William James

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James, William

James, William, 1842–1910, American philosopher, b. New York City, M.D. Harvard, 1869; son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James. In 1872 he joined the Harvard faculty as lecturer on anatomy and physiology, continuing to teach until 1907, after 1880 in the department of psychology and philosophy. In 1890 he published his brilliant and epoch-making Principles of Psychology, in which the seeds of his philosophy are already discernible. James's fascinating style and his broad culture and cosmopolitan outlook made him the most influential American thinker of his day.

His philosophy has three principal aspects—voluntarism, pragmatism, and “radical empiricism.” He construes consciousness as essentially active, selective, interested, teleological. We “carve out” our world from “the jointless continuity of space.” Will and interest are thus primary; knowledge is instrumental. The true is “only the expedient in our way of thinking.” Ideas do not reproduce objects, but prepare for, or lead the way to, them. The function of an idea is to indicate “what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare.” This theory of knowledge James called pragmatism, a term already used by Charles S. Peirce. James's “radical empiricism” is a philosophy of “pure experience,” which rejects all transcendent principles and finds experience organized by means of “conjunctive relations” that are as much a matter of direct experience as things themselves. Moreover, James regards consciousness as only one type of conjunctive relation within experience, not as an entity above, or distinct from, its experience. James's other philosophical writings include The Will to Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), Some Problems in Philosophy (1911), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).


See his letters (ed. by his son Henry James, 1920); the Harvard Univ. Press edition of The Works of William James (17 vol., 1975–88); biographies by E. C. Moore (1965), G. W. Allen (1967), L. Simon (1998), and R. D. Richardson, Jr. (2006); R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (2 vol. 1935, abr. ed. 1948) and In the Spirit of William James (1938, repr. 1958); studies by B. P. Brennan (1968), J. Wild (1969), P. K. Dooley (1974), and H. S. Levinson (1981); J. Barzun, A Stroll with William James (1984). See also studies of the James family by F. O. Matthiessen (1947), R. W. B. Lewis (1991), and P. Fisher (2008).

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James, William (1842–1910)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

William James was Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He was one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research. He was its Vice President from 1890 to 1910 and President for 1894 and 1895.

William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842. He was the eldest of five children born to Henry and Lucy (Walsh) James. The next eldest was Henry James, who became the distinguished author. The James family was descended from “farmers, traders and merchants, prosperous and Presbyterian.” William’s father attended Union college in Schenectady, and then the Princeton theological seminary. While there, he developed a violent “antipathy to all ecclesiasticisms,” which he expressed with scorn and irony throughout his later years. When William was two, someone introduced his father to the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. His father built a system of his own from these teachings and William preserved the best of them in The Literary Remains of Henry James (1886).

James’ own schooling was erratic as the family moved around. He was educated in New York, Boulogne, France, Geneva, Switzerland, and elsewhere. At the age of eighteen and living in Newport, Rhode Island, James tried his hand at art but rapidly tired of it. In 1861, he went to the Lawrence scientific school of Harvard university. With breaks over the years—to go with Louis Aggasiz up the Amazon, for example—he finally received his medical degree at Harvard, in June, 1869. Due to constant ill health, however, he was unable to practice medicine. From 1872 until 1876, he was an appointed instructor in physiology at Harvard. But he wanted to take the step from teaching physiology to teaching psychology.

In 1878, James married Alice H. Gibbens, of Cambridge, Massachusetts; a union that seemed to give new vigor to his life. He wrote an innovative textbook on psychology, The Principles of Psychology, which appeared in 1890. With its publication—after ten years of writing it—he seemed to lose interest in the subject. He went on to become the world leader in the movement known as pragmatism and to be regarded as one of the most renowned thinkers in the United States.

In 1885, James’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbens, visited the Spiritualist medium Leonora E. Piper. This led to James and his wife Alice visiting her also, though incognito. James later commented, “My impression after this first visit was that Mrs. P. was either possessed of supernormal powers or knew the members of my wife’s family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me to absolutely reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers.”

For the next eighteen months James investigated Leonora E. Piper, before asking the Society for Psychical Research to do the same. In a lecture James gave in 1890, he said, “To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient.” In his view the medium Leonora E. Piper was that one white crow. In a lecture at Oxford in 1909, he announced his firm conviction that “most of the phenomena of psychical research are rooted in reality.”

James published several papers in the SPR journal Proceedings. In London in 1902, he published an important essay on psychical research, The Will to Believe, and Varieties of Religious Experience. Of the forty-five lectures that he gave at Harvard, one third of them were on psychical research and Spiritualism. He died in 1910.


Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: William Benton, 1964
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933
Gauld, Alan: Man, Myth & Magic: Psychical Research. London: BPC Publishing, 1970
Podmore, Frank: Modern Spiritualism. London: 1902; reprinted as Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. New York: University Books, 1963
Shepard, Leslie A: Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology. New York: Avon Books, 1978
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

James, William


Born Jan. 11, 1842, in New York; died Aug. 16, 1910, in Chocorua, N.H. American idealist philosopher and psychologist. One of the founders of pragmatism. Professor of physiology and psychology and later of philosophy at Harvard University (1872-1907).

In James’ views empiricism and biologism were contradictorily combined with extreme individualism, the assertion of free will, and elements of mysticism. In developing the ideas of C. Peirce, he advanced a new “pragmatic” criterion of truth. According to this criterion, that which corresponds to the practical success of an action is true. Truth, according to James, is “only the expedient in the way of our thinking” (Pragmatism, New York, 1963, p. 98). He attempted to stand above materialism and idealism, declaring the only reality to be the direct sensual experience of the individual (so-called radical empiricism). The primary material of experience is “neutral,” but its elements can appear in the process of cognition as both physical and psychological for the purposes of practical convenience.

According to James, thoughts, like things, consist of feelings and impressions (see “Sushchestvuet li soznanie?” in the collection Novye idei v filosofii, collection 4, 1913). This brings his position close to Machism. V. I. Lenin considered the differences between Machism and James’ pragmatism in the understanding of experiences to be “insignificant and unimportant” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 363, footnote).

In psychology, James came out against associationism, having developed, in counterbalance to it, his own concept of the “stream of consciousness”—continuously alternating integral and individual psychic states, whose alternation reflects the physiological processes in an organism. James emphasized the principle of the activity of psychic life and the primacy in it of will and interest. According to him, the psyche has a vital “functional” value as the instrument of the biological survival of the individual. James’ doctrine that emotions are an expression of bodily movements later became one of the sources of behaviorism.

In works on the psychology of religion, James reduced religion to individual experiences that are subject to scientific analysis. At the same time, from the viewpoint of pragmatism he defended religion, which is “truthful” insofar as it is useful, since it seemingly imparts certainty and stability to existence. James was also actively engaged in parapsychological experiments and spiritualism.

In his political views, James was a representative of bourgeois liberalism.


Principles of Psychology, vols. 1-2. New York, 1890.
In Russian translation:
Nauchnye osnovy psikhologii. St. Petersburg, 1902.
Zavisimost’ very ot voli. St. Petersburg, 1904.
Mnogoobrazie religioznogo opyta. Moscow, 1910.
Pragmatizm. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Vselennaia s pliuralisticheskoi tochki zreniia. Moscow, 1911.


Bykhovskii, B. E. “Pragmatizm i ’radikal’nyi empirizm’ U. Dzhemsa.” In the collection V. I. Lenin i voprosy marksistskoi filosofii. Moscow, 1960.
Bogomolov, A. S. Anglo-amerikanskaia burzhuaznaia filosofiia epokhi imperializma. Moscow, 1964. Chapter 4, sec. 1.
Perry, R. B. Thought and Character of W. James, vols. 1-2. Boston, 1935.
Morris, L. R. W. James. New York, 1950.
Wild, J. The Radical Empiricism ofW. James. New York, 1969.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

James, William

(1842–1910) philosopher, psychologist; born in New York City (brother of Henry James). After a broad education in Europe and a brief try at becoming an artist, he completed Harvard Medical School in 1869. Plagued by ailments and depression, he never practiced but did recover his energies, partly by placing faith in free will. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1872, teaching physiology, then psychology. He established America's first psychology laboratory and took twelve years to complete his massive Principles of Psychology (1890), which evocatively described mental and physical processes while summing up the current state of psychology and introducing new theories. As a philosophy professor (from 1880) he sought to reconcile his empiricism with religious faith, largely by a "pragmatic" theory that made the truth of beliefs depend on their consequences. He made a respectful study of psychological aspects of religion in lectures published as Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and developed his theory of reality as "pure experience" in articles (1904–05) published posthumously as Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). His vivid style, broad sympathies, and concern for basic issues have kept him a central figure in American thought.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.