William James on the
Self and Personality: Clearing the
Ground for Subsequent Theorists,
Researchers, and Practitioners
David E. Leary
University of Richmond
The fundamental basis of William James's psychology--the rock-bottom foundation on which it is constructed--is "the stream of thought" or "the stream of consciousness."1* The first and preeminent characteristic of our flowingly continuous experience of "thought" or "consciousness," James ( 1890/ 1983d) said, is that it is personal (pp. 220-224). Every thought, every psychological experience, is mine, or hers, or his, or yours. For this reason, he suggested, "the personal self rather than the thought [or consciousness] might be treated as the immediate datum in psychology" (p. 221). 2 Indeed, James was strongly convinced that "no psychology . . . can question the existence of personal selves. The worst a psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob them of their worth" (p. 221).
This issue of the worth of human selves was no trivial concern for James: It was critically important to him from early in his life right up to his death, and it was intertwined not only with his interests in mainstream psychology, but also with his interests in psychical research, the psychology of religion, pragmatism, pluralism, and radical empiricism. Fittingly, James's chapter on the self (Chapter 10) in his masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, was one of the first chapters he began to conceptualize and the final chapter he completed. Or rather, it was the last chapter on which he worked, after postponing its final revision "to the very last, when my wisdom shall be at its unsurpassable climax!" ( letter to G. Croom Robertson, 4 November 1888, in Perry, 1935, Vol. 2, p. 44). Yet, however great his wisdom, it was inadequate to the task: In James's own estimation, at least, this crucial chapter was never truly "finished," and he kept returning to the topic of the self and personality throughout the last two decades of his life.____________________