William James

William James

William James William James[1†]

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States[1†]. He 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"[1†]. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism[1†]. He is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology[1†].

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[1†]. He wrote widely on many topics, including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion, and mysticism[1†]. 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[1†].

Early Years and Education

William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City[2†]. He was the eldest son of Henry James, an idiosyncratic and voluble man whose philosophical interests attracted him to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg[2†][3†]. One of William’s brothers was the novelist Henry James[2†][3†]. The elder Henry James had constructed a system of his own that seems to have served him as a vision of spiritual life[2†][3†]. This philosophy provided the permanent intellectual atmosphere of William’s home life[2†][3†].

James’s early education, like that of his brother Henry, was varied and included schooling in New York, Boulogne, France, and Geneva[2†][3†]. The James children traveled to Europe frequently, attended the best possible schools, and were immersed in culture and art[2†][4†].

Initially, William James aspired to be an artist[2†][5†]. He studied painting under the tutelage of William M. Hunt, an American painter of religious subjects[2†][3†]. However, he soon tired of it and entered the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University[2†][3†]. He studied chemistry and anatomy at Harvard[2†][5†]. During an extended stay in Germany after graduating, James developed an interest in studying the mind, as well as the body[2†][5†].

He entered Harvard Medical School in 1864[2†]. He was granted a degree in medicine in 1869, but by that time had decided that he would not practice medicine[2†].

Career Development and Achievements

William James’s career in psychology began when he realized he would need to support himself and switched to Harvard Medical School[4†]. Despite receiving his MD from Harvard in 1869, he decided not to practice medicine[4†]. Instead, he turned his interests towards psychology and philosophy[4†][3†].

James was the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S., earning him the title of the "Father of American Psychology"[4†]. His contributions to functionalism, one of the earliest schools of thought in psychology, are also noteworthy[4†]. Functionalism focused on how mental activities helped an organism adapt to its environment. In contrast to structuralism, which was concerned with the structure of the mind, functionalists were interested in the mind’s functions[4†].

His book, “The Principles of Psychology,” is considered one of the most classic and influential texts in psychology’s history[4†]. This work was a comprehensive and groundbreaking text in the field of psychology, covering topics such as the stream of thought and consciousness, emotion, habit, and much more[4†].

Furthermore, his works “The Will to Believe” (1897) and “Pragmatism” (1907) laid the foundation for American pragmatism[4†][6†]. Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem-solving, and action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality[4†][6†].

Thanks to his study “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), he continues to be seen as an important scholar of religion[4†][6†]. This work was an investigation into different forms of religious experience, including mysticism, saintliness, and conversion, based on a series of lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh[4†][6†].

First Publication of His Main Works

William James made significant contributions to the field of psychology and philosophy through his numerous works. Here are some of his most influential publications:

Each of these works has had a significant impact on the fields of psychology and philosophy, shaping the way these disciplines are understood and practiced today[7†].

Analysis and Evaluation

William James’s contributions to psychology and philosophy were groundbreaking and have had a lasting impact on these fields[7†]. His two main schools of thought, pragmatism and functionalism, have shaped his theories on the world and his mission to seek out behaviors’ practical value and function[7†].

In his work, “The Principles of Psychology”, James proposed that we focus on what he called the “cash value,” or usefulness, of an idea[7†]. This concept is central to his school of thought known as pragmatism[7†]. According to functionalism, mental activity (e.g., perception, memory, feeling) is to be evaluated in terms of how it serves the organism in adapting to its environment[7†]. This approach was revolutionary and marked a significant shift in the way psychology was studied and understood[7†].

Beyond pragmatism and functionalism, James also made notable contributions with the James-Lange theory of emotion and the theory of self[7†]. His work has influenced many modern philosophers and behavioral psychologists[7†].

James’s work on religious experience, as outlined in “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, is also noteworthy. He defined religion as “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”[7†][9†]. This focus on the individual as the primary subject of inquiry is a prominent theme in his work[7†][9†].

James’s influence extended beyond his own time. For example, his work significantly influenced John Dewey’s early work[7†][10†]. Dewey, another prominent figure in American philosophy and psychology, was developing his philosophy of education when he came under the influence of James[7†][10†].

In summary, William James’s work has been widely recognized for its originality and impact. His ideas have shaped the fields of psychology and philosophy and continue to be relevant today[7†][10†].

Personal Life

William James was born to Henry James Sr. and Mary Robertson Walsh, and he had four siblings: Henry (the novelist), Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice[1†]. His family was affluent, and they frequently traveled to Europe, attended the best possible schools, and were immersed in culture and art[1†][4†].

James married Alice Howe Gibbens on July 10, 1878[1†]. The couple was blessed with five children—Henry, William, Herman, Mary, and Alexander[1†][11†]. Tragically, they lost their son, Herman, at a tender age due to complications from a cough[1†][11†].

Early in school, James expressed an interest in becoming a painter. His father, Henry James Sr., while known as an unusually permissive and liberal father, wanted William to study science or philosophy. Only after William persisted in his interest did Henry permit his son to formally study painting[1†][4†]. After studying painting with the famed artist William Morris Hunt for over a year, James abandoned his dream of being a painter and enrolled at Harvard to study chemistry[1†][4†].

While two of James’ brothers enlisted to serve in the American Civil War, William and Henry did not due to health problems[1†][4†].

Conclusion and Legacy

William James left an indelible mark on the field of psychology and philosophy. His contributions laid the groundwork for many modern philosophers and behavioral psychologists[7†]. He is often referred to as the “Father of American psychology” due to his significant contributions, including founding the school of functionalism, which focuses on how mental activities help individuals adapt to their environment[7†][4†].

James’ pragmatic approach to psychology and his concept of the “Theory of Self” have had long-lasting influences[7†]. His book, “The Principles of Psychology,” is considered a foundational text in the field[7†][4†].

Beyond his work in psychology, James was a highly esteemed professor at Harvard University and was the first to teach a psychology course in the United States[7†]. His influence extended to his students, many of whom went on to become prominent figures in their respective fields[7†].

James passed away from heart failure at his home in New Hampshire on August 26, 1910[7†][12†]. He was 68 years old and left behind an immense, varied, and fascinating legacy for psychology[7†][12†]. His philosophical school of pragmatism and functional psychology continue to shape theories about the world and human behavior[7†][12†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - William James [website] - link
  2. Britannica Kids - William James [website] - link
  3. Britannica - William James: American psychologist and philosopher [website] - link
  4. Verywell Mind - William James Biography and Impact on Psychology [website] - link
  5. Harvard University - Department of Psychology - William James [website] - link
  6. University of Potsdam - The William James Center - Who is William James? [website] - link
  7. Simply Psychology - William James Contribution To Psychology [website] - link
  8. Britannica - William James summary [website] - link
  9. Ethnography of Religious Experience 2018 - Analysis of William James – Ethnography of Religious Experience 2018 [website] - link
  10. JSTOR - The Influence of William James on John Dewey's Early Work [website] - link
  11. Totallyhistory.com - William James Biography - Life of Philosopher & Psychologist [website] - link
  12. Exploring your mind - Pioneer William James - Psychological Science [website] - link
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may apply.
Ondertexts® is a registered trademark of Ondertexts Foundation, a non-profit organization.