1842 - Born. New York City, January 11.
William's father, Henry James Sr., was one of 13 children born to an Irish immigrant. By the time his own children were born, Henry had inherited wealth from his father. At the time of William's birth, Henry and his wife Mary lived in New York City, where Henry studied theology, philosophy, and mysticism. Having rejected his fathe's Presbyterianism, he followed the teachings of Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
["Born in New York City in 1842, William James was a child of privilege and by all odds should have become a playboy or, at best, a dilettante."]
William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842, to an affluent, cosmopolitan, and deeply religious family. His father Henry dabbled in theology, doted on his five children, was well connected to literary and philosophical luminaries of the day, and often took the family for extended stays in Europe. His journeys to the continent were primarily theological and philosophical odysseys intended to resolve his conflicting spiritual bouts. His right leg had been amputated after burns suffered in a boyhood accident failed to heal. His spirit never quite recovered. A devoted father, he sought to provide his children with the sort of education that might enable them some day to outdistance their countrymen both in erudition and in breadth of knowledge. To this end, he enrolled them in fine schools, obtained for them gifted tutors, and saw to it that they frequented museums and attended lectures and the theater with regularity. William and two of his siblings would give fruit to their father's liberal educational efforts. Brother Henry became one of America's most famed novelists, and sister Alice acquired a literary reputation of her own after her diaries were posthumously published.1843 - His brother Henry is born. New York City, April 15.
Whenever Henry became deeply troubled, his immediate environment became intolerable, and his first move was flight. He not only needed to get out of the house, he needed to get out of New York City. In May, 1843, a month after Harry was born, Henry put his house up for sale. The profit on the transaction, he decided, would finance a radical change for the Jameses. At first, he thought he might move to the country, separating himself physically from the intellectual centers that he found so hostile, and "communicate with my living kind, not my talking kindby life only." But he realized that living an exemplary life, unheralded, would not satisfy him.1847 - The James family rents a house at 11 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
There was, of course, another route, one sanctioned by many Americans of his class: settling in Europe. By the summer of 1843, he decided to leave America. "Mr. James talks of going to Germany soon with his wifeto learn the language," Thoreau told Emerson. "He says he must know itcan never learn it herethere he may absorb it and is very anxious to learn beforehand where he had best locate himself, to enjoy the advantage of the highest culture, learn the language in its purity, and not exceed his limited means." But by the of the summer, Henry had changed his mind about the destination. It would not be Germany, where without the language, he would be at a serious disadvantage in participating in "the highest culture"; instead, he would take his family to England. [from Linda Simon's Genuine Reality]
By late autumn, Mary was pregnant with her fifth child, and the Jameses finally decided to settle in New York City. Their long visits to Albany had been crucial for Henry: at last, he had proved to his many relatives that he was not the ne'er-do-well who had shamed his father, but the respectable head of a quickly growing family and an industrious writer and lecturer.1848 - Sister Alice is born August 7.
In 1852, Henry decided that the boys should learn languages more systematically than they did with one or another of their tutors, and to that end sent them, finally, to the Institution Vergnes, not far from the Jameses' home. The school was presided over by Vergnes himself, and elderly, irritable schoolmaster who set a rigid curriculum for his charges, mostly boys from well-to-do Mexican and Cuban families. Harry [Henry Jr.] remembered a "complete failure of blondness" in the generally gloomy atmosphere. The boys learned some French, but Henry, dissatisfied as usual, allowed them to attend only for one year.1855-1858 - School and private tutors in England and France.
Richard Pulling Jenks ran a smaller school nearby, with only a few rooms, staffed by only a few teachers. A Mr. Dolmidge, lean, beardless, and mild mannered, taught writing; a Mr. Coe, drawing. Coe, a large man with a shock of thick white hair and a commanding presence, was a talented teacher, inspiring by encouragement and by involving the students in his own work, which ranged from tiny "drawing cards" to larger oils on panel boards. At eleven, William discovered that he loved to draw. Now, anyone looking for him at home could be sure to find him in the back parlor, bent over his pad, drawing for hours on end, absorbed and totally content.
The boys had attended the Pulling Jenks school for a year when Henry again decided to withdraw them and try another school. At the ages of ten and eleven, Harry and William began to inquire about why they were taken away from a school they so much enjoyed. Their parents gave them no reason, however, and the boys were left to draw their own conclusions. But if we look at later patterns of Henry's separating William from schools and mentors, it is likely that William's enthusiasm for art and for Mr. Coe frightened his father. If Coe gave William the emotional support that he needed, if he affirmed the child's talents, he threatened to supplant Henry's influence over his son. Henry could not allow that to happen. [from Genuine Reality]
When William departed on the Atlantic with his family in the summer of 1855, he left not only his friends and the home where he had spent most of his childhood, but a sense of independence that he would not recapture in Europe. [from Genuine Reality]1858-1859 - Family to Newport, Rhode Island. James attends school in Newport.
During 1857-58 he attended school in Boulogne.
William was exuberant when his father decided that instead of leaving London at the end of July, the family would depart six weeks earlier. On June 30, 1858, he was back in America at last. The family spent July reunited with their many relatives in Albany.
James had toyed with the idea of becoming a painter, and while taking lessons in the Newport, Rhode Island, studio of William Morris Hunt in 1859 and 1860, he and his younger brother and fellow student Henry met John La Farge, who had recently returned from studying art in Paris. ["He was seventeen when Darwin's Origin of Species appeared (1859)."]1859-1860 - Back overseas. School and private tutors in Switerland and Germany.
By early September of 1858 Henry Sr. was so irritated that he decided he had made a mistake to come back to America at all. "I have grown so discouraged about the education of my children here, and dread so those inevitable habits of extravagance and insubordination which appear to be the characteristics of American youth," he wrote to his friend Samuel Ward, "that I have come to the conclusion to retrace my steps to Europe, and keep them there a few years longer." Keeping his children isolated from a world that offered them choices, temptations, and satisfactions had become a consuming struggle.
A day after landing at Le Havre, the family went to Paris and then on to Geneva, this time to try different schools from the one the children had attended during their last educational experiment. William went to the Academy, precursor of the University of Geneva. Of the four children, William had the best match: he studied science and mathematics with as much success as he had before and by spring had been invited to join the Societe des Zoffingues, a social club for Swiss students. Although William later complained that during his entire stay in Switzerland, he had never seen the inside of a Swiss home ("the aristocratic and respectable Genevese are very exclusive and reserved in their demeanor towards strangers," he wrote), the club afforded him the experience of informal student life. When William found out that he could invite a friend to one of the society's festivals, he chose Harry, who remembered a rowdy gathering where "drinking, smoking big German pipes and singing" were the main activities." [from Genuine Reality]
["William James attended schools in the United States, England, France, Switzerland, and Germany, and was also privately tutored; became familiar with the major museums and galleries in every city the family visited; acquired fluency in five languages, met, listened to, and talked to such frequenters of the James household as Thoreau, Emerson, Greeley, Hawthorne, Carlyle, Tennyson, and J. S. Mill; and through his father's influence became widely read and well versed in philosophy. Not that Henry James, Sr., was a taskmaster or disciplinarian; for his time, he was an unusually permissive and loving father, who encouraged dinner table arguments by the children about every kind of issue and, to his friends' horror, allowed his children to attend theater."]
["But a loving and permissive father can wield distressing influence over a child. At seventeen William James wanted to become a painter, but Henry James, Sr., who wanted him to seek a career in the sciences or philosophy, disapproved and took the family to Europe for a year as a distraction. Only because William persisted was he reluctantly allowed to study with an artist in Newport."]1860-1861 - Studies painting with William Morris Hunt, Newport, R.I.
["After half a year William decided he was not gifted, perhaps more because of guilt feelings than a lack of talent, and, obeying his father's wishes, entered Harvard and began the study of chemistry."]
Before William James entered the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University to begin medical school at the age of 19, he was familiar with nearly every major museum in Europe and was fluent in five languages.1861- Enters Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University.
James began his studies at Harvard at the same time that the American Civil War began to rage. Although his brothers Wilky and Bob enlisted, William and Henry Jr. did not, pleading health issues—William suffered from neurasthenia and a host of ailments, including weak vision, digestive disorders, and a severe depression that brought about thoughts of suicide.
["After a while, because the family fortune was dwindling and William realized he would someday have to earn his own living, he switched to Harvard Medical School."]1864 - William enters Harvard Medical School. [The Letters of William James gives the date as 1863]
["Medicine, too, failed to arouse his enthusiasm, and he took off much of a year to travel to the Amazon with Louis Agassiz, the eminent Harvard naturalist, hoping that natural history might be his true love. It proved not to be; he hated collecting specimens."]1865-1866 - Joins Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon.
As James began his second year in medical school, he was offered another chance to test his interest in becoming a naturalist: Agassiz was recruiting volunteers to join him on an expedition to Brazil to collect specimens. The trip would cost James some six hundred dollars, but the expense, he decided, would be worth it. "W.J.," he said to himself, "in this excursion you will learn to know yourself and your resources somewhat more intimately than you do now, and will come back with your character considerably evolved and established." His family agreedat the very least, James would be participating in research with one of the greatest living naturalistsand his father and Aunt Kate came up with the necessry funds to make the trip possible.1866 - James family moves to Cambridge (20 Quincy Street).
The Thayer Expedition would take James the farthest he ever had been from his family. As soon as the Colorado departed from New York on April 1, 1865, James found himself in "isolated circumstances" that sent him spiraling into depression. The passage was rough, he reported home, but he did not suffer nausea, only homesickness. "For twelve mortal days," he wrote, "I was, body and soul, in a more indescribably hopeless, homeless and friendless tate than I ever want to be in again." [from Genuine Reality]
["He resumed medical school but was beset by assorted ailments—back pain, weak vision, digestive disorders, and thoughts of suicide—some or most of which were exacerbated by his indecision about his future. Seeking relief, he went to France and Germany for nearly two years, took the baths, studied under Helmholtz and other leading physiologists, and became thoroughly conversant with the New Psychology."]1867-1868 - James in Europe, mainly Germany. Studies medicine.
On Tuesday, April 16, 1867, James sailed for Europe. Because he swore his family to secrecy about his latest collapse, hardly anyone knew why he left. Never as adventuresome a traveler as his brother Harry, William searched for safe places: he preferred small provincial cities to European capitals, and homey pensions run by grandmotherly women to any kind of hotel. After a few days in Paris, he went to Dresden, where he spent the summer of 1867.1869 - James receives his MD from Harvard.
In June, when at last he earned his degree, James became a member of what he acknowledge was "an important profession." But the achievement had little impact on the volatility of his emotional life. He was left, he said, with "a good deal of intellectual hunger" that he did not know how to satisfy. Still, he believed that he had not found a way to reconcile his essential nature with his contribution to humanity. First, of course, he needed to define that essential nature, a daunting task. [from Genuine Reality]1869-1872 - Ill-health and recovery.
["Finally he returned and at twenty-seven completed medical school. He made no effort to practice because of his poor health, but spent his time studying psychology, sunk in gloom about his prospects and troubled by the profound differences between his scientific views of the mind and the world and his father's mystical and spiritual ones. In 1870, at twenty-eight, after nearly a year in these doldrums, he had an abrupt emotional crisis very much like his father's."
For almost three years after graduation, James lived in the family home. His bouts of depression increased after a young woman whom he had befriended died following a prolonged illness. He would later describe his depression as a descent into a profound crisis—of spirituality, of being, of meaning, of will. He suffered panic attacks and even hallucinations that left him mentally crippled. His father had suffered similar attacks and had sought refuge from them in spiritual quests. William feared that his infirmity was rooted in a biological destiny he would be unable to overcome. He also shrouded his angst with secrecy and used only his reading and journal writing to deal with the mental anguish. One day in April of 1870, the psychological fever began to brake. He recorded in his journal that, after reading an essay by Charles Renouvier, he had come to believe that free will was no illusion and that he could use his will to alter his mental state. He need not be a slave to a presumed biological destiny. "My first act of free will," he wrote, "shall be to believe in free will."
1872 - James accepts position as instructor of comparative anatomy and physiology at Harvard College.
James was now 30, three years out of medical school, still financially dependent on his father, and with no career prospects or plans except for a vague desire to devote himself to philosophy in some fashion. It was at this propitious time that Harvard president Charles Eliot, a neighbor and former teacher of James, offered him a post at Harvard teaching physiology for the modest sum of $600 per year. His acceptance signaled the start of a prestigious career, for James was to become a gifted teacher, a skilled orator, and, of course, a prodigious thinker and writer. It signaled also the renewal of his spirit. James took to teaching. He began teaching in Fall of 1872 (August). His students described him as a rigorous instructor, a lively and humorous lecturer, and a caring soul mate. As it does to most new teachers, however, the first year left him utterly exhausted. [see James's schedule of courses during his 34 years at Harvard]
"Lack of confidence in his own authority generated anxiety about his ability to succeed as a teacher. He was, however, pleasantly surprised. Even by his own high standrds, he performed successfully in the classroom; performing, after all, was one of his most impressive skills. While he complained that he could not excite some of his dull students, he managed to engage the attention of many others. 'So far,' he reported to Harry, 'I seem to have succeeded in interesting them ... and I hear expressions of satisfaction on their part.' Teaching was stimulating for James, as well: 'I should think it not unpleasant as a permanent thing,' he admitted. 'The authority is at first rather flattering to one.'" [from Linda Simon's A Genuine Reality]1873-1874 - Depression returns. Recuperating in Europe, primarily Italy. Traveling with Henry.
["Within three years of arriving at Harvard, he began offering courses in physiological psychology and performing demonstrations for students in his little laboratory in Lawrence Hall."]
["There were no professors of psychology in American universities before James began teaching the subject in 1875. The only forms of psychology then taught in the United States were phrenology and Scottish mental philosophy, an offshoot of associationism used chiefly as a defense of revealed religion. James himself had never taken a course in the New Psychology because none was available; as he once jested, 'The first lecture in psychology that I ever heard was the first I ever gave.'"]1876 - Assistant professor of physiology.
["The year James began the [Principles], 1878, was a landmark in another way. At thirty-six, he married. Despite his belief in free will, he seems to have been something less than a free agent in his choice of mate. Two years earlier his father had come home from a meeting of the Radical Club in Boston and announced that he had met William's future wife, Alice Gibbens, a Boston schoolteacher and accomplished pianist. Although William dragged his feet about meeting her, once he did so the die was cast. After a prolonged courtship, Alice became his dutiful, strong wife and helpmeet, mother of his five children, amanuensis, and lifelong intellectual companion."]1879 - Begins teaching philosophy.
James had warned Alice that, should she deign to accept his proposal of marriage, she should be well aware of his mental condition. He confessed to her his neurasthenia, his bouts of deep depression, his thoughts of suicide, his lingering spiritual crisis. He cautioned her that he could as easily get worse as better. Alice threw caution to the wind and married William on July 20 of 1878. His neurasthenia got better very quickly.
No academic field could easily contain James's interests. He had switched from teaching physiology to psychology and, in 1879, he shifted to philosophy. The following year he was made assistant professor of philosophy. He saw the new decade in with the birth of the first of his five children. It was a decade devoted to teaching, writing numerous articles for the best journals, and meeting with the finest minds at home and in Europe. But it was also a decade marked by personal tragedy. He lost his mother early in 1882 and his father before that year was out. Three years later, his third child Herman, less than a year old, died of bronchial pneumonia. At decade's end, the family moved to a new home in Cambridge.1879 - Birth of his first son, Henry ["Harry"].
James's sense of independence and manliness were affirmed by the birth of his first child, Henry III, on May 18, 1879, which elicited this description to his brother Bob:1880 - Assistant professor of philosophy.My domestic catastrophe is now a week old. Babe and Mar [mother] both doing very well indeed. The former has a rich orange complexion, a black head of hair, weight 8 1/2 lbs keeps his eyes tight shut on the wicked world and is of a musical, but not too musical disposition . . . I find I have strong affection for the little animaland tho' I say it who should not, he has a very lovely and benignant little expression on his face.James, genuinely enchanted by his offspring, told Alice that he hoped "little Embry," as they called their infant son, soon might have a sibling. [from Genuine Reality]
1882 - Death of mother in January.
Mary James died in January 1882, after a brief bout with bronchitis. During her illness, she was nursed by her daughter, her sister, and her husband. "It has been a severe loss to all of us," William remarked, "but father and my sister, the two who presumably might suffer most from it, are bearing it very well." If the two who grieved most deeply were very well, one can only surmise that William himself suffered little. Mary's death elicited a response from her son that would be repeated after many future losses: a sudden sentimental epiphany about the value of the person lost, regret over the quality of their relationship, and a promise to treat others with more generosity. Years later, James admitted that after Mary's death "every thing about her seemed so different to me from what it ever had before, that I was indignant at my blindness, and resolved as far as possible to feel my human relations during life as I should after death, in order to feel them after death more as I did during life." [from Genuine Reality]1882 - Birth of second son, William ["Billy"].
["He drew upon all his reading in both philosophical and physiological psychology; spent half a year in Europe in 1882-1883 visiting universities, attending laboratory sessions and lectures, and meeting and talking to dozens of leading psychologists and other scientists; corresponded regularly with many of them; and gathered reports and clinical studies of abnormal minds, and of normal ones under hypnosis, drugs, or stress.
William again sailed to Europe in September 1882, leaving Alice at home with four-year-old Harry and three-month-old Billy. Finally taking the sabbatical that had been refused him the year before, James told his friends and family that he was going abroad to confer again with his European colleagues, learn more about their work and ideas, and especially to make progress on The Principles of Psychology, already years behind its due date. As in the past, however, the threat of a nervous collapse figured significantly in his decision to go to Europe.1882 - Father dies in December, while William is in London.
On Sunday, December 10, a short time after William arrived in London to visit with Harry [Henry James], they received an ominous telegram: "Brain softening possibly live months all insist Wm. shall not come." Although William admitted that he and Harry had long anticipated their father's final heart attack or stroke, they were not prepared for this sudden news with its frightening diagnosis. Worrying as much about Alice's reaction as about their father's deterioration, Harry quickly booked passage home. Despite the admonition that William stay in London, his first impulse was to return, as well. "I wanted to get to see him if possible before the end, & to let him see me and get a ray of pleasure from the thought that I had come," he said. But on quick reflection, he changed his mind: his father, after all, might not even recognize him; and his father's recognition was essential for William.
Henry Sr. never saw his son's farewell. At the end, according to Aunt Kate, he murmured, "Oh, I have such good boyssuch good boys!" Those were his last recorded words. He died, more peacefully than his boys imagined he would, on December 18. William, who learned of his father's death from an announcement in the London Standard, felt momentary shock and an initial reaction of grief "more, much more than I expected." But the grief was not enough to keep him from lunching and dining with friends. In the next days, sadness gave way to a new sense of power and freedom. His father, whose admonitions echoed in his mind each time he made a decision, whose censure he had feared and whose praise he so coveted, became transformed at once from a looming presence to an image "smaller, less potent, more pathetic." [from Genuine Reality]
National Portrait Gallery
1885 - Death of his son, Hermann.
On September 25 of 1890, Holt began distribution of The Principles of Psychology at $6 for the 2-volume set ($5 after dealer discount). In many ways, the two-volume work was as much psychology as it was philosophy. It was also literature, autobiography, self-help manual, and confessional tale. It was widely admired and generally positively reviewed, although a number of readers found it too personal in tone and substance. The literary tone that James used in this and future works earned for him the accolade that he was actually the real novelist of the James brothers, a novelist who wrote about psychology. Henry, on the other hand, was the real psychologist who wrote novels. But it was not an accolade typically given by members of his discipline. "It is literature," the renown psychologist Wilhelm Wundt said of the Principles, "it is beautiful, but it is not psychology." At the urging of his publisher to create a more digestible book with greater classroom appeal, James later condensed the two volumes into one, Psychology: The Briefer Course. Soon the complete work came to be known as The James, and the abridged tome as The Jimmy.
There were no boundaries to James's interest in psychological processes, and no areas to which his mind would not travel. He was criticized broadly for his interest in psychical research, and he was known to have attended seances. In the Principles, he devoted chapters to habit, attention, perception, association, memory, reasoning, instinct, emotion, imagination, psychological methods, and even hypnotism. Of all psychological processes, however, one was clearly central to a Jamesian psychologythe self.1892 - Death of sister Alice in London. Publishes Psychology, Briefer Course, later known as The Jimmy.
It bears noting that "The Consciousness of Self" is the longest chapter in the two volumes of the Principles. In it, James described an individual's sense of self as "duplex," composed of objective and subjective selves. He differentiated between the self as knower, or the I, and the self as known, or me. The I is pure ego, consciousness itself. The me is one of the many things that the I may be conscious of, and it consists of three components, one physical or material, one social, and one spiritual. James was careful to point out that the two selves are discriminated aspects of self rather than "separate things." The self is also purposive, dynamic, and active. James was also one of the first writers to use the term self-esteem, which he described as a self-feeling that depends on what one decides to be and to accomplish. Self-esteem may be raised, James argued, either by succeeding in our endeavors or, in the face of incessant disappointments, by lowering our sights and surrendering certain pretensions. James' belief in God permeates his psychology and plays an important role in his understanding of self (particularly of the I). For example, his discussion of the soul as a combining medium of thought or consciousness is permeated with references to a spiritual being and the role that such a being may play in understanding an individual's self. He argued that psychology must "admit" the Soul.
By the time that William James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890, Rousseau's doctrine of innate ideas was under attack in the field of psychology from associationists who favored Locke's model of the human mind as a tabula rasa. The Russian school of reflexology, known today to psychology students primarily through the work of Ivan Pavlov and his discovery of the principle of conditioned reflexes, was having a profound influence on European elementist psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt. Theirs was an antimentalist view of human functioning in which only observable experience was deemed worthy of scientific scrutiny. This decidedly positivist perspective would travel to the United States by way of structuralist Edward Titchener and others. The intellectual precursors of John Watson's and B. F. Skinner's brand of radical behaviorism were well on their way to capturing the discipline, and they wanted a discipline in which self-perceptions and other internal mental states played no meaningful role in a scientific psychology. Moreover, notions of mind-body dualism were still well entrenched within the discipline.
These were not ideas that sat well with James, a man who had come to psychology by way of art and philosophy and who believed that a psychology without introspection could not aspire to explain the complexities of human functioning. It was by looking into his own conscious mind that he made sense of his own psychology, and it was primarily through this method that he developed the principles of psychology that governed others. After all, he argued, "introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always."
The year 1892 should be an auspicious one to students of education and educational psychology because it was on July of that year that William James delivered the first of a series of lectures on psychology to teachers in Cambridge. With the appointment of Paul Henry Hanus as assistant professor of the History and Art of Teaching in 1891, only a year after the debut of the Principles, Harvard University began a process that culminated in the creation of a Division of Education in 1906 and a Graduate School of Education in 1920. At the time of the appointment, the Harvard administration also proposed to its instructors that they address issues of concern to teaching from the perspectives of their own disciplines. James did so and incorporated the fruits of his labors into his own teaching (James was perhaps the first university professor ever to elicit evaluations of his teaching from his students). It is safe to say that William James was the first American psychologist to directly address educational issues.1892-1893 - Travels to Europe with wife and children.
When Harvard also suggested to James that a series of lectures to classroom teachers on the relationship between psychology and teaching would be well-received, James saw the opportunity to promote attention to his newly published Principles and to increase his university income. On July of 1892, he delivered the first lecture to a group of Cambridge teachers under the title of "Talks on Psychology of Interest to Teachers." According to Harvard's university calendar, the first lecture was delivered on a Tuesday evening; lectures then followed every Thursday. He would subsequently deliver the lectures throughout the country.
James began his talks by declaring to the teachers in his audience that they held the future of the country in their hands. Shrewdly, he went on to lower their expectations of what they could hope to take from his lectures. He cautioned them that knowledge of psychology does not ensure effective teaching. Indeed, they would make a "great, very great" mistake if they believed that scientific psychology could offer them teaching strategies or instructional methods they could readily incorporate into their teaching. After all, "psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves." Moreover, knowledge of psychology cannot help anyone develop ingenuity or tact, and these are skills central to the art of teaching. He went even further: The amount of psychology necessary to effective teaching "might almost be written on the palm of one's hand." What psychology can do is to "save 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."
James's speaker's fee was $50. Such was his eloquence and appeal that the size of his audiences increased after each lecture. After the success of Principles and of the lectures, James was exhilarated but exhausted, and an exhausted James always turned to travel. He obtained a year's sabbatical from Harvard, turned his laboratory over to Hugo Münsterberg, and, as had his father before him, he took the entire family to Europe, where he enrolled his boys in an English school in Florence.
When the family returned from Europe in 1893, James found an America ravaged by a financial depression that had severely depleted his savings. Moreover, he feared he was losing touch with his own national identity. "One should not be a cosmopolitan," he wrote, "one's soul becomes 'disaggregated'" and "one's land seems foreign." He determined to reclaim his cultural identity and began a period of intense activity in social and political causes. The increase in political activism was also marked by decreased interest in psychology–"I wish to get relieved of psychology as soon as possible," he wrote to a friend. European experimental psychology, spearheaded by Wundt, was now in full bloom in American psychology. It emphasized an objectivist view of human functioning in which only observable experience merited scientific interest. James found it trivial, mindless, and intellectually indigestible. Though disheartened by the growing success of the behaviorist movement, he continued throughout his life to fight for his introspective view of psychology, and he remained an active member both of the American Philosophical Association and of the American Psychological Association, even serving as President of each organization.1894-1899 - Intense activity in social and political causes.
["In 1894 he was the first American to call attention to the work of the then obscure Viennese physician Sigmund Freud, and in 1909, though ailing, he went to Clark University to meet Freud on his only visit to the United States and to hear him speak."]
During the closing years of the century, James lectured widely, remained politically active, and published The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, a book more in keeping with his growing spiritual and philosophical concerns. His lectures to teachers were collected and published in Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. At a lecture delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," he put forth his first explanation of the method of pragmatism, an idea that he credited to Charles Sanders Peirce but which James appropriated and transformed. In 1896, he was named Doctor of Laws by Princeton University.1897 - Publication of Will to Believe and Other Essays.
The ten essays that James included in The Will to Believe contain some of his most eloquent statements on the intellectual and emotional risks of religious belief; the philosopher's contribution to a society's moral life; the genesis and importance of genius; and the accomplishments of psychical research. Although all of the essays had been published before, some as early as 1879, and delivered as talks to colleagues, students, and religious groups, together they sum up the issues that concerned James during the first twenty years of his professional career and stand as preface to the writings on pragmatism and pluralism that earned him enduring fame.
The most compelling piece in the collection is the title essay, James's response to Pascal's wager, and his defense of faith. At one point, he considered calling the essay "The Duty to Believe," but that title implied an obligationperhaps to self, perhaps to societythat James did not intend. Then he thought he might call the essay "The Right to Believe," but that title could imply a right bestowedand by whom? James meant something else: All human beings, he wrote, want to believe in a universe in which truth can be apprehended and, as Royce had persuaded him, in which goodness exists. Without the possibility of finding truth and achieving goodness, moral decisions would be futile exercises. Such a universe, however, cannot be defended by reason nor logic; it may exist for us only if we have faith, only if we show "a passionate affirmation of desire" for both truth and goodness, only if we will to believe that those qualities exist. [from Genuine Reality]
As the 19th century came to a close, it was primarily James's functionalism that stood in opposition to prevailing notions of mind-body dualism and to the growing positivist theories that would rule American psychology during the better part of the 20th century. Initially influenced by Darwin's evolutionary thought that established a connection between structure and function, functionalism emphasized the interactive nature of mind and body and the unity and dynamic nature of what James would describe as "the stream of consciousness." According to James, mental processes are functional in the sense that they aid individuals in their attempts to adapt themselves to their world and their environments"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."1899 - Publication of Talks to Teachers.
Perhaps the most identifiable feature of functionalism is its claim that mental states are characterized by their interactions with and causal relations to other mental states. Moreover, because mental events must be understood in terms of their relation to the sensory inputs from which they emanate and to the behavioral outputs that they produce, functionalists argued that elements of mental functioning and rules for the association of ideas cannot be investigated in isolation. These elements are but a function of a continuous stream of thought that can only be understood in relation to the conscious actions of human beings as they go about the business of day-to-day living. Consciousness itself, argued James, is adaptive and functional and makes it possible for individuals to engage in self-regulation.
After being published in installments in the Atlantic Monthly, his lectures to the teachers of Cambridge were collected and published in 1899 as Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. Talks became popular with teacher educators, who used it prominently in teacher training programs throughout the nation for the next thirty years. By 1929 it had been reprinted 23 times.1899-1901 - Sabbatical and convalescence in Europe, especially Nauheim.
Most readers familiar with the Principles quickly realize that, had William James had access to a personal computer, he would have made frequent use of the cut and paste feature to compose the lectures. As he had done for the Jimmy, James used scissors and paste to produce the bulk of the text, adding where appropriate exemplars, aphorisms, and instructive maxims relevant to education. Some have argued that both the lectures and book may have been prompted more by financial considerations than by an abiding interest in teaching and in education. Indeed, in his private correspondence James revealed that he had little patience with or admiration for teachers as a whole, and he could be dismissive both of the lectures and the subsequent book"Pray do not wade through the Teacher part, which is incarnate boredom," he wrote to a friend about Talks. Others contend that James was genuinely interested in the work of teachers and in the workings of education. His essays related to university education (such as "The Ph.D. Octopus") attest to the fact that he was interested in how American students were educated, at least at the university level.
James ended the college year in the spring of 1899 feeling hopeful and energetic, but ill-health again beset him in the form of a heart condition, and he welcomed the new century convalescing in Europe, where he remained for two years. Proclaiming himself a "piecemeal supernaturalist," his interest in spirituality and religion deepened during this time. He spent his sabbatical in Europe, where he wrote and delivered the Gifford lectures and then set to work on a new book, his philosophical "message to the world." At fifty-seven, James did not want to face the regret of "postponed achievements." However, his "slight cardiac trouble" severely worsened. By the time he landed in Hamburg, his condition had declined. He could not walk more than a few feet without pain; he could not concentrate on his work; he was irritable and depressed. [from Genuine Reality]
|At Chateau Carqueiranne,
home of French philosopher
Charles Richet, 1900.
|Henry James and William
at Henry's Lamb House,
James was appointed a lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He originally planned to deliver ten lectures on two topics. He got involved in "Man's Religious Appetites" and postponed the second part on "Their Satisfaction through Philosophy." He then delivered all twenty lectures on man's religious constitution.
In June 1902, James returned from Europe exhausted. Despite an effusive reception in Edinburgha hearty rendition of "He's a jolly good fellow" followed him from the hall at the conclusion of his last talkhe ended the trip in low spirits. The intellectual strain of writing, the emotional strain of self-analysis, and the physical strain of travel took a serious toll on his energies. "I was less well than I tho't I was when I started," he wrote to Pauline Goldmark, "having consumed my margin of improvement by writing that terrible book, so I rather went to pieces when I tried to plunge into social actitivies over there [in England] . . . But a sexagenarian is no longer a boy, no longer an expansionist . . . " [from Genuine Reality]
The Gifford lectures delivered in Scotland formed the basis for a new book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience. Back on home soil, his social activism continued, and he wrote a series of pieces against what he perceived to be America's growing aggression and imperialism. But intellectual expansion was his goal: he was tired, he said, of the "squashy, popular-lecture style" of the books he had produced for the last ten years. Even the Varieties was not, in his estimation, a "serious, systematic, and syllogistic" contribution to the field of philosophy. "I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease," he told Sarah Whitman. "It has contracted an alliance lately in me with a feverish personal ambition, which I never had before, and which I recognize as an unholy thing in such a connection. I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe's hash in one more book." And, he hoped, a book that was nothing less than "epoch making."1903 - LL.D. from Harvard University.
In the Varieties, James expanded upon the thesis of his Will to Believe, essentially for the same readers. As usual, he mined his own life and experiences for anecdotes and conclusions; supplementing this material, he drew upon a huge cache of dataamassed by one of his students, who, for a research project of his own, had circulated throughout the Harvard community a questionnaire about religious practices. The sheer weight of these sources made the book appear, James said, "objective" and even superficially "scientific."
His aim, however, was not to defend religion by scientific proof but to serve a volley in his long "battle of the Absolute" with such philosophical antagonists as Royce. In that battle, against naturalists, on the one hand, and philosophers whom James called "refined supernaturalists," on the other, James created for himself a special position. He was a "piecemeal supernaturalist," he said, one who "admits miracles and providential leadings, and finds no intellectual difficulty in mixing the ideal and the real worlds together." As a piecemeal supernaturalist, he set himself the task of locating those places where the "ideal region" forced itself into "the real world's details" to cause experiencesprayer, epiphany, or visions, for examplesthat generated faith. [from Genuine Reality]
James was delighted when in 1903 Harvard conferred on him an honorary doctorate, but soon after that he was back on a European sabbatical with brother Henry.
James received a welcome boost during a three-month trip to Europe in the spring of 1905. At the end of April, in Rome for the Fifth International Congress of Psychology, he went to the conference hall to register, "and when I gave my name," he told Alice, "the lady who was taking them almost fainted, saying that all Italy loved me, or words to that effect." His effusive admirer called in one of the officers of the congress, who, just as impressed, implored James to give a talk at one of the general meetings. "So I'm in for it again," James admitted with delight, "having no power to resist flattery." [from Genuine Reality]
In 1906, James accepted an invitation to spend a term at Stanford University ad, while there, he experienced the earthquake that very nearly destroyed San Francisco. James and Alice survived unscathed, losing only some pottery to the calamity. Later that year he delivered the Lowell Lectures in Boston—lectures which subsequently served as the foundation for Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking. James was now at the height of his eminence both in philosophy and psychology. Although pragmatism had more than its share of detractors, it was also promoted by powerful allies such as the up and coming English philosopher Canning Schiller and the American educator, philosopher, and psychologist John Dewey. But James was the preeminent voice.
1906-1907 - Lectures on Pragmatism, Lowell Institute and Columbia.
When James returned to Cambridge at the end of September, he set to work, finally, on a series of Lowell lectures scheduled for early November, to be repeated at Columbia University in January. Although he complained, as usual, that the lectures demanded nothing more than a popularized version of his ideas, he found himself newly inspired by this effort to write a coherent exposition about pragmatism. "I didn't know, until I came to prepare them," he told Flournoy, "how full of power to found a 'school' and to become a 'cause,' the pragmatistic idea was. But now I am all aflame with it, as displacing all rationalistic systems . . . and I mean to turn the lectures into a solid little cube of a book . . . which will, I am confident, make the pragmatic method appear, to you also, as the philosophy of the future.1907 - Publication of Pragmatism.
"Pragmatism," he said, was nothing more than a new name for aold ways of thinking, ways of thinking that preceded the separation of science from its origins in philosophy. This attempt to ensure the status of philosophy by drawing it closer to its scientific origins was, as Charles Peirce observed, trendy scholarship, and not unique to James. "Today," Peirce remarked, "the animating endeavor of the younger philosophers is to bring their queen within the circle of the genuine sciences." Certainly James, even at the age of sixty-four, saw himself among those "younger" philosophers (he was "eternally young," Royce said enviously) who argued that philosophy and science essentially rely on the same methods: "observing, comparing, classifying, tracing analogies, making hypotheses." But philosophy, for at least three hundred years, had been focused on developing "closed systems" that increasingly divorced it from the vicious, tangled, painful" exigencies of real life. "Philosophy," James insisted, "should become as empirical as any science.
For James, pragmatism tempered empiricism with humanism; the observer, the thinker, the seeker after truth, was necessarily implicated in the process of inquiry and experimentation. Pragmatism, then, invested each individual with the authority to determine truths; privileged what James called "percepts" over abstract concepts; and linked philosophical decisions to moral actions. [from Genuine Reality]
Just as he is acknowledged as the father of American psychology, William James is also recognized as the father of American pragmatism, an idea that he credited to Charles Sanders Peirce but which, in James's hands, became one of the prevailing philosophical movements of the 20th century. It became also one of the most criticized, misinterpreted, and ill-used philosophical movements of the 20th century to the point where, in modern parlance, being "pragmatic" has become synonymous with being practical, expedient, and relativistic, each independent of moral and ethical ramifications.1907 - Final resignation from Harvard.
Of course, that is not how James viewed or expounded pragmatism, which was for him more method than philosophy, a method for resolving philosophical disputes, for arriving at the meaning and truth of ideas. Originally expounded by Peirce in 1878 in an article entitled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," the pragmatic method, as James came to define it, aimed to discover the truth of an idea by determining its agreement with reality, "be such realities concrete or abstract." Ideas, argued James, are ultimately functional. They do not possess innate or fixed qualities. Rather, "truth happens to an idea," and it happens when "we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify" it. Pragmatism also asks its practitioners to consider the value of an idea in terms of its personal utility—"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?" But determining the cash value of an idea also involves determining its practical, ethical/moral, and intellectual consequences.
When Jamesian passages are lifted out of their contextual moorings, they can be used to illustrate and defend the view that pragmatism asks nothing of truth but that it be practical, useful, and personally self-serving. James wrote that "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 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."
James himself was aware of "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," and he worked both to clarify his definition of pragmatism and to emphasize the moral element that accompanies it. But it was not James's pragmatism that caught the fancy of America as it turned into a new century. The land of the individual, of the entrepreneur, and of the competitive marketplace preferred the wrongly understood, self-oriented, practical, expedient approach. James would struggle through his remaining years both against critics whom he believed misinterpreted his pragmatism and against admirers who sang its praises and used a mutated form to defend and promulgate their political or philosophical agendas.
He would also struggle against the growing atomistic and mechanistic tendencies in psychology. He dreaded the encroachment of this "microscopic psychology" that was "carried on by experimental methods, asking of course every moment for introspective data, but eliminating their uncertainty by operating on a large scale and taking statistical means. This method taxes patience at the utmost, and could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored" (Perry, 1935b, p. 114). Nonetheless, the growing successes of behaviorist psychology, which was turning the new experimental laboratories into laboratories geared at discovering the roots of animal learning, isolated James from many of his colleagues and from the discipline. In time, he began to lose interest in formal psychology and turned his attention to philosophical pursuits. He developed as well a curiosity for unusual states of consciousness, psychic phenomena, and religious experience. He began also to apply the principles of his psychology and the fruits of his philosophical thinking to other areas of human endeavor.
William James taught his last class at Harvard on Tuesday, January 22, 1907. On that day his classroom in Emerson Hall overflowed with his own students, former students, colleagues, and Harvard administrators. Even Alice snuck in to view the proceedings. A committee of his graduate students and teaching assistants presented him with a silver-mounted inkwell. His undergraduates gave him a loving cup. Sigmund Freud would have deemed it most appropriate. The gifts represented an acknowledgment by his students of the quality of their professor's work and the appreciation for his love. James was genuinely touched and surprised, remarking on "how warm-hearted the world around one is."
By the Spring of 1909, James's cardiac symptoms had returned, and he became "tormented by desire to go to Nauheim." The usually reliable Hawley Lymph Compound provided no improvement, and by fall he had descended to "a state of nervous prostration like that which I fell into after Nauheim 10 years ago." One physician prescribed laxatives, but they only made the symptoms worse.1909 - Publication of A Pluralistic Universe.
It is no surprise that James's collapse coincided with the publication of the Hibbert lectures and the hostile reaction the book [A Pluralistic Universe] received. James tried to convince himself that the criticism really indicated the significance of his work. "It is already evident from the letters I am getting about the 'Pluralistic Universe,'" he informed Flournoy, "that the book will 1) be read; 2) be rejected almost unanimously at first, and for very diverse reasons; but 3) will continue to be bought and referred to, and will end by strongly influencing english philosophy."
Henry understood immediately that his brother needed praise and more praise. "t may sustain & inspire you a little to know that I'm with you, all along the line& can conceive of no sense in any philosophy that is not yours!" he told William. "As an artist & a 'creator' I can catch on, hold on, to pragmatism, & can work in the light of it & apply it." [from Genuine Reality]
It is consistent with James's interdisciplinary mind, his "catholicity of spirit," that he should view the solution to each question in psychology from a variety of perspectives and that he should urge others to do likewise. He had wrestled with the problem of monism, the view that reality represents a unified whole, and found it deficient for a number of reasons. It violated the dynamic nature of personal experience, constrained the character and expression of reality, and resulted in mechanistic and absolute conceptions of the world. This was for James "the most central of all philosophical problems," and one he had resolved by proposing a pluralistic view of the universe—"the world of concrete personal experiences . . . is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful, and perplexed." How could understandings of these experiences be otherwise? Pluralism represented for James a belief in concert with his brand of radical empiricism and with the pragmatist philosophy he would adopt. It represented also his conviction that the facts of the world can be understood only when they are embedded in their local conditions.1909 - Publication of The Meaning of Truth.
James wanted praise for his work from all quarters. That praise, however, did not come after the publication of A Pluralistic Universe. Nor did it come the following September, when James published a sequel to his maligned Pragmatism. He hoped The Meaning of Truth would "keep the pot of public interest in the subject boiling." Perhaps the pot was boiling, but James felt scorched by some critics, notably his former student Dickinson Miller; the young American philosopher Boyd Henry Bode, who aired his objections to James in the Journal of Philosophy; and the brilliant, thirty-six-year-old British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had met James during a visit to America in 1896, and whose Principles of Mathematics, when it appeared in 1902, established him as a logician of formidable stature. [from Genuine Reality]
On July 8, James startled the scientific community by announcing that he had communicated with the spirit of Richard Hodgson. James wrote a 100-page account of this communication in the "Proceedings of the American for Psychical Research," including verbatim records of the conversation.
But James was not well, and his health was deteriorating. He made one final, brief trip to Europe to look in on an ailing Henry and take the baths at Nauheim before he returned to his country home in Chocoura, New Hampshire. There, just before 2:30 in the afternoon of August 26 of 1910, William James passed away cradled in the arms of his wife Alice. He was 68. An autopsy revealed that he had died of an enlarged heart. Two years after his death, a number of his articles were collected and posthumously published as Essays in Radical Empiricism.1910 - Died. Chocorua, August 26, at the age of 68.
Alice and Henry knew that William was dying: "he suffered so & only wanted, wanted more & more, to go," Henry said. The next day, he was worse. He told Alice he longed to die and asked her to rejoice for him. Early in the afternoon of August 26, Alice came into William's bedroom with some milk, the only sustenance he had been able to take since he came home. At first she thought he was alseep, but suddenly she realized that something had changed: he was unconscious. She cradled his head in her arms, listening to his quiet breathing. Just before 2:30, still lying in Alice's arms, he died.
Billy photographed his father's body as it lay in rumpled white sheets on the iron bed; he made a death mask, and then the body was removed for the autopsy that Alice had requested. "Acute enlargement of the heart," she recorded in her diary. "He had worn himself out." [from Genuine Reality]
1912 - Posthumous publication of Essays in Radical Empiricism.
As did John Locke's empiricism, James's radical empiricism represented a break with Cartesian notions that the real world is an extension of a larger world that exists within the mind. Whereas Locke's empiricism became foundational to positivist views that would focus exclusively on an individuals' experienced reality as the fons et origo of their psychologies, James's "radical" view of reality had a pronounced phenomenological bent. For James, mental events stood on an equal footing with observable events as representations of reality. Consequently, "ideas, feelings, sensations, perceptions, concepts, art, science, faith, conscious, unconscious, objects, and so-called illusions" each merited attention and investigation (Barzun, 1983, p. 111). James believed that an individual's immediate experience represented the essence of psychological truth. Moreover, the mental and physical events—the immediate experiences—that an individual uses both for self-understanding and to understand others are selected and interpreted by the individual.
Radical empiricism represented a break with Cartesian notions of mind-body duality. According to James, whether mental events were or were not simply a function of the external world, they could influence human functioning independently of that world and so merited attention on their own terms. Although the dominance of positivist psychology throughout many of the decades that followed James resulted in a large part of the discipline eschewing his brand of radical empiricism, James's argument that mental states were appropriate subjects of investigation won the day in a number of areas within psychology. It was, of course, a basic staple in Freud's psychodynamic theories, and it has adherents in personality research; social, clinical, and child psychology; abnormal psychology; and educational and school psychology.
|Copyright © Emory University. All rights reserved. You may link to this page for noncommercial, educational purposes, but its contents, in whole or in part, must not be copied or distributed electronically without written permission from the author.|
|A Statement on "Fair Use": With the exception of materials in the public domain, the contents of this page are protected by copyright. Note that all of the prose has been published in various books, and copyright is retained by the organization that publishes those books. These organizations typically allow authors to post material on web servers without permission, but users are asked not to repost the material without permission from the appropriate publisher. Permission to copy these materials for personal scholarly use accompanied by proper citation is granted as is permission to include text within any indexing system that provides free access to its users accompanied by proper citation. In general, this covers the contingencies related to scholarly pursuits. Fair use does not include reproduction of the materials in any form for any reason other than personal scholarly use without the written permission of the author or copyright holder. Please be keenly aware that one risks legal liability for "unfair use" of copyrighted material. If in doubt, please contact me.|