Researched and written by: Bekah Dillon
|I attest that the following biography is a
product of my own original
is a monumental chapter in the
history of human egotism."
"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely
re-arranging their prejudices."
|William James was born the eldest of five
children to Henry James Sr. and Mary James in New York City on January
11, 1842. Henry James Sr. was an Irish immigrant who was studying
theology, philosophy, and mysticism and was well connected with many
literary and philosophical celebrities of the time (Pajares,
2002). He devoted himself to his children, especially their
education and in 1843, Henry Jr. (Harry) was born in NYC.
The affluent and deeply religious family was headed by a man who often
became troubled and sought refuge in different environments.
Henry frequently found himself displeased with numerous aspects of life
and in the summer of 1843, he moved the family to England (Pajares,
2002). Shortly thereafter, he decided to return to New York City
The wealth and affluence of the Jameses not only afforded Henry the
pleasure of exposing the children to many parts of Western Europe, but
also enrolling them in the best schools. In 1852, he enrolled the
boys in the Institution Vergnes. Henry, dissatisfied with the
school, moved the boys to the Pulling Jenks School. Inspired by
the drawing teacher, Mr. Coe, young William developed a deep love for
drawing at age eleven (Pajares, 2002). Eventually, Henry removed
the boys from Pulling Jenks; it has been speculated that he withdrew
the students for fear that Coe would reinforce young William’s talents
and destroy Henry’s impact on his son.
Soon enough, Henry became antsy and shifted the family back to
Europe. Despite young James’s dismay the family left in the
summer of 1855. Until 1858, the children received lessons through
private tutors in England and France (Pajares, 2002).
In June of 1858, the family relocated to Newport, Rhode Island and by
September, Henry had changed his mind. The family then settled in
Geneva. As well as studying with the tutors, the children
attended schools in Switzerland and Germany. William James
attended the Academy, the precursor to the University of Geneva
By age 18, James attended schools in five different countries, became
familiar with numerous museums and galleries, frequently entertained
the guests of his father, including Thoreau, Emerson, Greeley, and
Hawthorne, and developed fluency in five different languages (Pajares,
He entered the Harvard Medical School in 1864. After a brief
year, he decided he needed to retreat from the monotony of medical
school and traveled with the eminent naturalist, Louis Agassiv for a
year in the Amazon (Schultz and Schultz, 2004).
In 1866, James returned to Harvard and resumed his medical
classes. He was often haunted by an assortment of ailments
accompanied by depression and suicidal thoughts. After a
depressive collapse, James left for two years and spent time in France
and Germany, studying with Helmholtz and learning of the New
Psychology. He returned to Harvard and received his doctorate in
1869 (Pajares, 2002).
In the years to follow, James secluded himself from the world,
complaining of illness, depression, and neurasthenia. During this
time, he began to create a philosophy of life, deciding that his first
act of free will would be to believe in free will (Pajares,
Finally in 1972, James was asked to teach physiology at Harvard.
He taught anatomy and physiology in 1873 and spent the rest of 1873 and
1874 recuperating in Europe, primarily Italy. Slowly, he began
infiltrating physiological psychology into his courses at Harvard, and
by 1875 he began teaching psychology, beginning with “The Relations
between Physiology and Psychology”. It has been said that James
joked that the first psychology lecture he ever heard was his
own. The same year, he established the first laboratory of
experimental psychology in the United States (Pajares, 2002).
James married Alice Howe Gibbens, the woman chosen by his father, in
1878. The same year, he signed a publishing contract with Henry
Holt and began working on his book, The Principles of Psychology,
during his honeymoon (Pajares, 2002).
James’s first son, Henry III (Harry), was born in 1879. He seemed
rather indifferent to the new arrival, but encouraged his wife to bore
the new son a sibling. In 1882, James’s mother and father passed
away, and his wife delivered their second child, William. Upon
William’s arrival, James decided to take a sabbatical in Europe,
telling friends it was to learn more about the work and concepts of the
New Psychology (Schultz and Schultz, 2004).
After James’s return to America, his wife bore another son,
Herman. Within a year of Herman’s life, pneumonia swept his body,
and the infant was laid to rest in 1885. A year after the
tragedy, James moved his family to New Hampshire and shortly afterwards
settled in Cambridge.
One year after the move to Cambridge, James finished and published his
most renowned and influential book, The Principles of Psychology,
combining his ideas on psychology and philosophy. The book was
written with much clarity and charm and vehemently disputed Wundt’s
view of psychology, more specifically, Wundt’s analysis of
consciousness into elements (Schultz and Schultz, 2004).
The Principles spread quickly throughout America, namely because the
zeitgeist was ready for its publication. Unlike Wundt, James
emphasized the purpose of consciousness. Unknown to James at the
time of publication, The Principles would lead to the central ideas
behind American functionalism. He declared that consciousness was
a ceaseless course, and separation into different phases will only
alter it (Schultz and Schultz, 2004). James also says that
because of this continuous flow, one never experienced the same
identical thought twice. He argued that consciousness was
adaptive, making it possible for humans to self regulate (Pajares,
Although he acknowledged existing problems with
supported the method. He declared that it is necessary to first
rely on introspective observation, because it was something inherent to
each individual (Pajares, 2002). He encouraged various
psychological methods, including comparative psychology and the use of
various populations as research participants, such as animals, infants,
or mentally disabled persons (Schultz and Schultz, 2004). James
rejected the current idea of the nature of emotional states. He
stated that physical arousal is the first response to a stimuli; it is
followed by the emotional response (Schultz and Schultz, 2004).
He used introspective observations to determine this concept.
James also identified humans as habitual beings, allowing them to
perform repetitions with ease and minimal conscious attention (Schultz
and Schultz, 2004).
James also promoted Educational Psychology. His lectures to
Cambridge professors were compiled and published in 1899, Talks to
Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals.
These lectures were used to train teachers and professors throughout
the nation for thirty years after his publication (Pajares,
During the end of the turn of the century, James was a member of the
American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological
Association. James continued to lecture and publish works based
now primarily on philosophy and religious ideas. His religious
publications included ten essays comprised in The Will to Believe,
discussing his philosophies and the emotional risk of religion
(Pajares, 2002). In 1898, he lectured on pragmatism in
“Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” He stated that
humans were practical beings and their mind is to be used to adapt to
the ways of the world (Schultz and Shultz, 2004).
After receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1903, James and
his brother embarked on a trip to the Mediterranean and attended the
Fifth International Congress of Psychology in Rome (Pajares,
2002). Like the United States, all of Italy admired James.
Later, in 1907 James published lectures on Pragmatism, reinforcing the
practicality of the mind and consciousness (Pajares, 2002).
During the same year, James resigned from Harvard with a warm,
heartfelt departure. He continued to lecture, namely the Hibbert
Lectures at Oxford University (Pajares, 2002).
James’s failing health was accompanied by the publication of the
controversial book, A Pluralistic Universe. It was criticized
because it stripped away the notion of a unified view of the world, a
mechanistic, absolute concept; instead he urged readers to regard each
question from numerous perspectives. He followed this publication
with The Meaning of Truth to keep the public interested. In 1910,
James traveled to Europe for the last time. He visited his
brother and bathed in the Nauheim to hopefully relieve his ailing
body. He returned to New Hampshire to his wife and family and
passed away on August 26, 1910. Heart failure was given as the
reason for his death. Two years after his death, numerous
articles were collected and published as Essays of Radical Empiricism
(Pajares, 2002). This publication broke the notions of mind-body
duality, instead creating a new concept, that mental functioning should
be examined independently from the world (Pajares, 2002).
William James is acknowledged as the father of American psychology
(Pajares, 2002). His contributions to the field were
endless. The Principles of Psychology is still read and studied
today, over one hundred years after its publication. His new,
innovative ideas enlightened the United States, calling for the
beginning of functionalism. James was influential on Freud’s
psychodynamic theories as well as personality research (Pajares,
2002). Although James did not confirm himself a psychologist, he
was a philosopher of both psychology and the new developing
|Pajares, F. (2002). Biography, chronology, and
photographs of William James. Retrieved 4 April 2005
Schultz, D., and Schultz, S. (2004). William James. A History of Modern
Psychology, 8th ed. p. 175 – 188.
Moncur, M. Quotations by author – William James. Retrieved 4 May 2005