Structuralism, Functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and Behaviorism, four of the classical schools of psychology, established during the early times of modern psychology, were opposed to each other in their perspectives of psychology. Structuralism was the first school of psychology and Functionalism was the second one. Gestalt psychology and Behaviorism were established later, emerging almost during the same time.
Structuralism, the first school of psychology, considered to have begun somewhere around 1879, was pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt and later spread by his student Edward Titchener. Psychology, according to Structuralism, is the analytical study of the mind – studying mental structures and content of the mind. It emphasized on studying the structure of consciousness, which means examining the relationship of a group of sensations that produces the complex experiences people think of as their conscious mental life.
The second school of psychology, Functionalism, was pioneered by William James. The classic book written by James, Principle of Psychology, was published in 1890; and this is often considered to be the beginning of Functionalism. Functionalism emphasized the analysis of the processes by which the mind works. It suggested an alternative to Structuralism. According to Functionalism, psychologists should focus on the processes of thought rather than on its contents. They suggested that, instead of studying the structural contents and elements of the mind, it is important to study the processes of how and why the mind works as it does.
As opposed to structuralism, James defined psychology as the science of mental life, which is a unity. He also coined the phrase stream of consciousness, which suggests that consciousness is a continuous, flowing process and that any attempt to reduce it to elements will distort it. This is in complete contrast to that of Structuralism that emphasized on the elementary contents (structures) of the human mind.
Gestalt psychology was initiated by three German psychologists, Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka, somewhere in 1912. It focused largely on learning and perception, suggesting that the act of combining sensory elements produces new patterns with new properties that did not exist in the individual elements.
Gestalt psychology opposed Structuralism by attacking one of its aspects of elementism - the conception of complex phenomena in terms of basic parts or elements. In their argument, Gestalt psychologists suggested that when sensory elements are combined, they form some new pattern or configuration; stating that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.
While Gestalt psychology was targeting Structuralism and Wundtian psychology, Behaviorism was preparing to get established. Behaviorism was formerly initiated by the American psychologist John Watson, in 1913. Behaviorism defines psychology as the study of behavior. It emphasized the role of experience in determining behavior, which is expressed through learning. The system also emphasized on observable and quantifiable behavior, which was assumed to have meaning in itself, rather than serving as a manifestation of underlying mental events.
Behaviorism, in its ideas, majorly opposed Structuralism and Functionalism. Watson proposed a radical departure from the study of inner consciousness, which both Structuralism and Functionalism had emphasized on. He dismissed the entire notion of some nonphysical mental state of consciousness as a pseudoproblem for science. In its place Watson advocated overt, observable behavior as the sole legitimate subject matter for a true science of psychology.
Later, Gestalt psychology that began with opposing Structuralism also began to oppose Behaviorism. These two schools initially were independent, but began opposing each other. The major difference between the two was that Gestalt psychologists accepted the value of consciousness but criticized the attempt to analyze it into atoms or elements. Behavioral psychologists refused even to acknowledge the existence of consciousness for psychology.
In this way, Gestalt psychology and Behaviorism that began by opposing Structuralism also began to oppose each other. And thus, the four early schools of Structuralism, Functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and Behaviorism differed from the other in their views and ideas about psychology.
Despite the differing perspectives, these four schools of psychology had something in common. They, in some way or the other, led to something that became a major force in the history of psychology. Some specific ideas of Structuralism, Functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and Behaviorism, became antecedents in the development of Cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology went on to completely revolutionize psychology.
In 1967, Ulric Neisser, published the book called, Cognitive Psychology in which he defined the field; it was the book that established the field. Neisser, considered to be the father of cognitive psychology defined cognition in terms of those processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used, and is evolved in everything a human being might possibly do.
According to him, cognitive psychology is concerned with sensation, perception, imaging, memory, problem solving, thinking, and all other mental activities. More specifically, cognitive psychology is the study of how people perceive, learn, remember, and think about information. Cognitive psychology can thus be said to be the study of mental processes. Studying mental processes or consciousness that was once refuted by Behaviorism was brought back to the realm of psychology due to the establishment of cognitive psychology.
Wilhelm Wundt, the pioneer of Structuralism, can be said to be the forerunner of cognitive psychology. He emphasized on studying the activity of the mind. He carried out research on perception, including some of the earliest studies of visual illusion.
Structuralism was about studying the elements or structure of the mind. Structuralism advocated the method of introspection in studying conscious experiences. Introspection, in a way, is what cognitive psychology is all about.
Introspection literally means looking within. It is a method of gathering data in which the individual attempts to analyse the content of their conscious mind. Introspection is a looking inward at pieces of information passing through consciousness. It involves paying attention not to the whole pattern of a stimulus, but to an elemental part of a stimulus. Introspective reports involve the higher-level cognitive processes, such as reasoning.
Introspection was also one of the methods used by Functionalism. Functionalism was also about studying conscious experiences, emphasizing on the processes of the mind. William James, the pioneer of Functionalism, emphasized the value for psychology of pragmatism, the basic tenet of which is that the validity of an idea or conception is to be tested by its practical consequences.
Pragmatists are concerned with what can be done with the knowledge and understanding of human nature. Pragmatists, for instance, believe in the importance of studying memory, as it can be helpful in many areas of life.
The classic book by William James, Principles of Psychology, is also considered to be a forerunner of cognitive psychology. James proposed a number of theories, which are still broadly accepted today, including a theory distinguishing between short-term and long-term memory. Even today, cognitive psychologists frequently point to the writings of James in discussions of core topics in the field, such as attention, consciousness, and perception.
Along with Structuralism and Functionalism, many aspects of contemporary cognitive psychology originate from Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology was an influence on cognitive psychology because of its focus on organization, structure, relationships, the active role of the subject, and the important part played by perception in learning and memory.
The Gestalt psychologists emphasized that proper understanding of human beings could only be achieved by investigating the mental processes. The idea that humans contribute something to perceptual input from ones knowledge and experience was actually proposed by the Gestalt psychologists. By emphasizing the role of inner mental processes and stored knowledge, Gestalt psychology had a major influence on the development of cognitive psychology.
Behaviorism began with being completely against the idea of studying consciousness and emphasized on only observable and measurable behavior. However, from the 1930s, with the beginning of neo-Behaviorism, things began to change. Some behaviourists started to talk about the importance of conscious experiences.
The behaviorist Edwin Guthrie, towards the end of his career, came to deplore the mechanistic model of Behaviorism and argued that stimuli cannot always be reduced to physical terms. He suggested that psychologists must describe stimuli in perceptual or cognitive terms, so that they will be meaningful for the responding organism. He also said that psychologists cannot deal with the concept of meaning solely in behavioristic terms, because it is a mentalistic or cognitive process.
The purposive behaviorism of Edward Tolman was also a precursor of cognitive psychology. His form of behaviorism recognized the importance of cognitive variables and contributed to the decline of the stimulus-response approach. Tolman proposed the idea of cognitive maps, attributed purpose to animals, and emphasized intervening variables as a way of operationally defining internal, unobservable states.
Thus, Behaviorism that had always stressed for even the elimination of mentalistic terms from psychology, later, like Structuralism, Functionalism, and Gestalt psychology also contributed to the development of cognitive psychology. The behaviorists that emphasized on cognitive variables were referred to as cognitive behaviourists and can be said to be the early pioneers of cognitive psychology.
Structuralism, Functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and Behaviorism, all differed in their perspectives of psychology. They opposed each other and were critical of each other. Even though they differed in their perspectives, they all had a commonality. They all contributed to the rise of cognitive psychology, something which completely changed the whole picture of psychology as field of study.