The Legacy of William James
Ivie, Stanley D., Journal of Thought
As nearly all of us know, William James (1842-1910) was a pioneer thinker whose life and work spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whose thought has reached into the twenty-first century. Although the nineteenth century was greatly influenced by German philosophy, especially Kant and Hegel's rigid, rationalist systems, James broke with that rationalist tradition. He viewed the universe as an open-ended, fluid place and integrated this perspective into his functional psychology and his pragmatic philosophy. Ideas, he asserted, are neither wholly true nor totally false. The worth of an idea was to be tested by its consequences on the lives of human beings. James' functionalism had a profound affect on John Dewey, who built it into his philosophy of instrumentalism (or experimentalism). Mind, Dewey argued, is an instrument for adapting the human organism to its environment. Ideas are tools. Good ideas get us into satisfactory relations with our environment (Urmson, 1965).
Dewey's functionalism, in turn, crept into Jean Piaget's psychology. "Genetic structuralism," Piaget (1985) informed us, "represents a possible synthesis ... with the functionalism of J. Dewey" (p. 68). Piaget labored throughout much of his life to resolve the dichotomy between structuralism and functionalism. Jerome Bruner picked up the challenge where Piaget left off and, thereby, indirectly extended the influence of
James. Bruner believed that children--if they were engaged in discovery learning and problem-solving activities--would come to grasp the structure of knowledge. And since all truths are relative, students have to learn how to negotiate meanings. The influence of James, Dewey, Piaget, and others, helped to lay the foundation through Bruner for the current constructivist movement in education (Sprinthall et al., 1998). James' ideas have not only had a profound influence on psychology, philosophy, and education, but they have filtered into contemporary physics as well. Nineteenth century physics was heavily influenced by Newtonian mechanics, which made a sharp distinction between the observer and the observed. The knower was viewed as being independent of what was known. Truth, once it was discovered, was fixed and eternal. James' pragmatism changed everything. The knower was placed at the center of the process of knowing. Truth was what the observer experienced as being true. Twentieth century physics, building on the Heisenberg Principle of Indeterminacy, has confirmed James' speculations. Objective truth is simply not possible. The act of observing an event alters the nature of the event. Or, as John Wheeler puts it: "'In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe'" (Capra, 1984, pp. 127-128).
James (1902/1960) has also had a significant impact upon religious thought in the United States. His classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, has been widely read by a diverse audience. Religious belief, James argued, should not be based on church doctrine; rather, it should be grounded in religious experience. Many scholars have drawn inspiration from James' insights. Dewey's (1934/1960) A Common Faith utilizes James' distinction between religion and religious experience. Dewey wished to separate the religious quality of experience from its attachment to historical religion. He argued that the religious quality of experience can be fused with the core values of our society. One can feel religious about expanding democratic values to those who have been excluded from sharing fully in them. Can the religious quality of experience be separated from its supernatural referent? Dewey and many others have answered yes. Many New Age churches (Unity, for example) illustrate this emphasis. "Sin and salvation" have been replaced by "consciousness." The Jesus Seminar, which attempted to determine what Jesus "really" said, appealed to scholarly consensus rather than church traditions in its attempt to uncover the truth. Robert Funk (1996), who was Chair of the Jesus Seminar, observed: "The truths of religion are more like the truths of poetry than the truths of the empirical sciences. That is one reason I prefer to think of Jesus as a poet rather than as a second person of the Trinity" (p. 2).
Scholars in the United States of America, perhaps more so than in most other nations, have believed that the study of psychology holds a profound relevance for the practice of education. In this field too, James was the pioneer who helped forge this belief. Later psychologists--Thorndike, Skinner, Bruner, and Gardner--have built on James' legacy although the exact details of his influence are not always obvious. What is clear is that wherever a program in teacher preparation exists, educational psychology is likely its intimate partner, and most textbooks on educational psychology mention James' contributions as well as those who have shared and rejected in ideas. For example, Sprinthall, Sprinthall, and Oja (1998) in Educational Psychology: A Developmental Approach cite James' work nineteen times. They even present a two page biographical sketch including his picture (pp. 10-11). The most frequently cited passages from James include: (a) "Psychology is a science. Teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves" (James, 1899/1958, pp. 23-24); (b) "Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent" (James, 1890a, p. 121); and (c) his experiment on transfer which led him to reject the doctrine of faculty psychology. Few psychologists have attracted such attention, and both traditionalists and constructivists alike claim him as an intellectual godfather.
Manifestly, then, James influenced western thought in a variety of fields. In order to understand and evaluate the legacy of James, however, more is required. In pursuing this understanding and evaluating its importance, it is important to inquire further into his personal background, psychological theory, philosophical beliefs, religious thought, and educational theory. While these topics are separated for convenience, they obviously overlap at many points.
William James was born at Astor House, a hotel in New York City, in January of 1842, and his brother Henry was born fourteen months later. Their father, Henry James Senior, devoted himself to their education and made sure that they attended some of the best private schools in the United States and Europe. Their education was also nurtured as the family traveled extensively in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. So, the brothers studied with tutors, visited galleries, museums, and theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout their education, they were always encouraged to think for themselves (Watson, 1963, pp. 317-342). William and Henry later disagreed about the merits of their education. William regretted its lack of discipline. Henry, however, found it invaluable: "'We wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions'" (Allport, 1943, p. 113).
In spite of or, perhaps, because of his education, James was often unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. First, he had a youthful interest in painting and, as a result, studied with William M. Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. The experience convinced him he would make a mediocre artist. Later, at the age of 19, James enrolled at Harvard and studied chemistry with Charles W. Eliot. He soon shifted to the school of medicine, studying physiology and anatomy with Jeffries Wyman and Louis Agassiz. In 1865 James was invited to join Agassiz on an expedition up the Amazon River. Reflecting on the Amazon experience, James concluded he was not interested in collecting biological specimen. Although he had little interest in the practice of medicine, he entered the field because he considered it the only occupation that promised him an adequate income. He finished his medical degree in 1869, the only degree he …
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Publication information: Article title: The Legacy of William James. Contributors: Ivie, Stanley D. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Thought. Volume: 41. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2006. Page number: 117+. © 2006 Caddo Gap Press. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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