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William James

[jeymz]
For other people named William James see William James (disambiguation)
William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher trained as a medical doctor. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and 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, 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.

Early years

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 early apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but yielded in 1861 to scientific studies at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School.

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".

Professional career

James spent 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 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.

Writings

William James wrote voluminously throughout his life. A fairly complete bibliography of his writings by John McDermott is 47 pages long. (See below for a list of his major writings and additional collections)

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.

Epistemology

James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. Truth, he said, is that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse" but "all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere," he wrote.

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.'

Cash Value

From the introduction to William James's Pragmatism by Bruce Kuklick, p.xiv.

James went on to apply the pragmatic method to the epistemological problem of truth. He would seek the meaning of 'true' by examining how the idea functioned in our lives. A belief was true, he said, if in the long run it worked for all of us, and guided us expeditiously through our semihospitable world. James was anxious to uncover what true beliefs amounted to in human life, what their "Cash Value" was, what consequences they led to. A belief was not a mental entity which somehow mysteriously corresponded to an external reality if the belief were true. Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say they were true was to say they guided us satisfactorily in this environment. In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth applied Darwinian ideas in philosophy; it made survival the test of intellectual as well as Antonio Damasio#Philosophy and Neurobiology. If what was true was what worked, we can scientifically investigate religion's claim to truth in the same manner. The enduring quality of religious beliefs throughout recorded history and in all cultures gave indirect support for the view that such beliefs worked. James also argued directly that such beliefs were satisfying — they enabled us to lead fuller, richer lives and were more viable than their alternatives. Religious beliefs were expedient in human existence, just as scientific beliefs were.

Will to Believe Doctrine

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' 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.

William James' bear

From Joseph LeDoux's description of William James' Emotion

Why do we run away if we notice that we are in danger? Because we are afraid of what will happen if we don't. This obvious (and incorrect) answer to a seemingly trivial question has been the central concern of a century-old debate about the nature of our emotions.


It all began in 1884 when William James published an article titled "What Is an Emotion? The article appeared in a philosophy journal called Mind, as there were no psychology journals yet. It was important, not because it definitively answered the question it raised, but because of the way in which James phrased his response. He conceived of an emotion in terms of a sequence of events that starts with the occurrence of an arousing stimulus {the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system}; and ends with a passionate feeling, a conscious emotional experience. A major goal of emotion research is still to elucidate this stimulus-to-feeling sequence—to figure out what processes come between the stimulus and the feeling.


James set out to answer his question by asking another: do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? He proposed that the obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, was wrong, and instead argued that we are afraid because we run:
Our natural way of thinking about... emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion (called 'feeling' by Damasio).

The essence of James' proposal was simple. It was premised on the fact that emotions are often accompanied by bodily responses (racing heart, tight stomach, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and so on; sympathetic nervous system) and that we can sense what is going on inside our body much the same as we can sense what is going on in the outside world. According to James, emotions feel different from other states of mind because they have these bodily responses that give rise to internal sensations, and different emotions feel different from one another because they are accompanied by different bodily responses and sensations. For example, when we see James' bear, we run away. During this act of escape, the body goes through a physiological upheaval: blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, pupils dilate, palms sweat, muscles contract in certain ways (evolutionary, innate defense mechanisms). Other kinds of emotional situations will result in different bodily upheavals. In each case, the physiological responses return to the brain in the form of bodily sensations, and the unique pattern of sensory feedback gives each emotion its unique quality. Fear feels different from anger or love because it has a different physiological signature {the parasympathetic nervous system for love}. The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology, not vice versa: we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and are sad because we cry.

Philosophy of history

One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns the role of individuals in social change.

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."

Study of spiritualism

In 1909 William James published Expériences d'un Psychiste, a book which he relates many experiments that he had with the medium Leonora Piper. His first commentary about Piper, however, was published in Science:

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.

See also

Notes

Bibliography

Works by James

  • 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
  • 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, IndyPublish.com 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

Works by others

  • Essays Philosophical and Psychological in Honor of William James, by his Colleagues at Columbia University (London, 1908)
  • Flournoy, La Philosophie de William James (Saint-Blaise, 1911)
  • Josiah Royce, William James and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Life (New York, 1911)
  • Ménard, Analyse et critique des principes de la psychologie de W. James (Paris, 1911)
  • K. A. Busch, William James als Religionsphilosoph (Göttingen, 1911)
  • Boutroux, William James (New York, 1912)
  • R. B. Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies (New York, 1912)
  • James Huneker, "A Philosophy for Philistines" in his The Pathos of Distance (New York, 1913)
  • Werner Bloch, Der Pragmatismus von James und Schiller nebst Exkursen über Weltanschauung und über die Hypothese'' (Leipzig, 1913)
  • H. V. Knox, Philosophy of William James (London, 1914)
  • Henry James's A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914)

Collections

  • William James: Writings 1878-1899, (1992). Library of America, 1212 p., ISBN 978-0-94045072-1

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 978-0-94045038-7

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 p., ISBN 0-226-39188-4

Pragmatism, Essays in Radical Empiricism, and A Pluralistic Universe complete; plus selections from other works

Secondary works

  • Jacques Barzun. A Stroll with William James (1983). Harper and Row: ISBN 0-226-03869-6
  • Deborah Blum. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006). Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-090-4
  • Wesley Cooper. The Unity of William James's Thought (2002). Vanderbilt University Press, ISBN 0-8265-1387-5
  • Howard M. Feinstein. Becoming William James (1984). Cornell University Press, ISBN 978-0801486425
  • Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club (2001). Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-52849-7. analyzes the lives and relationship between James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Pierce, and John Dewey.
  • Gerald E. Myers. William James: His Life and Thought (1986). Yale University Press 2001 paperback: ISBN 0-300-08917-1. focuses on his psychology, includes 230 pages of notes.
  • Robert D. Richardson. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006). Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-43325-2

Fiction

  • Richard Liebmann-Smith. The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers (2008), posits Jesse and Frank are nom-de-outlaw used by William and Henry James' two younger brothers who went West and fought in the Civil War. Written somewhat in the style of Henry James.

External links

Full texts of James's works

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