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William James is considered by many to be the most insightful and stimulating of American philosophers, as well as the second of the three great pragmatists the middle link between Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. As a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University, he became the most famous living American psychologist and later the most famous living American philosopher of his time.
Avoiding the logically tight systems typical of European rationalists, such as the German idealists, he cobbled together a psychology rich in philosophical implications and a philosophy enriched by his psychological expertise.
More specifically, his theory of the self and his view of human belief as oriented towards conscious action raised issues that required him to turn to philosophy. He explored the implications of this theory in areas of religious belief, metaphysics, human freedom and moral values, and social philosophy.
His contributions in these areas included critiques of long-standing philosophical positions on such issues as freedom vs. Thus he created one of the last great philosophical systems in Western thought, even if he did not live quite long enough to complete every aspect of it. The combination of his provocative ideas and his engaging writing style has contributed to the enduring impact of his work.
His oldest brother, Henry James, Jr. The family frequently moved between America and Europe, the father having inherited an amount of money sufficient to allow him to enjoy the life of an intellectual. While growing up, William had a passion for drawing. Since he wanted to become a painter, the family moved to Newport, Rhode Island inwhere William studied with the leading American portraitist, William Morris Hunt.
Although he had talent, he gave up this career goal in less than a year. He had decided that it was insufficient for him to do first-rate work. All this is indicative of three things: Inthe American Civil War erupted. However, already in delicate health, he left when it expired after three months. His younger brothers Wilky and Bob served in the Union Army. A couple of years later, he took a year off to join a scientific expedition to Brazil, led by Louis Agassiz. But bad health eventually forced him to quit the expedition, and he returned to medical school the James family moving from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Again he left, this time to study physiology and medicine in Germany and to recover his health. He failed to find a cure for his curious back pains, but returned to Harvard, passed his medical exams, and received his medical degree in Nevertheless, he did not plan to practice medicine and seemed lost as to what to do with the rest of his life.
His training in hard science was making it impossible for him to believe in human freedom and, thus, in the value of struggling for moral ideals; the despair of materialism was leading him to the depression of determinism. In a barely disguised case history in his Varieties of Religious Experiencehe tells of visiting an asylum while he was a medical student, and seeing an epileptic patient whose condition had reduced him to an idiotic state.
James could not dispel the realization that if universal determinism prevails, he could likewise sink into such a state, utterly incapable of preventing it Varieties, pp. By the spring ofwhen James was twenty-eight years old, he experienced a critical moment while reading a treatment of human freedom by the French neo-Kantian Charles Renouvier. He discovered the solution to his problem in the voluntaristic act of will whereby he could commit himself to believing in his own freedom despite any lack of objective evidence.
He started down the road to recovery, though the remainder of his life would be plagued by seemingly psychosomatic troubles serious eye strain, mysterious back pains, digestive problems, and periods of exhaustion, as well as chronic mood swings, including times of brooding depression.
Unfortunately, he still lacked a constructive career goal. He accepted and began his career of more than a third of a century as a faculty member there.
The next year, he became an instructor of anatomy and physiology. By the mid-eighteen-seventies, he was teaching psychology there, using the physiological approach he had learned in Germany and establishing the first psychology laboratory in America. He met a schoolteacher named Alice Howe Gibbens, whom he married in Like his parents, they had five children, naming the first two Henry and William. Alice was adept at handling his neurotic obsessions and emotional moodiness, and they seem to have had a good marriage, living comfortably in Cambridge.
The year they married, James agreed to write a psychology textbook; however, by then he was already drifting away from psychology into philosophy. He was a member of a Metaphysical Club that included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who taught law at Harvard and would go on to serve on the U. Supreme Court, and Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher of science, who would become the founder of American pragmatism.
InJames began teaching philosophy at Harvard, becoming an assistant professor of philosophy the next year. As he got deeper into philosophy, he developed a negative attitude towards psychology. After becoming a full professor of philosophy in and of psychology inhe published his Principles of Psychology in It had taken him close to twelve years to finish it, and, though it would be extremely successful, he was dissatisfied with it and disgusted with psychology Lettersvol.
Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare an abridged version, which was published two years later as Psychology: Briefer Course ; it too would be widely used and help to establish his reputation as the foremost living American psychologist. Overworked at Harvard and jeopardizing his fragile health, he suffered a physical breakdown that same year.
While recovering his health, he studied a wide range of accounts of religious experience and prepared his Gifford Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in These were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in and proved to be quite successful, although James himself was displeased, believing them to contain too much reporting on facts and too little philosophical analysis. For the remainder of his life, James focused on the development of his own philosophy, writing essays and lectures that would later be collected and published in four books.
In the spring ofhe took a leave of absence from Harvard to take a visiting professorship at Stanford University, though his lecture series in California was interrupted by the great San Francisco earthquake. In late and earlyhe delivered his lectures on Pragmatism in Boston and at Columbia University, publishing them in the spring of That was also the year he resigned from Harvard, worried that he might die before being able to complete his philosophical system, as he was suffering from angina and shortness of breath.
He delivered the Hibbert Lectures in England inpublished the next year as A Pluralistic Universeaimed at combating the neo-Hegelian idealism that was then prevalent in Great Britain. Meanwhile, he was under intellectual assault by mainstream philosophers for his pragmatic treatment of truth, which he defended in a collection of essays published in as The Meaning of Truth.
He was attempting to complete his textbook on Some Problems of Philosophybut died on August 26, Inhis textbook, edited by his son Henry, and his Memories and Studies were posthumously published. His writings have survived in part because of the provocative honesty of his ideas, but also because of the vibrant, sometimes racy, style in which he expressed them.
In A Pluralistic Universehe castigates philosophers who use technical jargon instead of clear, straightforward language. He practiced the spontaneous thinking and freshness of expression he advocates there Universepp.
It has been said by the novelist Rebecca West that, while Henry James wrote fiction as though it were philosophy, his older brother, William, wrote philosophy in a colorful style typical of fiction. Despite impatience with the process of that development, he contributed significantly to moving it along, regarding psychology as the science of our mental phenomena or states of consciousness, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, volitions, and so forth.
In analyzing what can broadly be termed human thinking, James delineates five generic characteristics: The self can be viewed as an object of thought or as the subject of thought. James states that if we track the dynamic of mental activity, we discern a standard pattern from sensation to perception to imagination to belief.
Through sensationwe become acquainted with some given fact. This can, but need not, lead to knowledge about that fact, achieved by perceiving its relations to other given facts. Both sensation and perception involve an immediate intuition of some given objects. Imagination, less immediate, retrieves mental copies of past sensations and perceptions, even when their external stimuli are no longer present.
Belief is the sense or feeling that ideas or propositions formed in the imagination correspond to reality. Every proposition can be analyzed in terms of its object and whether that object is believed. The object of a proposition comprises a subject such as my horsea predicate wingsand a relation between them my horse has sprouted wings.
The belief is the psychic attitude a mind has towards that object for example, I believe it or deny it or am in doubt about it Principlesvol. Like other animals, we have primitive instincts, such as fear, some desires, and certain forms of sympathy, which do not require being taught them or consciously focusing on ends.
However, we also have emotions that are learned behavior and do involve such a focus—for example, a fear of failure and the desire for an academic degree. Instincts and emotions thus overlap, the latter tending to cover a broader range of objects than the former. We tend to assume that perceptions trigger emotional responses, eventuating in bodily expressions—that we suddenly see a bear, become frightened, and then tremble and run away.
But James thinks the actual sequence is perception, followed by bodily expressions, followed by emotional feeling—that we see the bear, tremble and run away, then feel those physical events as what we call fear.
The idea that emotions ultimately have physical causes emphasizes the intimate relationship between our bodies and our mental life Principlesvol. The human will is crucial for deliberately acting on our beliefs and emotions. Sometimes we consider alternative courses of action and seem to select one among them, as if making a voluntary decision. James maps out five sorts of decision-making: Even if philosophically interesting matters such as freedom vs.
Whatever approach is chosen, it is clear that James repudiates rationalism, with its notions of a priori existential truths. He is particularly hostile to German idealismwhich he identifies especially with Hegel and which he attacks in many of his essays this identification leads him to be remarkably unfair to Kant, an earlier German idealist. The tradition of modern empiricism is more promising, yet too atomistic to allow us to move much beyond the knowledge of acquaintance to genuine comprehension Willpp.
Fortunately, James had already learned about the pragmatic approach from Peirce. The first of its eight lectures presents pragmatism as a more attractive middle ground between the two mainstream approaches of European philosophy. It is difficult to identify many pure types of either of these in the history of philosophy, and some thinkers such as Kant are deliberately mixed, as is James himself. He thinks that most of us want a philosophical method that is firmly anchored in empirical facts, while being open to, rather than dismissive of, moral and religious values.
He offers pragmatism as a philosophy that coherently meets both demands. Before we invest much time or effort in seeking the meaning of anything, we should consider what practical difference it would make if we could find out. Providing an example to illustrate his point, James refers to the Hegelian notion of God as the all-encompassing Absolute Spirit.
How should we decide whether this is what we should mean by God? Consider the practical consequences for a believer: From that pragmatic perspective, James rejects the Hegelian notion. Undoubtedly, philosophy provides us with only one legitimate approach to belief, as he observes in his fifth lecture, others being common sense with its basic concepts derived from experience and science.
However, these others are impotent in dealing with questions of freedom and value Pragmatismpp. It seems that anything knowable must be true. He begins with a standard dictionary analysis of truth as agreement with reality.