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William James

Who was William James?

William James (1842-1910) built on Charles Peirce's (1839-1914) pragmaticist ideas to create a more humanistic form of pragmatism. James was also the founder of modern psychology as a science independent of subjective introspection. His principal works include The Principles of Psychology (1890), The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (19011902), and Pragmatism (1907).

What are some interesting facts about William James' life?

James was the oldest of five children. His brother Henry was the famous novelist, and his sister Alice became well known for her posthumous diaries. James' father, Henry James Sr., was both wealthy and eccentric. The James children were educated in the United States, England, and Europe, and William grew up with a cosmopolitan perspective. James was at first interested in studying art, but then turned to science. In youth he suffered from eye, back, stomach, and skin problems and was diagnosed as "neurasthenic." He experienced depression and, at times, prolonged suicidal thoughts. While some of his ailments might be considered "psychosomatic" today, he did eventually die of heart failure.

James began medical studies at Harvard in 1864 and took time off to travel on expeditions to the Amazon and to Germany for cures of various physical complaints. He was awarded his M.D. in 1869. It was his only academic degree, although he never practiced medicine. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878 and spent the remainder of his life teaching at Harvard, in both psychology and, after the early 1880s, philosophy. James' students included such luminaries as President Theodore Roosevelt, author and philosopher George Santayana, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, author Gertrude Stein, philosopher and legal scholar Morris Raphael Cohen, Alain Locke (sometimes called the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance"), logician and pragmatist C.I. Lewis, and psychologist and philosopher Mary Calkins.

What was Williams James' main contribution to psychology?

James developed the same theory that was independently developed by Carl Georg Lange (1834-1900), the Danish physician and psychologist. It became known as the James-Lange theory of the emotions. The theory is that emotions are our experience of changes in our bodies. Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) had held that emotions are the effects of our beliefs, while René Descartes (1596-1650), in Passions of the Soul (1649), had expressed an earlier version of the James-Lange theory.

Our common sense assumption is that emotions are reactions to events in the world that are mediated by our understanding. By contrast, the James-Lange theory held that our bodies react directly to the world and our awareness of this physical reaction constitutes our emotions. In "What Is an Emotion?," his famous 1884 article published in Mind, James wrote:

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.

How did William James come to develop pragmatism?

During the 1870s, James participated in a discussion group that became known as "the Metaphysical Club." Its members included Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), and mathematician and philosopher Chauncey Wright (1830-1875). While the group was meeting, there was some concern on the part of civic leaders in New England that religion, particularly Protestantism, was suffering as a result of the popularity of Darwinism and intense interest in the sciences. At the time James began to teach philosophy, Harvard administrators had an interest in the potential of philosophy to support religion. When James began his career, the disciplinary boundaries between psychology and philosophy were fluid. Largely as the result of his work, the two fields were distinct by the end of his career. (To this day, William James Hall houses the Harvard Department of Psychology.)

Intellectually, James' pragmatism grew out of the limitations of psychology to provide answers to the moral questions that interested him: How can religion be justified intellectually? Is there free will? What is the nature of truth?

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