was an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology,
psychology and philosophy. His twelve-hundred page masterwork, The Principles
of Psychology (1890), is a rich blend of physiology, psychology, philosophy,
and personal reflection that has given us such ideas as "the stream
of thought" and the baby's impression of the world "as one
great blooming, buzzing confusion" (PP 462). It contains seeds
of pragmatism and phenomenology, and influenced generations of thinkers
in Europe and America, including Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John
Dewey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. James studied at Harvard's Lawrence
Scientific School and the School of Medicine, but his writings were
from the first as much philosophical as scientific. "Some Remarks
on Spencer's Notion of Mind as Correspondence" (1878) and "The
Sentiment of Rationality" (1879, 1882) presage his future pragmatism
and pluralism, and contain the first statements of his view that philosophical
theories are reflections of a philosopher's temperament or vision.
James hints at his
religious concerns in his earliest essays and in The Principles, but
they become more explicit in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in
Popular Philosophy (1897), Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections
to the Doctrine (1898), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). James oscillated between thinking
that a "study in human nature" such as Varieties could contribute
to a "Science of Religion" and the belief that religious experience
involves an altogether supernatural domain, somehow inaccessible to
science but accessible to the individual human subject. James made some
of his most important philosophical contributions in the last decade
of his life. In a burst of writing in 1904-5 (collected in Essays in
Radical Empiricism (1912)) he set out the metaphysical view most commonly
known as "neutral monism," according to which there is one
fundamental "stuff" which is neither material nor mental.
He also published Pragmatism (1907), the culminating expression of a
set of views permeating his writings.
of James's Life
Chronology of James's Life
• 1842. Born in New York City, first child of Henry James and
Mary Walsh. James. Educated by tutors and at private schools in New
• 1843. Brother Henry born.
• 1848. Sister Alice born.
• 1855-8. Family moves to Europe. William attends school in Geneva,
Paris, and Boulogne-sur-Mer; develops interests in painting and science.
• 1858. Family settles in Newport, Rhode Island, where James studies
painting with William Hunt.
• 1859-60. Family settles in Geneva, where William studies science
at Geneva Academy; then returns to Newport when William decides he wishes
to resume his study of painting.
• 1861. William abandons painting and enters Lawrence Scientific
School at Harvard.
• 1864. Enters Harvard School of Medicine.
• 1865. Joins Amazon expedition of his teacher Louis Agassiz,
contracts a mild form of smallpox, recovers and travels up the Amazon,
collecting specimens for Agassiz's zoological museum at Harvard.
• 1866. Returns to medical school. Suffers eye strain, back problems,
and suicidal depression in the fall.
• 1867-8. Travels to Europe for health and education: Dresden,
Bad Teplitz, Berlin, Geneva, Paris. Studies physiology at Berlin University,
reads philosophy, psychology and physiology (Wundt, Kant, Lessing, Goethe,
Schiller, Renan, Renouvier).
• 1869. Receives M. D. degree, but never practices. Severe depression
in the fall.
• 1870-1. Depression and poor health continue.
• 1872. Accepts offer from President Eliot of Harvard to teach
undergraduate course in comparative physiology.
• 1873. Accepts an appointment to teach full year of anatomy and
physiology, but postpones teaching for a year to travel in Europe.
• 1874-5. Begins teaching psychology; establishes first American
• 1878. Marries Alice Howe Gibbens. Publishes "Remarks on
Spencer's Definition of Mind as Correspondence" in Journal of Speculative
• 1879. Publishes "The Sentiment of Rationality" in
• 1880. Appointed Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.
Continues to teach psychology.
• 1882. Travels to Europe. Meets with Ewald Hering, Carl Stumpf,
Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Wundt, Joseph Delboeuf, Jean Charcot, George Croom
Robertson, Shadworth Hodgson, Leslie Stephen.
• 1884. Lectures on "The Dilemma of Determinism" and
publishes "On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology"
• 1885-92. Teaches psychology and philosophy at Harvard: logic,
ethics, English empirical philosophy, psychological research.
• 1890. Publishes The Principles of Psychology with Henry Holt
of Boston, twelve years after agreeing to write it.
• 1897. Publishes The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular
Philosophy. Lectures on "Human Immortality" (published in
• 1898. Identifies himself as a pragmatist in "Philosophical
Conceptions and Practical Results," given at the University of
California, Berkeley. Develops heart problems.
• 1899. Publishes Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students
on Some of Life's Ideals (including "On a Certain Blindness in
Human Beings" and "What Makes Life Worth Living?"). Becomes
active member of the Anti-Imperialist League, opposing U. S. policy
• 1901-2. Delivers Gifford lectures on "The Varieties of
Religious Experience" in Edinburgh (published in 1902).
• 1904-5 Publishes "Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,"
"A World of Pure Experience," "How Two Minds Can Know
the Same Thing," "Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic?"
and "The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience"
in Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. All were
reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
• 1907. Resigns Harvard professorship. Publishes Pragmatism: A
New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, based on lectures given in Boston
and at Columbia.
• 1909. Publishes A Pluralistic Universe, based on Hibbert Lectures
delivered in England and at Harvard the previous year.
• 1910. Publishes "A Pluralistic Mystic" in Hibbert
Journal. Abandons attempt to complete a "system" of philosophy.
(His partially completed manuscript published posthumously as Some Problems
of Philosophy). Dies of heart failure at summer home in Chocorua, New
"Remarks on Spencer's Definition of Mind as Correspondence"
of Herbert Spencer broaches what will turn out to be characteristic
Jamesean themes: the importance of religion and the passions, the variety
of human responses to life, and the idea that we help to "create"
the truths that we "register" (E, 21). Taking up Spencer's
view that the adjustment of the organism to the environment is the basic
feature of mental evolution, James charges that Spencer projects his
own vision of what ought to be onto the phenomena he claims to describe.
Survival, James asserts, is merely one of many interests human beings
have: "The social affections, all the various forms of play, the
thrilling intimations of art, the delights of philosophic contemplation,
the rest of religious emotion, the joy of moral self-approbation, the
charm of fancy and of wit -- some or all of these are absolutely required
to make the notion of mere existence tolerable;..." (E, 13). We
are all teleological creatures at base, James holds, each with his or
her or own a priori values and categories. Spencer, then, "merely
takes sides with the telos he happens to prefer" (E, 18).
empiricism is expressed in the claim that these values and categories
fight it out in the course of human experience, that their conflicts
"can only be solved ambulando, and not by any a priori definition."
The "formula which proves to have the most massive destiny,"
he concludes, "will be the true one" (E, 17). Yet James wishes
to defend his sense that any such formulation will be determined as
much by a freely-acting human mind as by the world, a position he would
later (in Pragmatism) call "humanism": "there belongs
to mind, from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote. It is in the
game, and not a mere looker-on; and its judgments of the should-be,
its ideals, cannot be peeled off from the body of the cogitandum as
if they were excrescences..." (E, 21).
of Rationality" (1879, 82)
This essay was first published in Mind in 1879; a second part appeared
in the Princeton Review in 1882. Both parts were used to construct the
essay of this title published in The Will to Believe and Other Essays
in Popular Philosophy (1897). Although he never quite says that rationality
is a sentiment, James holds that a sentiment -- really a set of sentiments
-- is a "mark" of rationality. The philosopher, James writes,
will recognize the rationality of a conception "as he recognizes
everything else, by certain subjective marks with which it affects him.
When he gets the marks, he may know that he has got the rationality."
These marks include a "strong feeling of ease, peace, rest"
(WB 57), and a "feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment,
of its absoluteness" (WB 58). "Fluid" thinking, whether
logical or cosmological, is said to produce the sentiment, as when we
learn that the "the balloon rises by the same law whereby the stone
sinks" (WB 59). However, balancing the "passion for parsimony"
(WB 58) such unifications satisfy is a passion for distinguishing: a
"loyalty to clearness and integrity of perception, dislike of blurred
outlines, of vague identifications" (WB 59). The ideal philosopher
is a blend of these two passions of rationality, and James thinks that
even some great philosophers go too far in one direction or another.
Spinoza's unity of all things in one substance is "barren,";
and so is Hume's "’looseness and separateness’ of everything..."
Sentiments of rationality
operate not just in logic or science, but in ordinary life. When we
first move into a room, for example, "we do not know what draughts
may blow in upon our back, what doors may open, what forms may enter,
what interesting objects may be found in cupboards and corners."
These uncertainties, minor as they may be, act as "mental irritant[s]"
(WB 67-8), which disappear when we know our way around the room and
come to "feel at home" there. These feelings of confident
expectation, of knowing how certain things will turn out, are another
form of the sentiment of rationality.
James begins the
second part of his essay by considering the case when "two conceptions
[are] equally fit to satisfy the logical demand" for fluency or
unification. In such a case, one must consider a "practical"
component of rationality: "the one which awakens the active impulses,
or satisfies other aesthetic demands better than the other, will be
accounted the more rational conception, and will deservedly prevail"
(WB 66). James here puts the point as one of psychology -- a prediction
of what will prevail -- but he also evaluates it, for it will prevail
"deservedly." James rejects reductive materialism because
it denies to "our most intimate powers...all relevancy in universal
affairs" (WB 71), and hence fails to activate these impulses or
satisfy these demands.
As in his essay
on Spencer, James continues to explore the relations between the temperament
that forms the philosopher's outlook and the outlook itself: "Idealism
will be chosen by a man of one emotional constitution, materialism by
another." James's empathetic understanding extends to both: idealism
offers a sense of intimacy with the universe, the feeling that ultimately
I "am all." But people of contrasting temperaments find in
idealism "a narrow, close, sick-room air," leaving out an
element of danger, contingency and wildness -- "the rough, harsh,
sea-wave, north-wind element" (WB 75). Both the intimacy and the
wildness answer to propensities, passions, and powers in human beings.
Although James has his criticisms of reductive materialisms, he understands
-- from the inside as it were -- some of the materialistic passion.
Those with a materialistic temperament, he writes, "sicken at a
life wholly constituted of intimacy," and have a desire "to
escape personality, to revel in the action of forces that have no respect
for our ego, to let the tides flow, even though they flow over us."
The "strife" of these two forms of "mental temper,"
James predicts, will always be seen in philosophy (WB 76). Certainly
they are always seen in the philosophy of .
James's masterwork officially follows the psychological method of introspection,
defined as follows: "it means, of course, the looking into our
own minds and reporting what we there discover" (PP 185). James
is thinking in part of the experiments his contemporaries Wundt, Stumpf
and Fechner were performing in their laboratories, which led them to
results such as that "sounds are less delicately discriminated
in intensity than lights" (PP 513). Although James does discuss
these results in detail, many of his most important and memorable introspective
observations come from his everyday experience. For example:
The rhythm of a
lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it....Everyone must
know the tantalizing effect of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse,
restlessly dancing in one's mind, striving to be filled out with words
Our father and mother,
our wife and babes, are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. When
they die, a part of our very selves is gone. If they do anything wrong,
it is our shame. If they are insulted, our anger flashes forth as readily
as if we stood in their place. (PP 280).
There is an excitement
during the crying fit which is not without a certain pungent pleasure
of its own; but it would take a genius for felicity to discover any
dash of redeeming quality in the feeling of dry and shrunken sorrow
(PP, p. 1061).
"Will you or
won't you have it so?" is the most probing question we are ever
asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest
as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical,
things. We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What
wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication
with the nature of things! (PP, p. 1182).
In this last quotation,
James tackles a philosophical problem from a psychological perspective.
Although he refrains from answering the question of whether these "responses"
are in fact deep organs of communication with the nature of things --
reporting only that they seem to us to be so -- in his later writings,
such as Varieties of Religious Experience, and A Pluralistic Universe,
he confesses, and to some degree defends, his belief that the question
should be answered affirmatively.
In the deservedly
famous chapter on "The Stream of Thought" James takes himself
to be offering a richer account of experience than those of traditional
empiricists such as Hume. He believes relations, vague fringes, and
tendencies are as experienced directly (he would later label this fact
part of his "radical empiricism.") Rather than a succession
of "ideas," James finds a stream, the waters of which blend;
and where, because of its position in the flow, each situation is unique.
Our consciousness -- or, as he prefers to call it sometimes, our "sciousness"
-- , is "steeped and dyed" in the waters of sciousness or
thought that surround it. Our psychic life not only has edges, it has
rhythm: it is a series of transitions and resting-places, of "flights
and perchings" (PP 236). We rest when we remember the name we have
been searching for; and we are off again when we hear a noise that might
be the baby waking from her nap.
Interest -- and
its close relative, attention -- is a major component not only of James's
psychology, but of the epistemology and metaphysics that seep into his
discussion. A thing, James states in "The Stream of Thought,"
is a group of qualities "which happen practically or aesthetically
to interest us, to which we therefore give substantive names.... (PP
274). And reality "means simply relation to our emotional and active
life...whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real " (PP
Our capacity for
attention to one thing rather than another is for James the sign of
an "active element in all consciousness,...a spiritual something...which
seems to go out to meet these qualities and contents, whilst they seem
to come in to be received by it." (PP 285). This "spiritual
something" is the target of another passage from James's chapter
on "Attention," where he speaks of "a star performer"
or "original psychic force" which takes the form not of mere
attention, but of "the effort to attend." According to James's
revisionary account of freedom, we are mostly not free, but we achieve
freedom in cases which settle, for a while, the direction or orientation
of our lives. In these cases we feel the "sting and excitement
of our voluntary life," and we sense that "things are really
being decided..." (PP, 429). Faced with the tension between scientific
determinism and our belief in our own freedom or autonomy, James restricts
the claims of science, which "must be constantly reminded that
her purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform
causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating,
may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claims at all"
thus encompasses several metaphysical and methodological stances. James
often writes as a scientist, as befits his education in biology and
medicine. The second and third chapters are entitled "The Functions
of the Brain" and "On Some General Conditions of Brain Activity."
James alleges that habit, the subject of the fourth chapter, is "at
bottom a physical principle" (PP 110). Yet, James presents himself
-- as in his title -- as a psychologist, not as a physiologist. The
method of the psychologist "first last and always" is introspection,
which sometimes reveals a personal, traditionally subjective stream
of thought, but which, as practiced by James, anticipates phenomenology
in its pursuit of a more "pure" description of the stream
of thought that does not presuppose it to be mental or material. One
such passage concerns a child newly born in Boston, who gets a sensation
from the candle-flame which lights the bedroom, or from his diaper-pin
[who] does not feel either of these objects to be situated in longitude
71 W. and latitude 42 N.....The flame fills its own place, the pain
fills its own place; but as yet these places are neither identified
with, nor discriminated from, any other places. That comes later. For
the places thus first sensibly known are elements of the child's space-world
which remain with him all his life" (PP 681-2).
This passage, taking
off from sensations, is rooted in James's empiricism, but it operates
as a counter to traditional empiricism, for which "all our sensations
at first appear to us as subjective or internal, and are afterwards
and by a special act on our part ‘extradited’ or ‘projected’
so as to appear located in an outer world" (PP 678). In contrast,
James's view is that the outer and inner worlds are later constructions
from the original data of consciousness -- which are neither objective
nor subjective. This psychological view anticipates James's late metaphysical
"pure experience" account, published in Essays in Radical
Two noteworthy chapters
late in The Principles are entitled "The Emotions" and "Will."
The first sets out the theory -- also enunciated by the Danish physiologist
Carl Lange -- that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression:
"Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we
meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are
angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this
order of sequence is incorrect...that we feel sorry because we cry,
angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble....." (PP, pp.
1065-6). The significance of this view, according to James, is that
our emotions are tied in with our bodily expressions. What, he asks,
would grief be "without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of
the heart, its pang in the breast-bone?" Not an emotion, James
answers, for a "purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity"
(PP 1068). As Wittgenstein was to suggest, the human body may be "the
best picture of the human soul" (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical
Investigations, New York, Macmillan, 1968, p. 178).
In his chapter
on "Will" James opposes the theory of his contemporary Wilhelm
Wundt that there is one special feeling -- a "feeling of innervation"
-- present in all intentional action. In his survey of a range of cases,
James finds that some actions involve an act of resolve or of outgoing
nervous energy, but others do not. For example: I sit at table after
dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out
of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the
heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception
of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally
to bring the act about. There is certainly no express fiat here;..."
The chapter on
"Will" also contains striking passages that anticipate the
concerns of The Varieties of Religious Experience: about moods, "changes
of heart," and "awakenings of conscience." These, James
observes, may affect the "whole scale of values of our motives
and impulses (PP 1140).
The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy
This popular and
influential collection includes "The Sentiment of Rationality"
(discussed above), and essays on "The Dilemma of Determinism,"
"Great Men and Their Environment" and "Is Life Worth
Living?" Its most famous essay gives the collection its title,
although James later wrote that he should have called the essay "the
right to believe," indicating his justificatory intent.
In science, James
notes, we can afford to await the outcome of investigation before coming
to a belief. The cases of belief formation and justification to which
James draws attention in "The Will to Believe" are, in contrast,
"forced" -- we must come to some belief even if all the relevant
evidence is not in. If I am on a mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge
to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to
consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross
the ledge. This is a "momentous" question: if I am wrong I
may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the
ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success.
In such a case, James asserts, I have the "right to believe"
-- precisely because such a belief may help bring about the fact believed
in. This is a case "where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary
faith exists in its coming" (WB 25).
James applies his
analysis to religious belief, particularly to the possible case in which
one's salvation depends on believing in God in advance of any proof
that God exists. In such a case the belief may be justified by the outcome
to which having the belief leads. James also takes his analysis outside
of the religious domain, to a wide range of secular human life:
A social organism
of any sort is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty
with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs....
A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic
team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing
achieved, but nothing is even attempted (WB, 24).
James tries to
justify the systems of "trust" on which society's beliefs
and actions are based. Yet at the same time there is an intensely personal,
even existential, tone to his essay, epitomized by James's appeal near
the end to "respect one another's mental freedom," and by
his concluding citation of Fitz James Stephen's statement that "‘In
all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark....’"(
Another essay in
the collection, "Reflex Action and Theism," attempts a reconciliation
of science and religion. By "reflex action" James understands
the biological picture of the organism as responding to sensations with
a series of actions. Human beings and other higher animals have evolved
a theoretical or thinking stage between the sensation and the action,
and it is here that God comes up, at least for human beings. James holds
that the thought of God is a natural human response to the universe,
regardless of whether we can prove that God exists. God will be, as
James puts it, the "centre of gravity of all attempts to solve
the riddle of life" (WB, 116). James ends the essay by advocating
a "theism" that posits "an ultimate opacity in things,
a dimension of being which escapes our theoretic control" (WB,
The Will to Believe
also contains James's most developed account of morality, "The
Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life." Morality for James rests
on sentience -- without it there are no moral claims and no moral obligations.
But once sentience exists, a claim is made, and morality gets "a
foothold in the universe" (WB 198). Although James insists that
there is no common essence to morality, he does find a guiding principle
for ethical philosophy in the principle that we "satisfy at all
times as many demands as we can" (WB, 205). This satisfaction is
to be arrived at by working towards a "richer universe...the good
which seems most organizable, most fit to enter into complex combinations,
most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole" (WB, 210). We
arrive at laws and moral formulations by a kind of "experiment,"
James holds. (WB, 206). By such experiments, we have liberated ourselves
for the most part from slavery and "arbitrary royal power"
(WB, 205). But there is nothing final about the results: "as our
present laws and customs have fought and conquered other past ones,
so they will in their turn be overthrown by any newly discovered order
which will hush up the complaints that they still give rise to, without
producing others louder still" (WB, 206).
The Varieties of
Like The Principles of Psychology, Varieties is "A Study in Human
Nature," as its subtitle says. But at some five hundred pages it
is only half the length of The Principles of Psychology, befitting its
more restricted, if still immense, scope. For James studies that part
of human nature that is, or is related to, religious experience. His
interest is not in religious institutions, ritual, or, even for the
most part, religious ideas, but in "the feelings, acts, and experiences
of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves
to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine"
James sets out a
central distinction of the book in early chapters on "The Religion
of Healthy-Mindedness" and "The Sick Soul." The healthy-minded
religious person -- Walt Whitman is one of James's main examples --
has a deep sense of "the goodness of life," (79) and a soul
of "sky-blue tint" (80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary,
just natural to someone, but often comes in more willful forms. Liberal
Christianity, for example, represents the triumph of a resolute devotion
to healthy-mindedness over a morbid "old hell-fire theology"
(91). James also cites the "mind-cure movement" of Mary Baker
Eddy, for whom "evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions
it is a liar" (107). This remark allows us to draw the contrast
with the religion of "The Sick Soul," for whom evil cannot
be eliminated. From the perspective of the sick soul, "radical
evil gets its innings" (163). No matter how secure one may feel,
the sick soul finds that "[u]nsuspectedly from the bottom of every
fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up:
a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy...."
These states are not simply unpleasant sensations, for they bring "a
feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness"
(136). James's main examples here are Leo Tolstoy's "My Confession,"
John Bunyan's autobiography, and a report of terrifying "dread"
-- allegedly from a French correspondent but actually from James himself.
Some sick souls never get well, while others recover or even triumph:
these are "twice-born." In chapters on "The Divided Self,
and the Process of Its Unification" and on "Conversion,"
James discusses St. Augustine, Henry Alline, Bunyan, Tolstoy, and a
range of popular evangelists, focusing on what he calls "the state
of assurance" (241) they achieve. Central to this state is "the
loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one,
the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer
conditions should remain the same" (248).
chapter on "Mysticism" offers "four marks which, when
an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical..."
(380). The first is ineffability: "it defies expression...its quality
must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to
others." Second is a "noetic quality": mystical states
present themselves as states of knowledge. Thirdly, mystical states
are transient; and, fourth, subjects are passive with respect to them:
they cannot control their coming and going. Are these states, James
ends the chapter by asking, "windows through which the mind looks
out upon a more extensive and inclusive world[?]" (428).
In chapters entitled
"Philosophy" -- devoted in large part to pragmatism -- and
"Conclusions," James finds that religious experience is on
the whole useful, even "amongst the most important biological functions
of mankind," but he concedes that this does not make it true. James
articulates his own belief -- which he does not claim to prove -- that
religious experiences connect us with a greater, or further, reality
not accessible in our normal cognitive relations to the world: "The
further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether
other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’
James first announced his commitment to pragmatism in a lecture given
at Berkeley in 1898, entitled "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical
Results." Other sources for Pragmatism were lectures given at Wellesley
College in 1905, and at the Lowell Institute and Columbia University
in 1906 and 1907. Pragmatism emerges in James's book as five things:
a philosophical temperament, a theory of truth, a theory of meaning,
a holistic account of knowledge, and a method of resolving philosophical
The pragmatic temperament
appears in the book's opening chapter, where James classifies philosophers
according to their tough-or tender-mindedness. The pragmatist is a mediator
like James himself, someone with "scientific loyalty to facts"
as well as "the old confidence in human values and the resultant
spontaneity, whether of the religious or romantic type" (P, 17).
The method of resolving disputes and the theory of meaning are on display
in James's discussion of an argument about whether a man chasing a squirrel
around a tree goes around the squirrel too. Taking meaning as the "conceivable
effects of a practical kind the object may involve," the pragmatist
philosopher finds that two "practical" meanings of "go
around" are in play: either the man goes North, East, South, and
West of the squirrel, or he faces first the squirrel's head, then one
of his sides, then his tail, then his other side. "Make the distinction,"
James writes, "and there is no occasion for any further dispute."
The pragmatic theory
of truth is the subject of the book's sixth (and to some degree its
second) chapter. Truth, James holds, is "a species of the good,"
like health. Truths are goods because we can "ride" on them
into the future without being unpleasantly surprised. They "lead
us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up
to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and
flowing human intercourse. They lead away from excentricity and isolation,
from foiled and barren thinking" (103). James holds that truths
are "made" (104) in the course of human experience; yet although
they live for the most part "on a credit system" in that they
are not currently being verified by most of those who have them, "beliefs
verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure"
on "Pragmatism and Humanism" sets out James's voluntaristic
epistemology. "We carve out everything," he states, "just
as we carve out constellations, to serve our human purposes" (P,
100). Nevertheless, he recognizes "resisting factors in every experience
of truth-making" (P, 117), including not only our present sensations
or experiences but the whole body of our prior beliefs. James holds
neither that we create our truths out of nothing, nor that truth is
entirely independent of humanity. He embraces "the humanistic principle:
you can't weed out the human contribution" (P, 122). Pragmatism's
final chapter on "Pragmatism and Religion" follows James's
line in Varieties in attacking "transcendental absolutism"
for its unverifiable account of God, and in defending a "pluralistic
and moralistic religion" (144) based on human experience. "On
pragmatistic principles," James writes, "if the hypothesis
of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true"
A Pluralistic Universe
Originally delivered in Oxford as a set of lectures "On the Present
Situation in Philosophy," James's book begin with a discussion
of philosophic temperament. He condemns the "over-technicality
and consequent dreariness of the younger disciples at our American universities..."
(PU 13), and holds that a philosopher's "vision" is "the
important thing" about him (PU 3). Passing from critical discussions
of Royce's idealism and the "vicious intellectualism" of Hegel,
James comes, in chapters four through six, to philosophers whose vision
he admires. He praises Gustav Fechner for holding that "the whole
universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and developments,
is everywhere alive and conscious" (PU, 70), and he seeks to refine
and justify Fechner's idea that separate human, animal and vegetable
consciousnesses meet or merge in a "consciousness of still wider
scope" (72). James employs Henri Bergson's critique of "intellectualism"
in this project, for Bergson shows that the "concrete pulses of
experience appear pent in by no such definite limits as our conceptual
substitutes are confined by. They run into one another continuously
and seem to interpenetrate" (PU 127). James concludes by embracing
a position that he had more tentatively set forth in The Varieties of
Religious Experience: that religious experiences "point with reasonable
probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider spiritual
environment from which the ordinary prudential man (who is the only
man that scientific psychology, so called, takes cognizance of) is shut
off" (PU, 135). Whereas in Pragmatism James subsumes the religious
within the pragmatic (as yet another way of successfully making one's
way through the world), in A Pluralistic Universe, James distinguishes
the religious from the "prudential" or "practical."
Essays in Radical
James's radical empiricism, which is basically an epistemological doctrine,
has been confused with the metaphysical doctrine of "pure experience,"
largely because the latter is set forth in most of the essays collected
after James's death in Essays in Radical Empiricism. Radical empiricism
is never precisely defined in the Essays, being best explicated by a
passage from The Meaning of Truth in which James states that it consists
of a postulate, a statement of fact, and a conclusion. The postulate
is that "the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers
shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience," the
fact is that relations are just as directly experienced as the things
they relate, and the conclusion is that "the parts of experience
hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts
of experience" (MT, 6-7).
experience" doctrine is the view that Bertrand Russell -- giving
full credit to James in The Analysis of Mind -- calls "neutral
monism." James holds that mind and matter are both aspects of,
or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff -- pure experience
-- that (despite being called "experience") is neither mental
nor physical. Pure experience, James explains, is "the immediate
flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with
its conceptual categories... a that which is not yet any definite what,
tho' ready to be all sorts of whats..." (ERE, 46). That "whats"
pure experience may be include minds and bodies, people and material
objects. The "what" of pure experience depends not on a fundamental
ontological difference among experiences, but on the relations into
which pure experiences enter. Certain sequences of pure experiences
constitute physical objects, and others constitute persons; but one
pure experience (say the perception of a chair) may be part both of
the sequence constituting the chair and of the sequence constituting
(January 11, 1842,
New York - August 26, 1910, Chocorua, New Hampshire). Philosopher and
psychologist. was born in New York, son of Henry James, Sr., an independently
wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted
with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual
brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary
talents of several of its members have, since the 1930s, made it a subject
of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.
(like his younger brother, Henry James, one of the important novelists
of the nineteenth century) received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education,
thanks in large part to his fluency in both German and French. His early
artistic bent led to an early apprenticeship in the studio of William
Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but yielded in 1861 to scientific
studies at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School.
In his early adulthood,
James suffered from a variety of physical and mental difficulties, including
problems with his eyes, back, stomach, and skin, as well as periods
of depression in which he was tempted by the thought of suicide. Two
younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought
in the Civil War, but the other three siblings (William, Henry, and
Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism. James was, however,
able to join Harvard's Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the
Amazon River in 1865.
The entire James
family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts after decided to study medicine
at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in 1866;
he obtained his degree in 1869 after several extended interruptions
of his studies for illness, which led him to live for extended periods
in Germany, in the search of cure. (It was at this time that he began
to publish -- at first, reviews in literary periodicals like the North
American Review.) What he called his "soul-sickness" would
only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical
James's time in
Germany proved intellectually fertile, for his true interests were not
in medicine but in philosophy and psychology. Later, in 1902 he would
write: "I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist,
but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality.
I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology
I ever heard being the first I ever gave" (Perry, The Thought and
Character of , vol. 1, p. 228).
James studied medicine, physiology, and biology, and began to teach
in those subjects, but was drawn to the scientific study of the human
mind at a time when psychology was constituting itself as a science.
James's acquaintance with the work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz
in Germany and Pierre Janet in France facilitated his introduction of
courses in scientific psychology at Harvard University. He established
one of the first -- he believed it to be the first -- laboratory of
experimental psychology in the United States in Boylston Hall in 1875.
(On the question of this claim to priority, see Gerald E. Myers, : His
Life and Thought [Yale Univ. Press, 1986], p. 486.)
spent his entire
academic career at Harvard. He was appointed instructor in physiology
in 1872, instructor in anatomy and physiology in 1873, assistant professor
of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, professor
of psychology in 1889, professor of philosophy in 1897, and emeritus
professor of philosophy in 1907.
Among James's students
at Harvard were such luminaries as George Santayana, G. Stanley Hall,
Ralph Barton Perry, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Morris Raphael Cohen,
Alain Locke, and C. I. Lewis.
wrote voluminously throughout his life; a fairly complete bibliography
of his writings by John McDermott is 47 pages long (John J. McDermott,
The Writings of : A Comprehensive Edition, rev. ed. [Univ. of Chicago
Press, 1977 ISBN 0226391884], pp. 812-58). (See below for a list of
his major writings and additional collections)
He first gained
widespread recognition with Psychology: The Briefer Course, an 1892
abridgement of his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890). These
works criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism
of his day as competing dogmatisms of little explanatory value, and
sought to re-conceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and
James defined truth as that which works in the way of belief. "True
ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as
directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability
and flowing human intercourse" but "all true processes must
lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere,"
Pragmatism as a
view of the meaning of truth is considered obsolete by many in contemporary
philosophy, because the predominant trend of thinking in the years since
James' death (1910) has been toward non-epistemic definitions of truth,
i.e. definitions that don't make truth dependent upon the warrant of
a belief. A contemporary philosopher or logician will often be found
explaining that the statement "the book is on the table" is
true if and only if the book is on the table.
In What Pragmatism
Means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth
is, in brief, that "truth is one species of good, and not, as is
usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with
it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way
of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." Richard
Rorty claims that James did not mean to give a theory of truth with
this statement, and that we should not regard it as such; however, James
does phrase it as the "central point" of the pragmatist doctrine
Philosophy of Religion
James also did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford
Lectures at the University of Edinburgh he provided a wide-ranging account
of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreted them
according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he
makes in this regard:
genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion,
rather than religious institutions--since institutions are merely the
social descendant of genius.
• The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious
or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent
the closest thing to a microscope of the mind--that is, they show us
in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
• In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience
and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things
which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help
us to live fuller and better lives.
The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the
life of James, leading him to experiment with nitrous oxide and even
peyote. He concludes that while the revelations of the mystic hold true,
they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas
to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience
Theory of Emotion
James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion,
which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory
holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions
that result from some stimulus. In James' oft-cited example; it is not
that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently
we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level,
heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.
This way of thinking
about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics.
Here is a passage from his great work, "Principles of Psychology,"
that spells out those consequences.
immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure
given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and
sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular
feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of
other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary
and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations
of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in
the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these
secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one's taste
is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures
felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it
comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point.
Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association,
and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make
a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse
and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory
sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind,
on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry
and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only
showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty,
as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which
are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made."
Philosophy of History
One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns
the role of individuals in producing social change.
One faction sees individuals ("heroes" as Thomas Carlyle called
them) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the
page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving
according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its
more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy
with "Great Men and Their Environment," an essay published
in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle's side, but without Carlyle's
one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as
the founders or over-throwers of states and empires.
must teach us to enjoy the struggle of light with darkness," James
wrote. "Wagner to enjoy peculiar musical effects; Dickens gives
a twist to our sentimentality, Artemus Ward to our humor; Emerson kindles
a new moral light within us."
(1842-1910), American philosopher and psychologist, who developed the
philosophy of pragmatism.
James was born
in New York City on January 11, 1842. His father, Henry James, Sr.,
was a Swedenborgian theologian; one of his brothers was the great novelist
Henry James. attended private schools in the U.S. and Europe, the Lawrence
Scientific School at Harvard University, and the Harvard Medical School,
from which he received a degree in 1869. Before finishing his medical
studies, he went on an exploring expedition in Brazil with the Swiss-American
naturalist Louis Agassiz and also studied physiology in Germany. After
three years of retirement due to illness, James became an instructor
in physiology at Harvard in 1872. After 1880 he taught psychology and
philosophy at Harvard; he left Harvard in 1907 and gave highly successful
lectures at Columbia University and the University of Oxford. James
died in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910.
James's first book, the monumental Principles of Psychology (1890),
established him as one of the most influential thinkers of his time.
The work advanced the principle of functionalism in psychology, thus
removing psychology from its traditional place as a branch of philosophy
and establishing it among the laboratory sciences based on experimental
In the next decade
James applied his empirical methods of investigation to philosophical
and religious issues. He explored the questions of the existence of
God, the immortality of the soul, free will, and ethical values by referring
to human religious and moral experience as a direct source. His views
on these subjects were presented in the lectures and essays published
in such books as The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy
(1897), Human Immortality (1898), and The Varieties of Religious Experience
(1902). The last-named work is a sympathetic psychological account of
religious and mystical experiences.
Later lectures published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking
(1907) summed up James's original contributions to the theory called
pragmatism, a term first used by the American logician C. S. Peirce.
James generalized the pragmatic method, developing it from a critique
of the logical basis of the sciences into a basis for the evaluation
of all experience. He maintained that the meaning of ideas is found
only in terms of their possible consequences. If consequences are lacking,
ideas are meaningless. James contended that this is the method used
by scientists to define their terms and to test their hypotheses, which,
if meaningful, entail predictions. The hypotheses can be considered
true if the predicted events take place. On the other hand, most metaphysical
theories are meaningless, because they entail no testable predictions.
Meaningful theories, James argued, are instruments for dealing with
problems that arise in experience.
According to James's
pragmatism, then, truth is that which works. One determines what works
by testing propositions in experience. In so doing, one finds that certain
propositions become true. As James put it, "Truth is something
that happens to an idea" in the process of its verification; it
is not a static property. This does not mean, however, that anything
can be true. "The true is only the expedient in the way of our
thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our
behaving," James maintained. One cannot believe whatever one wants
to believe, because such self-centered beliefs would not work out.
James was opposed
to absolute metaphysical systems and argued against monism, a doctrine
that maintains that reality is a unified, monolithic whole. In Essays
in Radical Empiricism (1912), he argued for a pluralistic universe,
denying that the world can be explained in terms of an absolute force
or scheme that determines the interrelations of things and events. He
held that the interrelations, whether they serve to hold things together
or apart, are just as real as the things themselves.
By the end of his
life, James had become world-famous as a philosopher and psychologist.
In both fields, he functioned more as an originator of new thought than
as a founder of dogmatic schools. His pragmatic philosophy was further
developed by the American philosopher John Dewey and others; later studies
in physics by Albert Einstein made the theories of interrelations advanced
by James appear prophetic.