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William James
A black and white photograph of James
James in 1903
Born (1842-01-11)January 11, 1842
New York City, US
Died August 26, 1910(1910-08-26) (aged 68)
Alma mater Harvard University (MD)
Era 19th-/20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
  • Pragmatism
  • functional psychology
  • radical empiricism
Institutions Harvard University
Notable students
Main interests
Notable ideas

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher, historian, and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late 19th century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the "Father of American psychology".

Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Early life

Houghton MS Am 1092 (1185) - William James in Brazil, 1865
William James in Brazil, 1865

William James was born at the Astor House in New York City on January 11, 1842. He was the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

William James received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French. Education in the James household encouraged cosmopolitanism. The family made two trips to Europe while William James was still a child, setting a pattern that resulted in thirteen more European journeys during his life. James wished to pursue painting, his early artistic bent led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but his father urged him to become a physician instead. Since this did not align with James's interests, he stated that he wanted to specialize in physiology. Once he figured this was also not what he wanted to do, he then announced he was going to specialize in the nervous system and psychology. James then switched in 1861 to scientific studies at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard College.

In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was also tone deaf. He was subject to a variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War. James himself was an advocate of peace. He suggested that instead of youth serving in the military that they serve the public in a term of service, "to get the childishness knocked out of them." The other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice James) all suffered from periods of invalidism.

He took up medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864 (according to his brother Henry James, the author). He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join naturalist Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, as he suffered bouts of severe seasickness and mild smallpox. His studies were interrupted once again due to illness in April 1867. He traveled to Germany in search of a cure and remained there until November 1868; at that time he was 26 years old. During this period, he began to publish; reviews of his works appeared in literary periodicals such as the North American Review.

James finally earned his MD degree in June 1869 but he never practiced medicine. What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878. In 1882 he joined the Theosophical Society.

James's time in Germany proved intellectually fertile, helping him find that his true interests lay not in medicine but in philosophy and psychology. Later, in 1902 he would write: "I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave".


James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, his godson William James Sidis, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Macedonio Fernández, Walter Lippmann, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, G. Stanley Hall, Henri Bergson, Carl Jung, Jane Addams and Sigmund Freud.

James spent almost all of his academic career at Harvard. He was appointed instructor in physiology for the spring 1873 term, instructor in anatomy and physiology in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, full professor in 1885, endowed chair in psychology in 1889, return to philosophy in 1897, and emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

James studied medicine, physiology, and biology, and began to teach in those subjects, but was drawn to the scientific study of the human mind at a time when psychology was constituting itself as a science. James's acquaintance with the work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz in Germany and Pierre Janet in France facilitated his introduction of courses in scientific psychology at Harvard University. He taught his first experimental psychology course at Harvard in the 1875–1876 academic year.

During his Harvard years, James joined in philosophical discussions and debates with Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Chauncey Wright that evolved into a lively group informally known as The Metaphysical Club in 1872. Louis Menand (2001) suggested that this Club provided a foundation for American intellectual thought for decades to come. James joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898, in opposition to the United States annexation of the Philippines.

Among James's students at Harvard University were Boris Sidis, Theodore Roosevelt, George Santayana, W. E. B. Du Bois, G. Stanley Hall, Ralph Barton Perry, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Morris Raphael Cohen, Walter Lippmann, Alain Locke, C. I. Lewis, and Mary Whiton Calkins. Antiquarian bookseller Gabriel Wells tutored under him at Harvard in the late 1890s.

His students enjoyed his brilliance and his manner of teaching was free of personal arrogance. They remember him for his kindness and humble attitude. His respectful attitude towards them speaks well of his character.

Following his January 1907 retirement from Harvard, James continued to write and lecture, publishing Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and The Meaning of Truth. James was increasingly afflicted with cardiac pain during his last years. It worsened in 1909 while he worked on a philosophy text (unfinished but posthumously published as Some Problems in Philosophy). He sailed to Europe in the spring of 1910 to take experimental treatments which proved unsuccessful, and returned home on August 18. His heart failed on August 26, 1910, at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. He was buried in the family plot in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He was one of the strongest proponents of the school of functionalism in psychology and of pragmatism in philosophy. He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as a champion of alternative approaches to healing. In 1884 and 1885 he became president of the British Society for Psychical Research for which he wrote in Mind and in the Psychological Review. He challenged his professional colleagues not to let a narrow mindset prevent an honest appraisal of those beliefs.

In an empirical study by Haggbloom et al. using six criteria such as citations and recognition, James was found to be the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.


William James was the son of Henry James (Senior) of Albany, and Mary Robertson Walsh. He had four siblings: Henry (the novelist), Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice. William became engaged to Alice Howe Gibbens on May 10, 1878; they were married on July 10. They had 5 children: Henry (born May 18, 1879), William (June 17, 1882 – 1961), Herman (born 1884, died in infancy), Margaret (born March 1887) and Alexander (the artist) (born December 22, 1890). Most of William James's ancestors arrived in America from Scotland or Ireland in the 18th century. Many of them settled in eastern New York or New Jersey. All of James's ancestors were Protestant, well educated, and of character. Within their communities, they worked as farmers, merchants, and traders who were all heavily involved with their church. The last ancestor to arrive in America was William James's paternal grandfather also named William James. He came to America from Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, Ireland in 1789 when he was 18 years old. There is suspicion that he fled to America because his family tried to force him into the ministry. After traveling to America with no money left, he found a job at a store as a clerk. After continuously working, he was able to own the store himself. As he traveled west to find more job opportunities, he was involved in various jobs such as the salt industry and the Erie Canal project. After being a significant worker in the Erie Canal project and helping Albany become a major center of trade, he then became the first Vice-President of the Albany Savings Bank. William James (grandfather) went from being a poor Irish immigrant to one of the richest men in New York. After his death, his son Henry James inherited his fortune and lived in Europe and the United States searching for the meaning of life.


William James wrote voluminously throughout his life. A non-exhaustive bibliography of his writings, compiled by John McDermott, is 47 pages long.

Among his most influential books are The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology; Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy; and The Varieties of Religious Experience, an investigation of different forms of religious experience, including theories on mind-cure.

James was remembered as one of America's representative thinkers, psychologist, and philosopher. William James was also one of the most influential writers on religion, psychical research, and self-help. He was told to have a few disciples that followed his writing since they were inspired and enriched by his research.

Epistemology and pragmatism

James was a pragmatist. He defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. Truth is verifiable (can be tested) when thoughts and statements correspond with actual things, and also "hang together," or cohere, as pieces of a puzzle might fit together. These 'truths' are confirmed by the observed results putting them into practice.p427

"The most ancient parts of truth... once were plastic. They were called true for human reasons... Purely objective truth..., is nowhere to be found... The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for 'to be true' means only to perform this marriage-function." he wrote. The "marriage-function" is "marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts".p83

James held a world view in line with pragmatism, declaring that the value of any truth depended on its use to the person who held it. The world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be understood through "radical empiricism". Radical empiricism, not related to the everyday scientific empiricism, asserts that the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis. The mind of the observer and simple act of observation will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth. The mind, its experiences and nature, cannot be separated. James's emphasis on diversity as the default human condition has kept a strong influence in American culture, especially among liberals. James's description of the mind-world connection, which he described as a "stream of consciousness", had a direct and significant effect on avant-garde and modernist literature and art.

In What pragmatism means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth is, in brief, that "Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The 'facts' themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them".

Free will

In his search for truth and assorted principles of psychology, William James developed his two-stage model of free will. In his model, he tries to explain how it is people come to the making of a decision and what factors are involved in it. He firstly defines our basic ability to choose as free will. Then he specifies our two factors as chance and choice.

James argues that the question of free will revolves around "chance." The idea of chance is that some events are possibilities, things that could happen but are not guaranteed. Chance is made possible regarding our actions because our amount of effort is subject to change. If the amount of effort we put into something is predetermined, our actions are predetermined.

Free will in relation to effort also balances "ideals and propensities—the things you see as best versus the things that are easiest to do". Without effort, "the propensity is stronger than the ideal." To act according to your ideals, you must resist the things that are easiest, and this can only be done with effort. James states that the free will question is therefore simple: "it relates solely to the amount of effort of attention or consent which we can at any time put forth."

Chance is the 'free element,' that part of the model we have no control over. James says that in the sequence of the model, chance comes before choice. In the moment of decision we are given the chance to make a decision and then the choice is what we do (or do not do) regarding the decision.

When it comes to choice, James says we make a choice based on different experiences. What James describes is that once you've made a decision in the past, the experience is stockpiled into your memory where it can be referenced the next time a decision must be made and will be drawn from as a positive solution. However, in his development of the design, James also struggled with being able to prove that free will is actually free or predetermined.

People can make judgements of regret, moral approval and moral disapproval, and if those are absent, then that means our will is predetermined.

James's theory of the self

James's theory of the self divided a person's mental picture of self into two categories: the "Me" and the "I". The "Me" can be thought of as a separate object or individual a person refers to when describing their personal experiences; while the "I" is the self that knows who they are and what they have done in their life. Both concepts are depicted in the statement; "I know it was me who ate the cookie." He called the "Me" part of self the "empirical me" and the "I" part "the pure Ego". For James, the "I" part of self was the thinking self, which could not be further divided. He linked this part of the self to the soul of a person, or what is now thought of as the mind. Educational theorists have been inspired in various ways by James's theory of self, and have developed various applications to curricular and pedagogical theory and practice.

James further divided the "Me" part of self into: a material, a social, and a spiritual self.

Material self

The material self consists of things that belong to a person or entities that a person belongs to. Thus, things like the body, family, clothes, money, and such make up the material self. For James, the core of the material self was the body. Second to the body, James felt a person's clothes were important to the material self. He believed a person's clothes were one way they expressed who they felt they were; or clothes were a way to show status, thus contributing to forming and maintaining one's self-image. Money and family are critical parts of the material self. James felt that if one lost a family member, a part of who they are was lost also. Money figured in one's material self in a similar way. If a person had significant money then lost it, who they were as a person changed as well.

Social self

Our social selves are who we are in a given social situation. For James, people change how they act depending on the social situation that they are in. James believed that people had as many social selves as they did social situations they participated in. For example, a person may act in a different way at work when compared to how that same person may act when they are out with a group of friends. James also believed that in a given social group, an individual's social self may be divided even further. An example of this would be, in the social context of an individual's work environment, the difference in behavior when that individual is interacting with their boss versus their behavior when interacting with a co-worker.

Spiritual self

For James, the spiritual self was who we are at our core. It is more concrete or permanent than the other two selves. The spiritual self is our subjective and most intimate self. Aspects of a spiritual self include things like personality, core values, and conscience that do not typically change throughout an individual's lifetime. The spiritual self involves introspection, or looking inward to deeper spiritual, moral, or intellectual questions without the influence of objective thoughts. For James, achieving a high level of understanding of who we are at our core, or understanding our spiritual selves is more rewarding than satisfying the needs of the social and material selves.

Pure ego

What James refers to as the "I" self. For James, the pure ego is what provides the thread of continuity between our past, present, and future selves. The pure ego's perception of consistent individual identity arises from a continuous stream of consciousness. James believed that the pure ego was similar to what we think of as the soul, or the mind. The pure ego was not a substance and therefore could not be examined by science.

Notable works

  • The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890), Dover Publications 1950, vol. 1: ISBN: 0-486-20381-6, vol. 2: ISBN: 0-486-20382-4
  • Psychology (Briefer Course) (1892), University of Notre Dame Press 1985: ISBN: 0-268-01557-0, Dover Publications 2001: ISBN: 0-486-41604-6
  • Is Life Worth Living? (1895), the seminal lecture delivered at Harvard on April 15, 1895
  • The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
  • Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (the Ingersoll Lecture, 1897)
    • The Will to Believe, Human Immortality (1956) Dover Publications, ISBN: 0-486-20291-7
  • Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899), Dover Publications 2001: ISBN: 0-486-41964-9, 2005: ISBN: 1-4219-5806-6
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), ISBN: 0-14-039034-0
  • Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), Hackett Publishing 1981: ISBN: 0-915145-05-7, Dover 1995: ISBN: 0-486-28270-8
  • A Pluralistic Universe (1909), Hibbert Lectures, University of Nebraska Press 1996: ISBN: 0-8032-7591-9
  • The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism" (1909), Prometheus Books, 1997: ISBN: 1-57392-138-6
  • Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy (1911), University of Nebraska Press 1996: ISBN: 0-8032-7587-0
  • Memories and Studies (1911), Reprint Services Corp: 1992: ISBN: 0-7812-3481-6
  • Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), Dover Publications 2003, ISBN: 0-486-43094-4
    • critical edition, Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers, editors. Harvard University Press 1976: ISBN: 0-674-26717-6 (includes commentary, notes, enumerated emendations, appendices with English translation of "La Notion de Conscience")
  • Letters of William James, 2 vols. (1920)
  • Collected Essays and Reviews (1920)
  • Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (1935), Vanderbilt University Press 1996 reprint: ISBN: 0-8265-1279-8 (contains some 500 letters by William James not found in the earlier edition of the Letters of William James)
  • William James on Psychical Research (1960)
  • The Correspondence of William James, 12 vols. (1992–2004) University of Virginia Press, ISBN: 0-8139-2318-2
  • "The Dilemma of Determinism"
  • William James on Habit, Will, Truth, and the Meaning of Life, James Sloan Allen, ed. Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, ISBN: 978-1-929490-45-5


  • William James: Writings 1878–1899 (1992). Library of America, 1212 p., ISBN: 978-0-940450-72-1
Psychology: Briefer Course (rev. and condensed Principles of Psychology), The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Talks to Teachers and Students, Essays (nine others)
  • William James: Writings 1902–1910 (1987). Library of America, 1379 p., ISBN: 978-0-940450-38-7
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, The Meaning of Truth, Some Problems of Philosophy, Essays
  • The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (1978). University of Chicago Press, 912 pp., ISBN: 0-226-39188-4
Pragmatism, Essays in Radical Empiricism, and A Pluralistic Universe complete; plus selections from other works
  • In 1975, Harvard University Press began publication of a standard edition of The Works of William James.

See also

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