JAMES, WILLIAM (1842-1910)


James, probably America’s most influential psychologist, was born of an eminent family in New York City and studied in Switzerland and Germany. On his return he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard (1861-64), taking courses in physiology, chemistry and comparative anatomy. He then entered the Harvard Medical School, and after receiving his degree in 1869, accompanied Louis Agassiz on a trip up the Amazon River to collect zoological specimens.Due to ill health he abandoned his original intention of specializing in physiological research, and in 1872 became an instructor of physiology at Harvard. Three years later he set up a psychology laboratory in connection with one of his courses, preceding Wilhelm Wundt’s “official” laboratory in Leipzig by four years.During his long teaching career, James first served as professor of physiology (1876-80), then as professor of philosophy (1880-89), and later as professor of psychology (1889-97). In the latter year he returned to his post as professor of philosophy after persuading Hugo Miinsterberg to take over the psychology laboratory. During his career at Harvard he taught many men who helped to shape the face of early American psychology—among them, Hall, Thorndike, Woodworth, Yerkes, Angell, and Healy. Dewey and Mc- Dougall, though not his pupils, were also greatly influenced by him. In addition to his work in the fields of psychology and philosophy, James took a vital interest in psychical research. He helped to establish the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884,and served as president of the English Society from 1894-1905. It was his belief that this line of research would help to uncover unconscious factors in mental life. He himself took an open- minded but speculative view of the phenomena without accepting the usual “explanations.”In 1890 James published his Principles of Psychology, the product of twelve years of work. The two volumes “burst upon the world like a volcanic eruption,” as Murphy (1949) puts it, having a tremendous influence not only on the psychological community but among the literate public as well. The full work and an abridgement based on it, the Briefer Course were used as texts by hundreds of thousands of students. It contained so many provocative insights and so much information that only a sampling can be given here. It introduced the findings of the “new” psychology of Wundt, Helmholtz, and other Europeans to American readers, although James opposed the structuralists’ attempts to analyze experience into its elements and suggested instead that behavior is a steady flow, a “stream of thought,” that can only artificially be broken up. It stressed the biological value of consciousness and its evolution as a useful instrument for adaptation—a viewpoint which became central in the functional school which James helped to found. It anticipated the behaviorist movement by emphasizing the importance of studying stim- ulus-response relationships. It dealt with everyday concepts, such as habit, which gives stability to our lives and is therefore the “flywheel of society”; the self, which is not one but many because we adapt to many different situationsin different ways; and will, which influences not only what we do but what we believe.The Principles introduced the widely discussed theory that emotions are the result of and not the cause of bodily reactions: “We do not run because we are afraid, we are afraid because we run. And, to give one more example, the book took a strong stand against faculty psychology, particularly on the subject of memory, showing that training carried out with one type of material such as poetry does not improve memory in general.After publishing the Principles, James turned his attention to the growing discipline of educational psychology and wrote his widely read Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1899). He then became interested in the psychology of religion. In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he argued that the value of religion is not nullified by pinning the label “abnormal” on people who have mystical experiences. He also suggested that a study of such experiences can uncover facts about man’s nature which cannot be reached through other means. Since the book focused on religion as an experience rather than a set of dogma and beliefs, it had the effect not only of opening up new areas of psychological investigation, but of rekindling the faith of many readers. This volume was followed by a series of philosophic works, which included Pragmatism (1907), The Meaning of Truth (1909), and A Pluralistic Universe (1909).James was one of the most vivid personalities and suggestive writers in the entire history of psychology. Perhaps the essence of the man has best been expressed by his biographer, R. B. Perry (1935): “He always left the impression there was more; that he knew there was more; and that the more to come might, for all he knew, throw a very different light on the matters under consideration. He respected his universe too much to believe that he could carry it under his own hat. These saving doubts arose from the same source as his tolerance and respect for his fellow man. The universe, like one’s neighbor, is never wholly disclosed to the outward view.”"

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "JAMES, WILLIAM (1842-1910)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/james-william-1842-1910/ (accessed August 17, 2022).


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