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The road by which William James arrived at his position of
leadership among American philosophers was, during his childhood,
youth and early maturity, quite as circuitous and unpredictable
as were his father's ideas on the training of his children.
Links to William James's Works:
Swedenborgian theologian foresaw neither the career of novelist
for his son Henry, nor that of pragmatist philosopher for the
older William. The father's migrations between New York, Europe
and Newport meant that William's education had variety if it did
not have fixed direction. From 13 to 18 he studied in Europe and
returned to Newport, Rhode Island, to study painting under the
guidance of John La Farge. After a year, he gave up art for
science and entered Harvard University, where his most
influential teachers were Louis Agassiz and Charles W. Eliot.
In 1863, William James began the study of medicine, and in 1865
he joined an expedition to the Amazon. Before long, he wrote:
"If there is anything I hate, it is collecting." His studies
constantly interrupted by ill health, James returned to Germany
and began hearing lectures and reading voluminously in
philosophy. He won his medical degree at Harvard in 1870. For
four years he was an invalid in Cambridge, but finally, in 1873,
he passed his gravest physical and spiritual crises and began the
career by which he was to influence so profoundly generations of
American students. From 1880 to 1907 he was successively
assistant professor of philosophy, professor of psychology and
professor of philosophy at Harvard. In 1890, the publication of
his Principles of Psychology brought him the acknowledged
leadership in the field of functional psychology. The selection
of William James to deliver the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh was
at once a tribute to him and a reward for the university that
sponsored the undertaking. These lectures, collected in this
volume, have since become famous as the standard scientific work
on the psychology of the religious impulse. Death ended his
career on August 27th, 1910.
"It has sometimes crossed my mind that James wanted to be a poet and an artist, and that there lay in him, beneath the ocean of metaphysics, a lost Atlantis of fine arts."
John J. Chapman, a friend of William James
"The science of logic never made a man reason rightly, and the science of ethics never made a man behave rightly. The most such sciences can do is to help us to catch ourselves up and check ourselves, if we start to reason or to behave wrongly; and to criticise ourselves more articulately after we have made mistakes." ~ William James
Not long after his death, William James was classed, "together with Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as one of the three representative American Philosophers... The extraordinary number of fields in which James made such novel and notable contributions and his enduring potent influence in all of them, surely justify such an estimate of him as a philosopher and psychologist."
"William James...wrote and lived a psychology surcharged with cultural and spiritual fineness"
"Brilliant, high-strung, dynamic, vivacious, resilient, unexpected, unconventional, picturesque--these are some of the terms that at once recur in recalling James." (from Psychological Review, Volume 50 (1943), pp. 125-134)
One of the most influential Americans of his time, William James 1902 classic: The Varieties of Religious Experience was instrumental in bringing the study of religion as a psychological experience into the mainstream. later his work The Principles of Psychology spawned an entire school of psychology known as Functionalism.
William James was a renaissance man, a physician, naturalist, artist, psychologist, philosopher, psychic researcher, religious thinker, experimenter, writer, lecturer, and professor. James always strove to balance the rational with the spiritual.
His book The Principles of Psychology was published in late 1890. A huge book, it described psychology as a `natural science' that was unsystematic and incomplete at that time. Beautifully written, it quickly became the best selling psychology text in English stressing the utility and potential relevance of psychological ideas for his reader.
Will, the conscious process that directs voluntary movements, proved to be a major organizing theme for The Principles of Psychology which includes chapters on brain function and structure, neural activity, habit, `the automaton-theory', stream of consciousness, conception, discrimination, sight, hearing, touch, temperature sense, muscular sense, pain, sensations of motion, the self, attention, association, the sense of time and space, memory, sensation, imagination, perception, reasoning, voluntary movement, instinct, the emotions, will, and hypnotism;
The James-Lange theory of emotion was also included in the book; The theory states that within human beings, as a response to experiences in the world, the autonomic nervous system creates physiological events such as muscular tension, a rise in heart rate, perspiration, and dryness of the mouth. Emotions, then, are feelings which come about as a result of these physiological changes, rather than being their cause. ~wikipedia
This has practical applications: to the degree that we control a physiological response to a stimulus, we can govern the associated emotion.
James book was not a finished system, nor did it offer absolutely certain conclusions. It was full of `productive paradoxes' which often left open the kernel of a problem for others to work on.
Apart from his `Varieties of Religious Experience' (1902), which explored the relationships between religious experience and `abnormal' psychology, James's psychological writings after 1890 were abridgments and popularizations of what he had already said in his `Principles of Psychology'. In 1894 he was the first American to call favourable attention to the recent work of relatively obscure Viennese physician, Sigmund Freud.
After this major work, he focused his attention on philosophy, promulgating the doctrines of pragmatism and radical empiricism, which extended his notion that ideas should be evaluated for the their utility rather than for some illusory absolute truth. This work was influential enough that at his death in 1910 James was called `the most famous American philosopher since Emerson'.
Despite his relatively brief tenure as a psychologist, James's impact on the discipline was enormous; providing a point of view that captured the imagination of psychologists, especially in America. He inspired the "functionalism" movement, which flourished during the early years of the 20th century focusing on the operational rather than the elemental character of the mind. From this point of view, individual differences in psychological characteristics were very important, because they determined how well or poorly different people could adapt to their environments.
James major contribution was that he transformed psychology, from a somewhat abstract science into a discipline that spoke directly to personal interests and concerns.
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