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, as well as Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Jr., James George Frazer, Henri Bergson, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Jung.
In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was also subject to a 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, but the other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism.
James switched to medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864. He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join Harvard's Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, having 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' 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 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 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' 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, 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 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.
He gained widespread recognition with his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), twelve hundred pages in two volumes which took twelve years to complete. Psychology: The Briefer Course, was an 1892 abridgement designed as a less rigorous introduction to the field. These works criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism of his day as competing dogmatisms of little explanatory value, and sought to re-conceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.
James's assertion that the value of a truth depends upon its use to the individual who holds it is known as pragmatism. Additional tenets of James's pragmatism include the view that the world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be properly understood through an application of "radical empiricism." Radical empiricism, distinct from everyday scientific empiricism, presumes that nature and experience can never be frozen for absolutely objective analysis, that, at the very least, the mind of the observer will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth since, empirically, the mind 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 (see Richard Rorty), and his radical empiricism lies in the background of contemporary relativism. James's description of the mind-world connection, which he described in terms of a "stream of consciousness," 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 "truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." 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 speaks of truth in relativistic terms: "The critic's [sc., the critic of pragmatism] trouble...seems to come from his taking the word 'true' irrelatively, whereas the pragmatist always means 'true for him who experiences the workings.'
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.
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.
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.
One faction sees individuals ("heroes" as Thomas Carlyle called them) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy with "Great Men and Their Environment," an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle's side, but without Carlyle's one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as the founders or overthrowers of states and empires.
"Rembrandt must teach us to enjoy the struggle of light with darkness," James wrote. "Wagner to enjoy peculiar musical effects; Dickens gives a twist to our sentimentality, Artemus Ward to our humor; Emerson kindles a new moral light within us."
In the trances of this medium, I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and wits.
William James gave more detailed informations about his first experiments with Piper in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:
I made Mrs. Piper's acquaintance in the autumn of 1885. My wife's mother, Mrs. Gibbens, had been told of her by a friend, during the previous summer, and never having seen a medium before, had paid her a visit out of curiosity. She returned with the statement that Mrs. P. had given her a long string of names of members of the family, mostly Christian names, together with facts about the persons mentioned and their relations to each other, the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers. My sister-in-law went the next day, with still better results, as she related them. Amongst other things, the medium had accurately described the circumstances of the writer of a letter which she held against her forehead, after Miss G. had given it to her. The letter was in Italian, and its writer was known to but two persons in this country. [I may add that on a later occasion my wife and I took another letter from this same person to Mrs. P., who went on to speak of him in a way which identified him unmistakably again. On a third occasion, two years later, my sister-in-law and I being again with Mrs. P., she reverted in her trance to these letters, and then gave us the writer's name, which she said she had not been able to get on the former occasion.] But to revert to the beginning. I remember playing the esprit fort on that occasion before my feminine relatives, and seeking to explain, by simple considerations the marvellous character of the facts which they brought back. This did not, however, prevent me from going myself a few days later, in company with my wife, to get a direct personal impression. The names of none of us up to this meeting had been announced to Mrs. P., and Mrs. J. and I were, of course, careful to make no reference to our relatives who had preceded. The medium, however, when entranced, repeated most of the names of " spirits" whom she had announced on the two former occasions and added others. The names came with difficulty, and were only gradually made perfect. My wife's father's name of Gibbens was announced first as Niblin, then as Giblin. A child Herman (whom we had lost the previous year) had his name spelt out as Herrin. I think that in no case were both Christian and surnames given on this visit. But the facts predicated of the persons named made it in many instances impossible not to recognise the particular individuals who were talked about. We took particular pains on this occasion to give the Phinuit control no help over his difficulties and to ask no leading questions. In the light of subsequent experience I believe this not to be the best policy. For it often happens, if you give this trance-personage a name or some small fact for the lack of which he is brought to a standstill, that he will then start off with a copious flow of additional talk, containing in itself an abundance of " tests." My impression after this first visit was, that Mrs. P. was either possessed of supernormal powers, or knew the members of my wife's family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me absolutely to reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers.
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