As William James said . . .

"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."

"The great world, the background, in all of us, is the world of our beliefs. That is the world of the permanencies and the immensities." ~ William James

"A man's vision is the great fact about him."

"Acquaintance with the details of fact is always reckoned, along with their reduction to system, as an indispensable mark of mental greatness."

"My experience is what I agree to attend to."

"I personally gave up the Absolute . . . I fully believe in taking moral holidays."

"What we say about reality depends on the perspective into which we throw it. The that of it is its own; but the what depends on the which; and the which depends on us."

"The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths."

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

"We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will."

"Between what a man calls 'me' and what he simply calls 'mine' the line is difficult to draw."

"He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had tried and failed."

"Whereever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant."

"The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing."

"The zone of individual differences is the zone of formative processes, the dynamic belt of quivering uncertainly, the line where past and future meet." (Vygotsky's ZPD, anyone?)

"We have no sense for empty time."

"There is nothing so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task."
from The Letters, p. 249.

"Perceptions and thinking are only there for behavior's sake."

"The best claim that a college education can possibly make on your respect, the best thing it can aspire to accomplish for you, is this: that it should help you to know a good man when you see him."

"All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits."

"Strength of desire must be born in one; it cannot be taught."

"There is very little difference between one person and another, but, what little there is, is very important."

"The spectator's judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter, and to possess no truth."

"The human animal lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum."

"We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause."

"Ideals ought to aim at the transformation of reality -- no less!"

"No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance."

"Only what we partly know already inspires us with a desire to know more."

"No impression without expression."

"Most men have a good memory for facts connected with their own pursuits."

"Every school has its tone, moral and intellectual."

"In education, the instinct of ownership is fundamental."

"Cramming seeks to stamp things in by intense application immediately before the ordeal. But a thing thus learned can form but few associations."

"Be patient and sympathetic with the type of mind that cuts a poor figure in examinations. It may, in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape than the glib and ready reproducer, its passions being deeper, its purposes more worthy, its combining power less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important."

"Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits."

"Theories [are] instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest."

"All our theories are instrumental, are mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma."

"In practical talk, a man's common sense means his good judgment, his freedom from eccentricity, his gumption, to use the vernacular word. In philosophy, it means something entirely different, it means his use of certain intellectual forms or categories of thought."

"Man, whatever else he may be, is primarily a practical being, whose mind is given him to aid in adapting him to this world's life." "In our dealings with natural phenomena the great point is to be able to foretell."

"The fundamental fact about our experience is that it is a process of change."

"Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one."

"Persons who are familiar with a conception move about so easily in it that they understand each other at a hint, and can converse without anxiously attending to their P's and Q's."

"The entire accumulated wealth of mankind -- language, arts, institutions, and sciences -- is passed from one generation to another by each generation simply imitating the last."

"How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young -- or slender."

"Many men and women would be happier today if they could once and for all abandon the notion of keeping up a musical self and without shame let people hear them call a symphony a nuisance."

"These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact." from "Is Life Worth Living?", [in The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy, p. 62, Dover Edition].

" . . . the elaboration of the obvious . . . "

"Every man who posibly can should force himself to take a holiday of a full month in the year, whether he feels like taking it or not."

"For every man who has a good idea one may find a hundred who are willing to drudge patiently at some unimportant experiment."

"There is nothing new. All men know it at those rare moments when the soul sobers herself, and leaves off her chattering and protesting and insisting about this formula or that. In the silence of our theories we then seem to listen, and to hear something like the pulse of Being beat; and it is borne in upon us that the mere turning of the character, the dumb willingness to serve this universe, is more than all theories about it put together."

When complimented by one of his correspondents regarding his lucid writing style, James wrote back, "If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more."

"I have no facility for writing, as some people have."

"Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use."

"What an awful trade that of professor is - paid to talk, talk, talk! It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words."

"He isn't a genius, he's a professor - a being whose duty is to know everything, and to have his opinion about everything connected with his own view of the world."

"If a man's good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy."

In an address at Stanford university, James urged special treatment for outstanding faculty members: "They have to be treated tenderly. They don't need to live in superfluity; but they need freedom from harassing care; they need books and instruments; they are always overworking, so they need generous vacations; and above all things they need occasionally to travel far and wide in the interest of their soul's development."

"Certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other people's lives; such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big."

"The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated."

A few observations on the role of psychology in the art of teaching.

"To know psychology is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers."

"It is only the fundamental conceptions of psychology which are of real value to the teacher."

"Ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacher's art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least."

"If the use of psychological principles thus be negative rather than positive, it does not follow that it may not be a great use, all the same. It certainly narrows the path for experiments and trials. We know in advance, if we are psychologists, that certain methods will be wrong, so our psychology saves us from mistakes. It makes us, moreover, more clear as to what we are about. We gain confidence in respect to any method which we are using as soon as we believe that it has theory as well as practice at its back."

"The amount of [psychology] which is necessary to all teachers need not be very great . . . one may say, might almost be written on the palm of one's hand."

"The worst thing that can happen to a good teacher is to get a bad consciensce about her profession because she feels herself hopeless as a psychologist."

"Our teachers are overworked already. Every one who adds a jot or tittle of unnecessary weight to their burder is a foe of education."

"The best teacher may be the poorest contributor of child-study material, and the best contributor may be the poorest teacher. No fact is more palpable than this."


"Truth in our ideas means their power to work."

"A new opinion counts as "true" just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock,"

"The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for "to be true" means only to perform this marriage-function. "

"I am well aware how odd it must seem to some of you to hear me say that an idea is "true" so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives."

"Truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it."

"The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons."

"'What would be better for us to believe!' This sounds very like a definition of truth."

"The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths."

"[Pragmatism's] only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands, nothing being omitted."

"Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their "agreement," as falsity means their disagreement, with "reality."

"Pragmatism asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-val;ue in experiential terms?"

"True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot."

"Truth happens to an idea."

"True is the name for whatever idea starts the verification process, useful is the name for its completed function in experience."

"Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience; they will lead him nowhere or else make false connections."

"Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system."

"Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract."

"Theory must mediate between all previous truths and certain new experiences."

"Our theories are wedged and controlled as nothing else is. Yet sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know, and then we choose between them for subjective reasons. We choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial: we follow 'elegance' or 'economy.'"

"Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification processes."

"Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The 'facts' themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them."

"Acquaintance with the details of fact is always reckoned, along with their reduction to a system, as an indispensable mark of mental greatness."


"In the last analysis, then, we believe that we all know and think about and talk about the same world because we believe our PERCEPTS are possessed by us in common."

"To know an object is to lead to it through a context which the world provides."

"The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal 'objectivity,' as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its 'elegance,' or its congruity with our residual beliefs."

"To give the theory plenty of 'rope' and see if it hangs itself eventually is better tactics than to choke it off at the outset by abstract accusations of self-contradiction."

"To consider hypotheses is surely always better than to dogmatize ins blaue hinein."

"Those thoughts are true which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not."

"Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one."

"An experience, perceptual or conceptual, must conform to reality in order to be true."

"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: and that he really hated philosophy and all its works, and pursued them only as Hercules might spin or as a prince in a fairy tale sorts seeds for an evil dragon, or as anyone might patiently do some careful work for which he had no aptitude."

John J. Chapman, a friend of William's

Back to William James