The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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William James | Biography


William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City. He became the leader of the American philosophical movement known as pragmatism, which stressed the practical application of philosophy and that the purpose of thought was to guide action. James made important contributions in both psychology and philosophy, as well as to the psychology of religion. William James was one of five children (and the eldest) of the illustrious family of Henry James Sr. and his wife Mary Robertson Walsh James. His brother was American novelist Henry James, and his sister was diarist Alice James. William James wrote his monumental work, The Principles of Psychology, in 1890, along with a shorter version a few years later in textbook form. The Principles blended physiology, psychology, philosophy, and personal reflection; contained the seeds of pragmatism and phenomenology (an important 20th-century philosophy that focuses on the study of consciousness and self-awareness); and influenced generations of thinkers.

Family Background and Early Life

William James Sr., the grandfather of the author, arrived in New York from Ireland as a poor immigrant and, with his business acumen, 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 was free to pursue his intellectual interests. He devoted himself to metaphysics (the study of the essence or nature of reality), writing books on the subject, and became a follower of Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The elder James's interest in religion affected his son William, who also pursued the study of metaphysics, albeit from a different angle.

William James's schooling was sporadic, since his father's restless searching for the meaning of life meant that the family moved around and spent significant time in Europe. James was educated both in school and by tutors, but the only degree he actually received 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 not to continue. During his study at Harvard, he took time off to accompany American Swiss 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 Renouvier. In Germany he experienced a psychological breakdown, likely triggered by his doubt that free will existed. He recovered with the help of the readings of 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 (the study of functions and activities of organisms) and began teaching psychology in 1876—specifically a course on 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 two-volume work, two years after marrying. This textbook was recognized as an important contribution to the field and 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. 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, 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 that 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.

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. He applied this view to his study of religion, which led to the assertion that religion must be judged by its results. In 1906 he delivered lectures in Boston and at Stanford University in California. The Boston series of lectures was published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907). Essays published in The Journal of Philosophy, which further developed his ideas about pragmatism and empiricism (philosophy based on the idea that all knowledge originates in direct experience), were collected as Essays in Radical Empiricism (published posthumously in 1912). William James retired from Harvard in 1907 and gave lectures at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1908. He later published A Pluralistic Universe (1909), which reflects 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.

Enduring Contributions

James is remembered as an original thinker, one of the great turn-of-the-century psychologists, and one of the three great American pragmatists (the other two being Peirce and educator John Dewey). His groundbreaking work on religious experience was the first serious study on the subject in the West to acknowledge the similarities in religion across traditions and to treat the varieties of experience as equally valid.

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