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William James

William James

American philosopher, psychologist, and pragmatist

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher, historian, and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late 19th century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the "Father of American psychology."

Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked James's reputation in second place, after Wilhelm Wundt, who is widely regarded as the founder of experimental psychology. James also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. James's work has influenced philosophers and academics such as Émile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and Marilynne Robinson.

Born into a wealthy family, James was the son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr. and the brother of both the prominent novelist Henry James and the diarist Alice James. James trained as a physician and taught anatomy at Harvard, but never practiced medicine. Instead he pursued his interests in psychology and then philosophy. James wrote widely on many topics, including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion, and mysticism. Among his most influential books are The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology; Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy; and The Varieties of Religious Experience, an investigation of different forms of religious experience, including theories on mind-cure.

William James was born at the Astor House in New York City on January 11, 1842. He was the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

William James received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French. Education in the James household encouraged cosmopolitanism. The family made two trips to Europe while William James was still a child, setting a pattern that resulted in thirteen more European journeys during his life. James wished to pursue painting, his early artistic bent led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but his father urged him to become a physician instead. Since this did not align with James's interests, he stated that he wanted to specialize in physiology. Once he figured this was also not what he wanted to do, he then announced he was going to specialize in the nervous system and psychology. James then switched in 1861 to scientific studies at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard College.

In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was also tone deaf. He was subject to a variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War. James himself was an advocate of peace. He suggested that instead of youth serving in the military that they serve the public in a term of service, "to get the childishness knocked out of them." The other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice James) all suffered from periods of invalidism.[citation needed]

He took up medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864 (according to his brother Henry James, the author). He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join naturalist Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, as he suffered bouts of severe seasickness and mild smallpox. His studies were interrupted once again due to illness in April 1867. He traveled to Germany in search of a cure and remained there until November 1868; at that time he was 26 years old. During this period, he began to publish; reviews of his works appeared in literary periodicals such as the North American Review.

James finally earned his MD degree in June 1869 but he never practiced medicine. What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878. In 1882 he joined the Theosophical Society.

James's time in Germany proved intellectually fertile, helping him find that his true interests lay not in medicine but in philosophy and psychology. Later, in 1902 he would write: "I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave".

In 1875–1876, James, Henry Pickering Bowditch (1840–1911), Charles Pickering Putnam (1844–1914), and James Jackson Putnam (1846–1918) founded the Putnam Camp at St. Huberts, Essex County, New York.

Career

James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, his godson William James Sidis, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Macedonio Fernández, Walter Lippmann, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, G. Stanley Hall, Henri Bergson, Carl Jung, Jane Addams and Sigmund Freud.

James spent almost all of his academic career at Harvard. He was appointed instructor in physiology for the spring 1873 term, instructor in anatomy and physiology in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, full professor in 1885, endowed chair in psychology in 1889, return to philosophy in 1897, and emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

James studied medicine, physiology, and biology, and began to teach in those subjects, but was drawn to the scientific study of the human mind at a time when psychology was constituting itself as a science. James's acquaintance with the work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz in Germany and Pierre Janet in France facilitated his introduction of courses in scientific psychology at Harvard University. He taught his first experimental psychology course at Harvard in the 1875–1876 academic year.

During his Harvard years, James joined in philosophical discussions and debates with Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Chauncey Wright that evolved into a lively group informally known as The Metaphysical Club in 1872. Louis Menand (2001) suggested that this Club provided a foundation for American intellectual thought for decades to come. James joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898, in opposition to the United States annexation of the Philippines.

Among James's students at Harvard University were Boris Sidis, Theodore Roosevelt, George Santayana, W. E. B. Du Bois, G. Stanley Hall, Ralph Barton Perry, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Morris Raphael Cohen, Walter Lippmann, Alain Locke, C. I. Lewis, and Mary Whiton Calkins. Antiquarian bookseller Gabriel Wells tutored under him at Harvard in the late 1890s.

His students enjoyed his brilliance and his manner of teaching was free of personal arrogance. They remember him for his kindness and humble attitude. His respectful attitude towards them speaks well of his character.

Following his January 1907 retirement from Harvard, James continued to write and lecture, publishing Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and The Meaning of Truth. James was increasingly afflicted with cardiac pain during his last years. It worsened in 1909 while he worked on a philosophy text (unfinished but posthumously published as Some Problems in Philosophy). He sailed to Europe in the spring of 1910 to take experimental treatments which proved unsuccessful, and returned home on August 18. His heart failed on August 26, 1910, at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. He was buried in the family plot in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He was one of the strongest proponents of the school of functionalism in psychology and of pragmatism in philosophy. He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as a champion of alternative approaches to healing. In 1884 and 1885 he became president of the British Society for Psychical Research for which he wrote in Mind and in the Psychological Review. He challenged his professional colleagues not to let a narrow mindset prevent an honest appraisal of those beliefs.

In an empirical study by Haggbloom et al. using six criteria such as citations and recognition, James was found to be the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Family

William James was the son of Henry James (Senior) of Albany, and Mary Robertson Walsh. He had four siblings: Henry (the novelist), Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice. William became engaged to Alice Howe Gibbens on May 10, 1878; they were married on July 10. They had 5 children: Henry (born May 18, 1879), William (June 17, 1882 – 1961), Herman (born 1884, died in infancy), Margaret (born March 1887) and Alexander (the artist) (born December 22, 1890). Most of William James's ancestors arrived in America from Scotland or Ireland in the 18th century. Many of them settled in eastern New York or New Jersey. All of James's ancestors were Protestant, well educated, and of character. Within their communities, they worked as farmers, merchants, and traders who were all heavily involved with their church. The last ancestor to arrive in America was William James's paternal grandfather also named William James. He came to America from BallyJames-Duff, County Cavan, Ireland in 1789 when he was 18 years old. There is suspicion that he fled to America because his family tried to force him into the ministry. After traveling to America with no money left, he found a job at a store as a clerk. After continuously working, he was able to own the store himself. As he traveled west to find more job opportunities, he was involved in various jobs such as the salt industry and the Erie Canal project. After being a significant worker in the Erie Canal project and helping Albany become a major center of trade, he then became the first Vice-President of the Albany Savings Bank. William James (grandfather) went from being a poor Irish immigrant to one of the richest men in New York. After his death, his son Henry James inherited his fortune and lived in Europe and the United States searching for the meaning of life.[citation needed]

Writings

William James wrote voluminously throughout his life. A non-exhaustive bibliography of his writings, compiled by John McDermott, is 47 pages long.

He gained widespread recognition with his monumental The Principles of Psychology (1890), totaling twelve hundred pages in two volumes, which took twelve years to complete. Psychology: The Briefer Course, was an 1892 abridgement designed as a less rigorous introduction to the field. These works criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism of his day as competing dogmatisms of little explanatory value, and sought to re-conceive the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.

President Jimmy Carter's Moral Equivalent of War Speech, on April 17, 1977, equating the United States' 1970s energy crisis, oil crisis and the changes and sacrifices Carter's proposed plans would require with the "moral equivalent of war," may have borrowed its title, much of its theme and the memorable phrase from James's classic essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" derived from his last speech, delivered at Stanford University in 1906, and published in 1910, in which "James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat ..." and which "... sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation."

James was remembered as one of America's representative thinkers, psychologist, and philosopher. William James was also one of the most influential writers on religion, psychical research, and self-help. He was told to have a few disciples that followed his writing since they were inspired and enriched by his research.

Theory of emotion

James is one of the two namesakes of the James–Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James's oft-cited example, it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run; we see a bear and run; consequently, we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc. is the emotion.

This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics as well as to the philosophy and practice of education. Here is a passage from his work, The Principles of Psychology, that spells out those consequences:

[W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one's taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point.

The theory of emotion was also independently developed in Italy by the anthropologist Giuseppe Sergi.

Timeline

January 11, 1842
William James was born in New York City.

Patents

Further Resources

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An Introduction to William James's The Principles Of Psychology (مترجم)

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April 11, 2017

dedicated to the new information philosophy

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Internet Archive Search: ((subject:"James, William" OR subject:"William James" OR creator:"James, William" OR creator:"William James" OR title:"William James" OR description:"James, William" OR description:"William James") OR ("1842-1910" AND James)) AND (-mediatype:software)

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William James (psychologist) correspondence - Kansas Memory

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News

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John Horgan
December 28, 2019
Scientific American Blog Network
A freewheeling symposium explores experiences, theories and philosophies that challenge conventional materialist science
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