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Freud And James Theoretical Positions Essay

Sigmund Freud and William James helped unveil a new zeitgeist in the burgeoning field of psychology. Freud’s psychoanalysis and James’ functionalism would influence theorists and practitioners for decades, earning each man a prominent place in psychology’s history books.  What are the cornerstones of these milestone theories of human behavior, and how do they compare?

In regards to basic human nature, James and Freud could not have been more divergent in their views. William James’ functionalism promoted a free will that carries us toward a “final destination.” A personal analysis that reflects one’s own unique individual experiences was highly valued. Each event in our lives moves us through a constant stream of different contexts and consciousness. Therefore, James did not focus so much on our good or evil natures, preferring instead to view our world as painted with a palette of varying shades of gray. Human beings cannot be divided into convenient categories and labels, but rather exist as unique and complex individuals. James’ pragmatic and functional mentality (we all have a purpose) leant him a slightly humanistic view in which most people strive toward a common good for the betterment of society. (James, 1983)

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In stark contrast, Sigmund Freud heralded a rather pessimistic view of human nature, emphasizing instincts as our innate drive and aggression or sex as our primary channels for those desires. Much of his psychoanalytic theory centers around the concept of a libidinous id—a force deep within us and beyond our awareness which harbors all of our secret impulses and desires unfit for society. Most of our lives, our personality is spent in a conflict between the bad id and the good, law-abiding superego. We repress most of our negative feelings out of conscious awareness, but they still manifest themselves in the form of physical illness and mental neurosis, just as the infamous “Anna O.” demonstrates.  Also, Freud’s proposed psychosexual stages of development further reveal his emphasis on instincts (primarily sexual) in molding everyone (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).

The emphasis on innate physical causes for behavior represented a strong departure from structural and empirical schools of thought, and both Freud and James brought this difference to the forefront, albeit in different forms. “No mental modification ever occurs which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change”….”The spiritualist and the associationist must both be cerebralists”….Psychology is “the adjustment of inner to outer relations”….The psychologist must be a “nerve-physiologist”…..All of the preceding statements, taken from William James’ Principles of Psychology (1983), highlight an underlying theme in his theory—the body (most especially the brain) is a vital and essential component of “mental life.”

Consciousness, he asserted, must be studied in its natural setting, and study of the “conditions” (the physical components) of “phenomena” is crucial. He cited as proof of the brain’s importance how factors such as a blow to the head, drug use, or other sorts of brain trauma have the potential to almost complete reverse someone’s behavior and personality. In addition, his theory of habits also indicates his belief in the brain’s ability to mold lifelong behaviors. Also, James held that emotions were the direct result of physiological reactions to stimuli (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).

Despite his nativist assertions, however, James did appreciate that vital role environmental factors played in human development. According to functionalist thought, the function of our consciousness is to freely adapt to our environment in order to survive. We accomplish this through “choosing” our paths. An active mind that filters, combines, selects, rejects, and generally “weave(s) an endless carpet” appealed to James. He prized the role of motivation in directing our attention. Far from being mere passersby on the highway of life, we are rather highly energetic and involved “drivers” paving our own indelible mark and fueled by free will (James, 1983). Freud shared James’ basic nativism. Freud’s study of Anna O. demonstrates his certainty that the mind can exert a tremendous influence upon the body.

The whole concept of neurosis states that physical bodily symptoms which have no apparent physical origin are likely the result of defects or repressions within the mind (Schultz & Schultz, 2000). Freud always remained very deterministic in his theories. All people are born with innate libidinous impulses. All people repress those instincts, resulting in various complexes. All people pass through the psychosexual stages of development, and the personality of everyone is basically set by the age of seven. However, unlike William James, Freud’s stance is rooted in a passive mind completely helpless to impulse. Perhaps this passivity—and lack of faith in the human condition—is the strongest contrast between Sigmund Freud and William James. However, both men will continue to influence psychologists across the world for many generations.


James, W. (1983). The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2000). A History of Modern Psychology. Belmont: Wadsworth

Thomson Learning.

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