William James

William James, 1842–1910, American philosopher, b. New York City, M.D. Harvard, 1869; son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James. In 1872 he joined the Harvard faculty as lecturer on anatomy and physiology, continuing to teach until 1907, after 1880 in the department of psychology and philosophy. In 1890 he published his brilliant and epoch-making Principles of Psychology, in which the seeds of his philosophy are already discernible. James's fascinating style and his broad culture and cosmopolitan outlook made him the most influential American thinker of his day.

His philosophy has three principal aspects—voluntarism, pragmatism, and "radical empiricism." He construes consciousness as essentially active, selective, interested, teleological. We "carve out" our world from "the jointless continuity of space." Will and interest are thus primary; knowledge is instrumental. The true is "only the expedient in our way of thinking." Ideas do not reproduce objects, but prepare for, or lead the way to, them. The function of an idea is to indicate "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." This theory of knowledge James called pragmatism, a term already used by Charles S. Peirce. James's "radical empiricism" is a philosophy of "pure experience," which rejects all transcendent principles and finds experience organized by means of "conjunctive relations" that are as much a matter of direct experience as things themselves. Moreover, James regards consciousness as only one type of conjunctive relation within experience, not as an entity above, or distinct from, its experience. James's other philosophical writings include The Will to Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), Some Problems in Philosophy (1911), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).

See his letters (ed. by his son Henry James, 1920); the Harvard Univ. Press edition of The Works of William James (17 vol., 1975–88); biographies by E. C. Moore (1965), G. W. Allen (1967), L. Simon (1998), and R. Richardson (2006); R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (2 vol. 1935, abr. ed. 1948) and In the Spirit of William James (1938, repr. 1958); studies by B. P. Brennan (1968), J. Wild (1969), P. K. Dooley (1974), and H. S. Levinson (1981); J. Barzun, A Stroll with William James (1984). See also studies of the James family by F. O. Matthiessen (1947), R. W. B. Lewis (1991), and P. Fisher (2008).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! William James
Emile Boutroux; Barbara Henderson; Archibald Henderson.
Longmans Green, 1912
The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James
Ellen Kappy Suckiel.
University of Notre Dame Press, 1984
The Philosophy of William James
Theodore Flournoy.
Constable, 1917
The Principles of Psychology
William James.
Dover Publications, vol.1, 1950
FREE! The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
William James.
Longmans, Green, 1912
Reinterpreting the Legacy of William James
Margaret E. Donnelly.
American Psychological Association, 1992
William James Remembered
Linda Simon.
University of Nebraska Press, 1996
William James: The Center of His Vision
Daniel W. Bjork.
Columbia University Press, 1988
William James on the Courage to Believe
Robert J. O'Connell.
Fordham University Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
Pluralism and Personality: William James and Some Contemporary Cultures of Psychology
Don S. Browning.
Bucknell University Press, 1980
William James and the Metaphysics of Experience
David C. Lamberth.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
FREE! Collected Essays and Reviews
William James.
Longmans, Green, 1920
FREE! Essays in Radical Empiricism
William James.
Longmans, Green, 1912
FREE! Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of An Introduction to Philosophy
William James.
Longmans, Green, 1911
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