This January the OUP Philosophy team honours the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) as their Philosopher of the Month. James is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of modern psychology.
James was born into a wealthy New York family in 1841, the son of a Swedenborg theologian, and the brother of the famous novelist, Henry James. He received a private education at home, and with the family made frequent trips to Europe. At the age of 18 he began his education as an artist and studied painting with the prominent American artist William Morris Hunt, but subsequently abandoned art. He went on to study chemistry and comparative anatomy at Harvard University before switching to Harvard Medical School in 1864 where he formed a lasting and important friendship with another philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce. Although he graduated with a medical degree in 1869, he never practiced it.
Throughout his life, James was often subject to depressions and ill health. In 1870 he suffered a nervous breakdown which made him incapable of any work. In 1872, after his health had improved, he was offered the post to teach anatomy and physiology at Harvard by its president, Charles Eliot. In 1870 he expanded his teaching to include psychology and was instrumental in establishing the university’s psychology department and the first American experimental psychology laboratory. He then taught philosophy in 1879 and was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1885.
James’ first major and ground-breaking work, The Principles of Psychology (1890) in two volumes brings together physiology, experimental psychology, philosophy, elements of pragmatism, and phenomenology. He challenged the established psychological and philosophical thoughts of his day from the associationist school to the Hegelianism school by suggesting that the human experience was characterized by a “stream of consciousness”. He wrote in The Principles of Psychology, “Consciousness…does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…a ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.” He also advanced a new theory of emotions which suggested that emotion follows, rather than causes, its physiological changes. According to him, external events cause bodily changes which we then feel. He asked what would grief be “without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone?”. He also discussed emotions in relation to art. These are the “subtler emotions,” which are elicited from the aesthetic properties of the work of art. The book’s ideas drew attention from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in Vienna and would influence generations of thinkers in Europe and America from Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and James Joyce and it remains one of the great classic texts of modern psychology.
James also wrote an influential work on the philosophy of religion. The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (1902) examines different forms of religious experience from the point of view of a psychologist. James discussed human spirituality such as conversion, mystical experiences, and saintliness as well as his conception of the “healthy-mindedness” versus the “sick soul”. This supports his view that direct religious experiences rather than institutional religions form the foundation of religious lives: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in religion to whatever they may consider the divine.” In The Will to Believe (1897), he defended the place of religious beliefs by repudiating evidentialism and arguing that the belief in the divine existence can be justified by the emotional benefits it brings to one’s life. He recognized the role of science but suggested that there are elusive religious experiences which can only be accessed by individual human subjects but not sciences.
Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James is credited as one of the founders of American pragmatism – a philosophy which holds that a belief or the truth of an idea is to be appraised in terms of its practical consequences, thus rejecting the quest for abstract foundational truths, traditional metaphysics, and absolute idealism. According to James, truth is to be found in concrete experiences and practices, and not in transcendental realities, “the true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving” (Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907, p. 222). These ideas are fully explored in his best known philosophical works, Pragmatism (1907) and The Meaning of Truth (1909).
By the time of his death in 1910, William James had become a much-esteemed and eminent philosopher and psychologist of the beginning of the twentieth century because of his important contributions to psychology, religion, and philosophy. For more on James’s life and work, browse our interactive timeline below:
Featured image credit:Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by coffee. CC0 via Pixabay.