William James (1842-1910)

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James, William (1842-1910), American philosopher and psychologist, who developed the philosophy of pragmatism.

James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842. His father, Henry James, Sr., was a Swedenborgian theologian; one of his brothers was the great novelist Henry James. William James attended private schools in the U.S. and Europe, the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, and the Harvard Medical School, from which he received a degree in 1869. Before finishing his medical studies, he went on an exploring expedition in Brazil with the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz and also studied physiology in Germany. After three years of retirement due to illness, James became an instructor in physiology at Harvard in 1872. After 1880 he taught psychology and philosophy at Harvard; he left Harvard in 1907 and gave highly successful lectures at Columbia University and the University of Oxford. James died in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910.


James's first book, the monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), established him as one of the most influential thinkers of his time. The work advanced the principle of functionalism in psychology, thus removing psychology from its traditional place as a branch of philosophy and establishing it among the laboratory sciences based on experimental method.

In the next decade James applied his empirical methods of investigation to philosophical and religious issues. He explored the questions of the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, free will, and ethical values by referring to human religious and moral experience as a direct source. His views on these subjects were presented in the lectures and essays published in such books as The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), Human Immortality (1898), and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). The last-named work is a sympathetic psychological account of religious and mystical experiences.


Later lectures published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907) summed up James's original contributions to the theory called pragmatism, a term first used by the American logician C. S. Peirce. James generalized the pragmatic method, developing it from a critique of the logical basis of the sciences into a basis for the evaluation of all experience. He maintained that the meaning of ideas is found only in terms of their possible consequences. If consequences are lacking, ideas are meaningless. James contended that this is the method used by scientists to define their terms and to test their hypotheses, which, if meaningful, entail predictions. The hypotheses can be considered true if the predicted events take place. On the other hand, most metaphysical theories are meaningless, because they entail no testable predictions. Meaningful theories, James argued, are instruments for dealing with problems that arise in experience.

According to James's pragmatism, then, truth is that which works. One determines what works by testing propositions in experience. In so doing, one finds that certain propositions become true. As James put it, "Truth is something that happens to an idea" in the process of its verification; it is not a static property. This does not mean, however, that anything can be true. "The true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our behaving," James maintained. One cannot believe whatever one wants to believe, because such self-centered beliefs would not work out.

James was opposed to absolute metaphysical systems and argued against monism, a doctrine that maintains that reality is a unified, monolithic whole. In Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), he argued for a pluralistic universe, denying that the world can be explained in terms of an absolute force or scheme that determines the interrelations of things and events. He held that the interrelations, whether they serve to hold things together or apart, are just as real as the things themselves.

By the end of his life, James had become world-famous as a philosopher and psychologist. In both fields, he functioned more as an originator of new thought than as a founder of dogmatic schools. His pragmatic philosophy was further developed by the American philosopher John Dewey and others; later studies in physics by Albert Einstein made the theories of interrelations advanced by James appear prophetic.

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