Lately I have been toying around with a new lens for living: Functionalism.
What I like about the term functionalism is that it’s a memorable word that captures its plain meaning within it—its purpose or end. Functionalism is an eyes-wide-open approach to human pursuits. It is listening to and adapting one’s behavior to what works—and staying away from what doesn’t work.
This habit of mind is the wellspring of what we attribute to “common sense.” Common sense is the storehouse of our species’ hard-won lessons and discoveries over time. “Don’t eat that berry.” My uncle did and he died. His idiot son didn’t believe it—so he ate the berry and died as well. “If you are in the forest and in need of nature’s toilet paper, be careful: ‘leaves of three, let it be.’” If you don’t watch it, you will not die but for a couple of days, you will wish you could. These are warning labels to live by.
Another: “Eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
I’m writing this on a plane coming back from California, kicking back a couple of drinks on St Patrick’s Day. Which reminds me I have been a teacher of functionalism for decades. It used to piss me off that when I would go out boozing with co-workers, the next day I would be alone at work because my partners in the previous evening’s licentiousness called in with the “Irish flu.” I said to my fellow Irishmen—men of the drink—“The difference between good and bad Irish is not the drinking, it is that the good Irish show up the next day and deliver on what’s expected of them; bad Irish don’t.” Bad Irish find themselves unemployed and in the church basement with other bad Irish who drank without functional guardrails.
One of my top Oscar picks is “The Tender Bar” which is a contribution to the cause and benefits of functionalism and calls its tenets “man’s science.” I talk about it here. “King Richard”—another Oscar contender I have discussed—is functionalism taken to the level of perfection. These two films are must-watch expressions of functionalism.
Up until recently—that is, the past 100 years—functionalism was considered the low-but-solid ground of ethics, social policy, and law. Certainly, folks strived for more than being functional, but virtue, and its signaling back was functionalism plus. I am a fan of genuine virtue, reaching for and possessing more than what is minimally required. And even if it’s not your calling—even if you are not a perfect functionalist—and particularly if you are dysfunctional—those striving to a higher level of human perfection built on functionalism are sources of the rising tide that lifts us all. While the strivers can be a little much to deal with, when their eyes and ambition are properly harnessed in the service of functionalism, we all benefit.
But is that now where we find ourselves? Is it fair to say that our mainstream contemporaries striving for earthly perfection are anti-functionalist at core? It’s becoming clearer that a lack of respect for the low, solid, and happy ground of the functional extends to all aspects of individual and collective endeavors. Truth be told, functionalism is more under assault outside the killjoy crowd. We are fucking the functionalist pooch across the waterfront of existential concerns—energy, climate, economics, policing, sentencing, education, love, marriage, baby carriage, divorce—you name the area of shared functionalist concern, and we are doing the opposite of what is required, and with “Darwin Award” consequences.
For those who are unaware of the Darwin Awards, do a functional thing: look it up here.
More to come.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at Planned Man.