but rather with the generation and maintenance of involvement in, and respect for, the society as such. He, like a number of his contemporaries, was well aware that religion had, among other things, traditionally performed significant functions of legitimation. In fact, at the end of the eighteenth century the leaders of the French Revolution made a great effort to replace traditional Catholic symbols and rituals with "secular-religious" ones.

The awareness of crucial links between religion and politics grew in a period when, in many parts of Europe, there was a widespread challenge to the intrinsic validity of religious belief and the traditional church (above all in predominantly Catholic countries). Yet despite the conviction that traditional religion had had deleterious consequences for society, it was affirmed that the functions supposedly performed by religion still had to be met. One particularly significant version of that perspective was provided in France by Claude Henri, Comte de Saint-Simon (17601825), who maintained that religion was a society's most significant political institution. That idea was later developed by Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), who studied the relationship between religion and democracy. Tocqueville's particular interest was in the prospects for democracy in France, given the predominance there of Catholicism and the conviction of many intellectuals that democracy and religion were incompatible. Tocqueville tried to show that American evangelical Protestantism fostered the American democratic spirit. In so doing, he sought to disprove the claim that religion necessarily inhibited or disrupted democracy, and subsequently argued that, with modification, Catholicism could support democracy in France.

While Tocqueville did not argue explicitly in terms of what came to be called functionalism, he helped crystallize the sociological view that religion performs vital social functions. In the case of Saint-Simon, however, the functional orientation had been somewhat more explicit. After having celebrated the emergent industrial order and noted its antipathy to religion, Saint-Simon concluded that a "New Christianity" was necessary to provide commitment and vitality to the new industrial type of society. With Saint-Simon's protégé, Auguste Comte (17981857), an even more calculated functional orientation appears. Often spoken of as the father of sociology, Comte advocated a secular science of society, to be based on a "positive" philosophy that had been made possible by the epochal demise of theological and metaphysical modes of thought. Sociology should become the cognitive keystone of modern societies. Sociology and sociology-based ethics were to take the place of religion. However, late in life Comtein parallel with Saint-Simonrestructured his views and argued that a "religion of humanity" was required in order to guarantee commitment to and respect for society. In that regard Comte made elaborate proposals for France concerning festivals, rituals, functionaries, and symbols for the religion of humanity.


It was the work of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (18201903) that gave the concept of function and the functional orientation in sociology their first fully explicit renderings. Spencer argued that societies are organisms and that one should conceive of the former in the same terms as the latter. Thus he articulated the two main principles outlined earlier: the interrelatedness of all items in a system (most importantly the whole society) and the referring of items within a system to the functioning of the system as a whole. Spencer was, moreover, an evolutionist, which at that time implied, among other things, a belief that as societies progressed to an advanced evolutionary condition, they relied less and less on religious thought and practice. For Spencer, the main institutions of an advanced society were incompatible with religion, while the society as a whole operated increasingly in terms of contractual relationships among individuals (although Spencer did believe that the evolutionary engine was driven by a mysterious force that gave purposeful direction to societal change).


Unlike Saint-Simon and Comte, Spencer never showed signs of retreating from his own views concerning the (unproblematic) demise of religion. And it is in terms of this difference between Spencer and Saint-Simon that the seminal work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) can best be approached. Durkheim's work was based partly on a rejection of Spencer's highly secular conception of modern societies, even though it maintained some features of Spencer's methodological functionalism. At the same time, Durkheim was taken with the ways in which Saint-Simon and Comte had come to appreciate the functional significance of religion. He believed, however, that they had erred in first seeing society as bereft of religion and then attempting to add religion to it. What Durkheim sought, most elaborately in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), was a way in which to ground religion in society itself.

In his early methodological work Durkheim argued that the sociologist should work with two basic explanatory concepts: function and cause. Function had to do with the general needs of the societal organism that a social phenomenon served, while cause referred to those features of society that more directly facilitated a phenomenon. Durkheim was eager to dissociate himself from those who closely related function to ends or purposes. He insisted that there is no mysterious final cause of societal patterns or change and that one should not think of function as having to do with the intentions lying behind the establishment of institutions. (On the latter point Durkheim argued that social phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results that they produce.) In his early writing on the forms of social solidarity, Durkheim reacted to Spencer by maintaining that all contractual relationships must be based on pre contractual elements of society. His interest in religion developed largely in the attempt to comprehend precisely what those precontractual elements are. From the outset, Durkheim had been concerned with the issue of morality in modern societies. While seeking a sociological understanding of the foundations of morality, he endeavored to show that, for moral principles to have social weight, they must be more than logically persuasive. Durkheim contended that the principles of moral reason adumbrated by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century could be socially operative only insofar as they were socially imperative. He wanted to know, in other words, on what the obligatory character of morals rest.

Durkheim eventually reached the full-fledged conclusion that the primary function of religion lay in its distinction between the sacred and the profane. Religion, said Durkheim, has to do with sacred things. It is "the serious life." Religion is crucial in providing individuals with freedom from unchecked desire, in highlighting the moral character of the collectivity, and in binding individuals together within the latter. Durkheim is often interpreted as having simply emphasized the positive, integrative functions of religion. That was indeed a significant aspect of his theory of religion (which was at the same time a theory of society), yet Durkheim was also deeply concerned with the social sources, the causes, of religious belief and practice, as well as with the larger ramifications of religion in human life. Although Durkheim's work was almost certainly the most vital contribution to the functionalist orientation in sociology and to the functionalist analysis of religion in sociology and social anthropology, his ideas were developed in specific reference to what he perceived as a moral crisis in modern societies. This is true even though his major work on religion referred mostly to the primitive religious life of Australian Aborigines and even though he was greatly inspired by the writing of the French historian Fustel de Coulanges on religion in ancient Rome and Greece and by that of the Scotsman W. Robertson Smith on ancient Semitic religion.

Because, in terms of Durkheim's own definition of religion as involving the distinction between the sacred and the profane (rather than being defined, more narrowly, as belief in supernatural beings), religion had been ubiquitous in all civilizations, Durkheim concluded that it must have been functionally essential to all societies. Yet he was acutely aware that traditional religious faith had become increasingly fragile. In articulating his own theory of religion, Durkheim emphasized at the outset that religion, in contrast to magic, is fundamentally a collective phenomenon and that, in religion, ritual is as important as belief. In those terms he set about showing how, at least in primitive societies, the basic categories of religious belief are established and maintained through the collective experience of social structure. In religious ritual individuals experience acutely a dependence upon society; indeed, religious worship can be thought of as the celebration of that dependence. In his most radical terms, Durkheim suggested that the real object of religious worship is society, not God. His main point, however, was that it is from one's experience of society that one obtains the sense of something transcendent and authoritative. Yet Durkheim denied that he was making a judgment about the intrinsic validity of religious belief. Rather, he concentrated upon showing both the social conditions and the social functions of religion. As far as modern societies are concerned, Durkheim asserted that there is now a need for new religious forms that would perform the same kind of function as traditional religion but in a less spiritualistic way. In the tradition of Rousseau, Durkheim argued the need for new forms of civil religion and saw religion as critical in the periodic regeneration of societies.

Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown

Durkheim's writing had a great effect on those social anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s who sought to redirect anthropological inquiry away from speculatory evolutionism toward more analytically rigorous fieldwork. The two major figures in that regard were the Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and the British-born Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), both of whom employed functional orientations in the study of primitive societies, including the religious aspects thereof. Malinowski's functionalism centered upon two claims: first, that any particular society is a unique, functioning whole, and, second, that the social arrangements and cultural forms obtaining in a society have functional significance in relation to the psychological needs of individuals. Thus in spite of his interest in the functional interrelatedness of social institutions and practices, Malinowski saw their most fundamental functional significance in their meeting the psychological needs of individuals. In contrast, Radcliffe-Brown took a more self-consciously Durkheimian position. He advocated a systematic science of society, involving comparative analysis of the structural patterns of societies with respect both to their overall cohesiveness and to the functional requirements of societies as systemic wholes. Both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown wrote about religion in their respective functional terms.

Parsons and His Critics

Among those sociologists and anthropologists of religion who have written entirely within the twentieth century, the most prolific analyst of religion was the American Talcott Parsons (19021979). Deeply, but by no means only, influenced by Durkheim, Parsons in the 1950s acquired the reputation of being the functionalist par excellence. From Durkheim, Parsons took the basic idea that religion is a universal feature of human life. However, he expressed strong reservations concerning Durkheim's attempt to talk not merely about the functional significance of religion but also about its social-structural bases. In the latter regard, said Parsons, Durkheim was often a reductionist, in the sense of reducing religion to society. In contrast, Parsons himself considered religion to be the pivotal aspect of the realm of cultural values, beliefs, and symbols. According to Parsons, patterns of culture operate in varying degrees of independence from social structure and certainly cannot be reduced to the latter. Culture provides meaning, general morality, expressive symbols, and basic beliefs to systems of social action and to individuals. Religion also relates systems of human action to what Parsons called "ultimate reality." He maintained that questions concerning the ultimate boundary of human action and interaction constitute a universal attribute of human life. Parsons's attempt to establish what for a long time he called a structural-functional form of general sociological theory has met with considerable criticism from the late 1940s onward. One of Parsons's most influential critics has been the American sociologist Robert Merton (19102003), who has attempted to systematize functional analysis so as to overcome what he has regarded as its weaknesses. Religion has figured strongly in his discussion.

Merton argues that many functionalists have singled out the integrative functions of religionmainly in reference to certain primitive societieswhile neglecting its potentially disintegrative consequences, or dysfunctions. They have also, he maintains, confused two issues: whether what is indispensable to society is the phenomenon, such as religious belief, or only the function supposedly met by such a phenomenon. Merton emphasizes the dangers of viewing the phenomenon itself as indispensable and suggests that sociologists develop a clear conception of functional alternatives. As an example of such an alternative, he proposes that the positive functions of religion might well be provided by something other than religion in its conventional sense (e.g., secular ideology).

Merton also raises the question as to whether functionalism isas many of its critics have chargedinherently conservative. His conclusion is that it is not. Even though the main modern tradition of antireligionMarxismregards religion as a consequence of an economically exploitative society, it also looks upon religion as performing integrative functions in precommunist societies. Religion, in Marxist perspective, inhibits social change. Thus functional analysis can be used from both conservative and radical standpoints. Indeed, since the 1960s a clear strand of Marxist functionalism has concerned itself with the persistence of capitalist societies and the function religion plays in that persistence.

Issues arising from the long debate about the functional form of analysis have been central to the controversy concerning the degree to which the modern world is characterized by secularization. For the most part, functionalists have resisted the thesis of extensive secularization, on the grounds that the functions performed by religion are essential to all societies. Thus Parsons tended to argue that even though a society may manifest ostensibly atheistic sentiments, it is still subject to the functional imperative of relating to ultimate reality. It was the hallmark of Parsons's approach to religion (and here he followed Durkheim) that one should not be overly constrained by the particular, substantive forms that religion has taken historically. In contrast to Spencer, Parsons argued that religion does not lose significance as human society evolves; rather, religion takes on increasingly general forms as societies become more differentiated and complex.

Recent Functionalist Theoreticians

A particularly radical type of functionalism was proposed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (19271998). Luhmann argued that religion can no longer provide an overarching set of integrative values to a society. Unlike Parsons, who maintained that religious values and beliefs become more general but still remain overarching as societal evolution proceeds, Luhmann insisted that the social differentiation central to societal evolution has now gone so far that religion is but one subsystem among many. Religion is now "free" to concentrate on its primary function of answering purely religiousas opposed to social, economic, political, and scientificquestions.

Some of Luhmann's ideas overlap with those of the British sociologist Bryan Wilson, an adamant proponent of the secularization thesis. Wilson's argument hinges upon his claim that the historically latent functions of religionlatent is Merton's term for hidden, unrecognized functionshave become increasingly manifest (i.e., consciously recognized) and are now fulfilled by other social agencies, while historically manifest functions of religionthose providing guidelines for salvationhave been undermined. The main process that has both undermined the manifest and made manifest the latent functions of religion is the supplanting of communities by rationally organized, impersonal, and functionally specialized societies.


Even though functional analysis has been a frequent target of hostile critique, it has been continuously pivotal in the sociological and anthropological analysis of religion. And while there have undoubtedly been phases of crude functionalismexpressed in bland statements concerning the universality of religion and its beneficial consequences, as well as attempts to reduce religion to its societal consequencesit is nonetheless impossible to address the topic of religion in social-scientific terms without careful attention to its functional significance vis-à-vis other aspects of human life. Indeed, that perspective has pervaded modern consciousness, in the sense that religion is increasingly discussed and assessed in relation to its consequences for individuals and societies.


The classic work in the tradition of functionalism is Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915; reprint, New York, 1965). An important discussion of functional analysis, with particular reference to religion, appears in Robert K. Merton's Social Theory and Social Structure (New York, 1968), pp. 73138. Anthony F. C. Wallace's Religion: An Anthropological View (New York, 1966) contains an extended discussion of the functions of religion in several types of society. A flexible functionalist theory of religion is offered in J. Milton Yinger's The Scientific Study of Religion (New York, 1970). Relevant discussions of the history of the sociology of religion and of functionalist approaches are contained in my book The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (New York, 1970). Much of Talcott Parsons's theory of religion is found in his study The Evolution of Societies (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1977). For a lengthy discussion of Parsons's work on religion, with an extensive bibliography, see Sociological Analysis 43 (Winter 1982), a special issue edited by me. A functionalist interpretation of religion in the modern world is provided by Bryan R. Wilson in his Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford, 1982), while the radically functionalist theory of Niklas Luhmann is presented in his Funktion der Religion (Frankfurt, 1982). Analyses of civil religion in the tradition initiated by Rousseau, with reference also to Tocqueville, are provided in neofunctionalist terms by Robert N. Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond in their Varieties of Civil Religion (San Francisco, 1980).

New Sources

Dawson, Shawn Dawson. "Proper Functionalism: A Better Alternative?" Religious Studies 34 (June 1998): 119134.

Kippenberg, Hans G. "Religious History, Displaced by Modernity." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 47 (2000): 221224.

Krech, Volkhard. "From Historicism to Functionalism: The Rise of Scientific Approaches to Religions around 1900 and Their Socio-Cultural Context." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 47 (2000): 244266.

Lewis, D. Psychophysicalism and Theoretical Identificants: Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Owens, D. Alfred, and Mark Wagner. Progress in Modern Psychology: The Legacy of American Functionalism. Westport, Conn., 1992.

Putnam, Hilary. Representations and Reality. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Putnam, Hilary. "The Nature of Mental States." In Mind and Cognition, edited by William G. Lycan, pp. 2026. Malden, Mass., 1990.

Sober, Elliot. "Putting Function back into Fundamentalism." In Mind and Cognition, edited by William G. Lycan, pp. 6370. Malden, Mass., 1990.

Roland Robertson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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"Functionalism" is one of the major proposals that have been offered as solutions to the mind-body problem. Solutions to the mind-body problem usually try to answer questions such as: What is the ultimate nature of the mental? At the most general level, what makes a mental state mental? Or more specifically, what do thoughts have in common in virtue of which they are thoughts? That is, what makes a thought a thought? What makes a pain a pain? Cartesian dualism said the ultimate nature of the mental was to be found in a special mental substance. Behaviorism identified mental states with behavioral dispositions; physicalism, in its most influential version, identifies mental states with brain states. Functionalism says that mental states are constituted by their causal relations to one another and to sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. Functionalism is one of the major theoretical developments of twentieth-century analytic philosophy, and provides the conceptual underpinnings of much work in cognitive science.

Functionalism has three distinct sources. First, Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor saw mental states in terms of an empirical computational theory of the mind. Second, John Jamieson Carswell Smart's "topic neutral" analyses led David M. Armstrong and David Lewis to a functionalist analysis of mental concepts. Third, Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea of meaning as use led to a version of functionalism as a theory of meaning, further developed by Wilfrid Sellars and later Gilbert Harman.

One motivation behind functionalism can be appreciated by attention to artifact concepts such as carburetor, and biological concepts such as kidney. What it is for something to be a carburetor is for it to mix fuel and air in an internal combustion enginecarburetor is a functional concept. In the case of the kidney, the scientific concept is functionaldefined in terms of a role in filtering the blood and maintaining certain chemical balances.

The kind of function relevant to the mind can be introduced via the parity-detecting automaton illustrated in the following figure, which tells us whether it has seen an odd or even number of "1"s. This automaton has two states, S1 and S2; one input, "1" (though its input can be nothing) and two outputs, it utters either the word "Odd" or "Even." The table describes two functions, one from input and state to output, and another from input and state to next state. Each square encodes two conditionals specifying the output and next state given both the current state and input. The left box says that if the machine is in S1 and sees a "1," it says "odd" (indicating that it has seen an odd number of "1"s) and goes to S2. The right box says, similarly, that if the machine is in S2 and sees a "1," it says "even" and goes back to S1

Now suppose we ask the question: "What is S1?" The answer is that the nature of S1 is entirely relational, and entirely captured by the table. We could give an explicit characterization of "S1" as follows:

Being in S1 = being in the first of two states that are related to one another and to inputs and outputs as follows: Being in one of the states and getting a "1" input results in going into the second state and emitting "Odd"; and being in the second of the two states and getting a "1" input results in going into the first and emitting "Even."

Making the quantification over states more explicit:

Being in S1 = Being an x such that PQ[If x is in P and gets a "1" input, then it goes into Q and emits "Odd"; if x is in Q and gets a "1" input it gets into P and emits "Even" & x is in P] (Note: Read "P" as "There is a property P.")

This illustration can be used to make a number of points. (1) According to functionalism, the nature of a mental state is just like the nature of an automaton state: constituted by its relations to other states and to inputs and outputs. All there is to S1 is that being in it and getting a "1" input results in such and such, and so forth. According to functionalism, all there is to being in pain is that it disposes you to say "ouch," wonder whether you are ill, it distracts you, and so forth. (2) Because mental states are like automaton states in this regard, the illustrated method for defining automaton states is supposed to work for mental states as well. Mental states can be totally characterized in terms that involve only logicomathematical language and terms for input signals and behavioral outputs. Thus functionalism satisfies one of the desiderata of behaviorism, characterizing the mental in entirely nonmental language.

(3) S1 is a second-order state in that it consists in having other properties, say mechanical or hydraulic or electronic properties, that have certain relations to one another. These other properties, the ones quantified over in the definitions just given, are said to be the realizations of the functional properties. So, although functionalism characterizes the mental in nonmental terms, it does so only by quantifying over realizations of mental states, which would not have delighted behaviorists. (4) One functional state can be realized in different ways. For example, an actual metal and plastic machine satisfying the machine table might be made of gears, wheels, pulleys and the like, in which case the realization of S1 would be a mechanical state; or the realization of S1 might be an electronic state, and so forth.

(5) Just as one functional state can be realized in different ways, one physical state can realize different functional states in different machines. This could happen, for example, if a single type of transistor were used to do different things in different machines. (6) Since S1 can be realized in many ways, a claim that S1 is a mechanical state would be false (at least arguably), as would a claim that S1 is an electronic state. For this reason, there is a strong case that functionalism shows physicalism is false: If a creature without a brain can think, thinking cannot be a brain state. (But see the section on functionalism and physicalism below.)

The notion of a realization deserves further discussion. In the early days of functionalism, a first-order property was often said to realize a functional property in virtue of a 1-1 correspondence between the two realms of properties. But such a definition of realization produces far too many realizations. Suppose, for example, that at t1 we shout "one" at a bucket of water, and then at t2 we shout "one" again. We can regard the bucket as a parity-detecting automaton by pairing the physical configuration of the bucket at t1 with S1 and the heat emitted or absorbed by the bucket at t1 with "odd"; by pairing the physical configuration of the bucket at t2 with S2 and the heat exchanged with the environment at t2 with "even"; and so on. What is left out by the post hoc correlation way of thinking of realization is that a true realization must satisfy the counterfactuals implicit in the table. To be a realization of S1, it is not enough to lead to a certain output and state given that the input is a "1"; it is also required that had the input been a "0," the S1 realization would have led to the other output and state. Satisfaction of the relevant counterfactuals is built into the notion of realization mentioned in (3) above.

Suppose we have a theory of mental states that specifies all the causal relations among the states, sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs. Focusing on pain as a sample mental state, it might say, among other things, that sitting on a tack causes pain, and that pain causes anxiety and saying "ouch." Agreeing for the sake of the example to go along with this moronic theory, functionalism would then say that we could define "pain" as follows: being in pain = being in the first of two states, the first of which is caused by sitting on tacks, which in turn causes the other state and emitting "ouch." More symbolically

Being in pain = Being an x such that PQ[sitting on a tack causes P & P causes both Q and emitting "ouch" & x is in P]

More generally, if T is a psychological theory with n mental terms of which the 17th is "pain," we can define "pain" relative to T as follows (the "F1" "Fn" are variables that replace the n mental terms, and i1, etc. And o1, etc. indicates):

Being in pain = Being an x such that F1Fn [T(F1Fn, i1, etc., o1, etc.) & x is in F17]

In this way, functionalism characterizes the mental in nonmental terms, in terms that involve quantification over realizations of mental states but no explicit mention of them; thus functionalism characterizes the mental in terms of structures that are tacked down to reality only at the inputs and outputs.

The psychological theory T just mentioned can be either an empirical psychological theory or else a commonsense "folk" theory, and the resulting functionalisms are very different. In the latter case, conceptual functionalism, the functional definitions are aimed at capturing our ordinary mental concepts. In the former case, "psychofunctionalism," the functional definitions are not supposed to capture ordinary concepts but are only supposed to fix the extensions of mental terms. The idea of psychofunctionalism is that the scientific nature of the mental consists not in anything biological, but in something "organizational," analogous to computational structure. Conceptual functionalism, by contrast, can be thought of as a development of logical behaviorism. Logical behaviorists thought that pain was a disposition to pain behavior. But as Peter Geach and Roderick Chisholm pointed out, what counts as pain behavior depends on the agent's beliefs and desires. Conceptual functionalists avoid this problem by defining each mental state in terms of its contribution to dispositions to behaveand have other mental states.

Functionalism and Physicalism

Theories of the mind prior to functionalism have been concerned both with (1) what there is, and (2) what gives each type of mental state its own identity, for example what pains have in common in virtue of which they are pains. Stretching these terms a bit, we might say that (1) is a matter of ontology and (2) of metaphysics. Here are the ontological claims: Dualism told us that there are both mental and physical substances, whereas behaviorism and physicalism are monistic, claiming that there are only physical substances. Here are the metaphysical claims: Behaviorism tells us that what pains (for example) have in common in virtue of which they are pains is something behavioral; dualism gave a nonphysical answer to this question, and physicalism gives a physical answer to this question.

Turning now to functionalism, it answers the metaphysical question without answering the ontological question. Functionalism tells us that what pains have in commonwhat makes them painsis their function; but functionalism does not tell us whether the beings that have pains have any nonphysical parts. This point can be seen in terms of the automaton described above. In order to be an automaton of the type described, an actual concrete machine need only have states related to one another and to inputs and outputs in the way described. The machine description does not tell us how the machine works or what it is made of, and in particular it does not rule out a machine which is operated by an immaterial soul, so long as the soul is willing to operate in the deterministic manner specified in the table.

In thinking about the relation between functionalism and physicalism, it is useful to distinguish two categories of physicalist theses: One version of physicalism competes with functionalism, making a metaphysical claim about the physical nature of mental state properties or types (and is thus often called "type" physicalism). As mentioned above, on one point of view, functionalism shows that type of physicalism is false.

However, there are more modest physicalisms whose thrusts are ontological rather than metaphysical. Such physicalistic claims are not at all incompatible with functionalism. Consider, for example, a physicalism that says that every actual thing is made up entirely of particles of the sort that compose inorganic matter. In this sense of physicalism, most functionalists have been physicalists. Further, functionalism can be modified in a physicalistic direction, for example, by requiring that all properties quantified over in a functional definition by physical properties. Type physicalism is often contrasted with token physicalism. (The word teeth in this sentence has five letter tokens of three letter types.) Token physicalism says that each pain (for example) is a physical state, but token physicalism allows that there may be nothing physical that all pains share, nothing physical that makes a pain a pain.

It is a peculiarity of the literature on functionalism and physicalism that while some functionalists say functionalism shows physicalism is false, others say functionalism shows physicalism is true. In Lewis's case, the issue is partly terminological. Lewis is a conceptual functionalist about "having pain." Having pain on Lewis's regimentation could be said to be a rigid designator of a functional property. (A rigid designator names the same thing in each possible world. "The color of the sky" is nonrigid, since it names red in worlds in which the sky is red. "Blue" is rigid, since it names blue even in worlds in which the sky is red.) "Pain," by contrast, is a nonrigid designator conceptually equivalent to a definite description of the form "the state with such and such a causal role." The referent of this phrase in us, Lewis holds, is a certain brain state, though the referent of this phrase in a robot might be a circuit state, and the referent in an angel would be a nonphysical state. Similarly, "the winning number" picks out "17" in one lottery and "596" in another. So Lewis is a functionalist (indeed a conceptual functionalist) about having pain.

In terms of the metaphysical issue described abovewhat do pains have in common in virtue of which they are painsLewis is a functionalist, not a physicalist. What a person's pains and the robot's pains share is a causal role, not anything physical. Just as there is no numerical similarity between 17 and 596 relevant to their being winning numbers, there is no physical similarity between human and Martian pain that makes them pains. And there is no physical similarity of any kind between human pains and angel pains. However, on the issue of the scientific nature of pain, Lewis is a physicalist. What is in common to human and Martian pain in his view is something conceptual, not something scientific.

Functionalism and Propositional attitudes

The discussion of functional characterization given above assumes a psychological theory with a finite number of mental state terms. In the case of monadic states like pain, the sensation of red, and so forth, it does seem a theoretical option simply to list the states and their relations to other states, inputs and outputs. But for a number of reasons, this is not a sensible theoretical option for belief-states, desire-states, and other propositional attitude states. For one thing, the list would be too long to be represented without combinatorial methods. Indeed, there is arguably no upper bound on the number of propositions, any one of which could in principle be an object of thought. For another thing, there are systematic relations among beliefs: for example, the belief that John loves Mary and the belief that Mary loves John. These belief states represent the same objects as related to each other in converse ways. But a theory of the nature of beliefs can hardly just leave out such an important feature of them. We cannot treat "believes-that-grass-is-green," "believes-that-grass-is-blue," and so forth, as unrelated primitive predicates. So we will need a more sophisticated theory, one that involves some sort of combinatorial apparatus.

The most promising candidates are those that treat belief as a relation. But a relation to what? There are two distinct issues here. One issue is how to state the functional theory in a detailed way. A second issue is what types of states could possibly realize the relational propositional attitude states. Hartry Field and Fodor argue that to explain the productivity of propositional attitude states, there is no alternative to postulating a language of thought, a system of syntactically structured objects in the brain that express the propositions in propositional attitudes. In later work, Fodor has stressed the systematicity of propositional attitudes mentioned above. Fodor points out that the beliefs whose contents are systematically related exhibit the following sort of empirical relation: If one is capable of believing that Mary loves John, one is also capable of believing that John loves Mary. Fodor argues that only a language of thought in the brain could explain this fact.


The upshot of the famous "twin earth" arguments has been that meaning and content are in part in the world and in the language community. Functionalists have responded in a variety of ways. One reaction is to think of the inputs and outputs of a functional theory as long-arm as including the objects that one sees and manipulates. Another reaction is to stick with short-arm inputs and outputs that stop at the surfaces of the body, thinking of the intentional contents thereby characterized as narrowsupervening on the nonrelational physical properties of the body. There has been no widely recognized account of what narrow content is, nor is there any agreement as to whether there is any burden of proof on the advocates of narrow content to characterize it.


Functionalism says that understanding the meaning of the word momentum is a functional state. On one version of the view, the functional state can be seen in terms of the role of the word momentum itself in thinking, problem solving, planning, and so forth. But if understanding the meaning of momentum is this word's having a certain function, then there is a very close relation between the meaning of a word and its function, and a natural proposal is to regard the close relation as simply identity, that is, the meaning of the word just is that function. Thus functionalism about content leads to functionalism about meaning, a theory that purports to tell us the metaphysical nature of meaning. This theory is popular in cognitive science, where in one version it is often known as procedural semantics, as well as in philosophy where it is often known as conceptual role semantics. The theory has been criticized (along with other versions of functionalism) by Putnam, Fodor, and E. LePore.


Ned Block and Fodor noted the "damn/darn" problem. Functional theories must make reference to any difference in stimuli or responses that can be mentally significant. The difference between saying "damn" and "darn" when you stub your toe can, in some circumstances, be mentally significant. So the different functionalized theories appropriate to the two responses will affect the individuation of every state connected to those utterances, and for the same reason, every state connected to those states, and so on. His pains lead to "darn," hers to "damn," so their pains are functionally different, and likewise their desires to avoid pain, their beliefs that interact with those desires, and so on. Plausible assumptions lead to the conclusion that two individuals who differ in this way share almost nothing in the way of mental states. The upshot is that the functionalist needs a way of individuating mental states that is less fine-grained than appeal to the whole theory, a molecularist characterization. Even if one is optimistic about solving this problem in the case of pain by finding something functional in common to all pains, one cannot assume that success will transfer to beliefs or meanings, for success in the case of meaning and belief may involve an analytic/synthetic distinction.


Recall the parity-detecting automaton described at the beginning of this entry. It could be instantiated by two people, each of whom is in charge of the function specified by a single box. Similarly, the much more complex functional organization of a human mind could "in principle" be instantiated by a vast army of people. We would have to think of the army as connected to a robot body, acting as the brain of that body, and the body would be like a person in its reactions to inputs. But would such an army really instantiate a mind? More pointedly, could such an army have pain, or the experience of red? If functionalism ascribes minds to things that do not have them, it is too liberal. W. G. Lycan suggests that we include much of human physiology in our theory to be functionalized to avoid liberalism; that is, the theory T in the definition described earlier would be a psychological theory plus a physiological theory. But that makes the opposite problem, chauvinism, worse. The resulting functional description will not apply to intelligent Martians whose physiologies are different from ours. Further, it seems easy to imagine a simple pain-feeling organism that shares little in the way of functional organization with us. The functionalized physiological theory of this organism will be hopelessly different from the corresponding theory of us. Indeed, even if one does not adopt Lycan's tactic, it is not clear how pain could be characterized functionally so as to be common to us and the simple organism.

Much of the force of the problems just mentioned derives from attention to phenomenal states like the look of red. Phenomenal properties would seem to be intrinsic to (nonrelational properties of) the states that have them, and thus phenomenal properties seem independent of the relations among states, inputs and outputs that define functional states. Consider, for example, the fact that lobotomy patients often say that they continue to have pains that feel the same as before, but that the pains do not bother them. If the concept of pain is a functional concept, what these patients say is contradictory or incoherentbut it seems to many of us that it is intelligible.

The chauvinism/liberalism problem affects the characterization of inputs and outputs. If we characterize inputs and outputs in a way appropriate to our bodies, we chauvinistically exclude creatures whose interface with the world is very different from oursfor example, creatures whose limbs end in wheels or, turning to a bigger difference, gaseous creatures who can manipulate and sense gases but for whom all solids and liquids are alike. The obvious alternative of characterizing inputs and outputs themselves functionally would appear to yield an abstract structure that might be satisfied by, for example, the economy of Bolivia under manipulation by a wealthy eccentric, and would thus fall to the opposite problem of liberalism.

It is tempting to respond to the chauvinism problem by supposing that the same functional theory that applies to a person also applies to the creatures with wheels. If they thought they had feet, they would try to act like us, and if we thought we had wheels, we would try to act like them. But notice that the functional definitions have to have some specifications of output organs in them. To be neutral among all the types of bodies that sentient beings could have would just be to adopt the liberal alternative of specifying the inputs and outputs themselves functionally.


Many philosophers propose that we avoid liberalism by characterizing functional roles teleologically. We exclude the armies and economies mentioned because their states are not for the right things. A major problem for this point of view is the lack of an acceptable teleological account. Accounts based on evolution smack up against the swamp-grandparents problem. Suppose you find out that your grandparents were formed from particles from the swamp that came together by chance. So, as it happens, you do not have any evolutionary history to speak of. If evolutionary accounts of the teleology underpinnings of content are right, your states do not have any content. A theory with such a consequence should be rejected.


Functionalism dictates that mental properties are second-order properties, properties that consist in having other properties that have certain relations to one another. But there is at least a prima facie problem about how such second-order properties could be causal and explanatory in a way appropriate to the mental. Consider, for example, provocativeness, the second-order property that consists in having some first-order property (say redness) that causes bulls to be angry. The cape's redness provokes the bull, but does the cape's provocativeness provoke the bull? The cape's provocativeness might provoke an animal protection society, but is not the bull too stupid to be provoked by it?

Functionalism continues to be a lively and fluid point of view. Positive developments in recent years include enhanced prospects for conceptual functionalism and the articulation of the teleological point of view. Critical developments include problems with causality and holism, and continuing controversy over chauvinism and liberalism.

See also Armstrong, David M.; Behaviorism; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Causation: Philosophy of Science; Chisholm, Roderick; Cognitive Science; Computationalism; Harman, Gilbert; Language of Thought; Lewis, David; Materialism; Meaning; Metaphysics; Mind-Body Problem; Ontology; Philosophy of Mind; Physicalism; Propositional Attitudes: Issues in Philosophy of Mind and Psychology; Propositional Attitudes: Issues in Semantics; Putnam, Hilary; Qualia; Sellars, Wilfrid; Smart, John Jamieson Carswell; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Ben-Yami, H. "An Argument against Functionalism." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 77 (1999): 320324.

Block, N. "The Mind as the Software of the Brain." In An Invitation to Cognitive Science, edited by D. Osherton, et al. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Braddon-Mitchell, D., and F. Jackson. Philosophy of Mind and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Crane, T. Mechanical Mind: A Philosophical Introduction to Minds, Machines, and Mental Representation. London: Routledge, 2003.

David, M. "Kim's Functionalism." Philosophical Perspectives 11 (1997): 133148.

Melnyk, A. A Physicalist Manifesto. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Polger, T. Natural Minds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Shoemaker, S. "Realization and Mental Causation." In Physicalism and Its Discontents, edited by C. Gillett and B. Loewer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Ned Block (1996)

Bibliography updated by Alyssa Ney (2005)

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The term functionalism has been used in at least three different senses in the social sciences. In the philosophy of mind, functionalism is a view about the nature of mental states. In sociology and anthropology, functionalism is an approach to understanding social processes in terms of their contribution to the operation of a social system. In psychology, functionalism was an approach to mental phenomena that emphasized mental processes as opposed to static mental structures.


Functionalism in the philosophy of mind was first systematically developed in the 1960s as a view about the nature of mental states such as sensations, beliefs, desires, and emotions. It arose in response to questions about the relation between mind and body, in the context of a debate between opposed views known as dualism and materialism. Dualism was defended by the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes (15961650), who held that minds were nonphysical substances that were not located in space and indeed had no physical properties at all. A major difficulty for dualists has been to explain how mental states, if they have no physical properties, can cause or be caused by physical states of a persons body. Materialists, by contrast, have held that there are no non-physical substances, and that mental states are nothing more than physical states.

The best-known materialist views in the 1950s were behaviorism and the identity theory. Behaviorism as a theory of the nature of mental states is sometimes called logical behaviorism to distinguish it from behaviorism as a methodological view in psychology. According to behaviorism, mental states were simply tendencies to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances. Behaviorists thus rejected not only dualism, but also the commonsense view that mental states are internal states that are causes of behavior. Identity theorists, on the other hand, held that mental states were identical with states of the central nervous system. The identity theory appeared to rule out by definition the possibility that mental states could be present in any being that did not have a human central nervous system.

Functionalism was intended to be a theory that was compatible with materialism, while avoiding the difficulties of behaviorism and the identity theory. It was motivated in part by the thought that the relation between mind and body is analogous to the relation between software and hardware in a computer. Computational states are defined, not in terms of specific hardware configurations, but in terms of their relations to inputs, outputs, and other computational states. Computational states are multiply realizable ; that is, they can be realized or implemented by a wide range of different kinds of hardware. Functionalists held that a similar approach could be taken to mental states; that is, mental states could be defined as relations between perceptual inputs, behavioral outputs, and other functional states. For example, the beginnings of a functionalist analysis of pain might point out that it is a state that is produced by potentially harmful sensory inputs, leads to avoidance behaviors, and tends to produce such other mental states as a dislike for whatever caused the pain. According to the functionalist, it is relationships such as these, not a specific physical implementation, that are essential to pain.

Functionalism seems to avoid the difficulties of the other main approaches to the nature of mental states. Because mental states, like computational states, must be implemented in a physical medium, functionalism seems to make it less mysterious than dualism how mental states can stand in causal relations with physical states of the body. Unlike behaviorism, functionalism is compatible with the view that mental states are internal causes of behavior. And unlike the identity theory, functionalism leaves open the possibility that beings very unlike humans could nevertheless have mental states.

Different versions of functionalism have been developed by different writers. The view described above most closely resembles the machine functionalism defended by Hilary Putnam in a number of papers reprinted in his Mind, Language, and Reality (1975). Somewhat different versions were defended by other writers; David Braddon-Mitchell and Frank Jackson offer a useful survey in their Philosophy of Mind and Cognition (1996), and a number of the original papers are reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology (1980), edited by Ned Block.

The most serious difficulty for functionalism is the problem of accounting for conscious experiences, which philosophers call qualia. One thought experiment that illustrates the problem involves the apparent possibility of inverted qualia. It seems possible in principle that two people could be functionally identical even though their experiences were inverted, so that when one person saw something green, that person had an experience that felt to him or her the way an experience of something red felt to the other. If this is a real possibility, it follows that functionalism cannot be a complete account of the nature of all mental states, since if two people with identical functional properties could nevertheless have different qualia, then qualia cannot be functional states.


In sociology, functionalism was a theoretical perspective that emphasized that the parts of a social system are interrelated in such a way that none of them can be fully understood except in terms of their effects on the others. The relationships between the parts of a social system constitute the structures of that system, and social structures, social processes, and other social phenomena are to be explained in terms of their functions, which are, for most theorists, their contributions to the continued stable existence of the system. The social systems to which functional analysis was applied ranged from units as small as the family to those as large as international organizations; the phenomena to which functions were imputed included social roles, social norms, devices for social control, and many others.

Functionalism originated in the late nineteenth century in the work of such thinkers as Herbert Spencer (18201903) and Émile Durkheim (18581917); it was developed in the early twentieth century as an approach to anthropology by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942); and in the middle decades of the twentieth century, as elaborated by Talcott Parsons (19021979) and Robert Merton (19102003), it became the dominant perspective in American sociology.

Some functionalist writers were influenced by an analogy between societies and biological organisms, and their concept of social function was explicitly modeled on that of biological function. Radcliffe-Brown, for instance, in Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1935, reprinted in Coser and Rosenberg 1976), distinguishes between three sets of sociological problems: social morphology, which identifies social structures just as biological morphology identifies organic structures; social physiology, which identifies the functions of these structures; and development, which studies how new social structures arise, much as evolutionary theory explains the development of new kinds of organisms.

Functionalists have typically thought of the function of a social activity as its contribution to the needs of the society, especially to a social equilibrium, which tends to right itself if disturbed. Durkheim, in the first systematic development of a functionalist approach, distinguished between the cause of an activity such as the punishment of crime, on the one hand, and its function, on the other. The practice of punishment may initially be caused by an intention to deter crime or achieve justice, but its function, according to Durkheim, is to maintain our intense emotional disapproval of crime. Although a particular practice or activity may not initially be caused by a recognition of the function it will serve, Durkheim holds that its serving a useful function is nevertheless part of the explanation of the continued survival of that practice.

Malinowski, who introduced the term functionalism into anthropology, identified seven fundamental biological needs: metabolism, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, movement, growth, and health, as well as derived needs, such as the need to produce goods and the need to regulate behavior. He held that the function of social processes was ultimately to satisfy these individual needs. Radcliffe-Brown rejected this view, going so far as to write that as a consistent opponent of Malinowskis functionalism I may be called an anti-functionalist (Functionalism: A Protest [1949], reprinted in Kuper 1977, p. 49). Although he regarded the concept of function as central to anthropology, in his view the function of social processes was not to satisfy individual needs, but rather to support or preserve social structures. Radcliffe-Browns view is often called structural functionalism to distinguish it from Malinowskis.

The sociologists most closely associated with functionalism in the mid-twentieth century were Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. (The terms functionalism and structural functionalism are both used to describe their work.) Parsons identified four functions that any social system needs in order to achieve and maintain equilibrium. These were: adaptation, or the acquisition and distribution of resources from the environment; goal attainment, which involves determining which goals of the system have priority and determining how to achieve them; integration, which involves coordinating relationships between various social actors to enable them to function smoothly together; and latent pattern maintenance-tension management, which involves transmitting values that will keep actors motivated to act in ways that are necessary for the continued functioning of the system.

Mertons contributions included his distinction between manifest functions, which are consequences that agents in the system recognize and intend to produce, and latent functions, which are not intended or recognized. Whereas Parsons had tended to emphasize manifest functions, Merton stressed that many important functions are latent. Merton also introduced the concept of dysfunctions, which are consequences of an activity that have negative effects on the stability of the system.

By the late 1970s, functionalism was no longer the dominant paradigm in sociology, in part because of the perceived conservatism of its emphasis on equilibrium, and its consequent lack of attention to social conflict and change, and in part because it was seen more as a set of abstract categories than as a testable empirical theory. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was some interest in a neofunctionalist sociology that attempted to preserve the insights of functionalism, especially as represented in Parsonss work, while addressing its perceived failings.


In psychology, the term functionalism refers to an American school of psychology that was influential at the turn of the nineteenth century. Functionalism developed in response to the earlier structuralist view advanced by Wilhelm Wundt (18321920) and Edward B. Titchener (18671927). Structuralist psychology used an introspectionist methodology to attempt to identify basic elements of conscious experience into which more complex experiences, or structures, could be analyzed. Functionalism, by contrast, emphasized psychological processes rather than static psychological structures. Functionalism also stressed the role of the mind as a mediator between the environment and the needs of the organism; like the pragmatist philosophy that influenced it, functionalism held that psychological processes should be understood in terms of their effects. The most influential contributors to this school were the pragmatist philosophers William James (18421910) and John Dewey (18591952), and the University of Chicago psychologist James Rowland Angell (18691949). Although functionalism influenced later approaches to psychology, as a distinct school it faded from view in the early decades of the twentieth century, as behaviorism rose to prominence.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Behaviorism; Durkheim, Émile; James, William; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Materialism; Merton, Robert K.; Parsons, Talcott; Philosophy; Pragmatism; Psychology; Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.; Sociology; Spencer, Herbert; Structuralism; Theory of Mind


Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1997. Neofunctionalism and After. Oxford: Blackwell.

Angell, James Rowland. 1907. The Province of Functional Psychology. Psychological Review 14: 6191.

Block, Ned, ed. 1980. Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Braddon-Mitchell, David, and Frank Jackson. 1996. Philosophy of Mind and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coser, Lewis A., and Bernard Rosenberg, eds. 1976. Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Kuper, Adam, ed. 1977. The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Levin, Janet. 2004. Functionalism. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1944. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Putnam, Hilary. 1975. Mind, Language, and Reality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wallace, Ruth A., and Alison Wolf. 2005. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Curtis Brown

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Functionalism is a schema of explanation: All parts of a system fulfil a necessary, latent function for the system as a whole, its stable equilibrium (principle of homeostasis), or its survival. Functionalism, thus, is a descendant of earlier teleological or finalistic conceptions. It can be applied to nearly all complex systems, but functional explanations are not a unitary phenomenon across disciplines.

Functionalism in sociology

Stimulated by Auguste Comte (17981857), Herbert Spencer (18201903), and especially Emile Durkheim (18581917), and encouraged through the anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), functionalism became important in sociology. Specific structural-functional macro-theories, such as that proposed by Talcott Parsons, describe religious institutions, norms, and symbols with respect to their output on integration, legitimization, compensation, and socialization for the society as a whole, its equilibrium, or its survival. The function of religion is destined for its power of integration (e.g., Durkheim), its role to institutionalize cultural-social norms (Parsons), or its ability to cope with experiences of contingency and reducing complexity (Nikklas Luhman).

This functional conception of religion has been criticized with respect to the epistemological and cognitive status of religious notions, regardless of the contribution of religion to the survival of human cultures. In addition, though the notion of stable equilibrium in functional analysis enables one to define what is dysfunctional and allows the search for functional equivalents, it needs to be defined in its temporal context and can hardly cover social change; in other words, it was accused of being conservative. However, functionalists can easily dismiss this criticism: Contributing to an optimum is adaptive, not legitimate. Some functional theories do not even have a static or equilibrium bias (Luhmann). Modern (neo)functionalism (which takes cybernetic concepts into account), theories about the evolution of religion proposed by Robert Bellah (which mediate the structural-functional model and historic-genetic model of social evolution), and autopoietic systems theories like that of Luhmann all try to avoid this and other criticism mentioned below.

Functionalism in biology

The form of a functional explanation in biology is the same as in sociology: It explains the presence of a trait as solution to a hypothetical design problem to assure that the needs of the individual or group are satisfied. Functional explanations for the needs of the genes are especially popular in socio-biology. Intentions are not involved.

Controversies in sociology and biology roughly concern (1) evidence, (2) explanation, and (3) the selection question. First, opponents like Richard Lewontin argue that stories are being told in socio-biology that have little statistical evidence, are incomplete, and are not empirically testable. Functionalism is accused of "adaptive failure": Adaptiveness does not assure presence of a trait, and it does not give criteria for normality and empirical measures for survival. In the same vein, functionalism is accused of eliminating the truth-question: The issue is not whether the propositions are true or whether there is evidence for believing them to be true, but how holding beliefs is functional. Second, the issue of different levels of explanation is controversial: Is the gene level sufficient for sociobiological explanations? Or do also the individual or the group level have to be considered? Also, the relation of functional explanations to mere functional descriptions and to chemical, causal explanations is controversial. Third, functional explanations in biology do better than those in sociology, it is argued, because they offer an answer to the selection question, natural selection, whereas mechanisms for cultural selection have not been satisfactorily developed. Nevertheless, as Wolfgang Stegmüller posits, functional analysis can be logically correct, empirically substantial, and highly valuable as a heuristic research program. Despite these controversies, (neo)functionalism dominated mainstream sociological and anthropological theories for most of the twentieth century. Functionalist approaches are also prominent in biology.

Functionalism in philosophy of mind

In contemporary philosophy of mind, functionalism is one of the most important theories. Developed in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor, a wide range of different versions has been developed since. The basic thesis is: Mental states are functional states caused by external sensory inputs, causing external behavioral outputs, and causally related to other functional states. One function may be realized in different ways in different cases (multiple realizability). One can roughly distinguish between common-sense or analytic functionalism, which deals with meanings of mental vocabulary; scientific, empirical, or psycho-functionalism, in which neurobiology lays down the characteristics of functional roles of mental states; and machine- or computer-functionalism, where the relation of mind to brain is thought to be equivalent to the relation of software to hardware, usually excluding intentionality and teleology. This computer functionalism, supported by fruitful research on artificial intelligence, has been investigated by Putnam, as well as others, as a worthwhile reaction to a materialistic or physicalistic view of mind because it does not attribute mental states only to humans or living organisms with a similar central nervous system. Like functionalism in general, it hardly gives sufficient justice to qualitative phenomena.

Functionalism in science and religion

Functional approaches are also highly relevant to the science and religion dialogue, mainly in interpretations of ideas about nature and God. An approach that historians of science and religion like John H. Brooke have found useful is to ask what function theology plays within the sciences and vice versa. Religious belief can function as a presupposition of, or sanction for, science. Religious belief could even provide a motivation for science if one happened to believe that the more one uncovered of the intricacies of nature the greater the evidence of divine intelligence. Robert John Russell has even suggested that scientific research programs such as Big Bang Theory and Steady State Theory have been motivated by religious respectively atheistic worldviews. Religion may also have reinforced aesthetic criteria, such as ideas of simplicity, elegance, and harmony in theory selection. The aim of a functional analysis is to uncover the uses to which natural theology was put, even in the fields of politics.

Ralph Wendell Burhoe's scientific theology is a functional approach to religion. Based upon writings of the sociologist Donald T. Campbell, Burhoe argues for a positively selected role for religion in the survival of cultures: Only religions can enable the shift from selfishness to altruistic behavior. He even argues for a continuing role for religion or a functional equivalent in the development and survival of human culture, proposing his scientific theology, which incorporates the scientific world-view. Critical reactions to this approach show that a functional approach to religion within a scientific framework has to be complemented by a functional approach to science within a religious or theological framework. This has been done by Philip Hefner from the point of view of a distinct theological anthropology. The integration of both concepts could have an even more liberating effect on the science and religion dialogue.

See also Artificial Intelligence; Mind-body Theories; Mind-brain Interaction; Neurosciences; Teleology


abrahamson, mark. functionalism. englewood cliffs, n.j.: prentice-hall, 1978.

alexander, jeffrey c. neofunctionalism and after. malden, mass., and oxford, uk: blackwell, 1998.

block, ned. "art. functionalism (2)." in a companion to the philosophy of mind, ed. samuel guttenplan. cambridge, mass., and oxford, uk: blackwell, 1994.

braddon-mitchell, david, and jackson, frank. philosophy of mind and cognition. oxford, uk, and cambridge, mass.: blackwell, 1996.

brooke, john, and cantor, geoffrey. reconstructing nature: the engagement of science and religion. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1998.

burhoe, ralph wendell. toward a scientific theology. belfast, northern ireland: christian journals limited, 1981.

hefner, philip. the human factor: evolution, culture, and religion. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993.

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lycan, william g. "art: functionalism (1)." in a companion to the philosophy of mind, ed. samuel guttenplan. cambridge, mass., and oxford, uk: blackwell, 1994.

meisinger, hubert. "christian love and biological altruism." zygon 35 (2000) 745782.

putnam, hilary. representation and reality. boston: mit press, 1988.

root, michael. philosophy of social science: the methods, ideals, and politics of social inquiry. oxford, uk, and cambridge, mass.: blackwell, 1993.

richardson, w. mark, and russell, robert john. science and the spiritual quest: new essays by leading scientists. london and new york: routledge, 2002.

sober, elliott, and wilson, david sloan. unto others: the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1998.

stegmüller, wolfgang. probleme und resultate der wissenschaftstheorie und analytischen philosophie. vol. 1: erklärung, begründung, kausalität, 2nd edition. new york, heidelberg, and berlin: springer, 1993.

turner, jonathan h., and maryanski, alexandra. functionalism. menlo park, calif.: benjamin cummings, 1979.

hubert meisinger

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A psychological approach, popular in the early part of the twentieth century, that focused on how consciousness functions to help human beings adapt to their environment.

The goal of the first psychologists was to determine the structure of consciousness just as chemists had found the structure of chemicals. Thus, the school of psychology associated with this approach earned the name structuralism. This perspective began in Germany in the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920).

Before long, however, psychologists suggested that psychology should not concern itself with the structure of consciousness because, they argued, consciousness was always changing so it had no basic structure. Instead, they suggested that psychology should focus on the function or purpose of consciousness and how it leads to adaptive behavior. This approach to psychology was consistent with Charles Darwin 's theory of evolution, which exerted a significant impact on the character of psychology. The school of functionalism developed and flourished in the United States, which quickly surpassed Germany as the primary location of scientific psychology.

In 1892, George Trumbull Ladd (1842-1921), one of the early presidents of the American Psychological Association , had declared that objective psychology should not replace the subjective psychology of the structuralists. By 1900, however, most psychologists agreed with a later president, Joseph Jastrow, that psychology was the science of mental content, not of structure. At that point, structuralism still had some adherents, but it was fast becoming a minor part of psychology.

The early functionalists included the pre-eminent psychologist and philosopher William James . James promoted the idea that the mind and consciousness itself would not exist if it did not serve some practical, adaptive purpose. It had evolved because it presented advantages. Along with this idea, James maintained that psychology should be practical and should be developed to make a difference in people's lives.

One of the difficulties that concerned the functionalists was how to reconcile the objective, scientific nature of psychology with its focus on consciousness, which by its nature is not directly observable. Although psychologists like William James accepted the reality of consciousness and the role of the will in people's lives, even he was unable to resolve the issue of scientific acceptance of consciousness and will within functionalism.

Other functionalists, like John Dewey , developed ideas that moved ever farther from the realm that structuralism had created. Dewey, for example, used James's ideas as the basis for his writings, but asserted that consciousness and the will were not relevant concepts for scientific psychology. Instead, the behavior is the critical issue and should be considered in the context in which it occurs. For example, a stimulus might be important in one circumstance, but irrelevant in another. A person's response to that stimulus depends on the value of that stimulus in the current situation. Thus, practical and adaptive responses characterize behavior, not some unseen force like consciousness.

This dilemma of how to deal with a phenomenon as subjective as consciousness within the context of an objective psychology ultimately led to the abandonment of functionalism in favor of behaviorism , which rejected everything dealing with consciousness. By 1912, very few psychologists regarded psychology as the study of mental contentthe focus was on behavior instead. As it turned out, the school of functionalism provided a temporary framework for the replacement of structuralism, but was itself supplanted by the school of behaviorism.

Interestingly, functionalism drew criticism from both the structuralists and from the behaviorists. The structuralists accused the functionalists of failing to define the concepts that were important to functionalism. Further, the structuralists declared that the functionalists were simply not studying psychology at all; psychology to a structuralist involved mental content and nothing else. Finally, the functionalists drew criticism for applying psychology; the structuralists opposed applications in the name of psychology.

On the other hand, behaviorists were uncomfortable with the functionalists' acceptance of consciousness and sought to make psychology the study of behavior. Eventually, the behavioral approach gained ascendance and reigned for the next half century.

Functionalism was important in the development of psychology because it broadened the scope of psychological research and application. Because of the wider perspective, psychologists accepted the validity of research with animals, with children, and with people having psychiatric disabilities. Further, functionalists introduced a wide variety of research techniques that were beyond the boundaries of structural psychology, like physiological measures, mental tests, and questionnaires. The functionalist legacy endures in psychology today.

Some historians have suggested that functional psychology was consistent with the progressivism that characterized American psychology at the end of the nineteenth century: more people were moving to and living in urban areas, science seemed to hold all the answers for creating a Utopian society, educational reform was underway, and many societal changes faced America. It is not surprising that psychologists began to consider the role that psychology could play in developing a better society.

Further Reading

Biro, J.I., and Robert W. Shahan, eds. Mind, Brain, and Function: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Leahey, T. H. A History of Modern Psychology. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Putnam, Hilary. Representation and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

Schultz, D. P., and S. E. Schultz. A History of Modern Psychology. 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

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Because of its affinity with American pragmatism, functionalism is one of the most influential psychologies in education. Originally it was a reaction against the structuralism popular in Germany (Wundt), but its American proponentsJames Angell, William james, George Mead, and John Deweywere responsible for its development and popularity.

Functionalists view man as a highly developed biological organism, and the mind as the result of the evolutionary process. Their work contains an explicit rejection of the traditional mind-body dualism, which attributes the activities of mind such as judgment and reasoning to a spiritual soul. In the late 19th century, Dewey argued against the separation of mind and body, structure and function, stimulus and response, sensation and idea. To him idea and body were of one and the same fabric. Thus, mind is a function of the organism enabling man to interact with and adjust to the environment. As such, its operations might be compared to breathing and other biological functions except that mental action, especially thought, is normally associated with conscious activity. Explanations are sought by this school for the purpose or function of consciousness itself.

Since mind is viewed as a dynamic function, functionalism is not purely mechanistic, and a simple stimulus-response explanation of behavior is inadequate. The psychologist must study mental operations and activities, the basic "utilities" of mind used in mediating between the organism and the environment (in the adaptive activities). What the mind does is more important than its contents. Psychological investigations must also view all functions in unison. As Angell says: "Functionalism is a study of the responses of a whole individual rather than an investigation of the movements of any single part of an individual." The psychologist must give attention to phenomena as well as to behavior. Consequently, the subject matter of psychology, according to the functionalist, encompasses all acts such as seeing, hearing, tasting, thinking, and choosing as these relate to objects external to the knower and as such objects are related to other objects. However, psychology is not limited to the mere description of the physiological components of behavior, for psychology is concerned also with action, and a human act involves an awareness of a pattern of mental content, with adaptive significance, that will enable the organism to distinguish different acts through their consequences. Thus, an "act is a group or pattern of contents exhibiting a unity from the standpoint of its meaningful implications as to end result" (Angell). Because it includes so much in the psychology of behavior, functionalism lends itself readily to education and other areas of applied psychology.

The theory of learning is a central concern of the functionalist. For him, learning is not rooted in the faculty of intellect (or reason) but is conceived as a mode of reacting to problematic situations that confront the organism. However, the individual does not have to start from a clean slate in each new situation since an organic form of memory provides him with recollections of his own and others' experiences. Other factors that come into play include frequency, recentness, intensity, interest, emotion, moods, organic maturation, motivation, and forgetting with the sense receptors and the nervous system active in all phases.

Dewey's analysis of the complete act of thought reflects the principles of functional psychology. He argues that all thought or meaningful learning is initiated by a difficulty resulting from the organism's immediate inability to attain some goal. The situation is obscure and fraught with conflict and doubt. As the organism becomes aware of the difficulty it locates and defines the problem. A possible solution (or alternative solutions) is suggested, and each hypothesis is examined in terms of anticipated consequences. The hypothesis is put to the test of experience and is rejected or accepted. Acceptance follows when the situation becomes clear, coherent, settled, and harmonious; that is, when the organism has achieved a satisfactory adjustment to the environment or the difficulty disappears.

An important factor in Dewey's functionalism is the significance he gives to the role of habit in adaptive situations. Routine habits aid in adjustment where the environment is relatively static. Flexible habits, of which intelligence is one, are needed to aid the individual in his adjustment to changing environment, especially the social environment. Reflective thought, described above, is the most useful of the habits since it enables man to handle the highly complex problems of modern civilization.

Of all the theories of psychology, functionalism has had the greatest influence on modern American secular education. Adjustment, as an aim of education, the emphasis on skill in problem solving, and much of the emphasis on the "whole child" in education originated in functionalist thinking. The textbooks of adolescent and child psychology and those of educational psychology and methods used in teacher education demonstrate the influence of this school of psychology.

Its major weakness lies in interpreting human behavior in purely biological terms. It fails to recognize in man any activity, such as reasoning, that might transcend the purely organic. It fails also to provide an adequate explanation for the various states of consciousness. On the other hand, functionalism's emphasis on the dynamic nature of learning did much to break the strangle hold of purely mechanistic psychologies and their application.

Bibliography: j. r. angell, An Introduction to Psychology (New York 1918). j. dewey, How We Think (Boston 1910); Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York 1950). j. dewey and a. f. bentley, Knowing and the Known (Boston 1949). w. james, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York 1907). e. r. hilgard, Theories of Learning (2d ed. New York 1956). g. murphy, Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology (rev. ed. New York 1949). a. adler et al., Psychologies of 1930, ed. c. a. murchison (Worcester, Mass. 1930). b. b. wolman, Contemporary Theories and Systems in Psychology, ed. g. murphy (New York 1960). r. s. woodworth, Contemporary Schools of Psychology (New York 1931); Dynamic Psychology (New York 1918).

[a. m. dupuis]

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func·tion·al·ism / ˈfəngkshənlˌizəm/ • n. belief in or stress on the practical application of a thing, in particular: ∎  (in the arts) the doctrine that the design of an object should be determined solely by its function, rather than by aesthetic considerations, and that anything practically designed will be inherently beautiful. ∎  (in the social sciences) the theory that all aspects of a society serve a function and are necessary for the survival of that society. ∎  (in the philosophy of mind) the theory that mental states can be sufficiently defined by their cause, their effect on other mental states, and their effect on behavior. DERIVATIVES: func·tion·al·ist n. & adj.

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Functionalism. Theory that good design results from or is identical with functional efficiency, i.e. architecture should be determined by function alone. It is of considerable antiquity, and was promoted by Viollet-le-Duc and other C19 architects before Louis Sullivan coined his ‘form follows function’ slogan (1896). It is used by e.g. Giedion and Pevsner to justify International Modernism, even though that style was arguably no more ‘functional’ than any other, and in some ways less so.


R. Banham (1960);
Lampugnani (ed.) (1988);
J. M. Richards (1958);
Sartoris (1936);
Jane Turner (1996);
Zurko (1957)

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functionalism, in art and architecture, an aesthetic doctrine developed in the early 20th cent. out of Louis Henry Sullivan's aphorism that form ever follows function. Functionalist architects and artists design utilitarian structures in which the interior program dictates the outward form, without regard to such traditional devices as axial symmetry and classical proportions. After World War I, the German Bauhaus produced a number of influential architects and designers, notably Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who worked within this aesthetic. Functionalism was subsequently absorbed into the International style as one of its guiding principles.

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functionalism In art and architecture, an early 20th-century style based on utilitarianism. Functionalism rejected ornamentation and stressed the basic structure of the work and of the materials used. Major proponents of functionalism included Gropius, Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier.