William James

American psychologist and philosopher


January 11, 1842
August 26, 1910
Related topics
History, James, William,--1842-1910, Philosophy, James, Henry,--1843-1916, Philosophers,


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William James was born January 11, 1842, eldest son of a theologian. It was a distinguished intellectual family. James's younger brother was the novelist Henry James. The James children were educated somewhat haphazardly, as the family traveled between New York, Boulogne, France, and Geneva. William James was multi-lingual at an early age, and in his father's company he was exposed to many religious and philosophical thinkers.

He began studying art formally at age 18, but quickly abandoned the pursuit and started taking science courses at Harvard. Eventually he entered Harvard Medical School. His studies were interrupted by a trip to the Amazon, which led to a breakdown in his health. He later studied with some of the foremost scientists in Germany, and finally completed his medical degree in 1869, when he was 27 years old. But his health was so poor that he could barely leave the house, and he spent his time reading. He sank into depression and phobia, and thought of taking his life. This awful period ended when James decided to believe in free will--or at least he willed himself to believe in free will. With this act of faith, he regained health and energy, and began teaching physiology and then psychology at Harvard.

James's approach to psychology was notably different from the prevailing theories of the time. He brought a more biological bent to psychology, insisting that thinking was part of an organism's survival apparatus. He wrote technical papers on dizziness in deaf-mutes and on the human experience of space and time. He created the first psychological laboratory in the United States, at Harvard, and enthusiastically supervised many student experiments. His background in medicine lent his psychology a much more empirical and physiological bent than it had had before, and he is credited with formulating the framework from which modern experimental psychology sprang.

In 1890 he published Principles of Psychology, an exhaustive two-volume work which organized and synthesized virtually all the extant research on psychology. James later condensed this into a one-volume textbook, which became quite popular.

James lost interest in psychology after his great success with it, and went on to write seminal works of American philosophy, Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism. In the last years of his life, he was hailed as America's greatest philosopher. His philosophical works are still studied, whereas his writings and research on psychology now seem antiquated. Nevertheless, he made an enormous contribution to the growth of this new science. Much modern research is indebted in spirit to James, and for this he is remembered.

In 1910, William James died of heart failure at his summer home in New Hampshire.

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