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William James

every difference in thinking must make a difference to someone, somewhere

William James

William James was born into an affluent, deeply religious family on January 11, 1842, in New York City. His father considered himself something of a theologian and often took the family on extended trips to Europe in search of answers to philosophical and theological questions. William and his four siblings were educated at various private schools and by well-paid tutors, and their father supplemented the book learning with trips to museums, lectures, and the theater.

As a youngster, James had aspirations of becoming an artist, but gave up that dream to enroll at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School in 1861. In 1864, he entered the Harvard School of Medicine, where he studied anatomy and physiology under noted naturalist Louis Agassiz. In 1865 he accompanied Agassiz on an expedition into the Amazon, during which he contracted a mild case of smallpox. After returning to Harvard in 1866, he began suffering from eye strain and back problems, and by that fall had fallen into a suicidal depression. After an extended stay in Europe to regain his health, he received his medical degree in 1869, but he never practiced.

In 1872, James agreed to teach an undergraduate course in comparative physiology at Harvard. In 1874, he began teaching psychology at Harvard, and established the first psychology laboratory in America. In 1880 he became an assistant professor of philosophy.

In 1890, James published The Principles of Psychology, in which he blended physiology, psychology, philosophy, and personal reflections into what is now considered a classic in the field. The book, which took him twelve years to complete, presented such ideas as "the stream of thought" and the baby's impression of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion."

James continued teaching both psychology and philosophy at Harvard until resigning in 1907. He died of heart failure at his summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 2, 1910.

His Philosophy

Neither physiology nor psychology ever seemed to satisfy James's interest in man, and his inability to settle on a life career often left him on the verge of despair. He finally became convinced, however, that man could devote his life to finding new answers to such questions as: Does God exist, and what difference would His existence make to man? Can human effort change the course of events? What is the good life, and how does man's conviction about what is good affect his behavior?

James tried to answer such philosophical questions in pragmatic terms. He believed that every difference in thinking must make a difference to someone, somewhere. If two theories differ, the difference becomes clear when we know (1) how they differ over what the facts are, and (2) the difference in our behavior if we believe that one or the other is true.

One excellent example of how James's philosophy worked is as follows: One man may claim that man is free and can make real choices, while another claims that man is not free because all human decisions and actions are determined by factors beyond man's control. Since both claims cannot be true, we must find a way to decide between them because our conduct depends on which we adopt. He proposed that man approach such questions by tracing the consequences of each viewpoint. If man is free, he can make his own decisions and is, therefore, responsible for his actions. He can regret some of his actions and say that the world would be better if they had not been carried out. If man is not free, he cannot make his own decisions and is not, therefore, responsible for his actions. Under this concept, it makes no sense to speak about something happening differently from the way it did. According to James, the individual must choose which consequence he can best live with before deciding which claim to believe.

James outlined his philosophy most clearly in The Will to Believe : and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897). This work states that if we believe in the possibility of some future event taking place, this belief increases our power to help make the event happen when the time comes for action.

Other important works by James include:

Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1898)
The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
A Pluralistic Universe (1909)
The Meaning of Truth (1909)


Encyclopędia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopędia Britannica, Inc., 1957

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This page was last updated on January 11, 2019.