William James

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy and Psychology
Nineteenth/Twentieth-century philosophy
Wm james.jpg
Name: William James
Birth: January 11, 1842
Death: August 26, 1910
School/tradition: Pragmatism
Main interests
Pragmatism, Psychology, Psychology of Religion, Epistemology, Meaning
Notable ideas
The “will to believe” doctrine, the pragmatic theory of truth, radical empiricism, James-Lange theory of emotion
Influences Influenced
Charles Peirce, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Schiller Friedrich Schiller, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who popularized the branch of philosophy known as pragmatism. His research and teachings, done mostly at Harvard University, contributed greatly to the development of psychology as a viable science. James also had a passion for studying religious experience and mysticism, and his writings reflect his extremely practical but also spiritual nature.

Early Life

James was born in New York City, son of Henry James, Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (James's godfather), Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, James Frazer, Henri Bergson, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.

William James, with his younger brother Henry James (who became a prominent novelist), and sister Alice James (who is known for her posthumously published diary), received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French languages along with a cosmopolitan character. His family made two trips to Europe while he was still a child, setting a pattern that resulted in thirteen more European journeys during his life. His early artistic bent led to an early apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but yielded in 1861 to scientific studies at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School.

In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical and mental difficulties, including problems with his eyes, back, stomach, and skin, as well as periods of depression in which he was tempted by the thought of suicide. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War, but the other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism.

James switched to medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864. He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join Harvard's Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, having 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 until November 1868. During this period he began to publish, with reviews appearing in literary periodicals like the North American Review. He finally earned his M.D. (Medical Doctor) degree in June 1869, but never practiced medicine. What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching.

James's time in Germany proved intellectually fertile, finding 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."[1]

Professional career

James spent his entire 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 established one of the first—he believed it to be the first—laboratories of experimental psychology in the United States in Boylston Hall in 1875.[2]

During his Harvard years, James joined in philosophical discussions with Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Chauncey Wright that evolved into a lively group known as the Metaphysical Club by the early 1870s. Louis Menand speculates that the club provided a foundation for American intellectual thought for decades to come.

Among James's students at Harvard were such luminaries as George Santayana, W. E. B. Du Bois, G. Stanley Hall, Ralph Barton Perry, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Morris Raphael Cohen, Alain Locke, Clarence Irving Lewis, and Mary Calkins.

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 him on August 26, 1910 and he died at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire.


James wrote voluminously throughout his life. A fairly complete bibliography of his writings by John McDermott is 47 pages long.[3]

He gained widespread recognition with his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), 1,400 pages in two volumes that took ten 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 reconceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.


James was one of the early pioneers of American pragmatism, along with Charles Peirce and John Dewey. Although Peirce was the first of the three to write on pragmatism, James adopted many of Peirce’s ideas and popularized them in his lectures and essays.

James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. Truth, he said, is that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse. They lead away from eccentricity and isolation, from foiled and barren thinking," he wrote.[4] James proposed that one should assess ideas according to how they functioned in one's life. Rather than intellectually examining an abstract concept, he wanted to know how such a belief helped people live their lives. Beliefs, according to James, should actually make a difference in one's life. Two people who hold different beliefs should be led by those beliefs to two very different consequences.

James embraced pragmatism as a mediator between two extremes in philosophy: the "tough-minded" philosopher and the "tender-minded" philosopher. The pragmatist, he says, has both "scientific loyalty to facts" as well as "the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or romantic type."[5] Using the pragmatic method of observing the consequences of beliefs, James found religion to be quite beneficial to human existence. The fact that religion has endured throughout the world for so long is proof of its viability. It improves the human experience and allows people to lead fuller and richer lives.

Philosophy of religion

James did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh he provided a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreted them according to his pragmatic leanings.

James was not interested in studying religious institutions or doctrines. He focused instead on "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." For example, James compared two different types of religion according to the feelings and emotions that they instilled in people—the “Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” versus the “Sick Soul.” Healthy-minded religious people like Mary Baker Eddy and Walt Whitman hold firmly to their belief in the “goodness of life” while the “sick souls,” like Leo Tolstoy and Saint Augustine, constantly feel the dark dread of evil invading their lives.[6]

To James, all religious experiences represent the workings of an important biological function within all human beings. He finds religion useful on the whole for all people although this does not necessarily make it true. According to James, religion connects human beings to some greater reality that we cannot readily experience in our normal everyday interactions with the world.

In an essay entitled “The Will to Believe,” James says that each person must make up his or her own mind as far as religious beliefs, for these things are outside the realm of scientific experimentation. Moreover, people cannot simply wait for proof before believing in something. Human beings are forced on a daily basis to either believe or disbelieve. Even the decision to remain neutral, according to James, comes from a person's inner doubts and is thus a decision to not believe, to play it safe rather than taking a leap of faith. Humans are constantly faced with these momentous points of decision that cannot be avoided. Therefore each person must make up his or her own mind as to what is true or what is not true.

As far as the existence of God, James could not give a definitive answer to the age-old question. What he did say was that, because the belief in God within religion has stood the test of time for so long against the waves of skepticism and doubt, it must be “grounded in the rational nature of Man, and should therefore carry authority with it.”

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' oft-cited example, it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. Rather, we see a bear and run; consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the body's automatic response to the bear—the higher adrenaline level, elevated heartbeat, etc.—is the emotion of fear.

This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, 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. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made.

Philosophy of history

One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns the role of individuals in producing social change. One faction sees individuals ("heroes" as Thomas Carlyle called them) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy with "Great Men and Their Environment," an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle's side, but without Carlyle's one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as the founders or over-throwers of states and empires.

Major Works

Individual Works

  • The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890)
  • Psychology (Briefer Course) (1892)
  • The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
  • Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1897)
  • Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899)
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), ISBN 0140390340
  • Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), 1981: ISBN 0915145057
  • A Pluralistic Universe (1909)
  • The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism" (1909)
  • Some Problems of Philosophy (1911)
  • Memories and Studies (1911)
  • Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)
  • Letters of William James, 2 vols. (1920)
  • Collected Essays and Reviews (1920)
  • Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (1935) [Contains some 500 letters by William James not to be found in the earlier edition of the Letters of William James]
  • William James on Psychical Research (1960)
  • The Correspondence of William James, 12 vols. (1992-2004)


William James: Writings 1878-1899. Library of America, 1992. 1212 pp. ISBN 0940450720

“Psychology: Briefer Course” (rev. and condensed Principles of Psychology), “The Will to Believe,” and other essays in popular philosophy, talks to teachers and students, essays (nine others).

William James: Writings 1902-1910. Library of America, 1987. 1379 pp. ISBN 0940450380

“The Varieties of Religious Experience,” “Pragmatism,” “A Pluralistic Universe," "The Meaning of Truth,” “Some Problems of Philosophy,” essays.

Note: In 1975, Harvard University Press began publication of a standard edition of The Works of William James.


  1. Perry, 228.
  2. Myers, 486.
  3. McDermott, 812-858.
  4. James, 83; Online edition
  5. Goodman.
  6. Goodman.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goodman, Russell. "William James." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta.
  • James, William. 1907. "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth." Lecture 6 in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co. p. 83. Online edition
  • McDermott, John J. (ed.). The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Revised edition, 1977. ISBN 0226391884
  • Myers, Gerald E. 1986. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300034172
  • Perry, Ralph Barton. 1935. The Thought and Character of William James, vol. 1. Reprint edition, 1996. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. ISBN 0826512798

External links

All links retrieved May 10, 2023.

Full texts of James' works

Other sources

General Philosophy Sources


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