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William James | Biography

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Family Background and Education

William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City. He was the eldest of five children of the illustrious family of Henry James Sr. and his wife, Mary Robinson Walsh James. His brother was American novelist Henry James, and his sister was diarist Alice James.

William James Sr., the grandfather of the author, had arrived in New York from Ireland as a poor immigrant and, with his business shrewdness, became one of the richest men in the state. His son, Henry James Sr. (William James's father), inherited his father's wealth, and, as a result, he was free to pursue his intellectual interests. He wrote books on metaphysics―the study of the meaning, structure, and principles of reality―and became a follower of Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The elder James's interest in religion and philosophy affected his son William, who also pursued the study of metaphysics, albeit from a different angle.

William James's schooling was sporadic. His father's restless search for the meaning of life and the best type of education for his children meant that the family moved around and spent significant time in Europe. James was educated both in school and by private tutors, but the only degree he earned was an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in June 1869, although he never practiced medicine. When James was 18, he studied under the American painter William M. Hunt but determined he didn't have enough talent to continue. During his study at Harvard, he took time off to accompany Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon. He also spent time in Germany studying with scientists and medical men and read widely in psychology and philosophy. He was particularly influenced by French philosopher Charles-Bernard Renouvier. In Germany he experienced a psychological breakdown, likely triggered by his doubt that free will existed as well as by his poor health. He recovered in part by reading Renouvier on this subject. James's first act of free will was to believe in free will, by his own account.

Professor at Harvard

In 1872 James was appointed at Harvard as an instructor of physiology (study of the functions and activities of organisms) and began teaching psychology in 1876. The course he taught examined the relationship between physiology and psychology, which marked the beginning of the teaching of modern psychology in the United States. His marriage to Alice H. Gibbens in 1878 brought new energy into his life, and he began writing The Principles of Psychology (1890), a monumental two-volume work, two years after marrying. This textbook was recognized as an important contribution to the field. It established the functional view of psychology, which looks at mental life and behavior in the context of adapting to one's environment.

James created the first psychological laboratory in the United States, but he preferred philosophy to psychology and began teaching that subject at Harvard in 1879. In 1897 he published his first work of philosophy, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, dedicated to American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, an American school of philosophy stressing that meaning should be centered in its practical applications to life and that the purpose of thought is to guide action. James enthusiastically took up Peirce's philosophy and delivered a lecture in 1898 at the University of California titled "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," which helped create the American pragmatic movement. In 1899 his poor physical health forced him to take a leave from Harvard, but during that time he worked on the Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901–02. They were very successfully published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. James applied his pragmatic view to his study of religion, which led to the assertion that religion must be judged by its results.

Work in Philosophy

William James continued to work on philosophy, transforming Peirce's theory and arguing that the meaning of any idea can be found in the experiential consequences that grow out of it. Early in 1906 James served as a visiting lecturer at Stanford University in California and returned to the East after a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco in April of that year. In November and December 1906 he delivered a series of lectures on pragmatism at the Lowell Institute in Boston. The Lowell Institute was established in 1836 as an educational forum to share important ideas with the public free of charge. James repeated these lectures on pragmatism at Columbia University in the first two months of 1907. The series of eight talks, published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, were a refinement of material James had been working on for at least a decade. He had previously delivered lectures on the same subject at the University of California, Wellesley, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and of course at Harvard.

Essays published in The Journal of Philosophy, which further developed his ideas about pragmatism and empiricism, were collected as Essays in Radical Empiricism (published posthumously in 1912). William James retired from Harvard in 1907 and gave the Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1908. Later published as A Pluralistic Universe (1909), they reflect his continued interest in religious ideas. He also published The Meaning of Truth the same year, a defense of his pragmatism. Some Problems in Philosophy (1911) was published posthumously. William James died in his country home in New Hampshire on August 26, 1910.

James is remembered as an original thinker, the first American psychologist, a philosopher of religion, and one of the three great American pragmatists (the other two being Peirce and educator John Dewey). Since the 1970s, pragmatism has been experiencing a revival and is recognized as a viable philosophy with the ability to continue to open new avenues of inquiry.

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