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William James
William James
(Undated photograph)

William James (1842 - 1910) was a 20th Century American philosopher and psychologist, and is generally considered one of the most influential of all American philosophers.

Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, he is recognized as one of the founders of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism. He was also a believer in the philosophical doctrines of Voluntarism, Fideism and what he called Radical Empiricism. He influenced generations of thinkers in Europe and America, including Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In addition to his work in philosophy, he wrote influential books on the young science of psychology (especially educational psychology and the psychology of religious experience and mysticism). He was a strong proponent of the psychological school of Functionalism, and is often credited with the discovery of the subconscious, long before Sigmund Freud's seminal work on the unconscious.

He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as a champion of alternative approaches to healing.


William James was born on 11 January 1842 at Astor House (then the finest hotel in New York City). He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian, and was the elder brother of the novelist Henry James and of the diarist Alice James, as well as three other brothers. His family was well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day, and he received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French (along with a cosmopolitan character) from his many childhood trips to Europe.

He showed early promise as an artist, which led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but in 1861 he turned to scientific studies at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. He switched to medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864.

Like most of his siblings, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments in his early adulthood (including those of the eyes, back, stomach and skin), as well as psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression (he contemplated suicide many times). His studies were interrupted by an ill-favoured scientific expedition up the Amazon River in 1865, and again due to illness in April 1867, which led him to travel to Germany in search of a cure. He remained in Germany until November 1868, and it was during this time that he realized that his true interests lay not in medicine but in philosophy (despite never having received any official philosophic instruction) and in psychology (at a time when the study of the human mind was just constituting itself as a science).

James finally earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in June 1869, although he never actually practiced medicine. He spent his entire academic career, from 1872 until 1907, at Harvard, in a range of disciplines: he was appointed instructor in physiology and anatomy in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, and full professor in 1885. He was endowed chair in psychology in 1889, returned to philosophy in 1897, and was finally elected emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

In the early 1870s at Harvard, James joined in lively philosophical discussions in a group which called itself the Metaphysical Club, which included Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 - 1935), and Chauncey Wright (1830 - 1875), all of whom were to become well known in the Pragmatist movement. He also became acquainted with the early psychological work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz (1821 - 1894) in Germany and Pierre Janet (1859 - 1947) in France. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878, and started on his brilliant and epoch-making "Principles of Psychology", published twelve years later in 1890, in which the seeds of his philosophy were already discernible.

Among James' students at Harvard were such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt (26th President of the USA), George Santayana (philosopher and novelist), W. E. B. Du Bois (civil rights campaigner), G. Stanley Hall (psychologist and educator), Gertrude Stein (writer and feminist) and C. I. Lewis (philosopher).

After retiring from Harvard in January 1907, James continued to write and lecture, and published his major philosophical works: "Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking" (1907), "A Pluralistic Universe" (1909), "The Meaning of Truth" (1909), "Essays in Radical Empiricism" (published posthumously in 1912) and the unfinished "Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy" (published posthumously in 1911).

He was increasingly afflicted with cardiac pain during his last years, and he underwent some unsuccessful experimental treatments in Europe in 1910 before dying of heart failure on 26 August 1910 at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. By the time of his death, he was world renowned both as a psychologist and philosopher, and, for much of his life, the novelist Henry James felt himself under the shadow of his much more famous elder brother, William.

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James wrote voluminously throughout his life, mainly on psychology in the earlier years, and mainly on philosophy later in life. His prose style is commendable, some say equal to that of his novelist brother, being imaginative, ingenious and full of imagery.

He gained widespread recognition with his monumental "Principles of Psychology" (1890), twelve hundred pages in two volumes which took twelve years to complete, as well as an 1892 abridgement designed as a less rigorous introduction to the field, "Psychology: The Briefer Course". In these works, he argues that consciousness functions in an active, purposeful way to relate and organize thoughts, giving them a streamlike continuity (a view known in psychology as Functionalism), and this psychological viewpoint informed his later philosophical work.

He is also often credited with the discovery of the subconscious, long before Sigmund Freud's seminal work on the unconscious. He believed that the darkened psychical zone around and beneath the conscious mind, was where the highest spiritual values (such as genius, sanctity, etc) were formed, and where contact was established with the absolute.

His philosophy had four principal aspects:

  • Pragmatism (the view that considers practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth, and that the meaning of any concept can be equated with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever the concept portrays);
  • Voluntarism (the metaphysical and epistemological view that regards the will as superior to the intellect and to emotion, and that will is the basic factor both in the universe and in human conduct);
  • Fideism (the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology, and that religious belief is at least not less rational than Atheism or Agnosticism, even if it is not necessarily more rational); and
  • Radical Empiricism (the belief that human knowledge arises from the senses or through experience, but furthermore that these experiences lean on nothing but other finite experiences and that experiences know, believe and remember other experiences).

In his 1907 book "Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking", James offered significant expansions of C. S. Peirce's philosophy of Pragmatism, and in the process helped to popularize the idea much more widely. He not only accepted Peirce's method of using pragmatic meaning to resolve dispute, but also spelled out a pragmatic theory of truth as whatever is "expedient in the way of our thinking". Thus, he considered Pragmatism to be both a method for analyzing philosophic problems and also a theory of truth. In the book, he used the pragmatic test to show that some apparently different alternative philosophies were actually undifferentiable from a pragmatic and practical point of view. He was not, however, looking to put forward Pragmatism as a new philosophy to replace all older ones, but saw it more as a continuation of previous thought.

In "The Will to Believe" (1897), James' attempted vindication of his Fideist beliefs, he argued that belief must remain an individual process and that we may rationally choose to believe some crucial propositions even though they lie beyond the reach of reason and evidence, a position that has important implications for religious convictions in particular. He further explored this area in detail in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902).

In "A Pluralistic Universe (1909) and "Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), James developed the metaphysical position which he labelled Radical Empiricism. This was his attempted to integrate the apparently mutually-exclusive insights of Empiricism (experience-based thinking) and Rationalism (concept-based thinking). He believed that there is no fixed external world to be discovered by one's mind, but instead what he called a "humming-buzzing confusion" that one organizes through experience. The universe (as well as one's knowledge of it) is continuously evolving, and, because it is never complete, it cannot therefore be reduced to a single underlying substance.

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