William James

Researched and written by:  Bekah Dillon
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

 "Religion 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 (Pajares, 2002). 

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 (Pajares, 2002).

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, 2002).

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, 2002). 

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, 2002).

Although he acknowledged existing problems with introspection, he 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, 2002). 

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 world.        



Pajares, F. (2002). Biography, chronology, and photographs of William James.  Retrieved 4 April 2005 from  
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 from



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