Philosophical and Psychological
Foundations of Education


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My Educational Philosophy
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de Bary
Roland Martin

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
~ William James ~

"Will you or won't you have it so?' is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things. We answer by consents or nonconsents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things. What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as human beings. What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world." ~ William James, The Principles of Psychology (The Briefer Course), Chapter 17, Will

The great world, the background, in all of us, is the world of our beliefs. That is the world of the permanencies and immensities. ~ William James to Helen Keller, 1908, The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 12, p. 135

Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. ~ William James, Principles of Psychology

If we survey the field of history and ask what feature all great periods of revival, of expansion of the human mind, display in common, we shall find, I think, simply this: that each and all of them have said to the human being, "The inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess." ~ William James, "Rationality, Activity and Faith," 1882, p. 68

What is the use of being a genius, unless with the same scientific evidence as other men, one can reach more truth than they? ~ William James, "Rationality, Activity and Faith," 1882, p. 71

In [the case of taking a leap of faith across a chasm]. . . the part of wisdom is clearly to believe what one desires, for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. ~ William James, "Rationality, Activity and Faith," 1882, p. 75

Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. Doubt, and you shall again be right, for you will perish. The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage. ~ William James, "Rationality, Activity and Faith," 1882, p. 75

Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. ~ William James

We all learn sooner or later that we must gather ourselves up and more or less arbitrarily concentrate our interests, throw much overboard to save any. ~ William James, Correspondence Vol. 1, p. 122

The matter of [teachers'] profession, compact enough in itself, has to be frothed up for them in journals and institutes, till its outlines often threaten to be lost in a kind of vast uncertainty. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

"Give all to love." ~ William James, quoting R. W. Emerson in a letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

Bate not a jot your heart nor hope, but steer right onward. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the Kosmos. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

I really don't think it so all-important what our occupation is, so long as we do respectably and keep a clean bosom. Whatever we are not doing is pretty sure to come to us at intervals, in the midst of our toil, and fill us with pungent regrets that it is lost to us. . .and I conclude that that sort of nostalgia is a necessary incident of our having imaginations, and we must expect it more or less whatever we are about. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, Jan., 1968

We long for sympathy, for a purely personal communication, first with the soul of the world, and then with the soul of our fellows.~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

Everything we know and are is through men.~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

Have confidence, even when you seem to yourself to be making no progress, that, if you but go on in your own uninteresting way, [results] must bloom out in their good time. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

I am firmly convinced that by going straight in almost any direction you can get out of the woods in which the young mind grows up, for I have an idea that the process usually consists of a more or less forcible reduction of the other elements of the chaos to a harmony with the terms of the one on which one has taken his particular stand. ~ William James, to O. W. Holmes, Jr., 1868

Contrasted with the attention [Goethe] vouchsaved to every phenomenon that impinged upon his senses, with the deep and worthy stillness in which every voice of Nature seemed to be listened to by his soul, our petulance and worry, our love of taking short cuts to the truth, making quick generalizations, our resorting to "summary" views of the great outspread Universe seem trivial and frivolous, to say the least, and the partiality and disrepect which almost all of us show towards some department of Experience, our rooted habit of not being able to raise x in our estimation except by lowering y, of "setting off" one thing against another in our judgments seems low traits. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

The spirit of Goethe which still reechoes through my being forbids any impatient rejection of a whole on account of defectiveness in the parts. Grapple to your soul with hooks of steel all the good points, and with the patience and enduring courage gradually mould and forge the rest into harmony with them. Thus naught is wasted in the world. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

For heavens sake don't give up the fight even if you are getting licked. ~ William James, letter to Thomas Ward, 1968

It is a noble thing for one's spirits to have responsible work to do. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1872

And I am convinced now that each occasion for giving in charity strengthens the habit and makes it easier. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1872

How people can pass years without a week of that normal life I can't imagine--life in which your cares, responsibilities and thoughts for the morrow become a far-off dream, and you are, simply, floating on from day to day, and "boarded" you don't know how, by what Providence--washed clean, without and within, by the light and the tender air. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1872

I begin to feel, too, strongly that at my time of life, with such a set of desultory years behind, what a man most wants is to be settled and concentrated, to cultivate a patch of ground which may be humble but still is his own. ~ William James, letter to his sister Alice, 1873

Your pen accidently slips into a certain vein and you must go on till you get it out clearly. ~ William James [on writing in tangents], letter to his sister Alice, 1873

Not but that I am happy here,--more so than I ever was there, because I'm in a permanent path, and it shows me how for our type of character the thought of the whole dominates the particular moments. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1872

It is the amount of life which a man feels that makes you value his mind. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1876

We are all isolated—"columns left alone of a temple once complete," etc. Books are our companions more than men. ~ William James, letter to Josiah Royce, 1880

I need to lead a purely animal life for at least two months to carry me through the teaching year. ~ William James, letter to Shadworth Hodgson, 1885

. . . to attain to assimilating your thought is the chief purpose of one's life. ~ William James, letter to Charles Renouvier, 1883

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~ William James, letter to Carl Stumpf, 1886

All intellectual work is the same,—the artist feeds the public on his own bleeding insides. ~ William James, letter to Henry James, 1891

Take things gently. Look for the little good in each day as if life were to last a hundred years. ~ William James, letter to Alice James, 1881

It doesn't pay in this short life for good old friends to be nonexistent for each other; and how can one write letters of friendship when letters of business fill every chink of time? ~ William James, letter to Mary Tappan, 1892

I have grown into the belief that friendship (including the highest half of that which between the two sexes is united under the single name of love) is about the highest joy of earth and that a man's rank in the general scale is well indicated by his capacity for it. ~ William James, letter to Wendell Holmes

And both you and Angell, being now colleagues and not students, had better stop Mistering or Professoring me, or I shall retaliate by beginning to "Mr." and "Prof." you. . . . ~ the humble William James in a letter to Dickinson Miller, 1893

Every great institution is perforce a means of corruption—whatever good it may also do. Only in free personal relation is full ideality to be found. ~ William James, letter to William Salter, 1899

I believe that international comparisons are a great waste of time—at any rate, international judgments and passings of sentence are. Every nation has ideals and difficulties and sentiments which are an impenetrable secret to one not of the blood. ~ William James, letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, 1899

Abundance of accomplishments, in an unsanctified heart, only make one a more accomplished devil. ~ William James, letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, 1899

I am intensely an individualist, and believe that as a practical problem for the individual, the religion he stands by must be the one which he finds best for him, even though there were better individuals, and their religion better for them. ~ William James, letter to Grace Norton, 1902

Important things are being published; but all of them too technical. The thing will never clear up satisfactorily till someone writes out its resultant in decent English ...l. ~ William James, letter to Dickinson Miller, 1905

And click here to read a letter William James wrote to his daughter Peg in 1900.

Recommended reading by William James in various letters

Faust, Goethe
"Les Confessions d'un Joueur de Clarinette," Erckmann-Chatrian
"L'Ami Fritz," Erckmann-Chatrian
Daniella and Beaux Messieurs de Bois-Doré, George Sand
Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
"Oeuvres Choisies," Diderot
Caprices et Zigzags and Capitaine Fracasse, Theophile Gautier
The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne
Honoré de Balzac
The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant

"A Grammarian's Funeral," Robert Browning
"Sonnet 29," William Shakespeare

"Give All to Love," Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Stanzas," Christopher Cranch

From Talks to Teachers on Psychology and To Students on Some of Life's Ideals

The matter of [teachers'] profession, compact enough in itself, has to be frothed up for them in journals and institutes, till its outlines often threaten to be lost in a kind of vast uncertainty. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

I think that, if you teachers in the earlier grades have any defect—the sligthest touch of a defect in the world—it is that you are a mite too docile. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality. . . . A science only lays down lines within which the rules of art must fall. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

To know psychology, therefore, is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

In teaching, you must simply work your pupil into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach him that every other object of attention is banished from his mind; then reveal it to him so impressively that he will remember the occasion to his dying day; and finally fill him with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with his subject are. . . . Divination and perception, not psychological pedagogics or theoretic strategy, are the only helpers here. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Such a complete knowledge of the pupil, at once intuitive and analytic, is surely the knowledge at which every teacher ought to aim. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Those who find themselves loving the subject may go as far as they please, and become possibly none the worse teachers for the fact, even though in some of them one might apprehend a little loss of balance from the tendency observable in all of us to overemphasize certain special parts of a subject when we are studying it intensely and abstractly. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Where would any of us be, were there no one willing to know us as we really are or ready to repay us for our insight by making recognizant return? We ought, all of us, to realize each other in this intense, pathetic, and important way. If you say that this is absurd, and that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other people’s lives; and that such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big. ~ William James, Talks to Students, What Makes a Life Significant?

Just as a bicycle-chain may be too tight, so may one's carefulness be so tense as to hinder the running of one's mind. ~ William James, Talks to Students, The Gospel of Relaxation

Yet in what other kind of value can the preciousness of nay hour, made precious by any standard, consist, if it consist not in feelings of excited significance like these, engendered in some one, by what the hour contains? ~ William James, Talks to Students, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

The way to become [relaxed], paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not. ~ William James, Talks to Students, The Gospel of Relaxation


And I mean it.

If you want really to do your best at an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, "I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.”

~ William James,
Talks to Students,
The Gospel of Relaxation


Where mendacity, treachery, obscenity, and malignity find unhampered expression, talk can be brilliant indeed. But its flame waxes dim where the mind is stitched all over with conscientious fear of violating the moral and social proprieties. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Worry means always and invariably inhibition of associations and loss of effective power.

~ William James,
Talks to Students, The Gospel of Relaxation

There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

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, and never to be undone. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

At first sight, it might seem as if, in the fluidity of these successive waves, everything is indeterminate. But inspection shows that each wave has a constitution which can be to some degree explained by the constitution of the waves just passed away. And this relation of the wave to its predecessors is expressed by the two fundamental ‘laws of association.’ ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Begin with the line of [a student’s] native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate connection with these. . . . Schools in which these methods preponderate are schools where discipline is easy, and where the voice of the master claiming order and attention in threatening tones need never be heard. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The difference between an interesting and a tedious teacher consists in little more than the inventiveness by which the one is able to mediate these associations and connections, and in the dullness in discovering such transitions which the other shows. One teacher’s mind will fairly coruscate with points of connection between the new lesson and the circumstances of the children’s other experience. Anecdotes and reminiscences will abound in her talk; and the new shuttle of interest will shoot backward and forwards, weaving the new and the old together in a lively and entertaining way. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

When the geography and English and history and arithmetic simultaneously make cross-references to one another, you get an interesting set of processes all along the line. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The child will always attend more to what a teacher does than to what the same teacher says. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The minds of geniuses are full of copious and original associations. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

To keep them where you have called them, you must make the subject too interesting for them to wander again. And for that there is one prescription; but the prescription, like all our prescriptions, is abstract, and, to get practical results from it, you must couple it with mother-wit. The prescription is that the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself; to prompt new questions; in a word, to change. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The teacher must pounce upon the most listless child, and wake him up. The habit of prompt and ready response must be kept up. Recapitulations, illustrations, examples, novelty of order, and ruptures of routine,—all these are means for keeping the attention alive and contributing a little interest to a dull subject. Above all, the teacher must himself be alive and ready, and must use the contagion of his own example. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

When all is said and done, the fact remains that some teachers have a naturally inspiring presence and can make their exercises interesting, while others simply cannot. And psychology and general pedagogy here confess their failure, and hand things over to the deeper springs of human personality to conduct the task. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The same thing recurring on different days, in different contexts, read, recited on, referred to again and again, related to other things and reviewed, gets well wrought into mental structure.~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The fact remains that verbal materials is, on the whole, the handiest and most useful material in which thinking can be carried on. Abstract conceptions are far and away the most economical instruments of thought, and abstract conceptions are fixed and incarnated for us in words . . . Nothing is more deplorable than that inarticulate and helpless sort of mind that is reminded by everything of some quotation, case, or anecdote, which it cannot now exactly recollect. Nothing, on the other hand, is more convenient to its possessor, or more delightful to his comrades, than a mind able, in telling a story, to give the exact words of the dialogue or to furnish a quotation accurate and complete. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Be patient, then, 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. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The teacher ought always to impress the class through as many sensible channels as he can. Talk and write and draw on blackboard, permit the pupils to talk, and make them write and draw, exhibit pictures, plans, and curves, have your diagrams colored differently in their different parts, etc.; and out of the whole variety of impressions the individual child will find the most lasting ones for himself. This principle of multiplying channels and varying associations and appeals is important, not only for teaching pupils to remember, but for teaching them to understand. It runs, in fact, through the whole teaching art.~ William James, Talks to Teachers

No one wants to hear a lecture on a subject completely disconnected with his previous knowledge, but we all like lectures on subjects of which we know a little already . . . The genius of the interesting teacher consists in sympathetic divination of the sort of material with which the pupil’s mind is likely to be already spontaneously engaged, and in the ingenuity which discovers paths of connection from that material to the matters to be newly learned. The principle is easy to grasp, but the accomplishment is difficult in the extreme. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties. He is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting vote. If any one of them do have the casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of his desire and passion, the strength of the interest he takes in what is proposed. Concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses,--all are subsidiary to this . . . Our mind may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused; but it may be extremely efficient all the same. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers


The art of remembering is the art of thinking . . . When we wish to fix a new think in either our own mind or a pupil’s, our conscious effort should not be so much to impress and retain it as to connect it with something else already there. The connecting is the thinking; and, if we attend clearly to the connection, the connected thing will certainly be likely to remain within recall.

~ William James, Talks to Teachers


You can be an artist without visual images, a reader without eyes, a mass of erudition with a bad elementary memory. In almost any subject your passion for the subject will save you. If you only care enough for a result, you will almost certainly attain it. If you wish to be rich, you will be rich; if you wish to be learned, you will be learned; if you wish to be good, you will be good. Only you must, then, really wish these things, and wish them with exclusiveness, and not wish at the same time a hundred other incompatible things just as strongly. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

No elementary measurement, capable of being performed in a laboratory, can throw any light on the actual efficiency of the subject; for the vital thing about him, his emotional and moral energy and doggedness, can be measured by no single experiment, and becomes known only by the total results in the long run. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

In working associations into your pupils’ minds, you must not rely on single cues, but multiply the cues as much as possible. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Do not, then, for the mere sake of discipline, command attention from your pupils in thundering tones. Do not too often beg it from them as a favor, nor claim it as a right, nor try habitually to excited it by preaching the importance of the subject. Sometimes, indeed, you must do these things; but, the more you have to do them, the less skilful teacher you will show yourself to be. Elicit interest from within, by the warmth with which you care for the topic yourself, and by following the laws I have laid down. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

If the topic be highly abstract, show its nature by concrete examples. If it be unfamiliar, trace some point of analogy in it with the known. If it be inhuman, make it figure as part of a story. If it be difficult, couple its acquisition with some prospect of personal gain. Above all things, make sure that it shall run through certain inner changes, since no unvarying object can possibly hold the mental field for long. Let your pupil wander from one aspect to another of your subject, if you do not wish him to wander from it altogether to something else, variety in unity being the secret of all interesting talk and thought. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

A bad conscience increases the weight of every other burden. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The same is true of Love, and the instinctive desire to please those whom we love. The teacher who succeeds in getting herself loved by the pupils will obtain results which one of a more forbidding temperament finds it impossible to secure. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

We hear the words we have spoken, feel our own blow as we give it, read in the bystander’s eyes the success or failure of our own conduct. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The teacher who meets with most success is the teacher whose own ways are the most imitable. A teacher should never try to make the pupils do a thing which she cannot do herself. . . . Children admire a teacher who has skill. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Not to speak, not to move, is one of the most important of our duties, in certain practical emergencies.~ William James, Talks to Teachers

If I had to live my life over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. ~ Charles Darwin (as quoted in William James, Talks to Teachers)

Soft pedagogics have taken the place of the old steep and rocky path to learning. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

It is nonsense to suppose that every step in education can be interesting. The fighting impulse must often be appealed to. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

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. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Emulation with one's former self is a noble form of the passion of rivalry. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Your task is to build up a character in your pupils; and a character, as I have so often said, consists in an organized set of habits of reaction. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Our mind may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused; but it may be extremely efficient all the same. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little scar. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

Ten minutes a day of poetry, of spiritual reading or meditation, and an hour or two a week at music, pictures, or philosophy, provided we began now and suffered no remission, would infallibly give us in due time the fullness of all we desire. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

You may take a child to the schoolroom, but you cannot make him learn the new things you wish to impart, except by soliciting him in the first instance by something which natively makes him react. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

I cannot but think that to apperceive your pupil as a little sensitive, impulsive, associative, and reactive organism, partly fated and party free, will lead to a better intelligence of all his ways. Understand him, then, as such a subtle little piece of machinery. And if, in addition, you can also see him sub specie boni, and love him as well, you will be in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers. ~ William James, Talks to Teachers

What our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble.

~ William James,
Talks to Students, On What Makes a Life Significant

Why do we hear the complaint so often that social life in New England is either less rich and expressive or more fatiguing than it is in some other parts of the world? To what is the fact, if fact it be, due unless to the over-active conscience of the people, afraid of either saying something too trivial and obvious, or something insincere, or something unworthy of one's interlocutor, or something in some way or other not adequate to the occasion? How can conversation possibly steer itself through such a sea of responsibilities and inhibitions as this? On the other hand, conversation does flourish and society is refreshing, and neither dull on the one hand nor exhausting from its effort on the other, wherever people forget their scruples and take the brakes off their hearts, and let their tongues wag as automatically and irresponsibly as they will. ~ William James, Talks to Students, The Gospel of Relaxation

Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the classroom trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care. ~ William James, Talks to Students, The Gospel of Relaxation

[After being imprisoned, Peter, of Tolstoy's War and Peace,] learnt that man is meant for happiness, and that this happiness is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence, and that unhapiness is the fatal result, not of our need, but of our abundance. ~ William James, Talks to Students, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

We of the highly education classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simple functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lop-sided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one's body, grows and grows. The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental statis goods of life. "Ah! my brother," said a chieftain to his white guest, "thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing." ~ William James, Talks to Students, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

I am sorry for the boy or girl, or man or woman, who has never been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life, with its irrationality, if so you like to call it, but is vigilance and its supreme felicity. The holidays of life are its most vitally significant portions, because they are, or at least should be, covered with just this kind of magically irresponsible spell." ~ William James, Talks to Students, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. ~ William James, Talks to Students, What Makes a Life Significant?

In God's eyes, the differences of social position, of intellect, of culture, of cleanliness, of dress, which different men exhibit, and all the other rarities and exceptions on which they so fantastically pin their pride, must be so small as practically, quite to vanish; and all that should remain is the common fact that ehre we are, a countless multitude of vessels of life, each of us pent in to peculiar difficulties, with which we must severally struggle by using whatever of fortitude and goodness we can summon up. The exercise of the courage, patience, and kindness, must be the significant portion of the whole business; and the distinctions of position can only be a manner of diversifying the phenomenal surface upon which these underground virtues may manifest their effects. ~ William James, Talks to Students, What Makes a Life Significant?

"The more we live by our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life." ~ William James, Talks to Students, What Makes a Life Significant? quoting Tolstoy's "My Confession"

From Pragmatism, "What Pragmatism Means"

Our beliefs are really rules for action. ~ William James, Pragmatism (citing Charles Peirce's article "How to Make Our Ideas Clear")

To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider 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. ~ William James, Pragmatism

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. ~ William James, Pragmatism

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. ~ William James, Pragmatism

[The pragmatic method means] the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, "categories," supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience. ~ William James,

Truth in our ideas means their power to "work." ~ William James, Pragmatism

The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. ~ William James, Pragmatism

The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Ought we ever not to believe what it is better for us to believe? ~ William James, Pragmatism

The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Retain, I pray you, this suspicion about common sense. ~ William James, Pragmatism, "Pragmatism and Common Sense"

From Pragmatism, "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth"

First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Pragmatism, on the other hand, 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-value in experiential terms?" ~ William James, Pragmatism

Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. ~ William James, Pragmatism

The possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action. ~ William James, Pragmatism

All things exist in kinds and not singly. ~ William James, Pragmatism

To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. They essential thing is the process of being guided. An idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn't entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality's whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. ~ William James, Pragmatism

We choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial; we follow 'elegance' or 'economy.' ~ William James, Pragmatism

Truth in science is what gives us the maximum possible sum of satisfactions, taste included, but consistency both with previous truth and with novel fact is always the most imperious claimant. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience. ~ William James, Pragmatism

Truth becomes a habit of certain of our ideas and beliefs in their intervals of rest from their verifying activities. ~ William James, Pragmatism

We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.

~ William James, Pragmatism

The 'facts' themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them. ~ William James, Pragmatism

It is the nature of truths to be validated, verified. It pays for our ideas to be validated. Our obligation to seek truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays. ~ William James, Pragmatism

It is quite evident that our obligation to acknowledge truth, so far from being unconditional, is tremendously conditioned. ~ William James, Pragmatism

A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. ~ William James, Pragmatism

From The Meaning of Truth, "Humanism and Truth"

If it can make no practical difference which of two statements be true, then they are really one statement in two verbal forms; if it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

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. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Any hypothesis that forces such a review upon one has one great merit, even if in the end it prove invalid: it gets us better acquainted with the total subject. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Experience is a process that continually gives us new material to digest. We handle this intellectually by the mass of beliefs of which we find ourselves already possessed, assimilating, rejecting, or rearranging in different degrees. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

There is a push, an urgency, within our very experience, against which we are on the whole powerless, and which drives us in a direction that is the destiny of our belief. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

The forces both of advance and of resistance are exerted by our own objects, and the notion of truth as something opposed to waywardness or license inevitably grows up solipsistically inside of every human life. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Absolute or no absolute, the concrete truth for us will always be that way of thinking in which our various experiences most profitably combine. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

The true is the opposite of whatever is instable, of whatever is practically disappointing, of whatever is useless, of whatever is lying and unreliable, of whatever is unverifiable and unsupported, of whatever is inconsistent and contradictory, of whatever is artificial and eccentric, of whatever is unreal in the sense of being of no practical account. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

All noble, clean-cut, fixed, eternal, rational, temple-like systems of philosophy . . . contradict the dramatic temperament of nature, as our dealings with nature and our habits of thinking have so far brought us to conceive it. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Why may not thought's mission be to increase and elevate, rather than simply to imitate and reduplicate, existence? ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Those thoughts are true which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

In all this, it is but one portion of our beliefs reacting on another so as to yield the most satisfactory total state of mind. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

Undeniably something comes by the counting that was not there before. And yet that something was always true. In one sense you create it, and in another sense you find it. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

The amount of accord which satisfies most men and women is merely the absence of violent clash between their usual thoughts and statements and the limited sphere of sense-perceptions in which their lives are cast. The theoretic truth that most of us think we 'ought' to attain to is thus the possession of a set of predicates that do not explicitly contradict their subjects. We preserve it as often as not by leaving other predicates and subjects out. ~ William James, The Meaning of Truth

From Psychology: Briefer course

My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing, and I can only do one thing at a time. ~ William James, Psychology: Briefer course

The rivalry of the patterns is the history of the world. ~ William James, "The Social Value of the College-Bred"

From Principles of Psychology

"In fact we ourselves know how the barometer of our self-esteem and confidence rises and falls from one day to another through causes that seem to be visceral and organic rather than rational, and which certainly answer to no corresponding variations in the esteem in which we are held by our friends." ~ William James, Principles of Psychology, Chapter 10, "The Consciousness of Self"

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind. ~ William James

Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way. ~ William James, Principles of Psychology, Chapter 19, p. 110.


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