William James Research Paper

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William James, American philosopher and psychologist, remains a vivid presence in psychology because of his two classics, Principles of Psychology (1890 1981) and Varieties of Religious Experience (1902 1985). His work at once embodies the culmination of nineteenth century psychology, in his critical review of the older philosophical psychology and of the new experimental psychology, and the launching of twentieth century psychology, especially the functionalist tradition. He is remembered in philosophy as one of the last philosophers in the grand style who also sought to communicate his insights to a broad audience, an audience attracted by the informal felicity of his writing, public lecturing, and teaching. Distinctively American in his promotion of a pragmatism that viewed abstract concepts critically in terms of their ‘cash value,’ he participated actively in the European intellectual scene and like his eminent novelist brother Henry James advanced the linkage of the American and European intellectual and cultural worlds.

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His enduring significance at the end of the twentieth Century is reflected in the publication of definitive scholarly editions of his complete writings in 17 volumes (1975b–88) and of his correspondence (1992) of which 12 volumes were planned. As members of an unusually creative family, he and his brother Henry and sister Alice have been the subject of extensive biographical attention (e.g., Lewis 1991, Myers 1986, Perry R. B. 1935).

1. Family Background And Early Life

The James family was economically privileged. William’s father, Henry James Sr. (1811–82), who had inherited a comfortable living, was a restless, questing intellectual who found inspiration in the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. He attracted visits from the New England transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau while William was an infant in New York City, where he was born January 11, 1842. William’s education was irregular, including periods of schooling or tutoring in England, France, Germany, and Switzerland. The intense moral and intellectual climate of the family seemingly entailed severe costs in physical and mental health for William and his gifted siblings. Teasing out the sources of creativity and of pathology in the James family has challenged its biographers.

When William was 18, he embarked on the study of painting in the Newport studio of William Hunt, a prominent American artist. But he gave up painting after about 6 months, turning next to science. He pursued studies in chemistry and comparative anatomy at Harvard, and, in a smaller shift in direction, entered Harvard Medical School when he was 22. These were years of increasing doubt, depression, and psychosomatic discomfort. James interrupted his medical training for a year to take part in an expedition to the Amazon with the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, and interrupted it once more to spend a year and a half in Germany taking therapeutic baths and reading widely in German literature, philosophy, and science. Returning to complete his M.D. degree in 1869, he spent several years of mental distress and near collapse living with his parents.

It was during this period that, by his own account, he drew on philosophy in a turn toward recovery, as he recorded in a subsequently famous passage in his diary of April 30, 1870:

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of (Charles) Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I chose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume, for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will (Perry, 1935, vol.1, p. 323).

This passage heralds the theme of voluntarism that pervades his later writings, as well as suggesting roots of his pragmatic philosophy.

James’s productive life began in 1873 when he was appointed instructor in anatomy and physiology at Harvard. By 1875 he was teaching his first course in psychology, in connection with which he established a teaching laboratory that, as American historians of psychology like to note, preceded Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory at Leipzig in 1879, a date often enshrined as the founding of scientific psychology. By 1878, when he was 36, he had contracted to write the textbook on psychology that was not to see publication until 1890. It was also in 1878 that he married Alice Gibbens, a teacher who shared his intellectual and spiritual interests and had spent 5 years in Heidelberg with her widowed mother. This event reflected the stabilization of his personal life and also contributed greatly to it. In the following year he offered his first course in philosophy. He was effectively launched in his dual career as psychologist and philosopher at Harvard where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on August 26, 1910, at his family retreat at Chocorua, New Hampshire.

2. Major Themes

Three themes pervade James’s contributions to psychology and philosophy. One is his commitment to voluntarism, the primacy of human agency, which led him to reject mechanistic doctrines. A second is his continual struggle to find a place for religious spirituality as exemplified by his father in the world revealed by Darwinian science. The third, an essential ingredient in his handling of the first two, is his commitment to pluralism and openness in theorizing, as shown in his distaste for abstract systemization and in his opposition to what he saw as the absolutism of both scientific materialism and Hegelian idealism. These themes characterize James’s thought throughout his career as psychologist and philosopher, but in the spirit of the third theme, paradoxical inconsistencies recur in his psychology and philosophy.

3. James’s Psychology

In his great book, The Principles of Psychology (1890 1981), James presented an account of mental life in the positivistic spirit of natural science. That meant for him that speculative entities beyond experience like the soul or psychological faculties were to be avoided. He took a commonsense dualism of mind and body for granted, though he was explicit that fundamental metaphysical issues would have to be faced eventually. The principal psychological method for him was introspection, by which James mostly meant the informal and avowedly fallible self-observation that he did so well, not the disciplined and quantified introspection of the new German experimental laboratories, which he respected while noting wryly that the method ‘could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored.’ (p. 192).

3.1 James’s Functionalism

To apply a term that emerged with his immediate American successors, James was presenting a functional psychology, in the senses subsequently intended by the Chicago functionalists. His focus was on mental processes (functioning), not on the analysis of mental contents into constituent sensory elements. Further, he emphasized the adaptive functions of psychological processes, in line with evolutionary theory. Consciousness, he proposed, emerged to organize and direct neural processes in the brain that had become too complex to be guided by a mechanistic concatenation of reflexes. His vision of scientific psychology was committed to a mind–body interactionism troublesome to both scientific materialists and philosophers.

James viewed the nervous system and the brain as organs of mind, and devoted early chapters of the Principles to the functions of the brain. There follows a chapter on habit, foreshadowing the later preoccupations of J. B. Watson’s behaviorism. James’s account of habit was primarily physiological. Currents in the cerebral cortex originating in the sense organs ‘leave their traces in the paths which they take. The only thing they can do … is to deepen old paths or to make new ones. … (A) simple habit … is, mechanically, nothing but a reflex discharge; and its anatomical substratum must be a path in the system’ (p. 112). From this physiological base James proceeded with recommendations for the cultivation of good habits, putting neural mechanism to voluntary use for moral purposes, a characteristically Jamesian manoeuver.

3.2 The Stream Of Thought

If James’s treatment of the brain and of habit pointed toward later developments in neuropsychology and behaviorism, his classic treatment of the stream of thought provided a sensitive and persuasive alternative to the prevalent approaches of introspective psychology that sought to decompose ideas and images into sensory elements. For James, the proper starting point in psychology is not sensations or feelings, as in prevalent elementaristic psychologies, but the sheer fact that thought goes on. ‘Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness,’ he wrote (p. 220). Thought seems continuous but is always changing. It deals actively and selectively with objects independent of itself. The idea that thought is actively selective underlies James’s later discussion of attention, which in turn provides the rationale for his treatment of will, in terms of holding a thought of action in focus long enough for the action to occur.

No two states of consciousness are ever the same. ‘A permanently existing ‘‘idea’’ … which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades’ (p. 230). Relationships and transitional states are given in the primary data of introspection just as directly as the more substantive states on which consciousness may momentarily ‘perch.’ James’s views here anticipated those of the Wurzburg school regarding imageless thought, and foreshadowed Gestalt psychology in their rejection of sensory elements. James’s evocative term, ‘the stream of consciousness,’ found a place in the context of world literature.

3.3 The Consciousness Of Self

Since the stream of thought is always a personal consciousness in which the objects of awareness are divided into ‘me’ and ‘not me,’ James followed his treatment of the stream of thought with a chapter on ‘The Consciousness of Self’ that was very influential on later scholarship. If ‘I’ is taken to label the person as agent and introspective observer, ‘me’ is the self as object of introspective observation. For the purposes of his psychology, the ‘I’ is simply the passing thought in the personal stream, which appropriates the person’s memories of the past and anticipations of the future. The ‘me’ comprises a hierachy of three selves. First is the material self—one’s body, clothes, and the material possessions that one regards as ‘mine.’ The social self, or more properly, selves, consists of the views of oneself held by others that one cares about, as one understands them. The spiritual self is ‘a man’s inner or subjective being, his psychic faculties and dispositions, taken concretely … the most enduring and intimate part of the self’ (p. 283). These three aspects of ‘me’ are the focus of motives of self-seeking and self-preservation, and of self-feelings of self-complacency and self-dissatisfaction. James provided a famous ‘formula’ for self-esteem as the ratio of Success to Pretensions, anticipating much later research and theory about Level of Aspiration.

The distinctively human attribute of reflective self-awareness highlighted in James’s treatment of selfhood was subsequently developed mainly by social psychologists in the sociological tradition, especially C. H. Cooley and G. H. Mead, but returned as a central concern of psychologist students of personality and social behavior in the latter half of the twentieth century.

3.4 Emotion

Of all the special psychological topics that James discussed, his theory of emotion evoked more notice and controversy than any other. It was known as the James–Lange theory because in the Principles James linked his ideas as previously published in the 1880s with similar views of the Danish physiologist Carl Georg Lange published at about the same time. James’s version held that the stronger or ‘coarser’ emotions of grief, fear, rage and love arise from feeling bodily changes that are aroused directly by an ‘exciting fact.’ In contrast with folk belief, we do not weep because we feel sad; we feel sad because we are weeping. We feel fear because we are set to run away. We feel because we act.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the James–Lange theory did not fare well. In one important critique, the physiologist Walter Cannon showed in animal research that centrally mediated emergency emotional responses do not depend on feedback from the viscera, a finding that bore more critically on Lange’s version of the theory than on James’s. More importantly, in a period dominated by behaviorism, James’s central interest in emotion as conscious feeling seemed scientifically irrelevant. With the subsequent decline of behaviorism, each of several competing treatments of emotion looked back to James as anticipating their conclusions. Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard focused on the role of sensory feedback from the facial musculature in emotional expression as crucial to the distinctiveness of felt emotions, whereas Stanley Schachter launched a cognitively focused line of research emphasizing the interpretive context in which arousing stimulation is encountered. As cognitive perspectives on human psychology developed one-sidedly, James’s emphasis on the centrality of feeling became more attractive.

3.5 Other Aspects

As embodied in the Principles. James’s psychology dealt with many other topics, some familiar in later textbooks, others less so. At first encounter, James’s account of the will seems foreign to present students of psychology, who are accustomed instead to nonconsensual chapters on motivation. For James, voluntary movements are a secondary development from the primary organic functions involved in reflex action, instincts, and emotional movements (p. 1099). The link between thought and voluntary action is provided by ideo-motor action, the concept that thoughts of a movement lead directly to making the movement, unless contrary inhibiting thoughts intervene. With the resurgence of cognitive and neuropsychology, James’s focus on the selectivity of attention and on the relation between thought and action returned as central to the discipline. His century-old formulations are no longer useful, but his identification of significant problems for psychology earns renewed respect.

Other topics broached in the Principles, particularly hypnosis and divided consciousness, anticipated concerns beyond the boundaries of positivistic science that continued to preoccupy James during his mainly philosophic period that followed its publication (see Taylor 1983). James was much interested in the work of the French psychopathologists Charcot, Janet, and Liebeault, who preceded psychoanalysis in giving attention to nonrational processes outside the scope of normal consciousness.

4. James As A Philosopher

In spite of James’s expressed intent in the Principles to avoid metaphysics, the book was infused with his philosophic thinking, particularly in his critique of earlier philosophic psychology, and contains the germ of most of the philosophic positions on which he elaborated subsequently. His specific impact on philosophy is identified with pragmatism and radical empiricism. Pragmatism, launched by James, became a vigorous philosophic movement which enjoyed a renaissance late in the twentieth century. Radical empiricism was James’s attempt at the fundamental metaphysical construction that he postponed in the Principles. The work was incomplete at the time of his death, and the book presenting it (James 1912 1976) was assembled posthumously from journal articles.

4.1 Pragmatism

When James published Pragmatism (1907 1975a), a popular book that was much reprinted and translated, he drew on his earlier writing and thinking over three decades. Here, he offered the pragmatic method as a way of settling metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable, such as those between tender minded religious and tough-minded materialistic world views: ‘The pragmatic method … is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it make practically to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?’ (1907 1975a, p. 28) The pragmatic method entails a perspective on meaning. As he writes, ‘to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance’ (p. 29). And with pragmatic meaning comes a pragmatic conception of truth, as characterizing beliefs that receive confirmation when acted upon. ‘The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process …’ (p. 97). With characteristic generosity, James attributed his initial ideas about pragmatism to his friend the semiotic philosopher C. S. Peirce, who did not agree with James’s developed approach.

The extensive philosophical controversy about pragmatism in the first decade of the twentieth century appears to reflect considerable mutual misunderstanding on the part of both James and his critics, as well as some problems with his mostly informal exposition (see Myers 1986). He can be interpreted as treating claims of pragmatic truth as similar to the provisional truth claims of empirical science, in the spirit of Peirce and, later, John Dewey, or alternatively, as rationalizing wishful thinking (religious faith has good personal and social results, so it may be accepted legitimately as true by its believers). The idea that philosophical abstractions and assertions should be judged in terms of their practical consequences came to seem typically American, to both his supporters and his critics.

Late in the twentieth century, interest in pragmatism revived, with similar diversity of interpretation. One strand of thought prominently represented by the philosopher Rorty (1979) became part of the ‘postmodernist’ attack on the scientific world view to which some disaffected psychologists subscribed. Knowledge, in this version, is a human construction for human purposes and cannot be taken as a ‘mirror of nature,’ a view with roots in James. Some other humanistically inclined applied psychologists called for a pragmatic psychology focused on useful contextually limited truths rather than general laws. This version of pragmatism retains a commitment to evidential empiricism like that of the early James.

4.2 Radical Empiricism

As James entered his final decade increasingly troubled by his failing heart, he turned to the fundamental metaphysical issues that he had tabled when he wrote the Principles. In pragmatism, he had crystalized a theory of knowledge developed over his full career. Radical empiricism, in contrast, proposed an ontology that continued his attack on Hegelian absolute idealism but broke sharply with the commonsense mind– body dualism of his scientific psychology. To transcend this Cartesian dualism, and the cognitive dualism of thought and its object or consciousness and its contents, he now proposed pure experience as the fundamental reality. Pure experience prior to analysis or conceptualization does not distinguish between thing and thought. The commonsense categories, he believed, could be recovered from the contexts in which ingredients of pure experience are embedded and their various relationships. His apparent move toward philosophical idealism was qualified by his continuing commitment to pluralism: ‘… there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: ‘‘It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not’’’ (1912 1976, p. 14–15).

5. Religion And Psychic Research

James continually struggled to find a place for the moral and hopeful view of humanity’s place in the universe that religions can provide. Pragmatism was one route through which he sought to reconcile the world views of religion and science. Another was psychic research. For two years he was president of the Society for Psychical Research, to which he belonged from 1884 until his death. He was ever hopeful of finding supportive evidence for spiritual realities, and never satisfied that the evidence actually obtained was adequate (cf. James 1986).

James was already esteemed as a leading philosopher and psychologist when he delivered invited lectures on ‘natural religion’ at the University of Edinburgh in 1901–2. Their publication as Varieties of Religious Experience (1902 1985) became his second enduring classic, one that, a century later, is not only cited and respected but also read. Displaying the meaning of religion in the religious experience of individuals, it draws richly on accounts by saints, mystics, and others who provide evidence of their relation to what they regard as the Divine. The conceptual distinctions around which he organized his description and analysis have entered our common culture: the religion of healthy-mindedness vs. that of the sick soul; the ‘divided self’ and ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ characters.

Although his sympathetic feeling for the many forms of religious belief is clear throughout, his presentation of religious experience is rightly esteemed by believers and unbelievers alike. His way of deploying ‘case materials’ to display the nature of a human phenomenon is a model for contemporary qualitative research to emulate.

James regarded the subconscious mental states revealed by the French psychopathologists as important in religious conversion. Speculatively, he declared his conviction that subliminal consciousness overlaps other realms of consciousness in mystical experience. By ‘being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true’ (1902 1985 p. 408). Here, James made radical and pragmatic use of his developing ‘radical empiricism.’ In the late twentieth century, this mystical side of James appealed to disaffected psychologists identified with a ‘transpersonal’ psychology with religious undertones.

6. On Public Issues: Imperialism And War

As a public intellectual, James was involved in the social issues of his day. A political as well as a philosophic liberal, he was opposed vehemently to emerging American imperialism in the wake of the Spanish American War. It was as an advisor to the peace movement that he wrote The Moral Equi alent of War (1910/1982), one of his last essays published in his lifetime, which remains a classic document in the psychology of war and peace.

After an evolutionary account of human warlike propensities, he noted that the militarists of his day held warfare to be the mainstay of admirable, martial virtues, and that as a ‘pleasure economy’ supplants the earlier ‘pain and fear economy,’ these virtues are likely to degenerate. He agreed that war fosters ‘manliness’ and surrender of private interest, but, given the monstrosity of modern war, he proposed planning for alternative sources of energizing challenge. Specifically, he suggested ‘instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of an army enlisted against nature … ’ (p. 171). That he focused on ‘manliness’ and cast nature in the role of enemy shows James as a creature of his time, but his idea of the moral equivalent of war remains attractive. The equivalence is not in regard to the release of aggression, however, but to self-testing for the common good against difficult challenge.

7. William James Today

James’s vivid and unconventional writings assure his continued influence, as they won him acclaim but evoked controversy in his lifetime. In North American psychology, James has become such a revered ancestor that his name gets called upon in many divergent contexts. His pragmatism is still very much alive. At one point, James considered humanism as an alternative term to pragmatism. Certainly, the influence of James in psychology and philosophy has favored humanistic responsiveness to the richness and variety of human experience, in contrast with the abstractness of absolute idealism in his own day and the dehumanized barrenness of behaviorism, logical positivism, and analytic philosophy that followed. His sensitive phenomenological treatment of thought and self remains unsurpassed, though it has been built on and superseded in various ways. His open-mindedness and pluralism set a valuable counter-ideal to the dogmatism that is always a potential liability of mainstream doctrine. This counter-ideal inspired mid-century psychologists of personality such as Gordon Allport, Gardner Murphy, and Henry Murray. At the turn of the millenium, it further inspires transpersonal psychologists who find in James respectable company for their own tendencies toward mysticism. The controversy surrounding James continues.


  1. James W 1907/1975a Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  2. James W 1975b–1988 The Works of William James (17 volumes). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London
  3. James W 1912/1976 Essays in Radical Empiricism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. James W 1890/1981 The Principles of Psychology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. James W 1910/1982 The moral equivalent of war. In: James W (ed.) Essays in Religion and Morality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  6. James W 1902/1985 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  7. James W 1986 Essays in Psychical Research. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  8. James W 1992 The Correspondence of William James (12 volumes). University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA and London
  9. Lewis R W B 1991 The Jameses: A Family Narrative. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
  10. Myers G E 1986 William James: His Life and Thought. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  11. Perry R B 1935 The Thought and Character of William James. Little, Brown, Boston
  12. Rorty R 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  13. Taylor E 1983 William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures. Scribners, New York
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