James, William (1842–1910)

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William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, was born in New York City to Mary Robertson Walsh James and Henry James Sr., the eccentric Swedenborgian theologian. James's paternal grandfather and namesake was an Irishman of Calvinist persuasion who immigrated to the United States in 1798 and became very rich through felicitous investment in the Erie Canal. James had three brothers and a sister; one of them, the novelist Henry James, achieved equal fame.

James's early environment was propitious; his father's enthusiastic and unconventional scholarship, his personal and unorthodox religion, his literary association with men like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson all stimulated free intellectual growth. Even more important was the rather extraordinary respect that the elder James lavished upon the youthful spontaneities of his children; each, he thought, must go his own way and become that most valuable of creatures, himself. There was no straitlaced dogmatism in the James household, and William James was free to accept or reject the ideas of his father and his father's friends. The thought and sympathies of these transcendentalists and romantic humanitarians of the New England tradition never seemed to James the ultimate answers to his own philosophical and personal problems, but they dealt with genuine issues that he did not evade in his later work.

James's primary education took place at his father's table; its main constituents were the spirited discourse that the family held on every topic and the example of the parents, loving and unworldly. Formal education took place irregularly in various private establishments. From 1855 to 1860 James (often in the company of his younger brother Henry) attended schools in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. There, as his father said, he and his brother were able "to absorb French and German and get a better sensuous education than they are likely to get here" (Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, p. 59). During this European sojourn James's interest was divided between natural science and art, especially painting.

In spite of his continuing enthusiasm and talent for scientific inquiry, James's interest in painting became so strong by 1860 that he resolved to spend a trial period learning to paint. The elder James was not anxious for his son to become a painter, thereby prematurely cutting himself off from the rest of life's possibilities; any definite vocation, according to the father, was sadly "narrowing" (ibid., p. 171). It was nevertheless arranged that James should begin study with William M. Hunt in Newport. This experiment convinced James that he lacked the ability to be anything more than a mediocre artist, than which there was, he thought, nothing worse. The lesson at Newport permanently discouraged James's pursuit of an artistic vocation, but throughout his scientific and philosophical career he retained the artist's eye, his predilection for concrete sensuous detail, and his concern for style.

In 1861, James entered the Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard, studying first in the chemistry department under Charles W. Eliot, later in the department of comparative anatomy and physiology under Jeffries Wyman and Louis Agassiz. From Wyman he learned the importance of evolution; from Agassiz, an appreciation of "the world's concrete fulness" (William James, Memories and Studies, p. 14) and of acquaintance with empirical facts as against abstraction. In 1864, James transferred to the medical school, though without the intention of ever practicing medicine. His medical studies, although fruitful, were attenuated and sporadic.

While at medical school James joined Agassiz as an assistant on the Thayer expedition to Brazil during 1865/1866. In Brazil he contracted smallpox and suffered from sensitivity of the eyes. This was the first serious manifestation of that constitutional failure which was to recur throughout James's life, imposing upon it a pattern of interrupted work and of periodic flights to Europe which were always, at least in part, searches for health.

In 1867 ill health and the desire to study experimental physiology led James to Europe, to Germany in particular. While little formal study of physiology proved to be possible, James read widely and thoughtfully. His first professional literary effort, a revision of Herman Grimm's Unüberwindliche Mächte, published in the Nation (Vol. 5, 1867), dates from this period.

James returned to Cambridge in November 1868 and received his medical degree in June 1869. After a period of illness and retirement, he began teaching anatomy and physiology at Harvard in 1873, psychology in 1875, and philosophy in 1879. This order is very nearly accidental and gives no adequate indication of James's development. Philosophy was an early interest which grew with his scientific studies; for James the more narrowly scientific questions could never be separated, even theoretically, from the more general questions which philosophy considers.

It was indeed a specifically philosophical concern which precipitated James's profound emotional crisis of 1870. He had been suffering from a sense of moral impotence that only a philosophical justification of the belief in the freedom of the will could cure. In the Essais de critique générale of Charles Renouvier, James found the basis of the justification he sought. And throughout his life the problem of maintaining free will and the moral attitude in the face of either religious monism or scientific determinism, as well as the problem of legitimating belief despite various intellectual skepticisms, continued to engage James's attention and to influence his mature philosophy. That philosophy, growing out of personal need and agitation, has a strong eschatological flavor. It cannot, however, be reduced either to a scheme of personal salvation or to an apology for some special way of life. James offered a philosophical, not an emotional, defense of free will, moralism, and belief. These topics became important test cases for a general metaphysics that James sought to elaborate not for its own sake but to satisfy interests which were distinctly rational and theoretical.

Having settled into the career of philosopher and teacher, if one may speak of James's settling into anything, he maintained close but not constant association with Harvard until his final resignation in 1907. He married Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878; the marriage seems to have increased his sense of purpose and coincided with a noticeable improvement in James's health. Thenceforth, he led an intensely active life, teaching at Harvard, lecturing widely, and publishing a series of books which became undeniable classics of American philosophy. Three series of James's lectures deserve special mention. He gave the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901/1902, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); lectures on pragmatism at the Lowell Institute and Columbia in 1906 and 1907, published as Pragmatism (1907); and the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford in 1908/1909, published as A Pluralistic Universe (1909).

Character of James's Philosophy

This brief biography gives no indication of that range and richness of James's experience which so struck those who knew him and which entered into everything he wrote. James was a highly social man whose friends formed an intellectual community of great distinction. Chauncey Wright, C. S. Peirce, Shadworth Hodgson, Charles Renouvier, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, John Dewey, Henri Bergson, and F. H. Bradley were a few of those whom James knew as friends and fellow laborers.

From all of these men and others James drew philosophical nourishment, and the very number of sources and influences renders the search for antecedents otiose. James was essentially an original thinker, and he borrowed only what fitted his own design. This must be maintained in spite of James's habitual humility and his characteristic generosity of acknowledgment.

James impressed his friends with his vitality and strength of character, with his open-mindedness and sympathy. His spirit and attitude were admired even by those whose philosophical conclusions differed radically from his own. Santayana, for example, in his witty and condescending memoir Character and Opinion in the United States is forced to praise James, at least as an enthusiastic and explosive force. Because James wrote as he talked, much of his vividness and personal style is retained in his works. The majority of James's books are simply transcriptions of lectures; they have all the virtues and vices of spoken discourse, and the circumstances of their presentation must help to determine the kind of analysis to which they can be fruitfully subjected.

James addressed himself to the people, not especially to other philosophers, and he listened to the people to find out what life meant to them. He respected not so much their common sense as their common feelings and hopes and would not allow his philosophy to dismiss cavalierly that which figured largely in the experiences of men. The people listened to James, and his books sold well. By the end of his life he was nearly a legendary figure, and he was generally regarded as the chief representative of American philosophy. Nevertheless, professional philosophers, when they have discussed James at all, have tended to concentrate on those of his ideas that, separated from the body of his work and often distorted, have achieved currency. To this general picture there are important exceptions, such as Ralph Barton Perry, who has done more for James scholarship than anyone else.

To provide a proper perspective for the study of James, three corrective measures must be taken. First, attention must be diverted from his life, however interesting, to his published philosophy. For all its validity the biographical motive can be, and has been, pressed to the point where it precludes philosophical clarity. Second, James must be seen within the general philosophical tradition, in relation to the fundamental philosophical problems that he attempted to solve and not in relation to his position as a distinctly American thinker. To attempt to evaluate James's philosophy in terms of his American background is neither more nor less rewarding than to attempt to evaluate Immanuel Kant, say, in terms of his German background. Third, the objective aspect of James's philosophy must be stressed. James himself thought that philosophy involved the subjective factors of temperament and personal vision. In the first chapter of Pragmatism, he drew a very plausible correlation between tough-minded and tender-minded temperaments and empirical and rationalist philosophical positions. Again, in the essay "The Sentiment of Rationality" James argued that there can be no adequate definition of reason which ignores the feeling of rationality, the ultimate sense of logical fit. James believed that the subjective (or what might better be called the aesthetic) dimension was a feature of philosophy as such. James's philosophy is subjective, therefore, because it is philosophy, not because it is James's philosophy. Objectivity, like truth and reality, was redefined, not abandoned, by James.

The remainder of this entry is divided into sections on James's psychology, philosophy of religion, pragmatism, and metaphysics. This arrangement is simply an expository device. If pragmatism is a theory of all belief, then religious philosophy is a subdivision of pragmatism. If pragmatism is a description of what actually happens when men seek truth, then it is part of psychology. If the dualism between human and natural processes is finally inadmissible, then psychology is a chapter of general metaphysics. The interdependence of the various parts of James's philosophy, suggested here, will be exhibited below.


The Principles of Psychology (1890) is, according to James himself, "mainly a mass of descriptive details"; certainly, this work more than any other justifies Alfred North Whitehead's remark that James's primary task was philosophical assemblage. The Principles "assembles" in two senses. First, there is a brilliant gathering, through extensive quotation and reference as well as careful documentation, of relevant material from the Scottish, English, French, and German schools. Second, there is the exhibition of facts which may never have appeared prominently in any system, either of psychology or of philosophy.

It has become customary, and it is certainly legitimate, to praise the Principles for its sensitive evocation of the evanescent inner life. It is indeed a kind of generalized psychic autobiography by a master of introspection, but it is much more than a document of literary psychology. The concrete rendering of experience is an essential element in the development of James's mature philosophy, for when he spoke of the world as "a world of pure experience," he referred to experience as it is described in the Principles. If experience had not the ramifications and possibilities so lovingly and exuberantly detailed by James in his "psychological" writings, it could never have become, as it did for James, the central image of complete reality. Moreover, James was not in his early days merely "collecting" facts whose subsequent careers happened to include the incident of being generalized into a total world view. James, as he said himself, "hated collecting" (Perry, op. cit., p. 225). The material of the Principles is already thrown into philosophical form, is already illuminated or stained (however one decides the matter) by the foundational metaphysical categories that recur, with greater generality, in the later works.


If the Principles is to be regarded as primarily a descriptive work, one must be clear about what is involved in description as James understood it. He was convinced that pure description in the manner of phenomenology is impossible. Description cannot be other than conceptual; concepts, in turn, are tools of classification that have inexpugnable conventional and theoretical elements. Concepts do not passively mirror; they select according to human interests and purposes. Assumptions, James maintained, have a way of establishing themselves "in our very descriptions of the phenomenal facts" (Principles, Vol. I, p. 145). Naive phenomenology attempts to eliminate assumptions from descriptive statements. This is an impossible task if for no other reason than that every allegedly assumption-free phenomenology must itself make doubtful assumptions, including the assumption that there can be description without classification. James's own approach was to examine the assumptions involved in all descriptions, making those assumptions "give an articulate account of themselves before letting them pass" (loc. cit.). Pragmatism as it appears in the Principles consists simply in spelling out what claims our theories and assumptions make for us and in eliminating elements which are superfluous, elements, that is, which can be eliminated without changing the tenor of what we really want to say. Pragmatism here can be fruitfully regarded as a general theory of theory criticism, as an attempt to make clear what we are actually committed to by the theories we entertain. The chapters that criticize the conscious automaton theory (Vol. I, Ch. 5) and the mind-stuff theory (ibid., Ch. 6), respectively, are indeed the first extended exercises in pragmatic criticism.

science and metaphysics

Purely phenomenological description being considered impossible by James, the question arises as to what is scientific about the Principles. The standard interpretationthe interpretation upon which the judgment of its great historical importance is basedfinds the work very nearly the first attempt to treat psychology from the standpoint of a natural sciencethat is, descriptively and apart from metaphysical theories. The sharp distinction which we are likely to draw between scientific theories and metaphysical theories is difficult to sustain from James's own point of view and therefore cannot be used to differentiate the Principles from metaphysical treatments of the same subject matter.

A much more pregnant distinction is that between a priori and a posteriori metaphysics. A priori metaphysics was, for James, a totally illegitimate enterprise consisting of vacuous abstractions excogitated apart from any experience of the world. Throughout his work James often referred to a priori metaphysics simply as "metaphysics," and his frequent criticisms of metaphysics must therefore be carefully interpreted in their contexts. The Principles is antimetaphysical where metaphysics means "scholastic rational psychology" or "philosophical pyschology."

The more interesting problem is defining the relation between the Principles and the kind of metaphysics of which James did approve, a posteriori metaphysics, which is continuous with science and, like science, is both descriptive and theoretical. Here the differentiation must be emphatic rather than absolute. The Principles may be regarded as a deliberate (and artificial) restriction of general metaphysical scope. Science, as James saw it, must grow into metaphysics. Explanation must become more complete and more comprehensive even if, as James certainly believed, it cannot become total and absolute. But science must be science before it can become metaphysics. In the Principles metaphysics is, necessarily, postponed; its positivism is provisional rather than dogmatic and final.

The relative autonomy that science is given in the Principles is "for the sake of practical effectiveness exclusively," as James said in his essay "A Plea for Psychology as a 'Natural Science'" (Collected Essays and Reviews, p. 317). Science left to itself, with its "convenient assumptions" unquestioned, is best able to accumulate a mass of factual details which lead to the subsequent enrichment and "thickening" of the content of metaphysics. The danger of premature metaphysical reconstruction is thinness, impoverishment of content, and abstraction.

mental states

The basic assumption of the Principles and its "convenient" point of departure is the existence of mental states. The first task of psychology is to describe the conditions of these mental states with as much detail and completeness as possible. Chapter 2 of the Principles is an extended examination of the ways in which various brain states condition various mental states. The search for conditions among bodily experiences generally and brain experiences particularly is the only alternative to treating mental states as frankly miraculous. James, the evolutionary naturalist, had to maintain that mental states grow out of physical states, in spite of whatever difficulties this view entails. Since mental states, in addition to arising from physical antecedents, themselves give rise in all cases to changes in the physical world, it seems utterly impossible to create any kind of dualistic ontological chasm between the two types of process, mental and physical. There is indeed a discriminable subject matter of psychology, which James referred to both as "mental states" and as "mental life." This subject matter must be treated autonomously, which means, in practice, guarding against the reduction of mental phenomena to nothing but physical phenomena in the interest of some schematic monism. In this context James at times spoke of "irreducible dualisms," but what he meant to emphasize might perhaps better be called "irreducible dualities," discriminations that remain what they are no matter what supervenient integrations may also be pointed out.

The whole question of the dualism between the physical and the mental is complicated by the fact that James was, even in the Principles, developing a view of physical nature at large which departed radically from the familiar deterministic, mechanical model. It is often maintained, for example, that James's treatment of the will as irreducible to antecedent mechanical factors creates a dualistic chasm between natural processes and characteristically human processes. This would be true only if James had retained the customary deterministic model of nature. James, however, did not retain this model; he would sooner have conceived of all nature as willful than of man's will as an exception to nature.

James believed that the borderline of the mental is vague. Mentality, as James defined it, exists wherever we find the choice of means for the attainment of future ends. Mental life is purposive in a way that involves the overcoming, through suitable invention and appropriation, of any obstacles lying in the way of its purpose. The mind is a tactical power that reveals itself in the struggle with its environment. The only kind of world in which minds can conceivably develop and be found is one in which success is neither automatic nor impossible. An interesting consequence of James's view is that an omnipotent God could not have a mind; neither could a purely contemplative deity. The notion of mind as an instrument within the general economy of purpose and resistance to purpose, a notion which has justly been called "biological" and "Darwinian," is simply an ungeneralized expression of pragmatism.

Although it is necessary to consider mental states as "temporal events arising in the ordinary course of nature" (ibid., p. 319), with emphasis on their natural antecedents and results, it is also necessary to consider mental states in themselves as realities to be described as they are found with their generic particularity and variety intact. Here again, it must be emphasized that James was not attempting a phenomenology of mental life or consciousness. What he was attempting was the provision of adequate description that would not be guilty of gross oversimplification or distortion.


Adequate description must, of course, be based somehow upon observation, and, James maintained, the principal method of psychology is introspective observation. Introspection, as an observational process, is similar to other kinds of observation. James could find in introspection no peculiar epistemological characteristic; it is neither more nor less fallible than other kinds of observation. Its frequently alleged infallibility, based on some notion of the immediate relation obtaining between a mind and its contents, is simply contradicted by experience. Even if feeling is unmistakably what it is, our "naming, classing, and knowing" (Principles, pp. 189190) of every feeling share in the notorious general human fallibility. The truth of any observation, introspective or otherwise, is not to be found in the character of the source of observation but in the consequent service, especially theoretical service, which the observation and its correlative preservation in description can be made to render. There is therefore no simple and immediate verification of observations, no once and for all validation of descriptions. For James "the only safeguard [of truth] is the final consensus of our further knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached" (ibid., p. 192). James's own descriptions in the Principles must lend themselves to this kind of pragmatic corroboration.


The famous "descriptive" chapter, "The Stream of Thought" (perhaps the heart of the Principles ), cannot be evaluated from a simply empirical point of view. What is described and how it is described are determined by markedly theoretical affinities and avoidances. James singled out five traits of thought in that chapter: (1) Thought tends to be part of personal consciousnessthat is, thought is not experienced as simply a thought but as my thought; (2) thought is always changing; (3) within each personal consciousness thought is sensibly continuous; (4) thought deals with objects independent of itself; and (5) thought is selective and has interests. The metaphysical model that James had in mind here is of a process that is partially determined and partially self-determiningthat is, centered or focused and essentially temporal. Although the analysis in the Principles is limited to one kind of process, consciousness, the structure of the analysis is similar to that Whitehead offers of all actual occasions. James himself came to believe that all of reality must be describable in terms like those used for human experience. This belief is elaborated in Essays in Radical Empiricism as the notion of a world of "pure experience."

Each of the five traits of thought which James distinguishes repudiates some important philosophical position. One dimension of James's work clearly apparent in the Principles is a sustained criticism of the "classic-academic" version of mind. No easy summary of what this meant to James is available, but its main features would seem to be the marshaling of instances of mental phenomena according to a priori canons of clarity and rationality, the overwhelming influence of the assertive paradigm (as opposed to the judgments implicit in making and doing) in construing the problems of belief and judgment, and allegiance to the spectator theory of knowledge with whatever passivity is therein involved. These attitudes James attacked in the name of a richer experience, encompassing all the concrete information we possess about the functions of mind. This is the information, so carefully assembled and considered in the Principles, which James urged the epistemologist to work into his official model and the philosopher generally to consider in making his pronouncements.


The appeal to experience is not new in philosophy; James was solidly in the venerable tradition of empiricism. But empiricism in its classic British form is essentially an epistemological position that regards experience as an exclusive witness before a cognitive tribunal in which other sources of evidence are ruled out of court as uncertain or unreliable. The genius of James's empiricism lies precisely in ruling nothing out of court. His theory of experience, the object of so much of James's later labor, is perhaps the first such theory which is cosmological, rather than strictly epistemological, in intention and logical form. This shift of the total frame of reference within which experience is considered has, for better or worse, influenced a subsequent movement in philosophy typified by Whitehead and his disciples. It is this influence which points to the main philosophical significance of the Principles.

Philosophy of Religion

Even in the introduction to The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James (1885), a relatively early work that might be thought no more than an act of filial devotion, James's own ideas about religion were quite clear. There is, of course, a sympathetic exposition of his father's superpersonal theological monism, for William James could honestly admire his father's "instinct and attitude" even if he could not condone the "cold accounts" and abstract formulations of the elder James's system. It is religious experience, rather than religious doctrine, that matters. Unless it is a part of vital experience, religion becomes "fossil conventionalism." Here James shared his father's attitude; his father wrote so much, according to James, because he was dissatisfied with every verbal encapsulation. Writing was a necessary evil and, like the labor of Sisyphus, self-stultifying.

That James could not accept in any unqualified way the religious vision of his father is evident. The difficulty is simply this: "Any absolute moralism is a pluralism; any absolute religion is a monism" (The Literary Remains, p. 118). The recognition of the essential opposition of morality and religion was clearly made by the elder James. The logic of his system required him to reject the finite moral agent with his frantic moral efforts. It is certain that James benefited from his father's insight even though he aligned himself with morality and pluralism. The working attitude of the healthy mind must always be, for James, a moral one which takes seriously the difference between good and evil and which commits itself to struggle for the first and against the second. To adopt the religious attitude is to step out of life's fight and to justify that withdrawal by some belief about the character of the world and either the ineffectiveness or superfluity of action within it. For James the character of the world, the nature of reality, does not justify, as a general attitude, the quietism that religion counsels. On the contrary, the world is the kind of place in which moral endeavor is, as a rule, supremely worthy. James neither denied the satisfaction that religion gives to many nor declared that satisfaction illusory. The very fact of pluralism allowed him to suppose at least some aspect, however fragmentary, of reality that justifies the religious option. Religious belief gives us, in James's famous phrase, a "moral holiday." Like any holiday it may be enjoyed for its own sake; more important to James, however, holidays indirectly affect the work week.

evolutionary theory

James was strongly influenced by the Darwinian theory of evolution and was therefore predisposed to find in all feelings, including religious feelings, clues about what the world is like. Feelings that evolved in the world must somehow reflect the world. The most eccentric fancy, for example, tells us that we have the kind of world in which such a fancy is possible.

Evolutionary theory, as James saw it, begins with the presupposition that each part of reality has a function, that each part is in some way or other good for something or other. The strictly useless, according to such a theory, cannot endure, and all flourishing realities command a certain minimal respect. Religious experience is not especially justified by evolution because nothing is especially justified. Religion and irreligion, insofar as they both exist, are exactly equal before the evolutionary tribunal. Belief in evolution, at least as James interpreted that belief, makes simple dismissal impossible; even that which is evil cannot be negligible. The questions must be asked of religion as it must be asked of everything. How is it that it came to be what it is? What is it for?

antecedents and value of religion

In his major work on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James attempted to account for the antecedents and value of religion. The question of how it came to be what it is, is a matter of classifying religious feelings and religious propensities with other kinds of human experience which are found to be similar to them. The initial task, therefore, of The Varieties is the provision of a "descriptive survey" beginning with as many and as varied examples of typically religious experience as possible. The emphasis, here as elsewhere, is on spontaneous religious emotions rather than theological interpretations or institutional prolongation and regularization.

James was scrupulously careful to explain religious phenomena by ordinary scientific laws and principles, if at all possible. Accordingly, religious visitations of all kinds are classed as sudden influxions from the subject's own subconsciousness. Conversion is seen as the radical rearrangement of psychic energy around some new center of interest. Examples of this kind of felicitous theorizing could be multiplied.

James, however, was equally concerned with promoting the thesis that nothing said about the history or genesis of religious phenomena can shed the slightest light on the spiritual worth and significance of those phenomena. The older dogmatists attempted to justify religion once and for all by pointing to its privileged origin in some kind of revelation; newer dogmatiststhe "medical materialists"attempted to discredit religion once and for all by pointing to its disreputable origin in some curious bodily state. Neither approach is acceptable. Religion must be judged in the same way that everything else is judged, by proving itself useful (in specifiable ways) in some possible future. Religion must "run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience" (The Varieties, p. 426). This context includes the collection of all our established truths as well as all the exigencies of our affective and intellectual natures. Therefore, the defense of religion that can be found in James is not based on appeals to either mere social utility or subjective feeling. The question of the truth of religion arises only when religion makes some concrete, specific prediction about the world's future. Religion having framed its hypotheses, these hypotheses are supported or refuted in terms set out by James's general theory of belief, known as pragmatism.


James's notorious defense of the right to believe in the widely read essay "The Will to Believe" and elsewhere, though generally given a limited religious interpretation, is, in fact, not primarily a defense of religious belief but of moral belief, belief in the efficacy of action, including, as an important instance, the active experimentalism of modern science. The point of James's doctrine is its repudiation of the methodological caution epitomized by the Baconian injunction not to "suffer the understanding to jump and fly from particulars to remote and most general axioms" or by the Cartesian rule "that the understanding should always know before the will makes a decision." James was making a general statement in support of the method of empirical science, with special emphasis upon the initially unwarranted character of every scientific hypothesis. We must at least believe our hypotheses sufficiently to bestir ourselves to test them; without our active interest in and partisanship of belief the enterprise of science would come to a silent, ghostly end. It is the theoretical daring of science that inspired James. His doctrine on the will to believe is no fuzzy ad hoc concession to self-indulgent piety but an integral part of his general theory of belief.

The doctrine of the will to believe, with all its genial encouragement of risking belief, is balanced, in James, by an unremitting fallibilism. Belief, however justified originally, is always conditional. Belief must continue to justify itself; there is no possibility of a definitive, once and for all certification. Both the options of practical life and the tenets of religion may be justified as peculiar kinds of scientific hypotheses, the first sort peculiar because of their limitation to some particular matter or situation, the second because of their elusive generality. There seems to be no difficulty in interpreting the practical decisions of life, with their inherent predictions about relevant future events, as closely analogous to the predictive, if not to the explanatory, activity of science. Religious belief, on the contrary, may seem intrinsically isolated from the arena of confirmation and disconfirmation and, therefore, alien to the scientific pattern. For James all genuine belief, including religious belief, must address itself to the tribunal of experiment. If all possible procedures of verification are irrelevant to some religious doctrine, then that doctrine cannot rightly be the object of any belief; such a doctrine, having no positive content, would be meaningless.

James did, in fact, think that at least a few religious hypotheses were truly empirical, that they made a difference which somewhere could be noticed. James was careful not to prejudice the case against religion by adopting some single restrictive paradigm of verification. If religious belief makes a difference, it is not altogether surprising that we should have to look for that difference with greater sympathy, imagination, and patience than we are used to exercising in more straightforward cases.

james's religious belief

James's own religious belief, expressed without dogmatism in the last chapter and the postscript of The Varieties and again in the last chapter of Pragmatism, consists essentially in the affirmation that the world is richer in realities than conventional science is willing to recognize. Religious experience at least suggests that there is what James called a "higher part of the universe" (ibid., p. 516) which, though beyond the immediate deliverance of the senses, is nevertheless effective in the world in a way that makes a noticeable difference. This assertion that the higher part makes concrete and local differences constitutes James's famous "piecemeal super-naturalism" (ibid., p. 520), really only a name for an enlarged and tolerant naturalism. The higher part is perhaps impossible to define given the present state of our knowledge. Certainly, for James it cannot be the infinite and omnipotent God of traditional theism who guarantees the successful outcome of the universe. The higher part is better conceived as a finite power (or perhaps even a polytheistic medley of powers) that, like men, works toward the good and helps achieve it. This is a theological notion compatible with the significance of moral choice in a way that the conventional notion is not.

The vagueness of much of James's treatment, a vagueness he frequently admitted to, has been amply noted by his critics. What must also be noted, however, is the forceful way in which a fundamental idea of our tradition, the idea of God, has been radically reconstructed by James in a manner that makes the idea more consonant with religious experience and that frees it from the congeries of paradoxes associated with the problems, among others, of free will and of evil.


The chief locus for James's pragmatism is, of course, his immensely popular and influential work Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. The origin of pragmatism, however, as James always acknowledged, is found in C. S. Peirce's essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," published in 1878. This essay remained generally unnoticed until James's 1898 lecture on pragmatism, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," at the University of California (in Collected Essays and Reviews ). This lecture may be taken as the beginning of pragmatism as an explicit, although never a unified, movement, but the essentials of the doctrine as developed by James are found earlier in the Principles of Psychology and even in the introduction to The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James. Indeed, James rarely wrote anything, early or late, which did not at least imply pragmatism.

Pragmatism may be approached as a mere method, an eristic device which vouchsafes hints as to either the meaning or truth of propositions or to both together; it may be taken as a theory of meaning or a theory of truth or, once again, as a theory of both meaning and truth. A. O. Lovejoy in "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" insisted upon distinctions such as these and chided James for neglecting them. In fact, though James erred in emphasizing the autonomy of the various aspects of pragmatism, he wished to persuade his readers of the truth of whichever part he was recommending at the moment, and he therefore tended to stress the self-contained plausibility of elements which, if plausible at all, are so only when taken together in the total view.

It is the contention of James's sympathetic commentators that his pragmatism is plausible as nothing less than a theory of reality. It is the descriptive naturalism central to James that saves pragmatism from being merely a convenient device for settling philosophical disputes. The fundamental assumption that generates pragmatism is the assumption that "knowledge," "truth," and "meaning," as well as any other possible object of discourse or any other possible subject matter for philosophical discussion, must be explicable as a natural process or as a functional medley or competition of natural processes. The world, for James, is a plurality of temporal processes related in so many specifiable and concrete ways that it cannot be accounted for by abstract speculation alone.

James believed that an individual's personal, peculiar vision counts most in philosophy; not surprisingly, it is vision, not method, which is primary in James. Reality dictates the method by which it may be known. The gross encounter with the world is primary in the determination of what character the world will have for us. Theories of knowledge and of method, existing at a high level of abstraction, are second to the ineluctable fact of experience breaking in upon us.

truth and meaning

James's pragmatism is an attempt to formulate a metaphysics of truth and of meaning. Logically, such an attempt is exactly on a par with the metaphysical treatment of any discriminable subject matter. By metaphysics James meant the quest for adequate general descriptions either of reality as a whole or of some distinguishable part of it. The descriptions offered by metaphysics are, in principle, continuous with those offered by science, although their range and focus may differ. The distinction between science and metaphysics was not crucial for James; he saw the possibility of unrestricted intercourse and cooperation exactly where later thinkers are likely to see division and competition for cognitive respectability. It is therefore helpful from James's own point of view to regard pragmatism's description of truth in the same light, say, as geology's description of continental drift. Both are characterizations of natural processes, and both attempt to portray what actually happens.

The metaphysical perspective of Pragmatism itself (even apart from the context of James's total work) is so unmistakable that the prevailing interpretation of pragmatism as a set of newly devised rules that serve a certain practical purpose seems totally unjustified. If James was right, people have always unwittingly followed the "pragmatic method." A purely theoretical illumination like pragmatism will indeed clarify practice and improve it; for James no processleast of all, a process where human influence intervenesis so canalized that modifications are utterly beyond hope. Metaphysics must recognize the plasticity of its subject matter as well as the limits of plasticity.

Pragmatism discusses truth without falling into the epistemological frame of mind habitually assumed by professional philosophers. James's description of actual processes rejects the usual question of what we ought to believe. If there is something we "ought" to believe, the authority of the "ought" itself must be explained concretely. There is no authority which is merely formal. Pragmatism therefore becomes the justification of truth's prestige in terms of the world's exigencies.

One factor discernible in the complex process called "believing truly" is the compulsion of fact or the unavoidability of a residual nonplastic pole in determination of what is true. It is here that we find truth's authority and importance.

Truth, for James, is what we must somehow take account of if we are not to perish. Men cannot in the long run believe what is false not because truth extracts from them a categorical imperative in its own behalf but because reality compels men in spite of themselves, and it is from this that the authority of truth is derived. "Agreement with reality" as a criterion of truth cannot be taken to indicate any fixed structural relation (such as the "copying" relation). The truth relation is characterized not by stasis but by the fluid resourcefulness of functional harmony. The character of the harmony itself may be anything that is compatible with survival. Even in the Darwinian world that James pictured, there is more than one way to survive as truth.

Raw compulsion may account for the authority of truth, but truth is hardly a mute registry of bruises received from the world. Indeed, people create truth, and truth is so exclusively the result of human activity that James's own view has been called "humanism." Central to this humanism is the distinction (so often insisted on by James, so often neglected by his critics) between ideas and objects, between what takes account and what is taken account of. The objects constitute what James referred to as the "unhumanized fringe," the yet to be conceptualized. What must be taken account of is presumably just what it is. Truth and falsity, however, apply not to objects but only to our ideas of objects. Our ideas of objects are mutable in the sense that we can modify ideas or replace one idea by another. In such a situation ideas are to be judged better or worse; such judgments fall between the ideal limits of complete good and complete bad. These are the same limits usually called "truth" and "falsity." Truth is viewed by James as one species of the good. The good is itself interpreted as a plurality of "good fors." In this view ideas are instruments for taking account theoretically, practically, aesthetically, and so on, of reality.

The point of James's view of truth, as Bergson suggests in The Creative Mind (p. 256), is that truth is to be described as an invention rather than a discovery. Truth, or propositions which are true, might be compared to cleverly made maps or apt predictions. If they serve us as we expect them to serve us, we have no legitimate complaint. There are, of course, ontological relations between such inventions as maps, predictions, and propositions (as well as inventions such as light bulbs and cotton gins) and what, in summary fashion, is referred to as reality. Inventions are conventional but not arbitrary. They are not arbitrary because they must somehow take account of reality; they are conventional because they embody one way (among alternatives) for that taking account.

The relationship between two processes within experience constitutes truth(1) the inventive process or activity of proposing, of framing propositions, and (2) the particular chain of natural processes with which the proposition in question is concerned. The emphasis on the truth relation as a relation within experience and totally construable in terms of "positive experienceable operation" (Meaning of Truth, p. x) is one instance of James's general metaphysical position that all relations are within experience. Experience, as it were, forms a cohesive, self-explanatory whole; it hangs together, as James liked to say, and needs no transcendental connectives or supports.

Since the truth relation was taken by James's contemporaries as transcending experience, the strategic function of pragmatism is apparent. It is an extension of radical empiricism, an attempt to place the particularly troublesome truth relation within the total perspective of metaphysical naturalism.

James spoke of true ideas as those which "work," which "lead" propitiously, which give various kinds of satisfaction, and which bring about various kinds of success. He also spoke approvingly of the "cash value" of ideas and thought that meaningful ideas are those which make "practical differences." These highly (and obviously) metaphorical expressions have confused many commentators.

There are those who have found James vague. He intended, however, that all these metaphors should be functionally specific and indeterminate only in respect to instances. "Working," "leading," "satisfying," and "succeeding" are generic terms as respectable and as precise as terms such as "copying" and "agreeing." They are, however, functional rather than static. For those who see functions as inherently insubstantial, shadowy, and vague, any functional definition of truth will be unacceptable, but this hardly seems to be an insurmountable objection.

Other commentators have seized upon the prominence of the "practical" in James's account of meaning and truth. Surely, this is a difficult term in James, if for no other reason than that he used it as it is used in ordinary languagethat is, variously. His prevailing usage, however, cannot be equated with some narrow notion of commercial efficiency. Pragmatism is not a philosophical vindication of the businessperson's common sense or acumen. It was James, after all, who saw the tendency to worship "the bitch goddess, success," as the principal weakness in the American character. It is especially in our theoretical and moral practice that meaningful ideas, according to James, are to make a difference. Belief divorced from action may well be morally effete, and James set forth this point, though not in its crudely athletic form; his main thesis, however, was that belief divorced from action is theoretically inexplicable. James's quest was not for a formula that would rouse his fellows to civic virtue or efficiency of some peculiarly American sort but for criteria which would be descriptively adequate to belief. His philosophical purpose was to find out what it means to believe, what it means to entertain ideas which may be meaningful and true.


Although frequently attempted, it is not possible to isolate a final "metaphysical" period in James. The theory of the various kinds of belief, which formed his philosophy of religion and of pragmatism, has as a conspicuous feature the assumption that anything which can be meaningfully said about belief must take into account the grounding of belief in natural processes, particularly human processes. It is possible to formulate a theory of belief apart from a general metaphysics only by adopting an assumption that James explicitly rejected. This is the epistemological assumption that an existentially neutral logic of belief can be constructed. In fact, on this assumption existential reference is regarded as the indication of a certain categorial confusion frequently labeled "psychologism." James insisted, even in his least metaphysical passages, that "knowledge," "belief," "truth," and "meaning" indicate discriminable natural existences in the same way that all terms do, or at least all terms that figure as possible subjects of philosophical discussion. This is simply the corrective application of the basic postulate of metaphysical naturalism to the recalcitrant subject matter of epistemology. James regarded the prominence accorded this subject matter since the time of Kant as a distortion of perspective that his own philosophy was intended to correct.

But for the development of James's metaphysics, the psychologyor the treatment of characteristically human processeswas even more important than the theory of belief. His metaphysics was simply the attempt to apply to all reality categories originally framed for human experience. The radical generalization of the concept of experience, so central in James, is necessitated by two ideas. First, James believed that metaphysical dualism is always unacceptable. Whatever dualities or pluralities are distinguished for certain purposes, ultimately the philosopher cannot operate with irreducible categories. Second, if one categorial set or one metaphysical model must be adopted, James believed that this categorial set or metaphysical model must arise from the consideration of our own experience. It is only of human experience that we have anything like "complete concrete data." Anthropocentrism is therefore thought to be a consequence of any genuine empiricism. For James even panpsychism is at least a possible and interesting empirical hypothesis.

In the seminal essay "Does Consciousness Exist?" (1904), James asks us to assume that there is just one "primal stuff" of which everything in the world is made. This stuff, called "pure experience," is not a single entity, like Thales' water; "pure experience" is a collective name for all sensible natures, for all the "that's" which anywhere appear. The monism implied in this concept of the one primal stuff is therefore merely formal. Explanatory monism must be accepted before specific metaphysical descriptions may be attempted. In the same essay James provided a sample of metaphysical description. Consciousness is there described as a certain relation of parts of experience to one another. Consciousness is not an unanalyzable substance but simply the name that is given to a certain discriminable function within experience, the knowing function. All other functions are to be explained in the same way as consciousness. Functional explanations in terms of related strands of experience allow the abrogation of traditional dualisms because the same isolable part of experience may enter into many and various relations. What is subject may also be object; what is object may be subject. The knower may also be the known and vice versa, depending on the "context of associates" within which the part of experience so labeled is considered.

James's frequent use of the expression "part of experience" was not meant to suggest that experience has an atomistic constitution. Indeed, James constantly argued against the "pulverization" of experience in British empiricism. We experience not isolated parts but continuities of indeterminate extension. Parts and the relations between parts, both directly experienced, form new functional wholes. The use of the word part indicates nothing more than the theoretical and practical need for emphatic focus.

James regarded the "concrete" data appealed to by British empiricism as abstract, intellectual products; he accused that empiricism of committing what Whitehead later called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." If James's philosophy is to be classified historically as a criticism of British empiricism, it must also be emphasized that it is self-consciously offered as an alternative to the criticism of empiricism by idealists from Kant to Royce.

If the facts pointed to by the usual empiricism are abstract in the sense of being incomplete, inadequate, or partial, it still cannot be said, as it is said by absolute idealism, that there are no facts at all or that there is just one fact, the immovable "block-universe," as James referred to this notion that he always found slightly ridiculous. There are no general grounds, according to James, for the rejection of the obvious particularity and individuality that characterize the plural parts of experience. James certainly held that any allegedly self-sufficient fact may turn out from some point of view or for some purpose, intellectual or practical, to be partial or abstract. But there are many points of view and many purposes with equal titles to rationality. There are therefore many levels of fact, and words such as "part," "whole," "unity," "concrete," "abstract," "particular," and "individual" do not qualify any reality simply or always. These words are definable only within purposive contexts. Absolute idealism, in contrast, sets up a single standard of rationality and develops a characteristic vocabulary which it applies simpliciter. This procedure yields a certain clarity and neatness but suffers from "vicious intellectualism" or "the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name's definition fails positively to include" (A Pluralistic Universe, p. 60).

The notion of self-sufficient centers within experience emphasized by James as particulars or individuals is a generalization of that first trait of the stream of thought referred to in Principles of Psychology. Although made familiar by Whitehead, it was James who first used the concept of personal order to replace the traditional concept of some fundamental and thinglike substance.

Other traits of existence that impressed themselves on James are first annunciated in the Principles as traits of the stream of thought or of the central human process. So, for example, the doctrine that thought is always changing becomes the doctrine that reality is always changing. Again, human freedom is eventually interpreted as a special case of universal indeterminism. My future, though continuous with my past, is not determined by it. Just so the future of the world; although it grows out of the total past, it is not a mere result of that past. If I am creativethat is, if human freedom is effectualthen the world is creative, if for no other reason than that I am part of the world. What is constant in my behavior is the result of habits that never entirely lose their flexibility. In the same way the constancies charted by the laws of science are only more inveterate habits.

Objections can be raised against all these contentions, especially in the enthusiastic, unguarded form in which James made them. They do, however, add up to a serious philosophical position which has, in fact, borne fruit in the subsequent history of philosophy and is worthy of continuing serious study.

See also Bergson, Henri; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Determinism and Indeterminism; Dewey, John; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Empiricism; Evolutionary Theory; Hodgson, Shadworth Holloway; Introspection; James, Henry; Kant, Immanuel; Panpsychism; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Perry, Ralph Barton; Philosophy of Religion; Pragmatism; Psychology; Rationality; Renouvier, Charles Bernard; Royce, Josiah; Santayana, George; Whitehead, Alfred North; Wright, Chauncey.


works by james

Only James's chief works are listed here. For a complete list see Perry's bibliography, below. Secondary literature is copious, and only the most important works are listed here. Those who wish to sample the periodical literature are advised to consult the fifty-year (19041953) index of the Journal of Philosophy (New York, 1962), under the heading "James."

The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James. Edited and with an introduction by William James. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.

Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. New York: Holt, 1890. Regarded by many as James's major work, it is a prime source not only for his psychology but also for his metaphysics.

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longman, 1897. In addition to the title essay, the essay "The Sentiment of Rationality" is, if interpreted in the context of James's total thought, an important source of his basic convictions. The book also contains the famous essay "The Dilemma of Determinism," James's fullest statement of his views on free will.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longman, 1902.

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman, 1907.

The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism." New York: Longman, 1909. A collection of polemical essays; the preface is especially important, for it answers certain criticisms of pragmatism and states James's conception of the relation between pragmatism and radical empiricism.

A Pluralistic Universe. New York: Longman, 1909. A sustained criticism of absolute idealism and intellectualism; contains chapters on G. W. F. Hegel, Gustav Theodor Fechner, and Bergson.

Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Longman, 1911. James's last project; it is incomplete. Valuable for its many very clear formulations; three chapters outline his theory of perception.

Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longman, 1912. A related series of essays expounding James's mature philosophy; the essays "Does Consciousness Exist?" and "A World of Pure Experience" are especially important.

Memories and Studies. New York: Longman, 1912. Fifteen popular essays and addresses selected by James's son Henry James; includes commemorative addresses on Agassiz and Emerson, an essay on Spencer, and several essays on psychical research and academic life.

Collected Essays and Reviews. New York: Longman, 1920. Thirty-nine articles, selected by Ralph Barton Perry, extending from 1869 to 1910; many historically important works, including the California lecture "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results."

Letters. Edited by Henry James. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920. Charming letters, primarily of biographical and historical significance, edited by James's son.

works on james

Aiken, H. D. "American Pragmatism Reconsidered: William James." Commentary (September 1962): 238266.

Bergson, Henri. "On the Pragmatism of William James: Truth and Reality." In his The Creative Mind, translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946. Brief but provocative development of the thesis that to understand James's pragmatism, we must modify our general conception of reality.

Dewey, John. Characters and Events, Vol. I. New York: Holt, 1929. Book I, Ch. 12. "William James" consists of three occasional pieces that together provide an informal but penetrating analysis of James's contribution to and place in American philosophy.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963. In addition to the very influential title essay, there are eight other essays on James or pragmatism.

Moore, G. E. Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge, 1922. "William James' 'Pragmatism'" attempts to refute James from the commonsense point of view.

Perry, Ralph Barton. Annotated Bibliography of the Writings of William James. New York: Longmans, Green, 1920. A listing of 312 items from 1867 to 1920, with helpful indications of each item's content and value.

Perry, Ralph Barton. In the Spirit of William James. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938. A solid and sympathetic philosophical interpretation of James. The chapters "An Empirical Theory of Knowledge" (Ch. 2) and "The Metaphysics of Experience" (Ch. 3) are especially noteworthy.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little Brown, 1935. A massive, richly documented study; the single most important work on James.

Royce, Josiah. William James and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Life. New York: Macmillan, 1911. An attempt to show James's place in American social history.

Russell, Bertrand. Philosophical Essays. New York: Longman, 1910. See "William James' Conception of Truth" and "Pragmatism."

Santayana, George. Character and Opinion in the United States, with Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America. New York: Scribners, 1920. Unsympathetic but extremely interesting in its own right.

William James Earle (1967)

James, William (1842–1910)

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JAMES, WILLIAM (18421910)

William James was the American philosopher whose work in psychology established that science as an important element in the revision of social and philosophical doctrines at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thereafter it was no longer possible to erect systems in purely deductive fashion. All thought must take account of the deliverances of current natural science, and particularly the branch relating to man's mind. This respect for the organized experience of the laboratory inevitably influenced educational theory and practice, then still known by their proper name of pedagogy.

But James was not merely a scientist in psychology and a proponent of scientific rigor in moral philosophy, including education. He was a philosophical geniusthe greatest that America has producedwho touched upon every department of life and culture and who ranks as a chief architect of the reconstruction in Western thought that took place in the 1890s. In the company of Nietzsche, Dilthey, Renouvier, Bergson, Mach, Vaihinger, and Samuel Butler, he led the revolt against orthodox scientism, Spencerism, and materialism and contributed to that enlargement of outlook that affected the whole range of feeling and opinion and has since earned the name of Neo-Romanticism. Every academic discipline and every art was involved in the change; and, in each, thinkers of uncommon scope laid the foundation for the new systems of ideas on which the twentieth century still lives.

William James was in a favored position for adding something unique to the movement: He possessed the American experience as his birth-right and was early acclimated to European ways, British and Continental. He studied in Germany and was fluent in both German and French, and his family circumstances were propitious. He was the eldest son of Henry James Sr., son of the original William James who had emigrated from Ireland to this country and made a fortune. Henry Sr. could devote himself to study and did so. His original ideas on religion and society won no acceptance in his day, but they have been found important by modern scholars, and they certainly influenced the two geniuses who were his sons, William the philosopher and Henry the novelist.

William James's own intellectual career is marked by his father's easy unconventionality, which as will be seen permitted long exploration before "settling down." Every shift in his own development is caught up in, and contributory to, his mature work. James wanted at first to become a painter, but he had the critical sense to see that his talent was insufficient. Next he took up chemistry at Harvard, went on to study physiology in response to his interest in living things, and wound up preparing for a medical degree. He interrupted his course to spend a highly formative year as one of Louis Agassiz's assistants in the Thayer expedition to Brazil. He then went abroad, where he read literature, attended university lectures, and became acquainted with the new psychology, which the Germans had made experimental and exact. He returned to take his Harvard M.D. in 1869 and after further study abroad began to teach anatomy and physiology.

It was not long before his inquiring spirit led him to offer courses in the relations of psychology to physiology, for which he soon established the first psychology laboratory in America. After the publication of his great book, The Principles of Psychology, in 1890, James's work exhibited the flowering of an intellect that had from the beginning been haunted by the enigmas of life and mind: He gave himself exclusively to metaphysics, morals, and religion.

By an oddity of academic arrangements, James was a professor of philosophy four years before he was made a professor of psychology, but nomenclature is irrelevant: His beginnings in the psychology laboratory were very soon followed by his offering of a course in philosophy. In other words, the subjects for him commingled and he was always a philosophical writer and teacher. Those were the great days of the Harvard department of philosophy, and during his thirty-five years of teaching James's direct influence spread over a wide range of students, as disparate as George Santayana and Gertrude Stein.

To the end of the century James, despite his new goals, continued to write and lecture on the subject that had first brought him fame. He pursued his research on the newest topics of abnormal psychology, he read Freud and helped bring him over for a lectureship at Clark University. And what is more to the point of the present entry, between 1892 and 1899, James delivered at a number of places the Talks to Teachers, which were an offshoot of the Psychology and which constitute his important contribution to educational theory.

In any such theory, the assumptions made about the human mind are fundamental and decisive. If "the mind"which for this most practical of purposes is the pupil's mindis imagined as a sensitive plate merely, then teaching can take the simple form of making desired impressions on the plate by attending chiefly to the choice and form of those impressions. The rest is done by setting the child to take these in by rote, by repeating rules, by watching and remembering contrived experiments. In other words, the teacher points the camera and pushes the button for a snapshot or time exposure.

No pedagogy has ever been quite so simple, of course, for the least gifted or attentive teacher is aware that the child must exert some effort, be in some way active and not photographically passive, before he can learn the set verses or the multiplication table. So, to start the machinery, a system of rewards and punishments is established, which will by mechanical association strengthen the useful acts of mind or hand and discourage the useless or harmful. In this primitive pedagogy, the pupil's acquirements are deemed a resultant of essentially mechanical forces, and the teacher serves as the manipulator of a wholly environmentalist scheme.

It is unlikely that any good teacher has ever adhered strictly to that role or thought of himself or herself as operating that sort of invisible keyboard. If it were so, no child would ever have learned much of value from any schooling whatever. But it is also true that educational practice always tends toward the crude mechanics just described. And the reasons are obvious: sheer incompetence in many teachers and weariness in the rest. For the two great limitations on classroom performance under any theory are (1) the scarcity of born teachers; and (2) the strenuousness of able and active teaching (which means that even the best teachers can sustain the effort for only a given number of hours at a time).

The state of affairs which James and other school reformers of the 1890s found and sought to remedy was a result of these several deficiencies. The movement of Western nations toward providing free, public, and compulsory education was, it must be remembered, an innovation of the nineteenth century. The inherent difficulties of this new social and cultural goal were great. It made unprecedented demandson children, parents, administrative systems, and (most important) on the national resources of teaching talent, which are not expandable at will. Theory, too, was wanting for the supervision and teaching of teachers themselves. The confusion that ensued was therefore to be expected. Only a few points were clear: the older pedagogies were too mechanical in their view of the mind; the number of inadequate teachers was excessive; and the exploitive use of the good ones was a danger to the trying-out of mass education.

It was high time, therefore, that psychology put in its word on the subject it supposedly knew all aboutthe mind. Unfortunately, the mechanical view of the mind existed in two formsone, as the view natural to ignorant or indifferent persons and, two, as the view that the prevailing scientific metaphor of the time seemed to justify. The universe, according to the Darwin-Spencer philosophy, was a vast machine, and its elements, living or dead, were also moved by the great push-pull of matter like the parts of a machine. The prophets of scienceT. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Fiskeheld audiences spellbound with illustrations of this principle, which everyone was sure could be demonstrated in the laboratory. The newest science, German born and bred, was psychophysics, a name which alone was enough to show that the operations of the mind bore the universal character of mechanism. Man was no exception to the law exemplified by the collision of billiard balls or (in more refined form) by the effect of light on a photographic plate.

To be sure, these scientific interpreters of nature would not have subscribed to a simplistic pedagogy if they had ever turned the full force of their minds on the problem of teaching. One of them, Herbert Spencer, did write a fairly sensible tract on education. And the psychophysicists did not entirely blot out the influence of earlier and richer pedagogies, notably that of the German psychologist Johann Herbart, who died in 1841. But on the whole the situation of the schools in the decades of the nineteenth century was critical, and the strictures and exhortations of the reformers tell us very precisely in what ways.

James, with his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, theoretical and experimental, his mastery of the art of teaching, and his genius for diagnosis in the study of human feeling, was in an ideal position for showing up the false principles, old and new, and propounding the true ones. The root of the matter was to consider the pupil as an active beingnot merely a mind to be filled, but complex and growing organism, of which the mind was but one feature. That feature, in turn, was not a receptacle, but an agent with interests, drives, powers, resistances, and peculiarities which together defined a unique person. Nothing can be imagined farther removed from this than a machine built to a pattern and responding passively to external prods and prizes.

Rather, as one marks the difference, the familiar outline appears of the child who presides over the child-centered school of the Progressivesthe men and women who came to dominate theory and practice thirty years after James. But it is only the outline of that child, for James was much too wise a philosopher to suppose that doing the opposite of whatever is done will correct present abuses. His Talks to Teachers (1899) fill but a small volume, yet they contain an extremely subtle and complex set of preceptsprecepts, not commandments. To follow the precepts one mustalasuse intelligence and judgment, not because James is not clear and definite, but because the teaching situation is infinitely variablelike its object, the child.

To begin with, James does not reject the associationist principle that was the mainstay of the earlier pedagogy. It is a sound principle, but it is not simple or automatic as was once thought. Associations impress the mind not in a one-to-one arrangement, but in groups or constellations, some members of which fight or inhibit each other. Moreover, the structure of the particular mind favors or excludes certain kinds and ranges of associations. It follows that to reachand teachany mind, the teacher must multiply the number of cues that will bring to full consciousness in the pupil the points he should retain or remember. The reason for this method, which is in fact less a method than a call to exert the imagination, is that the same reality can be cognized by any number of psychic states. It is accordingly a field theory of thought that James substitutes for the linear-mechanical and would have the teacher act upon.

Throughout his chapters, James moves back and forth from the schoolroom to the world, where the habits and powers of great minds and dull ones can be observed and turned into examples. The point of the shuttling is that there is or should be no difference in kind between what the child is asked to imagine, perform, remember, or reason out and what the grown man does or fails to do. This soon becomes an important criterion. Meanwhile the difference is in degree, which means that the teacher must be aware of differences in developmentcrudely measured by the age of the child, more closely measured by his rate of maturing, most delicately marked by what is called native ability.

Any teacher starts with the pupil as a lively bouncing creature in which the body and its needs predominate. The curiosity of the child is indeed a sign that mind is present also, but James knows that the "native interests of children lie altogether in the sphere of sensation" (1899, p. 92). Hence James recommends that until artificial interests develop, children be taught through objects, things that move, events of dramatic quality, anecdotes in place of propositions. Stressing also the link between instinct (which rules these early interests) and action, James strongly favors letting the child handle the means of instruction, build, take apart, try out, do.

In this commonsense view that instruction should begin by exploiting native interests (which turn out to be physical and active), James is a fore-runner of the Chicago School, of which John Dewey was the instigator and later the idol. But neither James nor Dewey was an innovator in the desert. The European kindergarten movement, the early, scattered elements of the Montessori method, and numerous other reforms of school and preschool instruction were in full swing even before James. Indeed, Rabelais and Rousseau had long since made the identical point about the value for education of having the naturally restless child learn by playing, both because playing is congenial and because it is the fundamental form of learning: trial and error.

That point evidently has to be made over and over again in history. But each time history gives it a special coloring. It was natural that in the period immediately after Darwin, which saw the popular triumph of science, the reminder about the child's activism should be seen as the root of the scientific march of mind; for if play is the germ of trial and error, trial and error is the germ of experimentation. It is this plausible linkage that set Dewey and the Progressives to pursue the scientific analogy to an extreme. For themat least as educatorsthe mind is forever facing problems and seeking solutions. Teaching school therefore becomes the art of devising situations that will challenge the problem-solving mind and build up in its child-owner a stronger and stronger capacity to size up, ascertain, verify, and solve.

William James never had to confront this hypothesis head on, but it is clear what form his refutation would have taken. In the first place, not every adult is a scientist, and though it is true that adults who are not scientists encounter problems and resolve them, that activity is but one of many forms that cerebration takes. The poet, the painter, the mystic, the housewife, the salesman, the rabble-rouser, each performs his task differently, even if at times they all resort to "situation analysis" and "problem-solving." We must remember James's assertion that the mind is continuous: it stretches from the kindergarten, where it learns, to the laboratory, where James studies it, just as it stretches from Plato's garden to the London Stock Exchange; which is to say that within the unity of the human mind reigns a great diversity, not reducible to the very special, historically late, and purposely artificial form of scientific reasoning.

According to James, good teaching, therefore, cannot follow a set form; it is not the curing of a weakness, such as the replacement of unreason by reason and superstition by science. Rather, it is the interaction of a practiced or well-filled mind with one on its way to the same state. The contents of any mind at any momentthat which James first called "the stream of consciousness"is an ever-flowing rush of objects, feelings, and impulsive tendencies. The art of teaching consists in helping to develop in the child the power to control this stream, to sort out its objects, classify their kinds, observe their relationships, and then multiply their significant associations.

In the abstract, this work may be called attending; the power generated is Attention. James is particularly valuable on this faculty. He points out that if passive attention is sustained by making subject matter continuously interesting, active attention will not develop. He knows that a good part of any subject for any learner of whatever age is bound to be dull; mastering it is drudgery. Therefore, while he encourages the teacher to arouse the pupil's interest in the dull parts of the work by associating them closely with the more interesting through showing unsuspected facets, by challenging pugnacity to overcome difficulty, by dwelling on the concrete effects of the abstract, and by any other means that ingenuity can supply, he does not lose sight of the goal. All this effort at building up enticing associations is to "lend to the subjectan interest sufficient tolet loose the effort" of deliberate attention (1899, p.110).

Not the precept alone but its pattern has significance. Throughout his educational doctrine, James is at pains to counteract what he calls the "softer pedagogy" by qualifying its blind zeal. The softer pedagogy is that which, having seized on a good teaching principle, such as "make the work interesting," forgets that it is only a device and reduces the end of education to its means: What we can't make interesting we won't teachor at least not require; there is a good reason for the pupil's not learning it: it's not interesting. On the contrary, says James, education that works for voluntary attention is "the education par excellence" (1890, p. 424).

The Jamesian correctives spring from a sense of the original complexity of the human mind. It is not a machine that mysteriously gets more complicated. Thus, when James recommends the use of objects, the indulgence of childish touching, building, and trying out, it is not in order to ingrain a habit of fiddling, but in order to develop mental powers that transcend the tangible and even the visual. Again, he refuses to give objects primacy over words or to deride the utility of abstraction: "wordsare the handiest mental elements we have. Not only are they very rapidly revivable, but they are revivable as actual sensations more easily than any other items of our experience" (1890, p. 266). And he goes on to remark that the older men are and the more effective as thinkers, the less they depend on visualization. The implications for educational method, when we consider its evolution since 1890 and are aware that the abandonment of teaching to read has lately been urged on the strength of the visual substitutes at our disposal, deserve our closest attention.

The retreat from the word was already beginning in James's time and he warned against its dangers. He bore incessant witness to the important connection between words and memory and its role in making knowledge secure. "I should say therefore, that constant exercise in verbal memorizing must still be an indispensable feature in all sound education. Nothing is more deplorable than that inarticulate and helpless sort of mind that is reminded by everything of some quotation, case, or anecdote, which it cannot now exactly recollect" (1899, pp. 131132). The description seems to fit the student mind that does best at "objective" examinations, where the case or quotation is helpfully supplied. To summon it up unaided requires a more athletic type of mind, developed by training in verbal memory.

It is clear that James's standard of performance, for both teacher and pupil, was quite simply the bestmind. He was in that sense a thorough educational democrat, unwilling to classify and mark down intelligences ahead of time, on the basis of their background or their probable future. Everybody had a chance to rival the greatest; education was the means of finding out who could succeed, while helping all equally in the effort. This assumption and the attitude it dictates is the opposite of competing with oneself alone, setting one's own standards, and pursuing only one's own "needs"which boil down to one's own momentary wants.

All these limiting, hierarchical ideas were in the air when James wrote and lectured, and he put his finger on their unfortunate cause: "Our modern reformerswrite too exclusively of the earliest years of the pupil. These lend themselves better to explicit treatment;Yet away back in childhood we find the beginnings of purely intellectual curiosity, and the intelligence of abstract terms" (1899, p.151). The implication hereand experience justifies itis that the pupils are often brighter than their teachers: "Too many school children 'see''through' the namby-pamby attempts of the softer pedagogy to lubricate things for them." The absurdity of believing that geography begins and ends with "the school-yard and neighboring hill" is a case in point. The child soon comes to think of all schooling as contemptible make-believeand James with prophetic vision denounces the Dick-and-Jane reading books as yet unheard of: "School children can enjoy abstractions, provided they be of the proper order; and it is a poor compliment to their rational appetite to think that anecdotes about little Tommies and little Jennies are the only kind of things their minds can digest" (1899, pp. 151152).

A principal cause of James's impatience with spoon-feeding methods, with educational research and statistics ("those unreal experimental tests, those pedantic elementary measurements"), with theoretical advice, including his own ("a perceptive teacherwill be of much more value"), is his awareness of the deadly grip of habit (1899, p. 136). "Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state" (1899, p. 77).

If this is true, how much more to blame are the teachers whose "method" in instruction becomes the mold of a habit imposed on the young mind. For James, a right education is precisely the power to sidestep ruts, to link ideas freely over a wide range, to exert voluntary attention, to be rich in suggestion and invention, and to be prompt in receptivity. He repeatedly contrasts the dry, prosaic mind with the witty and imaginative. And since knowledge and experience alike tell him that this balance of freedom and control which he disiderates depends on a well-furnished and strenuously trained mind, he wants teachers capable of arousing passion in their chargesthe "whole mind working together." Native deficiencies in this or that faculty can be over-come or ignored: "In almost any subject your passion for the subject will save you." And at the same time he shows a warm understanding of the non-academic type. The student who cuts a poor figure in examinations may in the end do better than "the glib and ready reproducer," just because of deeper passions and of "combining power less commonplace" (1899, pp. 137, 143).

It comes as no surprise, then, that James ends by defining education not in intellectual termsthough his whole impetus is toward intellectbut in terms that unite emotion and action: education is "the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior. To think is the moral act:" it "is the secret of will,it is the secret of memory. Thus are your pupils to besaved: first, by the stock of ideas with which you furnish them; second, by the amount of voluntary attention that they can exert in holding to the right ones. ; and, third, by the several habits of acting definitely on these latter to which they have been successfully trained" (1899, pp. 29, 186188).

The "saving" is of course from the blind compulsion of determinism reinforced by bad habit. James's pronouncements about education rest upon a mass of physiological and psychological facts and are abundantly illustrated by reference to them. The reflex arc is as much a condition of learning as the stream of thought; the individual type of memory (visual, auditory, muscular) as determinative as the hereditary constitution of the neural synapses. But James is not a materialist, for he can find no evidence that these factors which limit or condition thought also produce it. And at the same time he finds in man's power of fixing the mind upon an ideathe power of thinkinga range of freedom to be exploited.

These considerations and conclusions bring us back to the starting point. If the nascent mind to be taught in the schoolroom is not a machine, if it is continuous and unified in kind, but diversified in quality and degree, if its operations are not exclusively analytic and directed at problem-solving, what sort of mind is it, in a single word? And what sort of educational theory will suit its needs? To answer the second question first, psychology can and ought to give the teacher help, but it is a great mistake to think that "the science of the mind's laws" can serve to define "programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality" (1899, pp. 78).

In short, no matter which way we turn, we cannot in education get away from the work of the mind or substitute for it an ingenious abstraction. How then does the mind work? The scientific way, we saw, was but a special form of its activity; what is the inclusive mode, or as we just asked, what sort of mind? It is, so to put it, an artistic mind: it is by a kind of artistry that we perceive reality, which is the mind's most inclusive task. True, sensations hold a controlling position commanding our belief in what is real, but not all sensations are "deemed equally real. The more practically important ones, the more permanent ones, and the more aesthetically apprehensible ones are selected from the mass, to be believed in most of all; the others are degraded to the position of mere signs and suggestions of these" (1890, p. 305). This description of the mind's seizing upon reality fairly parallels the operations of the artist upon his materials for the creation of another kind of reality: it is the pragmatic method, which only means human impulse seeking convenience and delight, seeking the permanent and the recognizable, the orderly and the satisfying. All education therefore aims at preparing the mind to fulfill its native tendencies and thereby to grasp and enjoy an enlarged order of multifarious reality.

See also: Educational Psychology; Philosophy of Education.


Allen, Gay Wilson. 1967. William James: A Biography. New York: Viking Press.

Bakewell, Charles M., ed. 1917. Selected Papers on Philosophy by William James. Everyman's Library. New York: Dutton.

Barzun, Jacques. 1956. "William James and the Clue to Art." In The Energies of Art: Studies of Authors, Classic and Modern. New York: Harper.

Blanshard, Brand, and Schneider, Herbert W., eds. 1942. In Commemoration of William James, 18421942. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1961. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 18761957. New York: Knopf.

Dewey, John. 1910. How We Think. New York: Heath.

Hechinger, Grace, and Hechinger, Fred M. 1963. Teenage Tyranny. New York: Morrow.

James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. American Science Series. Advanced Course. 2 Vols. New York: Holt.

James, William. 1892. Psychology. American Science Series. Briefer Course. New York: Holt.

James, William. 1916. Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899). New York: Holt.

Kallen, Horace M., ed. 1953. The Philosophy of William James. Selected from his chief works. With an introduction by Horace M. Kallen. New York: Modern Library.

Key, Ellen K. 1909. The Century of the Child. New York and London: Putnam.

Perry, Ralph Barton. 1948. The Thought and Character of William James. Briefer Version. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jacques Barzun

James, William

views updated May 29 2018

James, William




William James (1842–1910), American philosopher and psychologist, secured a permanent place in the history of psychology with the publication of The Principles of Psychology (1890), a two-volume treatise that quickly became a basic text. His Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), a pioneering study of the psychology of religion, also became a classic. James possessed a vivacity of style that earned him a broad audience both in America and Europe. His outlook was pluralistic, and his remarkable openness to new experience led him to champion many an academically disreputable subject. More often than not, though, subsequent developments have justified his tolerance.

In his later years James devoted most of his attention to philosophy. His works of that period, which propound a pragmatic conception of truth, may at first seem of merely tangential interest to the social scientist. Yet, in fact, they provide an inchoate system for his earlier psychological writings. Near the end of his career James proposed the doctrine of radical empiricism, which contained a new point of view regarding the mind–body problem. Curiously, this often neglected philosophical theory, together with the pragmatic approach to meaning and truth, may eventually prove more important for social science than his text in psychology.

The household in which William James grew up contained three other exceptionally gifted individuals. Henry James, the father, produced a sizable corpus of writings on religious topics. Popularly regarded as an eccentric, he was a beloved friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle. William’s brother, Henry, acquired fame as a novelist. His sister Alice, though, was perhaps the most talented member of the family; her literary contributions, unfortunately, were meager, for she suffered throughout her life from a particularly severe form of the neurasthenia that also afflicted her brothers.

Henry James the elder discouraged his sons from making any premature decisions regarding their vocations. The atmosphere of the household was broadly educative, although William James later complained of a lack of formal precollege schooling. Moreover, three times during his childhood he had the opportunity to travel for prolonged periods in Europe. He attended school and was tutored in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany.

At the age of 18, James decided to pursue a career in painting. He had painted since early childhood, and his skill and interest had long been recognized. The results of experimental lessons with a professional artist, however, were unambiguous: he soon realized not only that his talent was less than his standards demanded but also that his desire to paint was far from insatiable. Having rejected a career as an artist, he seldom looked back. His subsequent work always bore the marks of acute sensory perception and aesthetic imagination, but he consistently subordinated his artistic flair to his moral and metaphysical concerns.

James’s university education was marked by doubts about his eventual career and interruptions caused by poor health. When he entered Harvard in 1861, he had decided to become a scientist. After three years as an undergraduate, he convinced himself that he was best suited, not for science in any strict sense, but rather for the broad scientific concerns of medicine. Doubts continued to assail him, however, during his first term at Harvard Medical School.

In March 1865, James interrupted his studies to embark on a field trip to Brazil. Louis Agassiz, the great biologist, led the expedition, and for one year the group investigated the flora and fauna of South America. Returning to Boston in March 1866, James immediately resumed his work at medical school, but the following spring he was again compelled by physical illness and depression to leave Harvard. He departed for Europe and remained there 19 months, eventually receiving his M.D. degree in the spring of 1869.

James’s poor health was to plague him for nearly six years. His condition made prolonged work in a laboratory unendurable. Having become interested in experimental physiology, he selected Germany as the place for convalescing. Physically, James “took the cure” at the baths of Teplitz. Academically, he sought it in Dresden, Berlin, and Heidelberg, where he studied under Emil Du BoisReymond and Hermann von Helmholtz. His spiritual malaise was alleviated at moments by “a sort of inward serenity and joy in living, derived from reading Goethe and Schiller” (quoted in Perry 1935, vol. 1, p. 273).

The years from 1869 to 1872 were to be his worst. A sense of moral impotence constantly tormented him; thoughts of suicide never wholly departed from his mind. On February 1, 1870, James recorded in his diary: “Today I about touched bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes: shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes, or shall I follow it, and it alone, making everything else merely stuff for it? I will give the latter alternative a fair trial. Who knows but the moral interest may become developed” (Perry 1935, vol. 1, p. 322). One of James’s most troubling problems was that of determinism and free will. On April 30, 1870, he recorded :

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of [Charles Bernard] Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will —“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. (Perry 1935, vol. 1, p. 323)

In Renouvier, James had found comfort, if not an immediate cure for his doubts. Slowly he regained enthusiasm for life in general and for intellectual life in particular. Two events of the 1870s contributed greatly to his recovery. James started teaching at Harvard, and in 1878 he married Alice Howe Gibbens. He viewed the offer of employment from Harvard as a “godsend,” welcoming the stabilizing influence of a regular vocation. His first appointment was to an instructorship in physiology, but from the outset he refused to treat physiology, psychology, and philosophy as distinct and separate disciplines. In his lectures, as in his writings, he sought a synthesis of insights and factual contributions from each of the fields.

By correspondence with his European contemporaries James enhanced the intellectual reputation of the United States even more, perhaps, than through his widely acclaimed lectures in Britain and on the Continent. Such men as Hawthorne, Poe, and Emerson had, of course, attracted the attention of Europeans in an earlier era. But no American developed the close ties with English and Continental thinkers that James’s articulateness and extraordinary friendliness so naturally created. As a mere sample of his friends one might mention Bergson, Ernst Mach, Renouvier, F. H. Bradley, Giovanni Papini, Kipling, Henry Sidgwick, Herbert Spencer, and Carl Stumpf. James’s Letters have, accordingly, received considerable attention as a guide to the era. At Harvard, James influenced many of his students and younger colleagues. Prominent among this group were Josiah Royce, Gertrude Stein, George Santayana, Hugo Münsterberg, and G. Stanley Hall.

Contributions to psychology. James began the first chapters of The Principles of Psychology during the weeks following his marriage. In 1890, 12 years later, he finally completed the book. The work was both a grand summation of previous developments and a portent of the paths psychology would take in the twentieth century. James anticipated most of the major psychological movements of the succeeding seventy years; in many instances a direct line of influence is traceable. He did not achieve this remarkable breadth of coverage without some sacrifice. Not all of his ideas are operationally verifiable, nor did he present them in a rigorously systematic fashion.

Functional psychology. In its basic assumptions concerning the mind The Principles opposed the elementalism of the then current German psychology. James decried the practice of chopping consciousness into “single ideas” with which the investigator could not hope to have immediate acquaintance. Chains, trains, or other compoundings of bits seemed to him inadequate as models. Consciousness is nothing jointed, he argued; it flows. Thus, he preferred such metaphors as “river” or “stream.” Every conscious state, he claimed, is a function of the entire psychophysical context. Mind is cumulative, and experience produces alterations in its structure. The psychophysical context must necessarily change over time, precluding exact recurrence. This denial that a mental state can ever recur in a form identical with a past state anticipated one thesis of gestalt psychology.

For James selectivity was an essential characteristic of consciousness. Only a small portion of the potentially effective stimuli enter into a person’s awareness [seeAttention]. James argued that the choice is made purposively and that the criterion of choice is the relevance of the stimuli to various goals. This concept of relevance is a manifestation of James’s functionalism, anticipating the Würzburg theory of set and determining tendency. It was Darwin’s profound influence upon James that made the utility of consciousness a fundamental issue in his work. James went so far as to speculate that consciousness evolved to regulate a nervous system that had grown too complex to govern itself.

To the functionalist, psychology is the study of mental operations rather than of mental elements. Habit for James was the structural unit of mental life. The acquisition of a habit consisted in developing a new pathway of discharge in the brain [seeLearningarticle onneurophysiological aspects]. James considered habit the great conservative agent of society. He felt that most personal habits, such as vocalization, pronunciation, gesture, and gait, are fixed by the age of 20. The period between 20 and 30, on the other hand, appeared to him as the critical one for the formation of intellectual and professional habits.

James recognized the implications of his theory for the teaching profession. His Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899) exerted a strong influence upon pedagogical thinkers and contributed to the rapid development of educational psychology in the United States. James emphasized interest and action; he regarded the child as a behaving organism for whom the major task is the formation of sound habits. Transfer of training in memorizing struck him as unlikely. Consequently, he opposed the justification of mechanical drill in one field as a technique for improving retentiveness in another. This rejection of rote memorization had a sharp impact upon American educators. But perhaps more important, as a precursor of the progressive movement, was James’s underlying attitude. He sought to persuade teachers to “conceive, and, if possible, reproduce sympathetically in their imagination, the mental life of their pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be” ([1899] 1946, p. x).

Theory of emotions. Perhaps the most famous of James’s specific doctrines is the James–Lange theory of the emotions. Basically, it asserts that an emotion results from the feeling of certain bodily changes that themselves follow directly from a given stimulus [seeEmotion]. This, of course, is an inversion of the common-sense explanation; James argued that we feel sorry because we cry and afraid because we tremble, not vice versa. The nervous system makes various reflex adjustments to emotional stimuli, leading automatically to bodily changes. Our perception of these changes, mostly in the skeletal muscles and viscera, we call an emotion. This theory was greeted with heavy criticism at its initial presentation, and James modified it several times. Although it has been discredited in its extreme form, the theory served to generate much useful research.

The theory is important historically for its behavior-based approach to the emotions: it makes awareness depend upon response. With this doctrine, as elsewhere in The Principles, James achieved a bold anticipation of behaviorism. And, like his behavioristic successors, he recognized the value of controlled, replicable experiments. James himself, however, did not seek detailed experimental corroboration for his theories. Although he was instrumental in establishing one of the first psychology laboratories in the world, he quickly be-came bored with experimental work. Eventually he recruited Münsterberg from Germany to supervise experimentation at Harvard.

Theory of the self. James’s chapter on the self in The Principles stands as one of the classics of psychological literature. In depth, breadth, and in-sight it has few rivals. For several decades after its publication, psychologists took little interest in the self; and although some commentators have attributed the avoidance to the prevailing behavioristic temper, others speculate that no one felt that he could add to the Jamesian treatment of the concept. James began with the distinction between the I, the self as knower or pure ego, and the Me, the self as known or empirical ego. In its widest possible sense, he claimed, a man’s Me is the sum total of everything that he can designate mine. The material Me accordingly includes the body, the attire, the immediate family, and property [seeIdentity, psychosocial; Self concept].

The second constituent of the Me, the social Me, anticipates modern role theory and, in a sense, the theory of object relations. “Properly speaking,” James wrote, “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind” ([1890] 1962, vol. 1, p. 294). He added, however, that since these various individuals can be divided into groups, a man may be said to have as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of people about whose opinion he cares. James’s conception of the different social selves involved in an individual’s interpersonal relations led him to emphasize the conflicts among the individual’s social selves. In contemporary social science this individual-oriented model of conflict is useful as a counterweight to sociological conceptions of role and role conflict.

The third constituent of the Me, the spiritual Me, designates the entire collection of a person’s states of consciousness and psychic faculties. James distinguished between this aggregation, which he took as an array of concrete entities, and the complementary self as I. The I functions as an agent— a knower rather than merely a collection of things known. The significance of this distinction becomes fully clear, however, only in the context of James’s philosophical work.

Philosophical work . When James took over the concept of pragmatism and made it famous, he scrupulously gave credit to his friend Charles Sanders Peirce for the notion[seePeirce]. The term “pragmatism” derives from the Greek word for action. In 1878, Peirce had introduced the word into philosophy in an article entitled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” In discussing pragmatism, he had argued that beliefs are really rules for acting and that the meaning of having a belief can only be discovered by assessing its consequences for action. Yet Peirce felt that James had so greatly changed the term’s meaning that he soon rechristened his own philosophical method “pragmaticism.” This word, he remarked, is so ugly that it should be eternally safe from “kidnappers.”

Differences of temperament among philosophers greatly interested James. Indeed, he viewed pragmatism as a method for mediating between contradictory philosophical styles. The history of philosophy, he believed, can be seen as an interminable battle between the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded” types of thinker Of the numerous Jamesian dichotomies, this is the most famous ([1907] 1949, pp. 9–20):


To James, a man’s attitudes in philosophy owe their origin to the balance in him of “two cravings.” The first is the sentiment of rationality, the passion for simplicity and labor-saving theoretical formulations (tender–mindedness). The second, called the passion for distinguishing, stresses loyalty to the facts of perception and to principles of clarity and precision (tough-mindedness). James asserted that no system of philosophy can have a chance of universal acceptance if it neglects either craving or if it greatly subordinates one to the other. By referring to sentiment, James brought the individual philosopher’s needs into the field of criticism. Like the psychoanalyst, he demanded that an individual’s behavior and beliefs be scrutinized within the context of his total life history.

James insisted that we specify what concrete difference the truth or falsity of an idea will make to anyone’s life. This theory of truth is contextualist: the final test of an idea’s validity is its coherence with the rest of one’s experience. The rationalist asserts that ideas are true if they agree with the facts. James accepted this proposition too, but he questioned its fruitfulness. What are the “facts,” he asked, with which the ideas agree? Does not our conception of what constitutes the facts in a situation change as our understanding increases? James vigorously condemned both the assumption that truth is an inert, static relation between fact and idea and the doctrine that true ideas merely copy reality. “Truth happens to an idea,” he said ([1907] 1949, p. 201). Validation is a process—a gradual elucidation of interrelationships and consequences. To the extent that these consequences are desirable, or useful, or good, the idea may be considered valid.

By baldly inserting words like “good” and “desirable” into his descriptions, James sought to stress that true ideas serve as indispensable instruments for effective action. Indeed, he remarked that the quest for truth could hardly stand in such high esteem if truth were not worthwhile, desirable— good for something. A belief is “true” if its consequences—taken in their totality—are good, and the belief must therefore be judged in its total context, as coherent or incoherent with the rest of reality. Of course, James recognized the practical impossibility of assessing all the consequences of a belief; that is why for him verification seemed necessarily a perpetually ongoing process.

James fought against the acceptance of custom and established routine when he felt it restricted the possibilities for satisfaction—for value—in direct personal experience. His theory of truth is, in the widest sense, moral, for it rests ultimately on the proposition that the only legitimate purpose of belief and action is the maximization of good. Thus, the pragmatic principle of verification seemed to James a commandment requiring total commitment and not, as some critics have alleged, a license for selfishness and opportunism.

Radical empiricism. Toward the end of his life James developed the doctrine of “radical empiricism.” He came to regard it as more fundamental and more important than pragmatism. Although he viewed radical empiricism as logically independent of pragmatism, he considered the establishment of a pragmatic theory of truth to be of prime importance for achieving the general acceptance of radical empiricism.

It is for its theory of relations that James’s doctrine receives the title “radical”: relations have the same status in his scheme of reality as do entities. An on-top-of relation (e.g., of a book to a table) is as real for James as the book and the table. With his theory of relations, James argued, the undue stress upon disjunction in classical empiricism has been corrected. Rationalists, of course, have traditionally employed trans-experiential concepts to provide the unity and coherence that the empiricist world picture lacked. James adamantly rejected such concepts, claiming that they permit the dogmatic affirmation of all manner of nonsense. In contrast to both rationalism and empiricism, radical empiricism represents the world as a collection, some parts of which are disjunctively and others conjunctively related. This hanging together, or concatenated union, bears little resemblance to the “each in all and all in each” form of union characteristic of monistic rationalism.

James’s radical-empiricist orientation enabled him to approach the mind–body problem in an original and highly suggestive way. The question “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” (1904), the title of one of his essays, receives an ironic, negative answer. James really was denying that the word “consciousness” stands for an entity. As his initial supposition, James stated simply that there is one primal material in the world, of which everything is composed. He called it “pure experience.” If this is granted, one can readily explain knowing as “a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter” ([1904] 1912, p. 4). One of the terms of the relation becomes the knower, while the other becomes the object known. Thus, this scheme of presentation rejects the doctrine of the ultimate duality of experience. In one context a portion of pure experience plays the part of the knower. But with another set of associates it can act as a thing known, an objective content.

The present, as an instantaneous field, constituted “pure experience” for James. “It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that” ([1904] 1912, p. 23). For persons who argue that they apprehend the immediate present as “consciousness” (the experience of distinct self) and who claim to feel the free flow of thought within them as sharply distinct from objective reality, James had a surprising answer. He declared that the sense of such a person’s thinking, when carefully examined, turned out to consist chiefly of the perception of the regular rhythm of his breathing. James implied that the self is therefore not an ultimate given but a secondary construct.

In the course of his argument James consigned many respectable terms such as “mental,” “physical,” “subjective,” “objective,” and even “self,” to a derived or secondary status. But a place must be found for such entities elsewhere in a system. It is here that James the pragmatist furnished great aid to James the radical empiricist. For pragmatists, the “reality” of secondary concepts depends upon their capacity to satisfy—to put us on more satisfactory terms with our immediate experience. Unless an “abstraction” fulfills this intensely personal function it is not worthy of acceptance. Each individual by a process of continuous selection and rejection builds from the “blooming, buzzing con-fusion” of immediate experience his own distinctive Weltanschauung. The criterion of its reality is its total utility for his life.

“Varieties of Religious Experience.” Characteristically individualistic in his religious interests, James disregarded institutions and focused his attention upon personal religious experience [seeReligion]. His major work in this field was The Varieties of Religious Experience, originally delivered as the Gifford lectures of 1901–1902 at Edinburgh. In the introduction to The Varieties he admitted that the incidence of abnormal psychical conditions among religious leaders had been high. He even granted that the “pathological” aspects of their personalities had contributed greatly to their prestige and authority. Nonetheless, James insisted that the prevalence of such traits and tendencies does not constitute a refutation of their teachings: “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.”

Just as James divided thinkers into the tough-minded and the tender-minded, he categorized religious believers as healthy-minded or sick-souled. Sick-souledness, he wrote, appears to encompass a wider range of experience.

The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. .. . It breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth. ([1902] 1963, p. 163).

Regeneration by the conversion experience, James felt, is what enables the sick-souled individual to escape from the dark night of his soul. The theory of subconscious mental processes, which had recently been proposed, appealed to him as highly useful for understanding the sudden shifts in character that often attend conversion experiences. A person with a strongly developed, intrusive subliminal region, James argued, will have a proclivity for hallucinations, obsessive ideas, and automatic actions that seem unaccountable by ordinary experience. As illustrations he cited the phenomenon of posthypnotic suggestion and the findings of Freud, Pierre Janet, and Morton Prince on hysteria. Although James regarded this research as marking the most important advance in psychology during his lifetime, he refused to employ it merely to “explain away” conversion.

From personal experimentation with nitrous oxide James received what he emphatically believed to be a form of mystical experience. Trances and other exceptional mental states occupied his attention for many years. The so-called rational consciousness, he felt, is only one special kind of consciousness, “whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different” ([1902] 1963, p. 388). Though one can live an entire lifetime without knowing about these forms, James wrote, the proper drug or other stimulus will promptly make them accessible.

For James a basic concern was always the whole personality in its functional relationship with its environment. In The Varieties he therefore presented many individual case histories. Nothing bears truer witness to his compassion and tolerance than these skillfully rendered descriptions. And nothing provides a better indication of the ultimate aim of his inquiry: transcendence of one’s own limitations through familiarity with the entire spectrum of human experience.

Views on war . James’s now famous essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910) gained the approval of pacifists and military men alike. In this widely circulated article he did not hesitate to praise the martial ideals of hardihood, daring, and discipline. But he deplored the brutality of war and strove to develop methods for sublimating the urge to fight. One proposal recommended the conscription of youth for work on land development and reclamation projects.

Interest in psychical research . Probably James’s most persistent “cause” was his effort to make psychic research scientifically respectable [seeParapsychology]. He served as president of the Society for Psychical Research for two years and maintained his membership from 1884 until his death. Despite a remarkable ability to scent out quacks and frauds, James never lost his conviction that some of the bizarre phenomena were genuine. Scientists who rejected the data because they failed to conform to prevailing psychological theories lost his professional respect. James’s own commitments to empiricism would not permit the discounting of raw data simply to preserve established ideas. More-over, research—including studies of faith healers —appealed to him on humanitarian grounds. Every possible technique for alleviating suffering deserved investigation, he felt, no matter how un-scientific or cranky the claimant.

It is James’s perpetual concern with improving the lot of the individual human being that makes him so apt a symbol of American social thought in his era. He denounced not only the attempts of idealists to explain away evil but also the gloomy pessimism of such philosophers as Schopenhauer. For James, meliorism was the only tenable position. Too sensitive not to be acutely aware of social injustice, he nevertheless remained ever uncynical, convinced that sustained, intelligent effort would produce improvement.

As James’s work in psychology cleared the way for behaviorism, so his pragmatism, interpreted in a narrow manner and applied to scientific methodology, facilitated the emergence of logical positivism and operationalism. Hard-headed respect for facts and suspicion of rationalistic theorizing in the grand style unquestionably represent one strain in his thought. But he was a nonconformist and clever strategist. Thus, in an era that has witnessed the triumph of rigorous experimentalism, James would surely have directed his polemical skills toward other goals. Individualism, pluralism, and the importance of immediate experience would undoubtedly have received prime stress.

James’s high tolerance for ambiguity and his desire to mediate between intellectually opposing temperaments have led to charges of contradiction and betrayal by both sides. Yet constant striving for balance struck him as necessary for the achievement of his fundamental objective: the improvement of the quality of experience of the individual human being. This paramount aim, this humanistic orientation, determined his thinking in meta-physics as well as in religion, in epistemology as on social problems. James was above all a humanitarian and only secondarily a psychologist, philosopher, and gifted man of letters.

William D. Phelan, Jr.

[See alsoEmotion; Identity, psychosocial; Religion; Self concept. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofCohen; Cooley; Dewey; Hall; Holt; Janet; Meyer; Münster-berg; Park; Tltchener.]


(1879–1907) 1948 Essays in Pragmatism. Edited with an introduction by Alburey Castell. New York: Hafner. → A paperback edition of several of James’s most important essays.

(1884–1906) 1912 Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans.

(1890) 1962 The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. New York: Smith.

(1892) 1948 Psychology: The Briefer Course. Cleveland,

Ohio: World. → Gordon Allport edited a paperback version, published in 1961 by Harper.

(1896–1910) 1911 Memories and Studies. New York Longmans.

(1897) 1956 The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality. New York: Dover.

(1899) 1946 Talks to Teachers on Psychology. New edition with an introduction by John Dewey and William H. Kilpatrick. New York: Holt.

(1902) 1963 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Enlarged edition with appendices and introduction by Joseph Ratner. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books.

(1904) 1912 Does “Consciousness” Exist? Pages 1–38 in William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans.

(1907) 1949 Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Washington Square Press.

1909 A Pluralistic Universe. New York: Longmans.

(1910) 1911 The Moral Equivalent of War. Pages 265–296 in William James, Memories and Studies. New York: Longmans.

(1911) 1928 Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Longmans.

The Letters of William James. Edited by Henry James, Jr. 2 vols. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920.

William James on Psychical Research. Compiled and edited by Gardner Murphy and Robert O. Ballou. New York: Viking, 1960.


James, Henry 1913 A Small Boy and Others. New York: Scribner.

James, Henry 1914 Notes of a Son and Brother. New York: Scribner.

Perry, Ralph B. 1920 Annotated Bibliography of the Writings of William James. New York: Longmans.

Perry, Ralph B. 1935 The Thought and Character of William James, as Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together With His Published

Writings. 2 vols. Boston: Little. → Volume 1: Inheritance and Vocation. Volume 2: Philosophy and Psychology.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Dewey, John 1934 Art as Experience. New York: Putnam. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Moore, E. C. 1961 American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Peirce, Charles S. (1878) 1955 How to Make Our Ideas Clear. Pages 23–41 in Charles S. Peirce, Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Selected and edited with an introduction by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover.

Wiener, Philip P. 1949 Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

James, William

views updated May 08 2018


JAMES, WILLIAM (18421910), American psychologist and philosopher, was the eldest son of Henry James Sr. (18111882), a writer on social and religious subjects esteemed in his day but never famous. William was born in New York City on January 11, 1842. His early education at his father's hands was supplemented by much travel abroad and some schooling in Boulogne, France, and at the University of Geneva, where his scientific bent developed. Later he attended lectures at the University of Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. James was a voracious reader of philosophy and was particularly concerned with the question of science and materialism. Plagued by illness and "neurasthenic" by temperament, he was long uncertain about a career. He tried his hand at painting with fair success, but after joining the zoologist Louis Agassiz on a fifteen-month expedition to Brazil, James studied chemistry and medicine at Harvard, receiving his medical degree in 1869.

James soon decided against medical practice and began to teach anatomy and physiology at the university. The work of the new German school of physical psychology attracted him, and he prepared to teach the subject, establishing the first psychology laboratory in the United States (and perhaps in the world). After a few years, during which he produced some noted papers, he seized the opportunity in 1878 to add to his teaching a course in philosophylater famous as Phil. 3. He spent the rest of his life teaching psychology and philosophy at Harvard and lecturing widely at home and abroad. He died in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910.

James's Works

James's Principles of Psychology, which appeared in two volumes in 1890, was hailed as the summa of current knowledge, much of it based on his own previously published research. When it was reissued in the 1950s, reviewers in journals of psychology called it still able to inspire and instruct. James next published The Will to Believe (1897). Its title essay, first published in 1879, was his first mature statement on the nature of faith, including religious faith. His later volumes, Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe and The Meaning of Truth (both 1909), and the posthumous Some Problems of Philosophy (1911) and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), rounded out his philosophic vision. Between the Psychology and these works James delivered the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Both hailed and criticized, its influence was immediate and lasting. Widely read then and one hundred years later, it stands as a classic in the study of religion.

James framed The Varieties in terms of two questions, the first having to do with the nature and origin of religion and the second with its meaning and significance. The first was, for James, a historical question having to do with function and causation; the second was a question of value. In contrast to many scientists of his era, James maintained that the value of a thing should be assessed not on the basis of its origins but on the basis of its distinctive function.

For the purpose of his lectures, James defined religion in terms of religious experience, that is, "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 divine" (James, 1985, p. 34). Although evangelical Protestants traditionally used the term religious experience to refer to the Protestant conversion experience, James imbued the term with a broader, more generic meaning, including under that rubric lectures on religious personality types (the healthy-minded and the sick soul), the divided self, conversion, saintliness, and mysticism. In keeping with the revival of interest in mysticism at the beginning of the twentieth century, James claimed "personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness" (James, 1985, p. 301).

James utilized firsthand autobiographical accountsmostly but not exclusively Christianas his primary data. He was particularly interested in what he referred to as "'geniuses' in the religious line," persons who were frequently subject to extremes of experience, such as voices, visions, and falling into trance. (James, 1985, p.15). In contrast to many later psychologists of religion, James was convinced that the more extreme cases would shed the greatest light on religious experience as a whole. He utilized comparison both to explain the origins of such experiences and to identify their unique function. In many instances he adopted a method of "serial study," in which he arranged phenomena along continua of various sorts to better understand them. The distinction between origins and function allowed James to compare the more extreme forms of religious experience with experiences considered pathological without fear of discrediting religious experience in the process.

The central function of religion, in James's view, consists in the healing of the self through a connection with "the higher powers." All religions consist of two parts: an uneasiness and its solution. At the moment of salvation, the individual "becomes conscious that this higher part [of oneself] is conterminous with and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him" (James, 1985, p. 400). James considered the objective truth of "the more" by asking whether it originated in or beyond the self. He offered Frederick Myers's notion of the subconscious as a means of mediating between the claims of science and religion, while leaving the ultimate explanation of "the more" as a matter of "over-beliefs" informed by metaphysical convictions.

James's own metaphysical commitments were such that he did believe, as he indicated in his conclusion and postscript, that there were higher powers that might act through the subconscious self. James, however, did not link origins with value. Parallels between the experiences of geniuses, the religiously devout, and the mentally unstable led James to suggest their common subconscious origins and to insist that such experiences must be evaluated not in terms of their origins but in terms of their value for life. In the end, he stressed, the final test of a belief is "not its origin, but the way it works on the whole" (James, 1985, p. 24).

Interpretations of James

There has been considerable discussion among James scholars regarding the place of The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) in James's thought more generally. Scholars have traditionally located the VRE in the midst of James's transition from psychologist to philosopher during the late 1890s. Late twentieth-century scholarship has located that transition earlier (Taylor, 1996, 2002; Lamberth, 1999) and in some cases argued against the idea of a transition altogether (Reed, 1997; Gale, 1999; Cooper, 2002). Eugene Taylor argues that James's interest in psychology is evident throughout his intellectual career, but that his understanding of psychology shifts from the positivistic, cognitive psychology that predominates in The Principles to the humanistic understanding, grounded in developments in abnormal psychology and psychical research, that informs his metaphysics of radical empiricism during the late 1880s and early 1890s (Taylor, 1996, p. 39). This argument allows Taylor to read the VRE as a psychological text (Taylor, 1996, pp. 8496). David C. Lamberth (1999), who is primarily interested in James's philosophy of religion, also argues for a shift from positivistic psychology to a metaphysics of radical empiricism, locating this shift in the early 1890s, again well prior to the publication of the VRE. Locating James's formulation of his metaphysics prior to the publication of the VRE allows Lamberth to read the VRE with an eye toward James's metaphysics of pure experience (Lamberth, 1999, pp. 97145).

Edward S. Reed contends that Taylor and countless others "have (mis)interpreted The Principles as propounding a variant of the new positivist psychology when it was in fact an all-out assault on the turn psychology had taken in the 1870s" (Reed, 1997, p. 215). Reed points out that key essays published in The Will to Believe in 1897 were actually written in the late 1870s and early 1880s, arguing that "because James left these arguments out of The Principles their connection with his psychological work has not been appreciated" (Reed, 1997, p. 215). In contrast to those that argue for a shift in focus, Reed argues that James's entire career was underpinned by his youthful interest in applying Darwinian ideas to the study of the mind. Reed's view supports Henry S. Levinson's (1981) Darwinian reading of the VRE, in which he argues that for James the ideas that emerge from the subconscious of religious geniuses are, in effect, spontaneous mental variations that survive when they prove themselves "fit" in a competitive environment.

Other scholars who, like Reed, see continuity over time, nonetheless question whether James's thought can be understood as unified at any given point in time. In The Divided Self of William James (1999), Richard Gale stresses the difficulties involved in reconciling the epistemological claims of his tough-minded pragmatism and his tender-minded mysticism. Wesley Cooper takes up Gale's challenge in The Unity of William James's Thought (2002), arguing for a "Two-Levels View" that distinguishes between empirical and metaphysical levels of truth. The unifying thread for Cooper, running from the Principles through his posthumous Essays in Radical Empiricism, is the "concept of sensation," which James later renamed as "pure experience." This metaphysically postulated concept, which is neither mental nor physical yet potentially either, is, according to Cooper, "the centerpeice of James's metaphysics" (Cooper, 2002, p. 140). The Gale-Cooper debate suggests that both psychological and metaphysical readings of the VRE are legitimate, while it leaves open the question of how they are related. Gale would argue that the scientist of religion and the metaphysician are two different and unintegrated Jamesian "selves." Cooper would read the VRE on two levelsempirical and metaphysicaland would argue, like Lamberth, that James's metaphysics of pure experience provides the theoretical link between them.

James and his family have had many notable biographers (e.g., Perry, 1935; Allen, 1967; Simon, 1998), most of whom have attended to James's difficulties deciding on a career and a wife, made note of his complicated relationship with his father, and speculated on James's personal stake in the writing of the VRE. Most agree that the VRE allowed James to work through his relationship with his father's religious views (see Taylor, 2002). In the process, most also make note of two first-person accounts in the VRE, one attributed to Henry James Sr., and one (the vision of the epileptic patient) William later ascribed to himself. Virtually all of James's biographers have associated the latter account with a period of near suicidal depression in the late 1860s that James ostensibly resolved while reading an essay by Charles Renouvier. The classic account of James's "crisis and recovery" has been undercut by Linda Simon (1998) and sharply challenged by Louis Menand (1998). Menand argues that there is no way to date the autobiographical fragment, and thus no way to link it to the Renouvier episode. Building on Simon's contention that James suffered from depressive episodes his entire life, Menand dismisses the crisis and recovery narrative as inadequate. In a move paralleling that of Gale and Cooper, Menand suggests that the story of the epileptic patient and the Renouvier entry in James's diary represent two enduring poles in James's emotional life: the optimism of the healthy-minded pragmatist and the pessimism of the sick soul.

Much attention has also been paid to James's life and thought in the context of late-nineteenth-century intellectual and cultural history. Bennett Ramsey (1993), Paul Jerome Croce (1995), Menand (2001), Kim Townsend (1996), and Charlene Haddock Seigfried (1996) all locate James's thought in relation to the erosion of intellectual certainty characteristic of the modern era. Ramsey emphasizes the perceived contingency of the self in the decades following the Civil War and James's response to it. Croce emphasizes the erosion of certainty with respect to both religious and scientific knowledge in the postwar period, describing James's thought as an effort to enjoy "the benefits of certainty witout an epistemology of certainty" (Croce, 1995, p. 229). Menand locates the rise of pragmatism with its emphasis on the mutability of ideas as a modernist response to the competing certainties of the Civil War. Townsend places James within the context of shifting cultural discourses of "manliness" among late-nineteenth-century Harvard intellectuals. Seigfried provides a feminist critique of James's relations with women. In the VRE the erosion of certainty is reflected in James's pragmatic criteria for ascertaining the value of religious experiences and the minimalism of his own "over-beliefs."

Within religious studies, much of the late-twentieth-century discussion of the VRE took place among philosophers of religion and scholars of mysticism. James's chapter on mysticism has often been cited in attempts to call upon religious (and specifically mystical) experience in defense of theism. Lamberth rejects this line of thinking, arguing instead for the relevance of James's metaphysics of pure experience understood socially (rather than individually) for contemporary philosophy of religion and theology. Matthew C. Bagger (1999) mounts a more extended critique of attempts to call upon religious experience to defend theism. G. William Barnard (1997) provides the most nuanced explication and defense of James's understanding of mysticism. Essays by David Hollinger, Wayne Proudfoot, and Richard Rorty in William James and a Science of Religions (Proudfoot, 2004) explore the relationship between religion, pragmatism, and science in the VRE. In many respects Henry S. Levinson (1981) still provides the most comprehensive treatment of James as a scientist of religion. David M. Wulff (1997) provides an excellent chapter on James as a psychologist of religion with an extensive discussion of the critical responses to the VRE. Carol Zaleski (in Capps and Jacobs, 1995) defends the VRE against its critics in an attempt to establish the contemporary relevance of the VRE for the study of religion. Ann Taves (2003) discusses the experimental research, both clinical and psychical, that underlies James's theory of the subconscious and calls for renewed attention to both his theory of the subconscious and his comparative method in the study of religion. Jeremy Carrette (2002) calls for the revitalization of the psychology of religion through an engagement of the writings of founders such as James with new research in the neurosciences.

See Also

Psychology, article on Psychology of Religion; Religious Experience.


Primary Sources

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (1902) Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

James, William. The Works of William James. Cambridge, Mass., 19751988.

James, William. The Correspondence of William James. Edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. Charlottesville, Va., 1992.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James: A Biography. New York, 1967.

Bagger, Matthew C. Religious Experience, Justification, and History. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Barnard, G. William. Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism. Albany, N.Y., 1997.

Capps, Donald, and Janet L. Jacobs, eds. The Struggle for Life: A Companion to William James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience." West Lafayette, Ind., 1995.

Carrette, Jeremy. "The Return to James: Psychology, Religion, and the Amnesia of Neuroscience." In The Varieties of Religious Experience, centenary ed., pp. xxxixlxiii. London, 2002.

Cooper, Wesley. The Unity of William James's Thought. Nashville, 2002.

Croce, Paul Jerome. Science and Religion in the Era of William James. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995.

Gale, Richard M. The Divided Self of William James. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Lamberth, David C. William James and the Metaphysics of Experience. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Levinson, Henry Samuel. The Religious Investigations of William James. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981. This is a comprehensive account of James's understanding of religion.

Menand, Louis. "William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient." New York Review of Books, December 17, 1998.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York, 2001.

Myers, Gerald E. William James, His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn., 1986. Myers provides a thorough overview of James's thought.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston, 1935. The classic starting point in James research.

Proudfoot, Wayne, ed. William James and a Science of Religions. New York, 2004.

Putnam, Ruth Anna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Ramsey, Bennett. Submitting to Freedom: The Religious Vision of William James. New York, 1993.

Reed, Edward S. From Soul to Mind. New Haven, Conn., 1997.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. "The Feminine-Mystical Threat to Scientific-Masculine Other." In Pragmatism and Feminism, pp. 111141. Chicago, 1996.

Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York, 1998.

Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Taves, Ann. "Religious Experience and the Divisible Self: William James (and Frederick Myers) as Theorist(s) of Religion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71, no. 2 (2003): 303326.

Taylor, Eugene. William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Taylor, Eugene. "The Spiritual Roots of James's Varieties of Religious Experience." In The Varieties of Religious Experience, centenary ed., pp. xxxixlxiii. London, 2002.

Townsend, Kim. Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others. New York, 1996.

Wulff, David M. The Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views. 2d ed. New York, 1997.

Jacques Barzun (1987)

Ann Taves (2005)

James, William

views updated May 18 2018

James, William 1842-1910





William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842, and died in Chocurua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910. He was one of the most important and influential American thinkers of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and is particularly known for his contributions to the growth of psychology as a scientific field of study and to the school of philosophy known as pragmatism.


James came from a distinguished family. His father, Henry James Sr. (18111882), was a philosopher and author in his own right and a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). His younger brother, Henry James Jr. (18431916), became a highly regarded novelist and literary figure. In his early years William James experienced a crisis in deciding on a career. He briefly studied art and painting but was convinced by his father to pursue scientific studies instead. While attending Harvard Medical School in the mid-1860s, James spent a year traveling and studying in Germany, and it was during this time that he was exposed to the research being done in that country on the relationship between physiology and psychology, a direction that would lay the groundwork for the emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline.

After returning to Harvard and completing his medical degree, James joined the Harvard faculty in the early 1870s. He served first as an instructor of anatomy and physiology, and then in 1875 began offering a course in psychology based on the ideas he had encountered in Germany. In the same year he established at Boylston Hall one of the first experimental laboratories for psychological research. Among his important early contributions to the field of psychology was his formulation, simultaneous with that of the Danish psychologist Carl Lange (18341900), of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which argues that emotion follows, rather than precedes, physiological stimulus. He continued to focus on the study of psychology throughout the 1880s and in 1890 published his great, two-volume work The Principles of Psychology. The work, which had taken him twelve years to write, gained him an international reputation and stands as a landmark in the development of psychology as a scientific field of study.


Jamess approach to psychology was based on what he later called (in the preface to The Will to Believe, 1897) radical empiricism. In this view, human consciousness resembles a flowing stream of undifferentiated objects or data out of which the mind selects specific items, by virtue of personal interest or need, on which to focus its attention. This theory of the mind, and especially its epistemological implications, led James increasingly to the study of philosophy, in which he first offered courses at Harvard in the 1880s, and in particular to the philosophical ideas of pragmatism.

During his earliest days as a teacher at Harvard, James had been part of a group known as the Metaphysical Club that included among its members Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), considered to be the founder of pragmatic philosophy. After the publication of Principles of Psychology in 1890, as James turned more to the investigation of philosophical and epistemological questions in his work, Peirces ideas influenced his direction. The root assumption of pragmatic epistemology is that theoretical ideas ought to be judged in terms of their practical consequencesif some real benefit accrues from holding a particular idea, then it is valuable; if there is no discernable benefit, it can be discarded. In this view, truth should never be viewed as wholly complete or absolute, because one must be prepared to adjust it to accommodate new information and new understandings.

Although Jamess best-known discussion of pragmatism appears in the essay collection Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), an earlier collection, The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), also offers a good expression of his thought. As these titles suggest, James was by no means strictly an academic philosopher but instead sought to make his ideas accessible to a general audience. To this end his essays, often written originally as public lectures, are both interesting and highly readable, and he demonstrates a particular skill in using examples drawn from everyday life. In one of his best known short essays, What Pragmatism Means (in Pragmatism ), he begins with a story about a group of individuals on a camping trip arguing over the position of a squirrel on a tree and then uses this incident as a way to discuss the pragmatic approach to truth. James also felt strongly that philosophy ought to address the significant social and moral issues of the times. In his essay The Moral Equivalent of War, based on a talk he gave at Stanford University in 1906, James argued for a form of organized national service that anticipated the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as well as later programs such as VISTA and AmeriCorps.

Pragmatism is sometimes seen as a philosophy that destroys any hope of discovering absolute truth and that leads, through its emphasis on usefulness as a primary criterion for establishing truth, to moral relativism. James to some degree anticipated these concerns in his work. Pragmatic epistemology, in his view, remains open to the introduction of new information, especially information resulting from new scientific discoveries, and his application of pragmatic principles to the questions of ethics and even to religion led him to hold highly traditional views on both. In essays such as The Will to Believe and Reflex Action and Theism (in The Will to Believe ) and Pragmatism and Religion (in Pragmatism ) he set forth the reasons for believing in a theistic God. In fact the study of religion was a matter of considerable importance to James, and his wide-ranging study of religious experience, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), made a significant contribution to the study of comparative religion.


Jamess ideas were extremely significant. They influenced a generation of thinkers who followed him, most notably the great philosopher-educator John Dewey (18591952), and they played a role in forming the underlying mind-setof social experimentation and reformthat characterized the Progressive (19001917) and New Deal (19331939) periods in U.S. history.

SEE ALSO Emotion; Empiricism; Epistemology; Functionalism; National Service Programs; New Deal, The; Philosophy; Pragmatism; Progressive Movement; Psychology; Religion; Stream of Consciousness; Theory of Mind



James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. New York: Henry Holt.

James, William. 1897. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green.

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library.

James, William. 1907. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green.


Cotkin, George. 1990. William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Crunden, Robert M. 1994. From Anti-Social Darwinism to Pragmatism, 18651917. In A Brief History of American Culture, vol. 8, 144158. New York: Paragon House.

Donnelly, Margaret E., ed. 1992. Reinterpreting the Legacy of William James. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Putnam, Ruth Anna, ed. 1997. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Simon, Linda. 1998. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Scott Wright

James, William

views updated May 21 2018


(b. New York, New York, 11 January 1842; d. Chocorua, New Hampshire, 26 August 1910),

psychology, philosophy. For the original article on James see DSB, vol. 7.

James is widely known as the father of American psychology, and he is fondly remembered as a public intellectual with the clarity and insight to create usable popularizations of complex academic and scientific work. His major professional contribution to psychology was to remind his fellows in the field of the worlds of mind and behavior that lie beyond the grasp of even the most elegant theories. His chief philosophical contribution was his unblinking attention to the concreteness of experience in psychological events and feelings, religious beliefs, scientific inquiry, and the philosophy of empiricism itself. Although he had often been dismissed as a mere popularizer in the decades after his death in 1910, recent work on James has stimulated a steadily growing appreciation for his substantial contributions. Clarity has been no vice as he helped to shape humanistic orientations, process thinking, and phenomenology in psychology, philosophy, and religious studies. In fact, in the early twenty-first century there is wide recognition of his transdisciplinary significance for his pioneering critique of overreliance on scientific authority, for his anticipations of neuroscience, for his rhetorical gifts, for his spirituality, and for his prophetic warnings about a culture dominated by corporate institutions and commodified values.

Background and Upbringing . William James’s upbringing, in the household of a Swedenborgian radical and in the context of growing scientific authority in the middle-to-late nineteenth century, shaped his life, temperament, and work. He taught, wrote, and lectured on the borderland of science and religion, gravitating toward mediation of these fields, with all their kindred associations, in his psychology, philosophy, and religious thought.

Because the spirituality of his father, the elder Henry James (to distinguish him from his second son, the novelist), included endorsement of the empirical spirituality of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century mystic popular in Romantic cultural circles, the religious training that the oldest son, William, received was open to the study of nature. By age nineteen, with his father’s encouragement, he went to the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, where he met a brand of science shaped by the professional demands for rigorous empiricism. He studied chemistry, anatomy, and physiology before transferring to the Harvard Medical School; this succession of studies reflected his temperamental ambivalence and contributed to his vocational indecision. These and related troubles with depression, eye and back ailments, philosophical uncertainty, and hesitancy to marry—precisely because he dreaded passing on his troubles to a next generation— plunged him into a period of indecision and personal crisis, which prolonged his formative years and postponed the beginning of his working life.

Crisis and Construction of Worldview . James is perhaps as famous for this period of crisis as for his mature theories, in part because many of those ideas first began to emerge in his youthful drama of pain and recovery. The very paths he took while struggling in his youth showed not only the first stirrings of his mature ideas, but also their roots in the scientific and religious commitments of his early adulthood. While he found it difficult to accept his father’s ideas directly, he gravitated toward theories and cultural experiences that, similarly, expressed the immaterial factors of life (including spirituality and consciousness) within the natural world rather than in orthodox references to incomprehensible factors or another world. In particular, he was attracted to the pre-Christian ancients, sectarian medicine, humanistic psychology, and voluntaristic philosophy. Just as Henry Sr. approached nature “as if it had some life in it” (in William’s words), so the son, now on a professional path in his thirties, inquired into the experiences of the natural world and human nature, noticing the role of immaterial factors to

complement the emerging understanding of nature in terms of physics and chemistry as assumed by most modern professional science (Correspondence, vol. 4, p. 227). William endorsed the work of modern science, benefiting deeply from the latest research in his own profession, most notably in his landmark Principles of Psychology (1890). However, he maintained an impulse to pull his profession toward a “program of the future of science” that would be less wedded to a materialistic philosophy, such as the automaton theory of consciousness, which he noticed to be a frequent accompaniment of professional science but an unnecessary stowaway on the path of inquiry. He offered wry praise for the scientific enthusiasm of his times as “a temporarily useful excentricity” (1902, p. 395).

A Psychology of Philosophizing . Despite materialist and positivist enthusiasms for Darwinism swiftly spreading in influence from the 1860s, when James first studied science, he noticed its hypothetical and probabilistic qualities. This type of thinking shaped his theory of “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1879), in which he proposed that the motivation to philosophize stemmed from the craving for explanatory sufficiency in clarity or simplicity that shaped human thinking in general, even in science.

Openness to experience unconstrained by the abstractions of theory—whether scientific, philosophical, or religious—took his work out of the mainstream profession of scientific psychology and into philosophical and religious studies. He was also concerned about the overreliance on experimental method in the psychological laboratory. In Pragmatism (1907) he emphasized the usefulness of theories as instruments of inquiry, but he also insisted that we should not confuse these directional tools for the whole forest of experience. In “The Will to Believe” (1895) he proposed that when evaluating a belief—in science or religion—it is more important to pursue the prospective possibilities in experience itself rather than remain in fear of crossing abstract boundaries of prior theory formation. This essay, and his many accompanying “essays in popular philosophy,” never called for rejection of scientific inquiry, but for a continuation of its methods into religion and other spheres conventionally segregated from science. He even called his research into Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) a “science of religions” with which he explored personal religious experiences that generally underlie institutional structures; finding evidence of “the more” in human psychology, he proposed that it served as the basis for orthodox religious affiliations. Toward the end of his life, James called his emphasis on pure experience unadorned by abstraction “radical empiricism,” and his essays in elaboration of this philosophy were collected posthumously.

James was not particularly concerned with the specialized discourses of psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and science studies that today claim pieces of his corpus. He contributed to each of these fields as they now stand, but his own personal and intellectual motivations were more broadly based. Of course, he lived in a time when educational institutions were only beginning to specialize; in fact, he remarked that the first lecture he ever heard in psychology was his own. In addition, the very indecisiveness that troubled him, and that has encouraged much of the psychological scrutiny of James himself, actually contributed to his appetite to work in all these fields. He knew the pain of choice, and its necessity when selecting paths forward, but he was also attentive to the tyranny of choices that ruled out other important factors in life, hence his insistence on recognizing the “ever not quite” factors in our knowledge of all fields.

Meliorism, a Hope in the Making . His hopes were hard won, and this lent his philosophy an authentic and experience-chastened quality that catapulted his work onto a public stage, where he became popular beyond the appeal of most academics. Perhaps his most alluring mediation was between pessimism and optimism. Why endorse an outlook that is explicitly against one’s own good? Yet at the same time, how turn away from the truly tragic and burdensome facts of life? His answer was to adopt neither, but instead to endorse what he called “meliorism,” the commitment to hoping and working for the best. This gritty buoyancy is at the heart of James’s commitment and a reason for the enduring appeal of his words even decades after his death in 1910. Characteristically, he was scientific enough to doubt the orthodox claims for an afterlife, but he was religious enough to notice their power to motivate and their plausibility in the depths of “psychic experiences.” Besides, after decades of committed search into the natural world and human psyche, and with a sharp sense that human experience involved both bodily and mental factors, he faced death with the wistful realization that “I’m just getting fit to live” (Letters, vol. 2, p. 214).



The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longman, Green, 1902.

The Works of William James. Edited by Fredson Bowers and

Frederick H. Burkhardt. 19 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975–1988. There are many editions of James’s writings; this collection and the Correspondence below are the most authoritative. Works includes all of James’s published books and collections of many of his unpublished notes, lectures, and essays thoroughly annotated and contextualized.

The Correspondence of William James. Edited by Ignas K.

Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. 12 vols.

Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992–2004. A collection of correspondence to and from James, including 70 percent of the 9,300 known letters that he wrote in his lifetime, with the remaining calendared for ease of reference.


Bjork, Daniel. William James: The Center of His Vision. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Provides a detailed account of James’s life, especially in his relations with his wife, Alice Howe Gibbens James, and emphasizes William James’s exuberant, distinctive genius in dealing with knotty psychological and philosophical questions.

Cotkin, George. William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A historical account of the cultural and political position of James, especially in his adult life.

Croce, Paul Jerome. Science and Religion in the Era of William James. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995 (Vol. 1) and forthcoming (Vol. 2). Sets James in his personal and cultural contexts and emphasizes the intermingling of mind and body in his work.

Donnelly, Margaret E., ed. Reinterpreting the Legacy of William James. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1992. A collection of essays by psychologists in evaluation of the meaning and legacy of James’s psychological theories, written from the perspective of pluralism, phenomenology, evolutionary biology, and history and with attention to theories of the self, emotions, clinical work, free will, and parapsychology.

Feinstein, Howard M. Becoming William James. Ithaca, NY:

Cornell University Press, 1984. A psychobiography that evaluates the young man in relation to family dynamics.

Levinson, Henry Samuel. The Religious Investigations of William James. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

A religious studies evaluation of his development of a science of religions.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. A highly readable narrative synthesis of recent scholarship on James in relation to other founders of pragmatism—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey—and in the context of countless stories of American social and cultural history.

Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986. Covers much more thought than life, with an emphasis on his philosophical psychology.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Presents James’s philosophical development toward a postmodern view of the constructed character of knowledge.

Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1999. Offers a biographical overview with more attention to social context and personal issues than to theory formation.

Taylor, Eugene. William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. Challenges the conventions in the history of psychology that James abandoned psychology after 1890 with evidence that his experimental psychopathology was directed toward an alternative psychology.

Townsend, Kim. Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others. New York: Norton, 1996. Examines James’s ambivalence in terms of gender and finds the popular philosopher both subject to a strong and brittle masculinity and intelligently rising above it.

Paul Jerome Croce

William James

views updated May 23 2018

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.

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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

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 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. □

James, William (1842-1910)

views updated May 14 2018

JAMES, WILLIAM (1842-1910)

The American philosopher and psychologist William James was one of the most important American intellectuals of his era, making key contributions to the development of both philosophical pragmatism and psychological theory.

James was born in New York City in 1842, the oldest of five children (his brother Henry became a famous novelist). His father was a man of leisure who gave his children an unusual and rich education based on large amounts of travel and instruction in Europe. Young William set out to be an artist, apprenticing with William Morris Hunt for a year, but then turned toward science. He entered Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School in 1861 and worked with Charles William Eliot in chemistry and Jeffries Wyman in comparative anatomy. He then entered Harvard Medical School, took a year off to go with Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon, and eventually received his M.D. in 1869.

James never practiced medicine but pursued an academic career at Harvard. In 1872 he was appointed instructor in physiology and anatomy. He became assistant professor of philosophy in 1880 and full professor in 1885. In 1889 he was named professor of psychology, returning to philosophy in 1892 when Hugo Münsterberg came from Germany to take charge of Harvard's psychological laboratory. James retired in 1907 and spent his last years writing out his systematic philosophy.

Like most people of his time, James saw psychology as part of philosophy, an empirical approach toward philosophical questions. Findings in science and medicine stimulated a vision of a physiological psychology in James, spurred by the writings of people like Wilhelm Wundt, Ivan Sechenov, John Hughlings Jackson, Henry Maudsley, and Theodor Meynert. His varied academic appointments reflected his early efforts to establish a "new psychology" in philosophy and then, skeptical about much of the "normal science" that began growing up around him, to seek a more meaningful inquiry into psychic life through spiritualism and the study of exceptional mental states.

The culmination of James's first was his 1890 Principles of Psychology, an enormously popular and influential work that brought some people into "new psychology" and induced many others to accept it as a possibility. The two volumes are a delight to read today, brimming with life, ideas, and insights.

James defines psychology as "the Science of Mental Life, both of phenomena and their conditions" (p. 1). His book explores the psyche using a mixture of introspective, physiological, medical, comparative, and experimental observations. The first six chapters are given to "the physiological preliminaries," a psychobiology of mind. "Both the anatomy and the detailed physiology of the brain are achievements of the present generation, or rather we may say (beginning with Meynert) the last twenty years" (p. 14). James sets forth a picture of a hierarchically organized brain and mind, one that remains today, with amplifications and amendments, a framing conception of contemporary neuropsychology. There are levels of behavioral organization: first reflexes and automatisms, then instincts, then habits, and then, finally, voluntary and planned activity. Lower levels are more mechanical and sense-driven; higher centers are the seat of spontaneity and intellectual control. "In all ages the man whose determinations are swayed by reference to the most distant ends has been held to possess the highest intelligence" (p. 23).

In Chapter 7, James turns to psychological inquiry, which, he says, uses three methods: introspection, experiment, and the comparative approach. Introspection is the foundation, "what we have to remember first and foremost and always" (p. 185). The experimental method had been developed in Germany. "[It] taxes patience to the utmost, and could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored " (p. 192). Experimental psychology explores psychophysics, sensation and perception, attention span, and rote memory. The comparative method is loosest, "wild work," and includes psychological observations of the behavior of animals, mental patients, children, and people of other cultures, and inferences about the mind drawn from artifacts such as human languages, customs, and social and political institutions.

James's discussions of learning and memory are not well integrated. His discussion of learning rests largely on comparative observations, whereas he approaches memory introspectively. His book appeared only five years after Hermann Ebbinghaus launched the systematic study of human memory. James discusses Ebbinghaus's work in his chapter on memory, but the discussion is clearly an appendage. An integrated, fully elaborated discussion of human learning and memory began to emerge five years after James published his book.

A Parliamentary Theory of Learning

Like all evolutionary writers, James addresses the problem of the instinctual and the learned in the organization of human activity. Contrary to most writers, he argues that humans have many instincts and that they play a large role in the behavior of higher organisms.

Nature [in the lower wild animals] has made them act always in the manner which would be oftenest right. There are more worms unattached to hooks than impaled upon them; therefore, on the whole, says Nature to her fishy children, bite at every worm and take your chances. But as her children get higher, and their lives more precious, she reduces the risks. … Nature implants contrary impulses to act on many classes of things, and leaves it to slight alterations in the conditions of the individual case to decide which impulse shall carry the day. (pp. 1,012-1,013)

The proliferation of instincts in the higher animals leads to the beginnings of deliberation and choice. In higher animals, instincts do not remain fixed action patterns. Once an instinct is exercised, it produces consequences, and anticipations of those consequences henceforth accompany instinctive impulses. The experienced organism faces ever more new situations, armed with a number of impulses; the organism is not a slave to any one instinct; and there are rational anticipations of the consequences various actions might bring. James's parliamentary theory of the inner competition among impulses and their anticipated consequences foreshadows twentieth-century behaviorism. Edward L. Thorndike, James's student, was the bridging figure. His connectionism built the parliamentary theory into a logic of response choice in problem-solving situations; that connectionism, in turn, has influenced all subsequent learning theories.

Optimal human development, James argues, implies the fruition of as many instinctive tendencies as possible. After attributing to humans a large set of instincts (more, he says, than any animal), James writes,

In a perfectly-rounded development every one of these instincts would start a habit towards certain objects and inhibit a habit towards others. Usually this is the case; but, in the one-sided development of civilized life, it happens that the timely age goes by in a sort of starvation of objects, and the individual then grows up with gaps in his psychic constitution which future experiences can never fill. Compare the accomplished gentleman with the poor artisan or tradesman of a city: during the adolescence of the former, objects appropriate to his growing interests, bodily and mental, were offered as fast as his interests awoke, and, as a consequence, he is armed and equipped at every angle to meet the world. … Over the city poor boy's youth no such golden opportunities were hung, and in his manhood no desires for most of them exist. Fortunate it is for him if gaps are the only anomalies his instinctive life presents; perversions are too often the fruit of his unnatural bringing-up. (pp. 1,056-1,057)

Memories as Beliefs

James approaches the phenomena of human memory introspectively, though his conception of the presenting phenomena of mental life differs radically from that of previous psychological writings. Beginning with John Locke, and continuing through the research programs of nineteenth-century brass-instruments laboratories, psychologists repeatedly asserted that human experience begins with simple sensations and ideas. James argues that this is false to experience. "Simple" sensations and ideas are, in fact, abstractions contrived from experience. What presents itself to the mind is an always dynamic, often inchoate, moving flow—a fluidity that in the Principles he calls the "stream of consciousness" and in later writings he calls "pure experience." Redefining the mental life with which the psychologist must deal, James at once sets aside the traditional denizens of that mental life—sensations, ideas, faculties. In return, he has the obligation and the opportunity to ask in a very wide-open way where in the fluidity one may locate the conventional chapter headings: Attention, Conception, Discrimination and Comparison, Memory, and so on.

In older writings, memories are referred to as returns or reinstatements of experiences of the past; James, looking at mental life with a fresh eye, argues there must be more to the experience of a memory than that. "Memory," he says, "is the knowledge of an event, or fact, of which meantime we have not been thinking, with the additional consciousness that we have thought or experienced it before " (p. 610). It is not enough to see or hear something that one has seen or heard before. There must be some aspect of the experience that says the event has occurred before, not in just any past but in the person's past. "It must have that 'warmth and intimacy' which were so often spoken of in the chapter on the self, as characterizing all experiences 'appropriated by the thinker as his own."' James concludes that a memory is far more than an image or copy of a fact in the mind, that it is in fact a very complex representation with objective, personal, and metacognitive components. What we usually refer to as memory, James argues, is a form of belief.

James's analyses of habit, as we have seen, had an immediate and large influence on the development of psychology in subsequent decades. His discussions of memory and other cognitive phenomena were out of step with the elementistic introspectionism of his time. It seems very likely that contemporary cognitive psychology—in particular, the study of personal, narrative memories—is picking up the thread of William James's thought.


Bjork, D. W. (1983). The compromised scientist: William James in the development of American psychology. New York: Columbia University Press.

Feinstein, H. M. (1984). Becoming William James. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. 2 vols. Reprinted (1981) in F. H. Burkhardt, F. Bowers, and I. K. Skrupskelis, eds,. The works of William James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

—— (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: And to students on some of life's ideals. New York: Holt.

—— (1902). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York: Longmans.

—— (1983). Essays in psychology. Vol. 13 in F. H. Burkhardt, F. Bowers, and I. K. Skrupskelis, eds., The works of William James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Myers, Gerald E. (1986). William James: His life and thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Perry, R. B. (1935). The thought and character of William James, as revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown.

Taylor, E. (1983). William James on exceptional mental states: The 1896 Lowell lectures. New York: Scribner's.

Sheldon H.White

James, William

views updated May 23 2018

James, William

(b. New York, N. Y., 11 January 1842; d. Chocorua, New Hampshire, 26 August 1910)

psychology, philosophy.

James was the first of five children of Mary Robertson Walsh and Henry James, Sr.; their second was the novelist Henry James. Although he studied with tutors and in schools in the United States and throughout Europe, James may most properly be said to have received his early education at the family dinner table. The elder Henry James was a man of private means who had turned to travel and Swedenborgianism as perhaps the ultimate result of a childhood accident by which he had lost a leg. Having found the consolations of intellect and philosophy, he encouraged his children in critical investigation and discussion; it is probably significant that William James’s first published book (1885) was his edition of The Literary Remains of Henry James, a work which rises above mere filial piety in containing, in the introduction, an early statement of some of his own religious views. The Remains themselves show their author to have been something rather more than the usual nineteenth-century American religious crank, and certainly his sons seem to have benefited from his tutelage.

James’s first ambition was to become an artist, and in 1860 the entire family relocated from Paris to the United States, so that he could study painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. John La Farge, a fellow student, noticed his talent, but James soon changed his mind about his vocation and took up the study of chemistry, enrolling in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard in 1861. At Lawrence, James attended Agassiz’s lectures, which led him from chemistry into the biological sciences. In 1864 he entered the Harvard Medical School, which he left in April 1865 to join Agassiz on an expedition up the Amazon. It was not a happy journey. James found that he had no skill as a field naturalist—indeed, he recorded that he hated collecting—and he became ill. He resumed his medical studies in 1866, but discontinued them again shortly thereafter because of lingering poor health. The following year he went to Germany to take a course of water cures and to study the physiology of the nervous system. He returned after two years, still sick, but able to take the M.D. from Harvard in 1869.

James never practiced medicine. The three years immediately following the award of his degree he remained at home, too unwell for regular employment, reading, writing occasional literary reviews, and apparently undergoing the shattering spiritual experience that he later described in “The Sick Soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience. His recovery came in part through his reading of the Essais de critique generale of Charles Renouvier, from which he formulated the belief in volitional free will that shook him from his moral lethargy. By 1873 he was well enough to accept enthusiastically an appointment as instructor in anatomy and physiology at Harvard, where he was subsequently assistant professor of physiology (1876), assistant professor of philosophy (1880), and professor of philosophy (1885).

In 1878 James married Alice Howe Gibbens, of Cambridge; the four of their five children who lived past infancy were brought up in the Jamesian tradition of travel, familial affection, and abstract discussion. In the same year he contracted to write a textbook of psychology, to be brought out in two years’ time. The book was published only in 1890, but it was definitive—The Principles of Psychology.

The intent of the Principles was descriptive and antimetaphysical; it marks one of the earliest attempts to treat psychology as a natural science James conceived of the mind as being subject to both Darwinian evolutionary principles and to acts of the will. Consciousness exists for practical results, and its characteristics are conditioned by such result; it flows—“the stream of consciousness” is one of James’s many felicitous phrases—and the perception of a fact is represented as a brief halt in the flow. An innovation is James’s recognition of the significance of transitive as well as substantive processes; he includes the fringe areas of though, dimly if at all perceived, as “the free water of consciousness.” He further treated of the will, defining it as the relation of the mind to concepts, or attention, and described pathological states of mind, drawing on the work of the European psychologists Charcot, Janet, and Binet. (That James was working along the same lines as European scientists is further shown by the James- Lange theory of the physiological bases of the emotions, formulated at about this time, independently and almost simultaneously, by James and the Danish physiologist C. G. Lange.) The Principle was an immediate success, and an abridgment of the original two-volume work, the Briefer Course, was published in 1892.

James’s next book, The Will to Believe and Other Essays on Popular Philosophy (1897), contains his dedication to C. S. Peirce,“To whose philosophic comradeship in old times and to whose writings in more recent years I owe more incitement and help than I can express or repay.”The first four essays are concerned with what James called“the legitimacy of religious faith,” while others take up determinism, the moral life, great men (including a discussion of their place in Darwinian theory), individuality, Hegel, and paychic research (James was a member of an association for that purpose).To these religious arguments he added, in 1898, the Ingersoll lecture, given at Harvard, Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine, in which he held the compatibility of immortality with “our present mundane consciousness” None of these essays gives any sort of metaphysical formula; all suggest cheerfully that belief is probably not a bad thing.

In the summer of 1898 James sustained an irreparable heart lesion while on a strenuous hike in the New Hampshire mountains. He continued to philosophize and write, however: Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals was published in 1899, while 1902 saw the publication of his major work of descriptive psychology, The Varieties of Religious Experience, being the Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at the University of Edinburgh. In the Varieties, James approached the religious impulse in man largely through individual documents, presenting a full panoply of its forms. In a postscript he posited the necessity of such pluralism, and set out a brief statement of the pragmatic value of religion. Although the book contains no notable synthesis, its wit and style give it a special place in American letters.

In 1906 James lectured at Stanford University for a half term (a tenure that was cut short by the San Francisco earthquake, which largely destroyed the campus). In 1907 he gave the Lowell Institute lectures, choosing as his subject“Pragmatism,”the theory with which his name is most closely linked. These lectures gave a system to ideas apparent in all of his previously published work and were themselves published in 1907 as Pragmatism:A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. James gave credit for the invention of pragmatism as an entity to Peirce, although it may more accurately ne said to have grown out of their association in the Metaphysical Club that they had founded in Cambridge in the 1870‘s. James extended Peirce’ notion of pragmatism and, indeed, refashioned it. Peirce was concerned with practical results as an empirical tool; James moved them into the moral realm of the good and the true. Thus, he was able to define good as the plurality of practical results beneficial to conduct and could state that a theory is true insofar as it “works”(thereby leaving his own theory open to the ready criticism that it is self-justifying). He insisted that the same flexibility must be granted to metaphysics. Such extensions would seem to have appalled Peirce, but James’s book became startlingly popular and influential in the United States, perhaps because of its essential Americanness.

James resigned from all teaching duties at Harvard in 1907. In 1908 he gave the Hibbert lectures at Manchester College, Oxford, which were collected as A Pluralist Universe (1909).These, in effect, develop the idea of a multiplicity of standards of truth and rationality that is suggested in the postscript to The Varieties of Religious Experience. He died at his summer house in New Hampshire, leaving incomplete Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy, which work nevertheless contains some important which work never-theless contains some important formulations of his ideas, in particular those regarding perception. Another especially significant work, the essay“Does Consciousness Exist?, “was also published posthu-mously. In it, James speculates on a single primal material, which he calls “pure experience.”.The essay was published in Essays in Radical Empiricism, a term James had invented and used in the preface of The Will to Believe

James is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, next to his novelist brother Henry—with whom his lifelong relationship had been complex, mutually and advantageously critical, affectionate, and epistolary—and near his novelist friend William Dean Howells.


I. Original Works. Ralph Bartoy, Annotated Bibliography of the Writings of William James (New York, 1920), lists more than 300 items and may be considered definitive. See also his son Henry James, ed., The Letters of William James, 2 vols.(Boston, 1920); and F. O. Matthiessen, The James Family, Including Selections from the Writings of Henry James, Senior, William, Henry, and Alice James (New York, 1947), passim.

II. Secondary Literature. Charming personal recollections may be found in the autobiographical sketches of Henry James, A Samll Boy and Others (New York, 1913); and Notes of a Son and Brother (New York, 1914). Although a good short treatment, especially of James as a teacher, is Lloyd Morris, William James. The Message of a Modern Mind (New York-London, 1950), the best formal biography remains Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols.(Boston, 1935).

For a brief general discussion of pragmatism, its beginnings, its influence, and James’s part in it, see Philip P. Wiener, “Pragmatism,” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York, 1973), which includes a useful bibliography.

Sarah Ferrell

James, William (1842-1910)

views updated May 11 2018

James, William (1842-1910)

Professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842, and obtained his M.D. in 1870 from Harvard Medical School. In 1872 he was appointed instructor in anatomy and physiology at Harvard College. He went on to study psychology and hygiene and in 1890 published his famous work The Principles of Psychology. In 1897 James became professor of philosophy at Harvard and lectured at universities in the United States and Britain. He developed the doctrine of pragmatism, and one of his most important philosophical books is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which has been an influential work in the attempt to reconcile science and religion.

The first case that piqued James's interest in psychic phenomena is reported in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research (vol. 1, part 2, pp. 221-31). It is the case of a drowned girl whose body was seen by a Mrs. Titus of Lebanon, New Hampshire, in a dream. The girl's head was under the timber trussing of a bridge at Enfield. Divers had searched for the girl's body in vain, but following Titus's vision they found it.

The discovery of Leonora Piper 's mediumship for the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was attributed to James. His mother-in-law, led by curiosity, paid a visit to Piper in 1885. She returned with a perplexing story. Seeking a simple explanation for the supernatural nature of the facts related to him, James took a rationalist view. Then a few days later, with his wife, he went to get a direct personal impression. The Jameses arrived unannounced, and they were careful not to make any reference to a relative who had preceded them. James later noted:

"My impression after this first visit was that Mrs. P. was either possessed of supernormal powers or knew the members of my wife's family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me to absolutely reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers."

For 18 months after his first experiments, James was virtually in charge of all arrangements for Piper's séances. When, because of other duties, he dropped his inquiries for a period of two years, he wrote to the SPR (London) and induced them to engage Piper for experiments. "The result," he wrote of his personal investigations, "is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state." He admitted there was a strong case in favor of survival when the following message, obtained while a Ms. Robbins had a sitting with Piper, was submitted to him: "There is a person named Child, who has suddenly come and sends his love to William and to his own wife who is living. He says L " Neither Robbins nor Piper knew Child, who was an intimate friend of James and whose Christian name began with L.

In the autumn of 1899 Piper visited James at his country house in New Hampshire. There he came to know her personally better than ever before. "It was in great measure," wrote Alta L. Piper in her biography of the medium, "due to his sympathetic encouragement and understanding of the many difficulties, with which she found herself confronted in the early days of her career, that my mother was able to adhere unfalteringly to the onerous course which she had set herself to follow."

In an often quoted lecture in 1890 James declared:

"To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient." Since his proclamation of Piper as his "one white crow," the concept of the single "white crow" has become a cliché in psychical research.

James published several papers in the Proceedings of the SPR and an important essay on psychical research in his book The Will to Believe (1902). In a lecture at Oxford in 1909 he announced his firm conviction that "most of the phenomena of psychical research are rooted in reality." Shortly before his death he stated in the American Magazine that, after 25 years of psychical research, he held the spiritistic hypothesis unproven and was inclined "to picture the situation as an interaction between slumbering faculties in the automatist's mind and a cosmic environment of other consciousness of some sort which is able to work upon them."

James served as president of the SPR, London, from 1894 to 1895 and as vice president from 1896 to 1910. His name and prestige and his open espousal of the cause of psychical research were a great benefit to the nascent science. He died at Chocorua, New Hampshire, August 26, 1910. His alleged return after death is discussed in a long chapter in James Hyslop 's Contact with the Other World (1919).


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

James, William. Essays in Psychical Research. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

. Letters of William James and Theodore Flournoy. Edited by R. C. Le Clair. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

. William James on Psychical Research. Edited by Gardner Murphy and Robert O. Ballou. New York: Viking Press, 1960.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

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