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  1. 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.

    • Research
    • Writings
    • Influence

    Jamess laboratory research on sensation and perception was conducted in the first half of his career. His belief in the connection between mind and body led him to develop what has become known as the James-Lange Theory of emotion, which posits that human experience of emotion arises from physiological changes in response to external events. Inspired by evolutionary theory, Jamess theoretical perspective on psychology came to be known as functionalism, which sought causal relationships between internal states and external behaviors.

    In 1890 James published a highly influential, two-volume synthesis and summary of psychology, Principles of Psychology. The books were widely read in North America and Europe, gaining attention and praise from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in Vienna. James then moved away from experimental psychology to produce more philosophical works (he is credited as one of the founders of the school of American Pragmatism), although he continued to teach psychology until he retired from Harvard in 1907.

    James profoundly inspired and shaped the thinking of his students, many of whom (including Hall, Mary Whiton Calkins, and E.L. Thorndike) went on to have prominent careers in psychology. He also advised an undergraduate project on automatic writing by Gertrude Stein. William James is listed as number 14 on the American Psychological Associations list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

    • Chronology of James’s Life
    • Early Writings
    • The Principles of Psychology
    • Essays in Popular Philosophy
    • The Varieties of Religious Experience
    • Late Writings
    1842. Born in New York City, first child of Henry James and MaryWalsh. James. Educated by tutors and at private schools in NewYork.
    1843. Brother Henry born.
    1848. Sister Alice born.
    1855–8. Family moves to Europe. William attends school inGeneva, Paris, and Boulogne-sur-Mer; develops interests inpainting and science.

    “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence”

    Although he was officially a professor of psychology when he publishedit, James’s discussion of Herbert Spencer broaches characteristicthemes of his philosophy: the importance of religion and the passions,the variety of human responses to life, and the idea that we help to“create” the truths that we “register” (E 21). Taking up Spencer’sview that the adjustment of the organism to the environment is thebasic feature of mental evolution, James charges that Spencer projectshis own vision of what...

    “The Sentiment of Rationality”

    The substance of this essay was first published in Mind in1879 and in the Princeton Review in 1882, and thenrepublished in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in PopularPhilosophyin 1897. Although he never quite says that rationalityis a sentiment, James holds that a sentiment—really a set ofsentiments—is a “mark” of rationality. The philosopher, Jameswrites, will recognize the rationality of a conception “as herecognizes everything else, by certain subjective marks with which itaffects him....

    In 1878, James agreed to write a psychology textbook for the Americanpublisher Henry Holt, but it took him twelve years to produce themanuscript, and when he did he described it to Holt as “aloathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying tonothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing asa science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is anincapable” (The Letters of William James, ed. HenryJames. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1926, pp. 393–4). Nevertheless,this thousand page volume of psychology, physiology and philosophy hasproved to be James’s masterwork, containing early statements of hismain philosophical ideas in extraordinarily rich chapters on“The Stream of Thought,” “The Consciousness ofSelf,” “Emotion,” “Will,” and many othertopics. James tells us that he will follow the psychological method ofintrospection in The Principles, which he defines as “thelooking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover” (PP185). In fact he takes a number of me...

    James’s popular and influential, The Will to Believe and OtherEssays in Popular Philosophy, published in 1897, collectspreviously published essays from the previous nineteen years,including “The Sentiment of Rationality” (discussedabove), “The Dilemma of Determinism,” “Great Men andTheir Environment” and “The Moral Philosopher and theMoral Life.” The title essay—published just two yearsearlier—proved to be controversial for seeming to recommendirresponsible or irrationally held beliefs. James later wrote that heshould have called the essay “the right tobelieve,” to indicate his intent to justify holdingcertain beliefs in certain circumstances, not to claim thatwe can (or should) believe things simply by an act of will. In science, James notes, we can afford to await the outcome ofinvestigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases weare “forced,” in that we must come to some belief even if all therelevant evidence is not in. If I am on an isolated mountain trail,faced with a...

    Like The Principles of Psychology, Varieties is “AStudy in Human Nature,” as its subtitle says. But at some five hundredpages it is only half the length of The Principles ofPsychology, befitting its more restricted, if still large,scope. For James studies that part of human nature that is, or isrelated to, religious experience. His interest is not in religiousinstitutions, ritual, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, butin “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in theirsolitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation towhatever they may consider the divine” (V 31). James sets out a central distinction of the book in early chapters on“The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” and “The SickSoul.” The healthy-minded religious person—Walt Whitmanis one of James’s main examples—has a deep sense of “thegoodness of life,” (V 79) and a soul of “sky-bluetint” (V 80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary, justnatural to someone, but often comes in more wil...


    James first announced his commitment to pragmatism in a lecture atBerkeley in 1898, entitled “Philosophical Conceptions and PracticalResults.” Later sources for Pragmatismwere lectures atWellesley College in 1905, and at the Lowell Institute and ColumbiaUniversity in 1906 and 1907. Pragmatism emerges in James’s book as sixthings: a philosophical temperament, a theory of truth, a theory ofmeaning, a holistic account of knowledge, a metaphysical view, and amethod of resolving philosophical disp...

    A Pluralistic Universe

    Originally delivered in Oxford as a set of lectures “On thePresent Situation in Philosophy,” James begins his book, as hehad begun Pragmatism, with a discussion of the temperamentaldetermination of philosophical theories, which, James states,“are just so many visions, modes of feeling the whole push… forced on one by one’s total character and experience, and onthe whole preferred—there is no other truthfulword—as one’s best working attitude” (PU 15). Maintainingthat a philosopher’s “vision” i...

    Essays in Radical Empiricism

    This posthumous collection includes James’s groundbreaking essays on“pure experience,” originally published in 1904–5.James’s fundamental idea is that mind and matter are both aspects of,or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff—pureexperience—that (despite being called“experience”) is neither mental nor physical. Pureexperience, James explains, is “the immediate flux of life whichfurnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptualcategories… a that which is not yet a...

    • Early life and education
    • Later life
    • Early career
    • Philosophy
    • Death and legacy
    • Background
    • Analysis
    • Definitions
    • Mechanism
    • Quotes
    • Influence
    • Criticism

    Born in New York City on January 11, 1842, William James was the oldest of the five children of Henry James, Sr., and Mary Walsh James. His oldest brother, Henry James, Jr., the renowned writer of fiction, was followed by two other brothers and a sister. The family frequently moved between America and Europe, the father having inherited an amount of money sufficient to allow him to enjoy the life of an intellectual. While growing up, William had a passion for drawing. Since he wanted to become a painter, the family moved to Newport, Rhode Island in 1860, where William studied with the leading American portraitist, William Morris Hunt. Although he had talent, he gave up this career goal in less than a year. He had decided that it was insufficient for him to do first-rate work. All this is indicative of three things: the familys remarkable support for his aspirations; his own quest to achieve excellence; and his restless, indecisive difficulty in remaining committed to a career path.

    In 1861, the American Civil War erupted. In response to President Lincolns call for volunteers, James committed himself to a short-term enlistment. However, already in delicate health, he left when it expired after three months. (His younger brothers Wilky and Bob served in the Union Army.) He then enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, his family moving to Boston. There he studied chemistry and then physiology, prior to his entering Harvards Medical School in 1863. A couple of years later, he took a year off to join a scientific expedition to Brazil, led by Louis Agassiz. But bad health eventually forced him to quit the expedition, and he returned to medical school (the James family moving from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts). Again he left, this time to study physiology and medicine in Germany and to recover his health. He failed to find a cure for his curious back pains, but returned to Harvard, passed his medical exams, and received his medical degree in 1869. Nevertheless, he did not plan to practice medicine and seemed lost as to what to do with the rest of his life.

    In 1872, one of Jamess former chemistry professors, now Harvards President, offered him a job teaching physiology. He accepted and began his career of more than a third of a century as a faculty member there. The next year, he became an instructor of anatomy and physiology. By the mid-eighteen-seventies, he was teaching psychology there, using the physiological approach he had learned in Germany and establishing the first psychology laboratory in America. He met a schoolteacher named Alice Howe Gibbens, whom he married in 1878. Like his parents, they had five children, naming the first two Henry and William. Alice was adept at handling his neurotic obsessions and emotional moodiness, and they seem to have had a good marriage, living comfortably in Cambridge. The year they married, James agreed to write a psychology textbook; however, by then he was already drifting away from psychology into philosophy. He was a member of a Metaphysical Club that included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who taught law at Harvard and would go on to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court, and Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher of science, who would become the founder of American pragmatism. In 1879, James began teaching philosophy at Harvard, becoming an assistant professor of philosophy the next year. He published The Sentiment of Rationality, his first important article in his new discipline. As he got deeper into philosophy, he developed a negative attitude towards psychology. After becoming a full professor of philosophy in 1885 and of psychology in 1889, he published his Principles of Psychology in 1890. It had taken him close to twelve years to finish it, and, though it would be extremely successful, he was dissatisfied with it and disgusted with psychology (Letters, vol. 1, pp. 294, 296, & vol. 2, pp. 2-3). Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare an abridged version, which was published two years later as Psychology: Briefer Course; it too would be widely used and help to establish his reputation as the foremost living American psychologist. He resigned his directorship of Harvards psychology lab and committed himself to teaching and writing philosophy.

    In 1897, Jamess first philosophical book, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, was published, dedicated to Charles Sanders Peirce. The following year, at the University of California at Berkeley, he delivered a lecture, Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results, which helped to launch pragmatism as a nationwide philosophical movement. In 1899, his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Lifes Ideals was published. Overworked at Harvard and jeopardizing his fragile health, he suffered a physical breakdown that same year. While recovering his health, he studied a wide range of accounts of religious experience and prepared his Gifford Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-02. These were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 and proved to be quite successful, although James himself was displeased, believing them to contain too much reporting on facts and too little philosophical analysis. For the remainder of his life, James focused on the development of his own philosophy, writing essays and lectures that would later be collected and published in four books. In the spring of 1906, he took a leave of absence from Harvard to take a visiting professorship at Stanford University, though his lecture series in California was interrupted by the great San Francisco earthquake. In late 1906 and early 1907, he delivered his lectures on Pragmatism in Boston and at Columbia University, publishing them in the spring of 1907. That was also the year he resigned from Harvard, worried that he might die before being able to complete his philosophical system, as he was suffering from angina and shortness of breath. He delivered the Hibbert Lectures in England in 1908, published the next year as A Pluralistic Universe, aimed at combating the neo-Hegelian idealism that was then prevalent in Great Britain. Meanwhile, he was under intellectual assault by mainstream philosophers for his pragmatic treatment of truth, which he defended in a collection of essays published in 1909 as The Meaning of Truth. Even if philosophically interesting matters such as freedom vs. determinism cannot be scientifically resolved, some sort of epistemological methodology is needed if we are to avoid arbitrary conclusions. Whatever approach is chosen, it is clear that James repudiates rationalism, with its notions of a priori existential truths. He is particularly hostile to German idealism, which he identifies especially with Hegel and which he attacks in many of his essays (this identification leads him to be remarkably unfair to Kant, an earlier German idealist). As he makes clear in The Sentiment of Rationality, the personality of the would-be knower and various practical concerns are far too relevant to allow for such abstract intellectualism. The tradition of modern empiricism is more promising, yet too atomistic to allow us to move much beyond the knowledge of acquaintance to genuine comprehension (Will, pp. 63-67, 70, 75-77, 82-86, 89, 92). Fortunately, James had already learned about the pragmatic approach from Peirce. Jamess book of lectures on Pragmatism is arguably the most influential book of American philosophy. The first of its eight lectures presents pragmatism as a more attractive middle ground between the two mainstream approaches of European philosophy. The tender-minded approach tends to be rationalistic, intellectualistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious, committed to freedom, monistic, and dogmatic; by contrast, the tough-minded approach tends to be empirical, grounded in sensations, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, pluralistic, and skeptical. It is difficult to identify many pure types of either of these in the history of philosophy, and some thinkers (such as Kant) are deliberately mixed, as is James himself. He thinks that most of us want a philosophical method that is firmly anchored in empirical facts, while being open to, rather than dismissive of, moral and religious values. He offers pragmatism as a philosophy that coherently meets both demands. Jamess second lecture is committed to showing how the pragmatic method helps us establish meaning by making it a function of practical consequences (the word pragmatic means having to do with action and is etymologically related to our English word practical). Before we invest much time or effort in seeking the meaning of anything, we should consider what practical difference it would make if we could find out. Providing an example to illustrate his point, James refers to the Hegelian notion of God as the all-encompassing Absolute Spirit. How should we decide whether this is what we should mean by God? Consider the practical consequences for a believer: on the one hand, it would provide us with the optimistic, comforting assurance that everything will work out for the best; but, on the other, it also undermines the values of human individuality, freedom, and responsibility. From that pragmatic perspective, James rejects the Hegelian notion. Undoubtedly, philosophy provides us with only one legitimate approach to belief, as he observes in his fifth lecture, others being common sense (with its basic concepts derived from experience) and science. However, these others are impotent in dealing with questions of freedom and value (Pragmatism, pp. 10-13, 18, 26-28, 30-38, 79-80, 83-85). Western philosophers have traditionally viewed knowledge as justified, true belief. So long as the idea of truth is pragmatically analyzed and given a pragmatic interpretation of justification, James seems to accept that view. His entire philosophy can be seen as fundamentally one of productive beliefs. All inquiry must terminate in belief or disbelief or doubt; disbelief is merely a negative belief and doubt is the true opposite of both. Believing in anything involves conceiving of it as somehow real; when we dismiss something as unreal (disbelief), it is typically because it somehow contradicts what we think of as real. Some of our most fundamental and valuable beliefs do not seem sufficiently justified to be regarded as known. These postulates of rationality include the convictions that every event is caused and that the world as a whole is rationally intelligible (Principles, vol. 2, pp. 283-284, 288-290, 670-672, 675, 677). As he holds in The Sentiment of Rationality, to say that such beliefs, however crucial, are not known, is to admit that, though they involve a willingness to act on them, doubt as to their truth still seems theoretically possible. He identifies four postulates of rationality as value-related, but unknowable, matters of belief; these are God, immortality, freedom, and moral duty (Will, pp. 90, 95). He proceeds to deal with each of them individually. Although James is somewhat vague regarding his own religious over-beliefs, they can be pieced together from various passages. He believes there is more to reality than our natural world and that this unseen realm generates practical effects in this world. If we call the supreme being God, then we have reason to think the interpersonal relationship between God and humans is dynamic and that God provides us with a guarantee that the moral values we strive to realize will somehow survive us. James describes himself as a supernaturalist (rather than a materialist) of a sort less refined than idealists and as unable to subscribe to popular Christianity. He is unwilling to assume that God is one or infinite, even contemplating the polytheistic notion that the divine is a collection of godlike selves (Varieties, pp. 384-386, 388-390, 392-393, 395-396). In The Dilemma of Determinism, James depicts his image of God with a memorable analogy, comparing God to a master chess player engaged in a give-and-take with us novices. We are free to make our own moves; yet the master knows all the moves we could possibly make, the odds of our choosing one over the others, and how best to respond to any move we choose to make. This indicates two departures from the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God, in that the master is interacting with us in time (rather than eternal) and does not know everything in the future, to the extent that it is freely chosen by us. In Reflex Action and Theism, James subscribes to a theistic belief in a personal God with whom we can maintain interpersonal relations, who possesses the deepest power in reality (not necessarily omnipotent) and a mind (not omniscient). We can love and respect God to the extent that we are committed to the pursuit of common values. In Is Life Worth Living? James even suggests that God may derive strength and energy from our collaboration (Will, pp. 181-182, 116, 122, 141, 61). Elsewhere, rejecting the Hegelian notion of God as an all-encompassing Absolute, he subscribes to a God that is finite in knowledge or in power or in both, one that acts in time and has a history and an environment, like us (Universe, pp. 269, 272; see Letters, vol. 2, pp. 213-215, for Jamess responses to a 1904 questionnaire regarding his personal religious beliefs). In contrast to monists such as Hegel, James believes in multiple worlds, specifying seven realms of reality we can experience: (1) the realm that serves as the touchstone of reality for most of us is the world of physical objects of sense experience; (2) the world of science, things understood in terms of physical forces and laws of nature, is available to the educated; (3) philosophy and mathematics expose us to a world of abstract truth and ideal relations; (4) as humans, we are all subject to the distortions of commonplace illusion and prejudices; (5) our cultures expose us to the realms of mythology and fiction; (6) each of us has his or her own subjective opinions, which may or may not be expressed to others; and (7) the world of madness can disconnect us from the reality in which others can readily believe. Normally we can inhabit more than one of these and be able to discriminate among them. What we take to be real must connect with us personally because we find it interesting and/or important, which emphasizes elements of both subjectivity and pragmatic relevance (Principles, vol. 2, pp. 292-299). Part of what makes James a great philosopher in the grand tradition is that, unlike so many post-Hegelian Western philosophers, he advocates the pivotal importance of metaphysics. The theory of reality in general provides a crucial foundational context for philosophy of human nature, philosophy of religion, ethics, social philosophy, and so forth. Philosophy essentially is an intellectual attempt to come to grips with reality, as he says on the first page of Pragmatism. In its third lecture, James approaches four standard metaphysical issues using his pragmatic method, those of (1) physical and spiritual substance, (2) materialism vs. theism as explanations of our world, (3) whether the natural world indicates intelligent design, and (4) freedom vs. universal determinism. For each of these, we cannot conclusively establish where we should stand based merely on what experience discloses about the past, but can take reasonable positions based on pragmatic anticipated future consequences. As modern philosophy demonstrates, we can never directly and immediately experience any sort of substance; however, we do experience physical qualities and mental events and can best make sense of them by attributing them to bodies and minds. The world is what it is, regardless of whether it is the result of divine activity or of the random interactions of atoms moving in space; whether or not it was intelligently designed in the distant past has no bearing on the fact that we experience it as we do. But a world intelligently designed by a deity pragmatically involves the possibility of a promising future, whereas one resulting from unconscious physical forces promises nothing more than a collapse into meaningless obliteration. On the one hand, if everything we may do or fail to do is determined, why bother doing anything? On the other hand, if we are free to choose at least some of our actions, then effort can be meaningful. In the fourth lecture, James states that our world can be viewed as one (monism) or as an irreducible many (pluralism). There are certain ways in which we humans generate a unity of the objects of our experience, yet the absolute unity to which monism is committed remains a perpetually vanishing ideal. In his seventh lecture, James identifies three dimensions of reality: (1) the objects of factual experience; (2) relationships between our sensations and our ideas and among our ideas; and (3) the entire network of truths to which we are committed at any given time. Again, we see here a combination of subjectivity and pragmatic relevance that views reality as a process of development, which he calls humanism (Pragmatism, pp. 7, 43-55, 62-69, 71, 73-74, 110-111, 115-116; see also Truth, pp. 100-101). James intended Some Problems of Philosophy to be largely a textbook in metaphysics, which he defines in terms of the ultimate principles of reality, both within and beyond our human experience. Much of it concerns the issue of the one and the many, which is arguably the oldest problem of Western philosophy and represents the split between collective monism (such as Hegels) and distributive pluralism (such as James himself advocates). Monism, pursued to its logical extreme, is deterministic, setting up a sharp dichotomy between what is necessary and what is impossible, while pluralism allows for possibilities that may, but need not, be realized. The former must be either optimistic or pessimistic in its outlook, depending on whether the future that is determined is seen as attractive or unattractive. In contrast, pluralisms possibilities allow for a melioristic view of the future as possibly better, depending on choices we freely make. Pluralism need not specify how much unnecessary possibility there is in the world; by contrast, monism must say that everything about the future is locked in from all eternityto which pluralism says, Ever not quite. James is advocating what he calls the possibility of novelty in the world. Pluralism, being melioristic, calls for our trusting in and cooperating with one another in order to realize desirable possibilities that are not assured (Problems, pp. 31, 114, 139-143, 205, 228-230). In his Essays in Radical Empiricism, James attempts to distance himself from the philosophical dualism that sees physical reality (bodies) and spiritual reality (minds) as essentially distinct. He claims that the philosophy of pure experience is more consonant with the theory of novelty, indeterminism, moralism, and humanism that he advocates, though it is less than clear why. We never experience mind in separation from body, and he dismisses as an illusion the notion of consciousness as substantial; however, he does not want to reject the reality of mind as a materialist might do. So after years of opposing monism, he adopts an admittedly vague sort of neutral (neither materialistic nor idealistic) monism that sees thoughts and things as fundamentally the same stuff, the further definition of which eludes us (Empiricism, pp. 48, 115-117, 120). In the eighth lecture of Pragmatism, James sees monism as tending to a passive sort of quietism rather than to a vital life of active effort. By contrast, pluralistic pragmatism emphasizes the possibilities that may be if we work to realize them. Monism determines the future optimistically as working out for the best, whatever we do, or pessimistically as working out for the worst, whatever we do. By contrast, pluralistic meliorism holds that it can get better if we freely try to make it so. Whether we embrace the option of freedom and moral responsibility or not is ultimately a matter of personal faith rather than one of objective logic or scientific evidence (Pragmatism, pp. 125, 127-128, 132). Like God and human immortality, the possibility of which James defends without firmly committing himself to believing in it (Immortality, pp. 3, 6-7, 10-18, 20, 23-24, 28-31, 35-37, 39-41, 43-45), freedom is a postulate of rationality, an unprovable article of faith. James wrote an essay on the topic, called The Dilemma of Determinism. After admitting that human freedom is an old and shopworn topic about which we may suspect that nothing new can be said, and that he will not pretend to be able to prove or disprove, he launches a pragmatic justification for believing in it. Indeterminism, the belief in freedom, holds that there is some degree of possibility that is not necessitated by the rest of reality, while determinism must deny all such possibilities. These beliefs constitute exhaustive and mutually exclusive alternatives, so that if we reject either, we logically should accept the other. Let us consider a commonplace example such as walking home from campus. Before the fact neither the determinist nor the indeterminist can infallibly predict which path will be taken, but after the fact the determinist can irrefutably claim that the path taken was necessary, while the indeterminist can irrefutably claim that it was freely chosen. Thus far, there is no advantage on either side. But now consider the example of a man gruesomely murdering his loving wife. We hear the awful details recounted and naturally regret what the wicked man did to her. Now, what are we to make of that regret from the perspective of determinism? What sense can it make to regret what had to occur? From that perspective, we logically must embrace pessimism (all of reality is determined to be bad) or optimism (everything is destined to work out for the best) or subjectivism (good and evil are merely subjective interpretations we artificially cast on things). All of these can be logically coherent positions, but each of them minimizes the evil we experience in the world and trivializes our natural reaction of regret as pointless. From a practical (as opposed to a logical) point of view, can we live with that? James deliberately puts the point quite personally. Though thoughtful and reflective pessimists, optimists, and subjectivists can live with it, he would not, because its pragmatic implications would render life not worth living. In that sense, determinism, though logically tenable, is pragmatically unacceptable, and James commits to indeterminism (Will, pp. 145-146, 150-152, 155-156, 160-161, 175-176, 178-179). In addition to God, immortality, and freedom, moral duty is a fourth postulate of rationality. James offers us one remarkable essay on the topic, entitled The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life. He addresses three questions: (1) the psychological one, regarding the origins of our moral values and judgments, (2) the metaphysical one, regarding the grounds of meaning for our basic moral concepts, and (3) the casuistic one, regarding how we should order conflicting values. First, our human nature comprises a capacity for an intuitive moral sense, but this must be developed in a context of values that socially evolve. Second, our basic moral concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, and so forth, are all person-relative, grounded in the claims people make on their environment. Third, when values conflict, those which would seem to satisfy as many personal demands as possible, while frustrating the fewest, should have priority regardless of the nature of those demands. This represents a pragmatic form of moral relativism, in which no action can be absolutely good or evil in all conceivable circumstances. Finally, James distinguishes between the easy-going mood that tries to avoid conflict, and the strenuous mood that strives to achieve ideals, apparently preferring the latter (Will, pp. 185-186, 190, 194-195, 197, 201, 205, 209, 211). In answering the question of what is the primary objective of human life, James maintains that a natural answer is happiness. It is this, which motivates us to act and endure. Evolution is often seen as a progressive advance towards happiness (Varieties, pp. 76, 85). The person who seems incapable of achieving it may well wonder whether life is worth living; suicide deciding that it is not. For James there is no absolute answer, and it is relative to the life being lived. A human life involves an ongoing series of possibilities. Some of these maybes may be realized if we believe in our own capacity to realize them; others will not be, either because we do not try or because we try and fail. Life can become worth living if we believe that it is and act on that belief, our commitment giving it meaning (Will, pp. 37, 59-62). Our happiness seems to require that we have ideals, that we strive to achieve them, and that we think we are making some progress towards doing so (Talks, pp. 185-189). Jamess philosophy is so individualistic that it does not allow for a robust theory of community. Still, he offers us some interesting insights and one great paper. Great Men and Their Environment views ones society as not only a context in which great individuals emerge, but even as playing a selective role in allowing their greatness to develop. In turn, that social environment is affected by them. Whether or not an individual will be able to have an impact is, to some extent, determined by society. Thus socially significant individuals and their communities have a dynamic, correlative relationship. In a follow-up article, The Importance of Individuals, he maintains that agents of social change, beyond being gifted in some way(s), tend to take greater advantage of given circumstances than more ordinary persons do (Will, pp. 225-226, 229-230, 232, 259).

    By the next year, Jamess heart trouble left him so plagued by fatigue that normal activities became quite difficult. He was attempting to complete his textbook on Some Problems of Philosophy, but died on August 26, 1910. In 1911, his textbook, edited by his son Henry, and his Memories and Studies were posthumously published. In 1912, his Essays in Radical Empiricism was published, followed, in 1920, by some of his Collected Essays and Reviews and The Letters of William James, edited in two volumes by his son Henry. His writings have survived in part because of the provocative honesty of his ideas, but also because of the vibrant, sometimes racy, style in which he expressed them. In A Pluralistic Universe, he castigates philosophers who use technical jargon instead of clear, straightforward language. He practiced the spontaneous thinking and freshness of expression he advocates there (Universe, pp. 129-130). It has been said (by the novelist Rebecca West) that, while Henry James wrote fiction as though it were philosophy, his older brother, William, wrote philosophy in a colorful style typical of fiction.

    By the early 1890s, when James published his two books on psychology, the discipline was in the process of splitting off from philosophical speculation (psychology literally means the study of the soul) to establish itself as an empirical social science. Despite impatience with the process of that development, he contributed significantly to moving it along, regarding psychology as the science of our mental phenomena or states of consciousness, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, volitions, and so forth.

    In analyzing what can broadly be termed human thinking, James delineates five generic characteristics: (1) all thought is owned by some personal self; (2) all thought, as experienced by human consciousness, is constantly in flux and never static; (3) nevertheless, there is an ongoing continuity of thought for every thinker, as it moves from one object to another (like the alternating times of flight and perching in a birds life), constantly comprising shifting foci and the contextual fringes within which they are given; (4) thought typically deals with objects different from and independent of consciousness itself, so that two minds can experience common objects; and (5) consciousness takes an interest in particular objects, choosing to focus on them rather than on others (Principles, vol. 1, pp. 224-226, 236-237, 239, 243, 258-259, 271-272, 284; Psychology, pp. 152-154, 157-160, 166-167, 170). The self can be viewed as an object of thought or as the subject of thought. The former is the empirical self or me, while the latter is the pure ego or I. The dimensions of the empirical self (me) include the material self (comprised of ones body and such extensions of it as ones clothing, immediate family, and home), the social self (or significant interpersonal relations), and the spiritual self (ones personality, character, and defining values). The pure ego (I), identifiable with the soul of traditional metaphysics, cannot be an object of science and should not be assumed to be a substance (Principles, vol. 1, pp. 291-294, 296, 319, 343-344, 348, 350; Psychology, pp. 176-181, 194, 196, 198, 200, 202-203, 215-216).

    James states that if we track the dynamic of mental activity, we discern a standard pattern from sensation to perception to imagination to belief. Through sensation, we become acquainted with some given fact. This can, but need not, lead to knowledge about that fact, achieved by perceiving its relations to other given facts. Both sensation and perception involve an immediate intuition of some given objects. Imagination, less immediate, retrieves mental copies of past sensations and perceptions, even when their external stimuli are no longer present. Belief is the sense or feeling that ideas or propositions formed in the imagination correspond to reality. Every proposition can be analyzed in terms of its object and whether that object is believed. The object of a proposition comprises a subject (such as my horse), a predicate (wings), and a relation between them (my horse has sprouted wings). The belief is the psychic attitude a mind has towards that object (for example, I believe it or deny it or am in doubt about it) (Principles, vol. 2, pp. 1-3, 44, 76-77, 82-83, 283-284, 287-290; Psychology, pp. 12-14, 302, 312, 316-317).

    Like other animals, we have primitive instincts, such as fear, some desires, and certain forms of sympathy, which do not require being taught them or consciously focusing on ends. However, we also have emotions that are learned behavior and do involve such a focusfor example, a fear of failure and the desire for an academic degree. Instincts and emotions thus overlap, the latter tending to cover a broader range of objects than the former. We tend to assume that perceptions trigger emotional responses, eventuating in bodily expressionsthat we suddenly see a bear, become frightened, and then tremble and run away. But James thinks the actual sequence is perception, followed by bodily expressions, followed by emotional feelingthat we see the bear, tremble and run away, then feel those physical events as what we call fear. The idea that emotions ultimately have physical causes emphasizes the intimate relationship between our bodies and our mental life (Principles, vol. 2, pp. 383, 410, 442, 449-453, 467; Psychology, pp. 391, 375-376, 378-381).

    It seems that anything knowable must be true. But what does it mean to call a proposition or belief true from the perspective of pragmatism? This is the subject of Jamess famous sixth lecture. He begins with a standard dictionary analysis of truth as agreement with reality. Accepting this, he warns that pragmatists and intellectualists will disagree over how to interpret the concepts of agreement and reality, the latter thinking that ideas copy what is fixed and independent of us. By contrast, he advocates a more dynamic and practical interpretation, a true idea or belief being one we can incorporate into our ways of thinking in such a way that it can be experientially validated. For James, the reality with which truths must agree has three dimensions: (1) matters of fact, (2) relations of ideas (such as the eternal truths of mathematics), and (3) the entire set of other truths to which we are committed. To say that our truths must agree with such realities pragmatically means that they must lead us to useful consequences. He is a fallibilist, seeing all existential truths as, in theory, revisable given new experience. They involve a relationship between facts and our ideas or beliefs. Because the facts, and our experience of them, change we must beware of regarding such truths as absolute, as rationalists tend to do (Pragmatism, pp. 91-97, 100-101). This relativistic theory generated a firestorm of criticism among mainstream philosophers to which he responded in The Meaning of Truth. In the last decade of his life, following the Spanish-American War, in which Theodore Roosevelt, his former student, was the hero, James gave a talk at the banquet of the Universal Peace Congress. Regarding human nature as essentially antagonistic, he warns against our permanent tendencies to mass violence and the romantic idealization of war. We have to forever be on our guard to resist those dangerous, destructive tendencies; however, he doubts that humanity will ever be able to achieve universal disarmament and peace. What we can and should do is work to minimize conflicts and to resolve them non-violently. The great paper James wrote in the area of social relations, written just a few years before the outbreak of World War I and first published the month he died, is The Moral Equivalent of War. In it he warns of the extreme challenge of suppressing our martial tendencies. Warfare has become so costly, in terms of treasure and carnage, thanks to modern technology, that we need to find some way of rechanneling the primitive tendencies inherited from our ancestors. How can we create an atmosphere in which peace is the norm rather than that interim period between wars? Identifying himself as a pacifist, he nevertheless admits that there are desirable human qualitiessuch as patriotism, loyalty, social solidarity, and national vigorthat have traditionally been nurtured by war and the preparation for conducting it. The question at hand is whether a moral equivalent might be found that would generate such martial virtues without involving the horrible destructiveness of war. Since wars are the results of human choices rather than fatalistically determined, he anticipates a time when they will be formally outlawed among civilized societies. But then how can these martial virtues still be nurtured? His answer is that we should draft young adults into national service, as opposed to military service, fighting against adverse natural conditions rather than against fellow human beings, working for a time in coal mines, on constructing roads, and so forth. Thus they could cultivate those desirable qualities by serving society in a way that would yield good consequences rather than more suffering (Studies, pp. 300-301, 303-306, 267, 269, 275-276, 280, 283, 286-292).

    James is arguably the most significant American philosopher of religion in intellectual history, and many of his writings, in addition to the obligatory Will to Believe essay and his book on The Varieties of Religious Experience, offer provocative insights into that area.

    Because we do not naturally experience the supernatural, James, the radical empiricist, thinks of faith in God as falling short of knowledge. Yet such faith is pragmatically meaningful to many people, and it is reasonable to wonder whether, how, and to what extent it can be justified. For James, the logical philosopher trained in science, both logic and science have limits beyond which we can legitimately seek the sentiment of rationality. His notorious Will to Believe essay is designed to be a defense of religious faith in the absence of conclusive logical argumentation or scientific evidence. It focuses on what he calls a genuine option, which is a choice between two hypotheses, which the believer can regard as living (personally meaningful), forced (mutually exclusive), and momentous (involving potentially important consequences). Whether an option is genuine is thus relative to the perspective of a particular believer. James acknowledges that in our scientific age, there is something dubious about the voluntaristic view that, in some circumstances, we can legitimately choose to believe in the absence of any objective justification. However, he claims we naturally do so all the time, our moral and political ideas being obvious examples. When you believe that your mother loves you or in the sincerity of your best friend, you have no conclusively objective evidence. In addition, you will never be able to secure such evidence. Yet it often seems unreasonable to refuse to commit to believing such matters; if we did so, the pragmatic consequences would be a more impoverished social life. Indeed, in some cases, believing and acting on that belief can help increase the chances of the belief being true. Now let us apply this argument to religious belief. What does religion in general propose for our belief? The two-pronged answer is that ultimate reality is most valuable and that we are better off if we believe that. Committing to that two-pronged belief is meaningful, as is the refusal to do so. At any given moment, I must either make that two-pronged commitment or not; and how I experience this life, as well as prospects for a possible after-life, may be at stake. Whether one makes that commitment or not, pragmatic consequences can be involved. Nor should we imagine that we could avoid having to make a choice, as the commitment not to commit is itself a commitment (Will, pp. 1-4, 7-9, 11-14, 22-30; see also Problems, pp. 221-224).

  2. Aug 22, 2021 · William James, American philosopher and psychologist, a leader of the philosophical movement of pragmatism and a founder of the psychological movement of functionalism. His Principles of Psychology (1890) anticipated or inspired much 20th-century research in the field. He was the brother of the novelist Henry James.

    • Pragmatism
    • Functionalism
    • James-Lange Theory of Emotion
    • Theory of Self
    • Works Published
    • Five Fun Facts


    In 1870, William James and Charles Sanders Pierce founded the school of American Pragmatism (Hookway, 2008). James classifies philosophers according to their temperaments, distinguishing between tough-minded – those who are empirical, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, and skeptical – and tender-minded – those who are rationalistic, intellectualistic, optimistic, religious, and assertive (Goodman, 2009; James, 1907). The role of the pragmatistic is to serve as a mediator between these t...


    Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern psychology, developed the first school of psychology, that of structuralism. Structuralismfocused on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components (Freedheim, 2010) and to understand these simple elements, researchers used introspection, a process that relies on analyzing one’s own mental state (Schultz & Schultz, 2015). Functionalism formed as a reaction to structuralism and denied the value of introspection. This school of thought was more...

    James-Lange Theory of Emotion

    Consciousness was not the only mental concept that functionalism investigated. Similarly, James was interested in emotions and how and why our minds perceive stimuli in certain ways. It is only after the interpretation of a physiological reaction (arousal) can a person experiences emotion. If the arousal is not noticed or is not given any thought, then a person will not experience any emotion based on this event. 1. Perception of a stimuli or situation. 2. Bodily changes result from the perce...

    Theory of Self

    James theorized the components of the self, which he divided into two categories: “Me” and “I.” For example, in the statement "I know it was me who ate the cookie,” the "Me" is the empirical self, the one who does the acting, whereas the "I" is the self that is capable of thinking and reflecting (Cooper, 1992). The “I” is the pure ego – it is what provides continuity between past, present, and future, allowing us to view ourselves to have a consistent, individual identity, one brought about b...

    Works Published

    As a philosopher and a theorist, James seldom relied on empirical experiments to validate or inspire his views. Rather, he drew upon all his reading in both philosophical and physiological psychology. James relied on observation, the intellect of his colleagues and other scholars, and, funny enough, his own mind – the very entity he was fascinated by – to develop this powerful school of thought. As a famous philosopher and psychologist, James was the author of many academic books. 1. James, W...

    Five Fun Facts

    While it is clear that James’ notable accomplishments span far and wide, there are a few specific facts about this distinguished figure that are worth emphasizing. 1. William James is credited with establishing the first teaching lab in the U.S. in 1875, and his doctoral student, G. Stanley Hall, created the first experimental psychology lab in the U.S. at Johns Hopkins University (Shiraev, 2014). 2. James was also the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S. (Cherry, 2020). 3. Ralph Wa...

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