The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

25
WILLIAM JAMES

Robert Burch


A brief biography of James

William James was born on the eleventh of January 1842, into a wealthy family in which intellectual endeavor was highly valued. From 1857 until 1860 his education took place in France and Switzerland. Upon returning to the United States at age 18, he undertook various studies. These included art (his first and possibly his greatest passion), science, and finally (in 1863) medicine. In 1865 he traveled with the notable paleontologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz to the mouth of the Amazon River to collect biological specimens. During this trip he began to experience a variety of health problems, which continued to plague him thereafter and which seemed to have the result that he was always very attentive to his own bodily sensations and perhaps also somewhat prone to hypochondria. James continued his medical studies, going to Germany to do so in 1867 and 1868; there he studied physiology with Herman Helmholtz, and became friends with psychologist Carl Stumpf. James discussed with Stumpf many of the ideas of Wilhelm Wundt, who was widely regarded at the time as the greatest of all of the contemporary psychologists.

After returning to the United States, James received his medical degree from Harvard in 1869. Soon after receiving his degree, James experienced (in 1869 and early 1870) a serious case of major depression. He ultimately recovered from this depression, and he associated his recovery with acquiring a new way of thinking about three philosophical problems: the problem of monism, the problem of determinism, and the problem of pessimism versus optimism. James’s depressive episode and his recovery from this episode will be looked at more closely in the following section of this article.

In 1871 and 1872 James took part in philosophical discussions with a group of exceptionally able graduates of Harvard, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncey Wright, and Charles Sanders Peirce. The group called themselves “the Metaphysical Club.” Many of James’s later ideas had an origin in one way or another amidst the Metaphysical Club’s discussions. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution was a major focus of interest of the Club. So also was Peirce’s novel account of cognition and scientific research, which James later called “pragmatism.” James always regarded Chauncey Wright’s careful analytic criticisms of monism to be some of the most acute thinking he ever encountered.

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