Functions Theories, Essay Example

One key theory that has been developed to help express the principles behind human behavior, thought processes and cognition is the functionist theory.  “Functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part” (Levin, 2010).  Based upon this definition, it is clear that there can be a number of different theories under the umbrella of functionalism that can describe the purpose of internal function on the behavior and cognition within a person.  “More precisely, functionalist theories take the identity of a mental state to be determined by its causal relations to sensory stimulations, other mental states, and behavior” (Levin, 2010).  Based upon these two unique definitions, there are several theorists that work to define the principles behind this theory and how the theory can be used to explain human behavior.

Early functionalist theories were designed to think of the brain and cognitive behavior as similar activities performed by machines.  “According to Putnam’s machine state functionalism, any creature with a mind can be regarded as a Turing machine (an idealized finite state digital computer), whose operation can be fully specified by a set of instructions (a ‘machine table’ or program)” (Levin, 2010).  Under this theory, the mind essentially has a strict order of rules that govern how the brain functions and how cognitive activity rationalizes specific behaviors and thoughts.  Through the application of this theory, probabilistic automatons are described as considering events, thoughts and receptors to predict the probability that the “machine” will produce a particular output result (Levin, 2010).  While this early functionist theory has been used to advance the field, other more modernized theories conflict with this restricted view of how the brain works with affecting cognitive behavior.

A unique addition to common functionalist theories is a hypothesis called the Extended Cognition Hypothesis.  This hypothesis uses the Parity Principle as a key factor in defining its application in cognitive behavior.  “The parity principle states that if there is functional equality with respect to governing behavior [due to], internal [causal] elements … then there is no good reason to deny equivalent status – that is, cognitive status – to the relevant external elements” (Wheeler, 2010).  This theory then uses the parity principle to declare that cognitive behavior is not only influenced by internal factors as is the common believe in functionist theories, but that external factors such as environment and other individuals can have the same influential power on cognitive behavior.

Edward Lee Thorndike and John Dewey also worked together to develop a unique application of a type of functionalist theory as they worked to define the role and importance of the educator.  “As Dewey explained, enlightenment, clarity and progress can come about only as we remember that [disciplines such as psychology and sociology] are sources to be used, through the medium of the minds of educators, to make educational functions more intelligent” (Tomlinson, 1997).  Based upon this definition, Thorndike and Dewey adhere to the principles of functionalism in that the thoughts, actions and beliefs of the students are directly influenced by the actions of the educator.  Through this theory, it can be surmised that the Extended Cognition Hypothesis, the parity principle and the Machine State Functionist theory all work together to influence students’ cognitive behavior.


Levin, J. (Summer 2010). Functionalism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E.N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from

Tomlinson, S. (1997). Edward Lee Thorndike and John Dewey on the science of education. Oxford Review Of Education, 23(3), 365.

Wheeler, M. (2010). In defense of extended functionalism. The extended mind, Retrieved from