William James

The American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) is considered America's major philosopher and one of the great psychologists of all times.

Member of an illustrious family which included his younger brother, the novelist Henry James, William James was born in New York and reared there and in Europe by adoring parents. The family went repeatedly for long and intimate visits to the great cultural centers of England, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. William's cosmopolitanism went deep; when in Europe he always felt eager to be home again, and when in America he was homesick for Europe.

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James's Education

James was equally interested in art (he almost became a painter), in literature, in philosophy, and in science (he made a visit as a field naturalist under Louis Agassiz to the Amazon and achieved broad science training and a medical degree at Harvard in 1869). In these same years he was studying philosophy and physiology, notably in Germany, where he attended lectures and saw the laboratory work of such great leaders as Hermann von Helmholtz and Rudolf Virchow. But James was also drawn very vigorously into the pioneering intellectual adventures of the America of the mid-19th century, notably its new religious movement.

As an ardent evolutionist, William James saw many ways in which the mind could be fruitfully regarded as the organ of primary adaptation to the environment, in a full Darwinian sense, and how all its functions—whether cognitive, emotional, or impulsive—could be viewed in evolutionary terms. This conception drew him to a philosophy which later he was to call pragmatism; it constitutes one of the major bridges between his psychology and his philosophy.

Despite his eager and strenuous ways, as shown in his mountain rambles with his brother Henry, James was not strong, and in the 1860s and early 1870s he was subject to ill health, which included much depression and doubt of his own worth. During this period, however, he read the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier on the problem of the freedom of the will and came suddenly and firmly to the conviction that he could, by his own act of free will, make himself a well man. His own life and the testimony of the family bear out the profundity of this experience.

James's appointment to a junior teaching position at Harvard in 1872 set him on a new professional track. He was to teach anatomy and physiology to undergraduate students, and he soon set up a small psychological laboratory, emphasizing the fact that it was not a classical "mental philosophy" that he was to teach but a physiological and experimental science. It is plain from his letters to his brother that he was already thinking of himself as committed to the new laboratory approach to psychology. This does not, however, mean that he was willing to relinquish any of his other manifold interests. He was soon publishing original and brilliant articles in the professional journals of psychology and philosophy. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878.

Principles of Psychology

Also in 1878 James began writing a comprehensive treatise and textbook, Principles of Psychology, the two volumes of which, intended for 1880, finally appeared in 1890. This extraordinary treatise brought him worldwide response and has continued everywhere to be regarded as one of the few great comprehensive treatises that modern psychology has produced.

Five of the chapters are worthy of special note: (1) The chapter dealing with "habit," considered as a prime factor so deeply organized within one as to make each one the creature of a system of inbuilt ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. (2) "Emotion," the subjective or inner aspect of the "coarser" organic physiological responses to stress situations, such as fear and rage, with a place also provided for the subtler emotions, entering into the intellectual and esthetic life. (3) The "consciousness of self," the various ways in which one knows one's self and the aspects of one's own individuality that are most precious to one. (4) The "stream of thought," the complex, dynamic, ever-changing world of subjectivity in which there is no firmly fixed invariant part, no unalterable unit, except that each person is always aware that it is his own continuous past, present, and anticipated future. (5) The "will." The very long and rich chapter on the will provides for many "types of decision" and for the experience of effort when "we ourselves incline the beam." An empirical psychology must accept as a reality the experience of making an effortful decision; this leaves the ultimate philosophical question of the nature of such freedom as a problem beyond the scope of scientific psychology as such.

James's treatment indeed is embedded in the context of a lifetime preoccupation with the nature of freedom. James recurred to this problem in other writings again and again. In his lecture "The Will to Believe," he argued that spontaneous and free decisions may initiate a new path through life, and the will does, in fact, implement beliefs; the "will to believe," instead of being intellectually disreputable, may engender beliefs which are creative. He made clear the basic differentiation to be made between "hard determinism," or fatalism, and "soft determinism," in which persons are part of the causal texture of reality, products of real forces, and in turn forces which create new realities. Soft determinism is still determinism, but it gives the freedom to act in terms of what one is. This is still to be distinguished from the kind of freedom represented by a belief in undetermined action.

Not only was the Principles of Psychology universally acclaimed, but James, as teacher, dynamically taught a generation concerned with psychology and its relation to life. The playwright and poet Gertrude Stein, for example, was a Radcliffe-Harvard student of James, who put the notion of the "stream of thought" or "stream of consciousness" to work in American letters. Many of his lectures, both at Harvard and elsewhere, became landmarks of the era of social confrontation, notably "The Moral Equivalent of War," in which he pleaded for warlike intensities in devotion to nonwar like social struggles.

During the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, James was plainly moving away from the new "experimental psychology" of the university laboratories to the world of personal, subjective, philosophically challenging problems, such as the perennial problem of whether there is really any truth independent of the working principles which are known to be effective in one's own action (pragmatism). These questions were being raised in new form by many, notably Charles Peirce, and James himself offered the term pragmatism as "a new name for some old ways of thinking." During the last years of his life he was constantly asked to explain and develop pragmatism, and it became a major American way of thinking.

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Lectures on Philosophy

Very great indeed was the impact of James's extraordinary lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901 under the title "The Varieties of Religious Experience." This is regarded by many as the first great, insightful application of psychology to the study of the religious life. Insisting that the religious experience of "individual men in their solitude" must be studied independently of medical preconceptions, he distinguished between the "religion of healthymindedness" and the "sick soul." James showed how a wider and deeper range of sensitivity, often shown by the sick soul, may lead to meaningful experiences of deep change or conversion and to states of ecstasy and self-renewal.

The concluding lectures were given to the psychology of mystical experience as represented in the mystical tradition of such men as Plotinus and of modern men, Eastern and Western, who were speaking and writing of "cosmic consciousness." To James it appeared that the message of mystical experience, the "windows" into experience which it offered, could well be absolute and compelling for the individual, though, of course, not compelling to the outside observer or analyst who has not had such experiences. Here he stressed the importance of many "altered states of consciousness." (He himself studied nitrous oxide intoxication and was keenly interested in the new drug experiences of the day as well as in a variety of trance and hypnotic states: a person's present mode of consciousness is only one from among many "states of consciousness that exist.")

James strongly supported "mental healing." He went to the Boston State House to protest the attempt of many physicians to require non medical practitioners to take a type of medical examination as a qualification for practice; he insisted that no one can really tell by what means the sick are healed. He had himself, shortly before that time, sought help from a "healer" and remained entirely empirical regarding the question of gains in health due to unorthodox sources.

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Psychical Research

In the same empirical spirit James pursued throughout his life many types of psychological phenomena rejected by official science, such as apparitions, hauntings, and spiritualist trance mediumship. In 1884 he discovered Mrs. L. E. Piper, who, in the sittings given to his wife and his wife's mother, had referred to information which they were positive Piper could not have acquired through any normal channel. In his own sittings, equally convincing evidence was given, and many of James's professional friends, both in the United States and in Britain, had similar experiences which entirely convinced them of the reality of her powers, which, at the very least, included telepathy from distant persons. He took the initiative in organizing an American counterpart to the Society for Psychical Research, which had just been launched in London in 1882. He made firsthand studies of the powers of other clairvoyants whose work was drawn to his attention. In a much-quoted essay, "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," he asserted that telepathy, as represented by Piper's experiences, constituted a true breakthrough into a world of vast scientific importance. Her powers pointed to a new kind of reality. Regarding the spiritualist conviction that survival of death was established through such research, he remained uncertain.

James was also profoundly impressed by the current French studies of "subconscious ideas." Pierre Janet, for example, had apparently shown that in deep hypnotic trance a man may act upon ideas which have been planted in his mind, though he is plainly not conscious at the time. He gave much attention likewise to dreaming, to hypnotic consciousness, and to multiple personality. He felt that Sigmund Freud was one of those to whom the future belonged. In his last years his emphasis was not on rounding out a system of ideas but in gaining new varieties of experience. His expression "radical empiricism" is his fortunate summary of a whole approach to life. He was empirical in the sense of looking always for the quality of immediate experience and remaining loyal to this first reality, as against the abstractions which seek an "absolute," an approach characteristic of much of the German, British, and American philosophy of his era. He was radical in the sense that he wanted to find the very roots of reality in the nature of experience itself. Faith healing, psychical research, and the stream of consciousness were all to be embraced for the same reason: they offered realities which were incapable of being rationally ruled out of their right to exist. So, too, the "pluralistic universe" of which he wrote in the last years, when pragmatism was everywhere being discussed, was a loosely articulated collection of separate parts, each aspect of which must be respected although a philosophically unified system cannot be created from it.

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Further Reading on William James

James's correspondence was edited by his son, Henry James, The Letters of William James (1920). Robert C. LeClair edited The Letters of William James and Theodore Flournoy (1966). The two indispensable works for studying James are Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (2 vols., 1935), and Gay Wilson Allen, William James: A Biography (1967). Also useful are Edward C. Moore, William James (1965), and Bernard P. Brennan, William James (1968). For a discussion of William, his brother Henry, and his father Henry, Sr., see C. Hartley Grattan, The Three Jameses: A Family of Minds (1932).

Additional Biography Sources

Bjork, Daniel W., The compromised scientist: William James in the Development of American psychology, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Bjork, Daniel W., William James: the center of his vision, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Feinstein, Howard M., Becoming William James, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Lewis, R. W. B. (Richard Warrington Baldwin), The Jameses: a family narrative, New York: Anchor Books, 1993.

Weissbourd, Katherine, Growing up in the James family: Henry James, Sr., as son and father, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985.

William James remembered, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.