The Principle of Mentalism

The principle of mentalism has been derived from the school of thought named functionalism which was developed in opposition to structuralism in the late 19th century by William James. Other key proponents include John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Harvey A. Carr, James Rowland Angell, Edward L. Thorndike, James McKeen Cattell & Robert S. Woodworth. Evolved through Darwinian thinking, functionalism emphasises and focuses on adaptive functions of behaviour and mental processes in helping individuals survive and thrive in their environments. It explores how the mind works to fulfil its purpose in everyday life, focusing on the practical and functional aspects of mental processes rather than their underlying structure or mechanisms which was of key importance to the structuralist.

Mentalism, within functionalism, sheds light on the importance of mental states and processes such as feelings, thoughts and desires and how they contribute to the understanding of behaviour. This is in contrast to behaviourism, which evolved later and was primarily concerned with observable behaviour, often dismissing mental states as irrelevant or inaccessible for scientific study.


Mentalism is a philosophical and psychological doctrine that emphasizes the fundamental reality of the mind and its role in shaping our understanding of the world. It theorizes that mental phenomena, such as thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, are the primary and essential aspects of human consciousness, and that these mental states are the basis for all knowledge and experience.

Mentalism is a doctrine that considers the mind to be the fundamental reality, asserting that objects of knowledge exist only as aspects of the subject’s consciousness (William James, 1890). People often contrast this perspective with physicalism (Thomas Hobbes, 1651), which emphasizes the primacy of physical objects and processes, and idealism (George Berkeley, 1710), which posits that the mind is the fundamental reality and that physical objects are mere manifestations of mental states.

Historical Background

The history of mentalism reflects a very long-standing interest in the mind and mental processes it has evolved through various philosophical and psychological perspectives by various thinkers and scientists. It has its history from ancient philosophy to modern contemporary cognitive science. This reflects how the study of the mind has remained to be a central theme in understanding human experience and behaviour at the same time drawing emphasis on the nature of its complexity. The word mind comes under one of the 10 most difficult words in the dictionary including words like nature, God, knowledge, soul, culture etc.

Mentalism has its historical founding roots in Greek philosophy especially that of Plato and Aristotle. Their focus was to understand the nature of the mind, with emphasis on understanding the relation between mind and body and finding the role of reasoning in understanding the world. In fact, in Indian texts like that of Buddha and the Upanishadic sages, there has been a detailed exploration of the nature of the mind, especially focusing on the concept of consciousness and the self which has been the ground for the development of various practices like meditation and yoga.

During the Middle Ages, scholastic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and Duns Scotus continued to explore the nature of the soul and consciousness, often linking mental processes to divine inspiration and rationality. Then renaissance humanism with thinkers like Erasmus and Montaigne tried to explore the nature of the mind and the human condition. René Descartes, often called the father of modern philosophy, introduced the idea of dualism, asserting that the mind and body are distinct substances. His famous quote “I think, therefore I am” highlighted the importance of mental processes as the foundation of knowledge. Then empiricists including John Locke emphasized how perception and reflection contribute to knowledge.

Even idealist George Berkeley argued that the mind perceives the material world into existence, emphasizing mental processes over physical reality. The work of James emphasized the practical and adaptive functions of consciousness and mental activity.

The emergence of the school of thought of psychodynamic & behaviourism perspective took away the dialogue and notion of mentalism, however, in the 1950s and 1960s, the cognitive revolution shifted psychology’s focus back to the mind. Researchers like George Miller and Ulric Neisser emphasized the importance of mental processes (such as perception, memory, and problem-solving) establishing cognitive psychology as a dominant paradigm, also Noam Chomsky contributed significantly.

Even the humanistic psychologists Roger and Maslow emphasised the subjective experiences and potential for growth which in turn highlights the importance of mental states. Advances in neuroscience have provided new insights into the neural basis of mental processes, furthering our understanding of the mind. Contemporary perspectives like social constructivism also emphasize the role of social and cultural factors in shaping our understanding of the mind. However, the ongoing debates in the philosophy of mind continue to explore the nature of consciousness, mental states, and their relationship to the physical world, with theories ranging from dualism and idealism to physicalism and functionalism.

Key Concepts

  • Cognition: It investigates the mental processes involved in thinking, learning, and problem-solving.
  • Philosophical Implications: It raises questions about the relationship between mental states and the physical world.
  • Interdisciplinary Connections: Mentalism has connections to various fields, including cognitive neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy.
  • Perception: Mentalism examines how the mind processes and interprets sensory information, influencing our understanding of the world.
  • Consciousness: In mentalism, the focus is on the study of consciousness, perception, and thought processes often labelled as ‘stream of consciousness’.
  • Methodological Approaches: Mentalism employs a range of methodological approaches, including introspection, self-report measures, and neuroimaging techniques.
  • Neural Basis: Contemporary mentalism incorporates advances in cognitive neuroscience, which allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying mental states.
  • Subjective experience: Here the focus is on the subjective experience of mental states, which is a key difference from other constructs that may focus on objective measures or behavioural responses.
Modern-day Application

The principle of mentalism has an everyday application as well. Its rich history does not only establish its importance but functionality. One can develop a deeper understanding of one’s mental processes through self-awareness and finding the patterns behind thought and behaviour and how they are linked which can further facilitate in developing strategies for growth, problem-solving, and effective interpersonal relationships. The stream of consciousness emphasises the notions of being here and now, encourages individuals to pay attention to their thoughts, and emotions in the present moment and provides spaces to reflect.

It can lead to the development of a better understanding of oneself and others around. Also, it emphasises the importance of open-mindedness and imaginative thought processes, having flexibility in mental processes that encourage one towards creative solutions to novel problems, facilitating thinking of individuals outside the conventional box and being original.

The mind, by James, is viewed as a very dynamic entity capable of change, which is so intelligent in itself to adapt and can guide individuals in their journey of individual growth and development by identifying the importance and relevance of continuous learning (having a receptive mindset towards knowledge), reflection, and improvement.

Humans can accelerate their evolution due to this quality. Lastly, James’ ideas on the role of social and cultural factors (social constructionism) in shaping mental processes can help individuals understand and navigate interpersonal relationships more effectively by recognizing the influence of these factors on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Critique and Evolution

With the rise of the school of thought of behaviourism in the early 20th century the limelight from mentalism was withdrawn. Behaviourists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner argued that studying consciousness is not relevant. It cannot be seen, verified or even studied objectively further causing a hindrance to establishing psychology as a scientific paradigm. On the contrary side behaviourism through its experimental methods rather than the subjective study of consciousness is more reliable and scientific.

Revival and Contemporary Significance

In modern times from the past few decades, there has been a revival in growing interest in the study and relevance of mentalism especially by the advances made in the field of cognitive neuroscience and the development of qualitative research paradigms namely constructionism and a few other methods to study consciousness. This new profound understanding of consciousness emphasises the relevance of both neural and social factors in shaping our experiences and perceptions along with its dynamicity. Contemporary mentalism also recognises and acknowledges the complexities and interplay of both mind and matter in contribution to shaping and reshaping consciousness.

Mentalism is both a philosophical and psychological doctrine that has been historically trying to establish the fundamental realities of the mind and the role it plays in shaping our understanding. Historically, people have known it by various names and have considered it a very important area of investigation.

References +
  • https://dictionary.apa.org/mentalism
  • https://oxfordre.com/psychology/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-493?d=%2F10.1093%2Facrefore%2F9780190236557.001.0001%2Facrefore-9780190236557-e-493&p=emailA0JzuANLeThp6
  • https://specialeducationnotes.co.in/William%20James.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_psychology
  • https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/mentalismslidespptx/265439004
  • https://dictionary.apa.org/mentalism
  • https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/mentalism
  • https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/mentalism
  • https://philarchive.org/rec/LISMVB
  • https://digitalcommons.memphis.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=ccrg_papers
  • https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james/
  • https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0959354319889186
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