William James

William James

Born:1842. Died:1910.

Ideas

- Human consciousness is selective; it concentrates on some things and ignores others.

- Ideas and beliefs are essentially plans for organizing and structuring our experience and world.

- One cannot prove finally whether human action is free or determined, but there are good reasons, especially moral ones, for believing that human action involves freedom.

- A person's psychological makeup affects his or her religious experience, and that experience is best evaluated in terms of its moral quality.

- Pragmatism consists of two parts: It is a method for the determination of meaning, and it is a theory about the nature of truth.

- The truth or falsity of a judgment, its agreement or disagreement with reality, depends on obtaining or failing to obtain corroboration of the expectations that follow from the judgment in question.

Biography

William James (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 William James 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 searching.

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 William James, 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, William James: His Life and Thought [Yale Univ. Press, 1986], p. 486.)

William James 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.

Major Books of William James

- A Pluralistic Universe, 1909
- Collected Essays and Reviews, 1920
- The Correspondence of William James: Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1992-2004
- Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912
- Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine, the Ingersoll Lecture, 1897
- Letters of William James, 1920
- The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism", 1909
- Memories and Studies, 1911
- Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907
- The Principles of Psychology: Volumes 1 and 2 1890
- Psychology, Briefer Course, 1892
- Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy, 1911
- Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals, 1899
- The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1897
- Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, 1902
- William James on Psychical Research, 1960

Major Articles of William James

- 1884, On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology, Mind
- 1884, What is an Emotion?, Mind
- 1884, Absolutism and Empiricism, Mind
- 1885, On the Function of Cognition, Mind
- 1887, The Perception of Space (1, 2, 3 and 4), Mind
- 1887, Phantasms of the Living, Science
- 1889, The Psychological Theory of Extension, Mind
- 1889, The Psychology of Belief, Mind
- 1890, Origin of Right-Handedness, Science
- 1893, The Original Datum of Space-Consciousness, Mind
- 1895, Is Life Worth Living?, International Journal of Ethics
- 1904, Does `Consciousness' Exist?, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods
- 1904, Humanism and Truth, Mind
- 1908, The Pragmatist Account of Truth and its Misunderstanders, The Philosophical Review
- 1908, "Truth" Versus "Truthfulness", The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods
- 1910, A Suggestion About Mysticism, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods

Quotes from William James

- "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "The brain grows to the exact modes in which it has been exercised." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "Genius ... means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "Geniuses are commonly believed to excel other men in their power of sustained attention. ...- But it is their genius making them attentive, not their attention making geniuses of them." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "Habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up, a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallible right." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "Self-esteem = Success/Pretensions" (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "To make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy ... we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague." (from "The Principles of Psychology", 1890)

- "A fact [may] not come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. ... Faith in a fact can help create the fact." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "An unlearned carpenter of my acquaintance once said in my hearing: "There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important." This distinction seems to me to go to the root of the matter. It is not only the size of the difference which concerns the philosopher, but also its place and its kind." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "The details vanish in the bird's-eye view; but so does the bird's-eye view vanish in the details." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "The fermentative influence of geniuses must be admitted as ... one factor in the changes that constitute social evolution. The community may evolve in many ways. The accidental presence of this or that ferment decides in which way it shall evolve." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight-as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "Not every "man" fits every "hour." ... A given genius may come either too early or too late. Peter the Hermit would now be sent to a lunatic asylum. John [Stuart] Mill in the tenth century would have lived and died unknown." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "Social evolution is a resultant of the interaction of two wholly distinct factors: the individual ... bearing all the power of initiative and origination in his hands; and, second, the social environment, with its power of adopting or rejecting both him and his gifts. Both factors are essential to change. The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "To be fertile in hypotheses is the first requisite [of creativity], and to be willing to throw them away the moment experience contradicts them is the next." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "When walking along the street, thinking of the blue sky or the fine spring weather, I may either smile at some preposterously grotesque whim which occurs to me, or I may suddenly catch an intuition of the solution of a long-unsolved problem, which at that moment was far from my thoughts. Both notions are shaken out of the same reservoir. ... The grotesque conceit perishes in a moment, and is forgotten. The scientific hypothesis arouses in me a fever of desire for verification. I read, write, experiment, consult experts. Everything corroborates my notion, which being then published in a book spreads from review to review and from mouth to mouth, till at last there is no doubt I am enshrined in the Pantheon of great diviners of nature's ways. The environment preserves the conception which it was unable to produce in any brain less' idiosyncratic than my own." (from "The Will to Believe", 1897)

- "A genuine first-hand religious experience ... is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "An idea, to be suggestive, must come to the individual with the force of a revelation." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "As far as this world goes, anyone who makes an out-and-out saint of himself does so at his peril." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. ... Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our stocks might fall, our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop, our club doors close in our faces; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "He can engage in actions and experience enjoyments without fear of corruption or enslavement." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The hot place in a man's consciousness, the group of ideas to which he devotes himself and from which he works, call it the habitual center of his personal energy." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "If things are ever to move upward, someone must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try nonresistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldly prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But nonresistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "If we are soon to die, or if we believe a day of judgment to be near at hand, how quickly do we put our moral house in order." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Innumerable times [the saints] have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The lunatic's visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Mankind's common instinct for reality ... has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Man's perfection would be the fulfillment of his end; and his end would be union with his Maker." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The most characteristic of all the elements of the conversion crisis ... is the ecstasy of happiness produced." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "No adequate report of [mysticism's] contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Phenomena are best understood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The religious experience ... is that which lives itself out within the private breast. First-hand individual experience of this kind has always appeared as a heretical sort of innovation to those who witnessed its birth. Naked comes it into the world and lonely; and it has always, for a time at least, driven him who had it into the wilderness." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Revivalism has always assumed that only its own type of religious experience can be perfect; you must first be nailed on the cross of natural despair and agony, and then in the twinkling of an eye be miraculously released." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The smallest details of this world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "There is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul's heroic resources." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "This incommunicableness of the transport is the keynote of all mysticism. Mystical truth exists for the individual who has the transport, but for no one else." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe ... takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each one of us fulfills or evades God's demands." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise anyone who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "We never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "We pass into mystical states from out of ordinary consciousness as from a less into a more, as from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time as from an unrest to a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states. They appeal to the yes-function more than to the no-function in us. In them the unlimited absorbs the limits and peacefully closes the account." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proven itself to be incompatible." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "When the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "When the fruit is ripe, a touch will make it fall." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Whenever ... wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is the literally right reaction on the situation." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms." (from "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature", 1902)

- "Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitements. The only relief from Habit's tediousness is periodical excitement. From time immemorial wars have been, especially for noncombatants, the supremely thrilling excitement." (from the dinner address before the World's Peace Congress in Boston, 1904)

- "The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That-with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success-is our national disease." (from a letter to H. G. Wells, 1906)

- "In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself." (from "The Energies of Men", 1906)

- "Experience ... has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas." (from "Pragmatism", 1907)

- "Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed." (from a letter to W. Lutoslawski, 1906)

- "I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences." (from "Pragmatism", 1907)

- "New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity." (from "Pragmatism", 1907)

- "History is a bath of blood." (from "The Moral Equivalent of War", 1910)

- "The intensely sharp competitive preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing, and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the "peace"-interval." (from "The Moral Equivalent of War", 1910)

- "Men at large still live as they always have lived, under a pain-and-fear economy-for those of us who live in an ease-economy are but an island in the stormy ocean." (from "The Moral Equivalent of War", 1910)

- "There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir." (from "Memories and Studies", 1911)

- "A tremendous muchness is suddenly revealed." (from "The Mystic's Experience of God" by Rufus M. Jones)

- "The perfection of rottenness." (from "Portraits from Memory" by Bertrand Russell)

- "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." (attributed)

- "All new doctrine goes through three stages. It is attacked and declared absurd; then it is admitted as true and obvious but insignificant. Finally, its true importance is recognized and its adversaries claim the honor of having discovered it"

- "Medical materialism finished up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus "a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic.""

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