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Reflections on the Principles of Psychology: William James after a Century

By Michael G. Johnson; Tracy B. Henley | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Implications
of James's Plea
for Psychology
as a Natural Science

Amedeo Giorgi

Saybrook Institute
and
University of Quebec at Montreal

It is well known that James was an unsystematic, and even paradoxical, writer ( Allport, 1943) and that throughout his works he spiced his observations with personal biases and whimsies. He would open an article or section of a book with a guiding idea and immediately proceed to outstrip its logical boundaries. Perhaps the novelist in him kept him close to a descriptive attitude, which in turn kept his attention riveted on a concretely unfolding phenomenon so that its logical borders mattered less than the interesting twists and turns that the phenomenon was taking. In any event, this discursive side of James is what keeps him interesting and why it is vital still to return to his works even a century later. It is also why even his explicit statements have to be taken with a grain of salt and have to be understood contextually.

The thesis of this chapter is that James's style also surrounded his plea for psychology as a natural science. At face value, it seemed as though James's voice was simply one more plea in the chorus of the time making the case for a natural scientific approach to psychology. Yet, his attitude toward scientific psychology was that it was, at best, only "the hope of a science," and his antipathy toward the Fechnerian and Wundtian style of research was equally well known ( James, 1890, I: 192-193, 549; Perry, 1936, p. 30). But he did insist that psychology should be a natural science even as he researched and commented on multiple personalities, witchcraft, and religious experiences ( Taylor, 1982). The purpose of this chapter is to tease out, to the extent possible, what James meant by making psychology a natural science and then to draw out some implications of that meaning for contemporary psychology.

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