William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who were trained as a medical doctor. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of Diarist Alice James.
William James was born at the Astor House in New York City. He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric 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.
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, Walter Lippmann, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Jr., Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.
William James, with his younger brother Henry James (who became a prominent novelist) and sister Alice James (who is known for her posthumously published diary), received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French languages along with a cosmopolitan character. His family made two trips to Europe while he was still a child, setting a pattern that resulted in thirteen more European journeys during his life. His early artistic bent led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but he switched in 1861 to scientific studies at the Lawrence scientific school of Harvard university.
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 variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the civil war. The other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism.
James took up medical studies at Harvard medical school in 1864. At Harvard he was inspired to study theology. 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 until November 1868. (During this period he began to publish, with reviews appearing in literary periodicals like the North American review.) He finally earned his M.D. degree in June 1869, but 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.
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 spent almost his entire 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 constituted itself as a science. James's acquaintance with the work of figures likes 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 years.
During his Harvard years, James joined in philosophical discussions with Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Chauncey Wright that evolved into a lively group known as the metaphysical club in 1872. Louis Menand speculates that the club provided a foundation for American intellectual thought for decades to come.
Among James's students at Harvard were such luminaries as 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 Calkins.
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 him 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. He challenged his professional colleagues not to let a narrow mindset prevent an honest appraisal of those phenomena.
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.
James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. His pragmatic theory of truth was a synthesis of correspondence theory of truth and coherence theory of truth, with an added dimension. Truth is verifiable to the extent that thoughts and statements correspond with actual things, as well as the extent to which they "hang together," or cohere, as pieces of a puzzle might fit together; these are in turn verified by the observed results of the application of an idea to actual practice.
"The most ancient parts of truth… Also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, 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.
James held a world view in line with pragmatism, declaring that the value of any truth was utterly dependent upon its use to the person who held it. additional tenets of James's pragmatism include the view that the world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be properly interpreted and understood through an application of "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, if nothing else the mind of the observer and simple act of observation will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth as the mind and its experiences, and nature are inseparable. James's emphasis on diversity as the default human condition — over and against duality, especially Hegelian dialectical duality — has maintained a strong influence in American culture, especially among liberals. James's description of the mind-world connection, which he described in terms of a "stream of consciousness (psychology)," had a direct and significant impact 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." Richard Rorty claims that James did not mean to give a theory of truth with this statement and that we should not regard it as such. However, other pragmatism scholars such as Susan Haack and Howard Mounce do not share Rorty's instrumentalist interpretation of James.
In the meaning of truth, James seems to speak of truth in relativistic terms: "the critic's trouble...seems to come from his taking the word 'true' irrelatively, whereas the pragmatist always means 'true for him who experiences the workings.' “However, James responded to critics accusing him of relativism, scepticism or agnosticism, and of believing only in relative truths. To the contrary, he supported an epistemological realism position
Will to believe doctrine
Main article: the will to believe
In William James's lecture of 1897 titled "the will to believe," James defends the right to violate the principle of evidentialism in order to justify hypothesis venturing. Although this doctrine is often seen as a way for William James to justify religious beliefs, his philosophy of pragmatism allows him to use the results of his hypothetical venturing as evidence to support the hypothesis' truth. Therefore, this doctrine allows one to assume belief in god and prove its existence by what the belief brings to one's life.
Philosophy of religion
James did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh he provided a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreted them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard: religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions—since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.
The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind—that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the life of James, leading him to experiment with chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). James claimed that it was only when he was under the influence of nitrous oxide that he was able to understand Hegel. He concluded that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such.
Theory of emotion
James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James's oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.
This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, principles of psychology that spells out those consequences.