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
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.