Authors: William James

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American psychologist and philosopher

January 11, 1842

New York, New York

August 26, 1910

Chocorua, New Hampshire


William James was the oldest son of the antiecclesiastical Swedenborgian mystic and theologian Henry James, Sr., and the elder brother of the novelist Henry James. In keeping with their father’s theories of education and life, the brothers had a similar upbringing: irregular schooling in America and Europe, extensive travel, and parental encouragement to follow their own interests in art and science.

William James

(Library of Congress)

In 1865, after a brief study of art under William M. Hunt and an interrupted period of training at the Harvard Medical School, William James accompanied the great Louis Agassiz on the Thayer zoological expedition to explore the reaches of the Amazon River. Poor health caused him to return to Boston and to resume his medical studies before going to Germany in 1867, where he worked with Hermann Helmholtz and Rudolf Virchow. In 1869, James took his medical degree at Harvard, but continuing illness prevented his beginning a practice. As a semi-invalid in his father’s house, he experienced a terrific mental turmoil that ended with his decision, influenced by reading Charles-Bernard Renouvier, that his “first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” From his abandonment of all determinisms and his embracing of an “open” rather than a “blocked” universe stem all his later discoveries in psychology and philosophy.

From 1872 to 1876, James taught physiology and anatomy at Harvard University. From that time on, his interest shifted gradually to physiological psychology and psychological philosophy, which occupied him throughout the rest of his career at Harvard. In the first phase, he developed, independently of C. G. Lange, the James-Lange theory that emotions are simply the feelings that accompany bodily changes stimulated by the perception of exciting objects. This and other psychophysical theories are embodied in his 1890 work The Principles of Psychology. This influential and path-breaking book contains the seeds of three of his later, fully developed philosophical positions: voluntarism, pragmatism, and radical empiricism. After establishing the first psychological laboratory in the United States, James turned next to a decade-long interest in religion and ethics, which found expression in a variety of essays and books and culminated in the Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh, The Varieties of Religious Experience. These studies, empirical rather than dialectical, represent a search into the actual nature of the religious experience for evidence of supernatural forces.

The next phase of James’s career was concerned with pragmatism, based on a theory of Charles S. Pierce that he modified. In his hands, it became a method for judging the truth and value of any idea strictly in terms of the practical consequences of that idea. His lectures at the Lowell Institute in 1906 and Columbia University in 1907 were embodied in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, a work in which will and interest are the primary focus of his psychology and philosophy. Here, he declares that knowledge is only instrumental and that the notion of “true” is merely the expedient way of thinking about the world. The resulting new relativism became the controversial and revitalizing philosophy of the early twentieth century. He was elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1906.

In 1907, James taught his last class at Harvard, where he was idolized by students and faculty alike. In his last three years he pushed his practical approach further into metaphysical realms, producing A Pluralistic Universe, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism,” and his two posthumous publications, Some Problems of Philosophy and Essays in Radical Empiricism. Despite his worsening health, he remained active as a lecturer and consultant to students. A trip to Bad-Nauheim, Germany, failed to improve his weakened physical condition, and he returned to the United States with his brother Henry in the summer of 1910. He died at Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26 that same year, survived by his wife and four children. His cosmopolitan outlook and broad culture established him as one of the most influential American thinkers of his day.

Author Works Nonfiction: The Principles of Psychology, 1890 Psychology: Briefer Course, 1892 The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1897 Human Immortality, 1898 Talks to Teachers on Psychology, 1899 The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902 Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907 A Pluralistic Universe, 1909 The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism,” 1909 Some Problems of Philosophy, 1911 Memories and Studies, 1911 Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912 Collected Essays and Reviews, 1920 The Correspondence of William James, 1992–2004 (12 volumes) Bibliography Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This reliable and readable biography situates James in his social and historical context. Bauerlein, Mark. The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A helpful treatment of James’s views about the relationships among belief, consciousness, the human will, and knowledge, and claims about truth. Brown, Hunter. William James on Radical Empiricism and Religion. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000. A study that argues for the consistency of James’s philosophy of radical empiricism and his examination of religious experience in “The Will to Believe.” Cooper, Wesley. The Unity of William James’s Thought. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Argues that a systematic philosophy can be found in James’s writings. Provides a two-level approach to his philosophical system: the metaphysical level of pure experience and the empirical level of science and everyday life. Cotkin, George. William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Cotkin explores the social and political context in which James worked and draws out James’s contributions to the important debates of his day as well as the lasting implications of his work. Croce, Paul Jerome. Science and Religion in the Era of William James. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Assesses how debates about science and religion informed James’s philosophy. Gale, Richard M. The Divided Self of William James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A powerful new interpretation of the philosophy of James that focuses on the multiple directions in which his philosophy moves and the inevitable contradictions that result. Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A well-written, carefully researched, comprehensive study of James’s life and thought. Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996. A reprint of a classic by a well-respected philosopher, this book contains valuable information about James’s life and work. Putnam, Ruth Anna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Significant essays by well-qualified James scholars interpret and assess a wide range of topics and problems in his philosophy and psychology. Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. An important interpreter of James’s philosophy appraises continuities and discontinuities between American pragmatism and feminist theory. Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998. A worthwhile account of James’s life and his pioneering work in psychology and philosophy. Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. Heaven’s Champion: William James’s Philosophy of Religion. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. A study of the themes and lasting significance of James’s philosophy and its emphasis on religion. Taylor, Eugene. William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Explores James’s interests in and theories about human consciousness, psychology, religious experience, and other forms of experience.

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