Functionalism (or functional thinking) is a concept developed by Wilhelm Reich. It is not a belief, but a philosophy of understanding. Functionalism is best explained first by describing what it is not. Two dominant modes of understanding today are mechanistic thinking (employed during work hours by science and most academic disciplines) and mystical thinking (common in 'self-improvement' or 'growth' circles).

Domains of Effect

The goal of understanding for humans is to know how things come about--the force behind effects. Effects can conceptualized as being brought about in three domains: natural, supernatural, and man-made. The natural includes all effects brought about by chemical, physical, and biological laws. The supernatural is a concept that natural laws can be suspended only occasionally for the will or desire of sentient entities to be effected by unknown means. The meaning of supernatural derives from its contrast from the natural.

Man-made is the domain in which humans use some natural laws to interrupt other natural laws to bring about the effects they prefer. This the realm of technology. Because of their seeming opposition to natural laws, some man-made effects weaken belief in the ultimate determination by the natural, and this can boost mysticism as described below. Afterall, the supernatural and the man-made share the core element of being will-driven

Because biological effects are sometimes affected by interaction between organisms, or the vitality of an organism, they may be expressed in a way which does not seem consistent and so are dismissed as adventitious. When these natural effects are spoken about by discerning individuals, less sensitive individuals may take it as talk about the supernatural. The Reich and Lowen tradition has nothing to say about the supernatural; it is all about the natural

The sections below are based on the work of Reich, Lowen, and Charles Kelley*

*Mysticism and Mechanism, 1970,


Mechanistic Thinking

Mechanistic thinking (or mechanization) is the belief that life is only one long string of causes and effects based on physical and chemical laws, and that the purpose of human life is to become the 'prime mover' or 'ultimate cause' of results by managing causes to one's will. A goal is to optimize existence through the man-made. There is a premise that physical laws operate everywhere and always, and there are no additional natural laws that apply to living organisms (there are no unique biological laws)

Problems in the world , including the problem of suffering, are approached mechanically. That is, a single 'real' cause is looked for, and combated directly according to the laws of physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are mechanical sciences, that is they seek to explain everything building up from the supposition of cause and effect. Biology is different because it must explain the phenomenon of life 'downwards' toward simpler processes.

Investigations are undertaken only to uncover a static truth or reality which is believed to have always been there. This static truth is believed to settle all questions once and for all. At bottom, a state of permanence is sought. All change is considered either a perturbation, or a correction, never a legitimate process of its own. Mechanistic thinking always has a problem with the concept of energy, because energy is only known by change.

The unit of interest is the effect, which is seen as the final 'result' of a chain of causation. In human affairs, only the intended effect is of interest (although it is understood that mere intention is not effective.) The process itself, and adventitious results are disregarded or denied. Importantly, the observer is believed to be uninvolved and to have no effect.

Related to this, all interest is in 'why' and not in 'how,' so for instance, competition develops to explain the 'real' cause of schizophrenia, but there is no interest in understanding how that person is functioning. There is a dominant premise that any given effect has one and only one true cause, and 'subtle' influences, because they do not 'explain' anything completely (do not 'force' any single result), are dismissed as irrelevant. This dismissiveness is reinforced because a armored and deadened body is 'numb' to many subtle sensations and effects.

Mechanistic thinking leads to determinism, but strangely, the mechanistic thinker will always believe he or she has free will unlike everyone else! This paradox pervades the pronouncement of most scientists about human functioning. Mechanism does not deny consciousness but disputes its role in what happens. Inanimate phenomenon is well characterized but the events surrounding living things constantly require the excuse of aberrancy

There is in fact a belief that humans can choose not to be affected by other living organisms, and in fact this is believed to be an optimal way of being. We have developed a culture of mechanical explanations that include many minute details but little understanding of the overall context of life. Mechanization is the inevitable result of a deadened body, but the deadening of a partly alive body can be completed under it's auspices.  From the mechanical point of view, the body is either a tool or a burden of the mind, but never the seat of the person or the self.

Mechanistic thinking perhaps arises because: 1) We live in a culture and time in which man uses immense amounts of fossil fuels to do what the ego imagines. Adapting to the natural order and understanding mutual influence is considered, weak unnecessary, or even mystical (as described below). 2) Some of us struggle for material security in a competitive society, and so the role of planning and will in the good life seems paramount. 3) Many of us are not properly introduced as children to the wonders of life, so figuring out how to achieve a good life becomes an analytic procedure, which however close it comes to key concepts, can never really capture the experience.

The temptation to describe events in society solely in terms of cause and effect is understandable, because after all, conscious human will is part of the mix, and very salient in consciousness. However, the mechanical view tends to explain even events inside a person (phenomenology) entirely by cause and effect, as though the conscious will of a human had designed it! Yet we know that a consciously designed being is a robot! Other traits include:

A slight distinction needs to be made between the mechanistic thinking Reich was writing about which was based on Marxism, and modern day mechanism which has replaced the body with the brain. This modern 'neuroscientific' materialism opposes the instinctual actualities of humans, that is, it tries to make the body below the neck unnecessary. This may seem to have elements of mysticism, and in fact it can attract mystically minded followers in the therapeutic community, but it is just an even more impoverished form of mechanistic thinking.


As a general world view, mysticism is the tendency to consider effects as arising primarily out of intentions, one's own intentions, or the intentions of others. Even moreso than mechanization, mysticism is a deification of human will, and a denial of the general 'fitness' of natural forces. Unlike mechanization, which is an over-involvement with cause and effect, mysticism is a loosening of cause and effect. Mysticism does not get rid of cause and effect but rather just the reliance of cause and effect on uniform natural laws. Physical laws are believed to operate most places and most of the time, but are sometimes suspended, or tailored to individual situations if the 'need' is compelling enough. Effects can come before causes, time is no more sacrosanct than any other physical law. Mysticism allows for 'teleological' thinking, in which the effect is deemed so 'fit' or appropriate that it is, in fact, its own cause.

As in mechanistic thinking, the unit of interest is the 'result', only in mysticism adventitious events are often retroactively endowed with a prior cause. Processes get little real attention because it is not felt that results have to be limited by or loyal to discernable processes. Investigations are hampered by the inability to form any principles. Opposite to mechanistic thinking, the observer is everything. From his or her point of view derives the direction of events. This is the realm of ghosts and spirits, but also the realm of Jungian ideas of synchronicity and collective unconscious.

In its strongest form, mysticism is also the origin of the meme 'the law and attraction', in which intention is not only deemed necessary and primary, it is deemed sufficient. This is really a belief in personal magic, underlaid of course by grandiosity. In a more watered down version, many inspirational speakers allow that a bit of modest action has to be applied to the intention, which is still primary. While it is true that many accomplishments have come about through a chain of steps, an early link or two of which were intentions, inspirational methods usually have very little to say about the transition of intention-in-to-action.

Mysticism does therefore seem to make room for inter-relationship but not in any consistent way because, again, the wishes of one entity or another predominates. Mysticism can be a lazy way of thinking, because there is no need to achieve any consensus with others and no 'reality check' at all. Moreover, many in our culture (especially 'alternative health') mix mystical and mechanical thinking. That is, they claim understanding from mystical sources but choose to implement the knowledge in a routinized or mechanical way.

The following are ideas about how mysticism comes about: 1) Some have had privilege in their upbringing, and so wish and result seem directly related, or 2) Some were misled frequently about other people's true role in matters (ie what parents were actually doing), so that 'how things come about' is never straight-forward but of course not random either. 3) Alienation from the body make physical sensations unrecognizable as the self, and mechanical explanations being inadequate, extra-natural explanations are created. This point was emphasized by Wilhelm Reich in the third part of Character Analysis. Other traits:

Functional Thinking

The functional point of view, by contrast with mechanical or mystical thinking, accepts the role of natural forces in human life, and understands that human choices interact with these natural forces but do not escape them. Nor is there any tragedy in not escaping them. Functional thinking seeks to understand human functioning and culture within a larger context of life. Folk wisdom, often conveyed in stories or jests, is a declining example of functional understanding. Folk wisdom is often dismissed as too simple. This is perhaps because the mechanical explanations we have become used to puts up a smoke screen of detail.

In functionalism, the unit of interest is the process. Results are generally viewed as just 'snapshots' of ongoing processes. In human affairs processes and adventitious events are termed 'life' and not disregarded. Investigations are not meant to find a final truth for all people and all time, but a present truth. Things are described not so much in terms of what they are, but in terms of what they do. The observer is understood to have some impact but not to determine what happens entirely.

A key understanding of functional thinking is that two apparently opposite phenomena often arise from the same stem. Famously this describes body and mind phenomena as being parallel and from the same origin. More pragmatically it explains splits in personality and polarization in relationships.

Functionalism can also accept randomness, which both mechanization and mysticism have a hard time accepting. Randomness is not meaninglessness but just the incomplete correlation between events in the world and human will. Below are some aspects of functional thinking: