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

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

Chapter 2
New Light on the Origin
of William James's
Experimental Psychology

Eugene Taylor
Harvard Medical School

Experimental psychology in the hands of William James at Harvard had its genesis in primarily three sources: James's personal interest in the problem of how to regard inner experience, James's dialogues with C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright on evolutionary theory and the philosophy of science, and James's attraction to French experimental physiology in the tradition of Claude Bernard.1 William James produced by this fusion an empirically based program within the broad domain of mental science that wrested the subject matter of psychology from the moral philosophers and defined psychology anew as the scientific study of consciousness.2

More than recovery from his near-suicidal crisis impelled James toward this endeavor. From the standpoint of personal experience, there was, first of all, James's struggle with his father's religious epistemology of consciousness. Henry James Sr., independently wealthy, eccentric Swedenborgian philosopher of religion, friend and confidant of Emerson, was a prolific writer on themes of Christian socialism. His two main obsessions in life were spreading the gospel of the science of creation and raising his children. At first blush, he appears to have failed at both, but retrospective analysis delivers up the conclusion that his success must be measured in terms of the subsequent impact of William and Henry on the course of modernism in the 20th century, which was enormous. Even Tolstoi, who chastised Americans for not knowing how great was the genius of the soul they were harboring, had a complete set of Henry James Sr.'s writings.

____________________
1
The distortion that James's experimental psychology originated from the tradition of Helmholtz, Fechner, and Wundt continues to be perpetrated. See E. G. Boring ( 1950).
2
The overthrow of Francis Bowen's brand of psychology as moral philosophy at Harvard by William James and the Harvard Overseers is told by Stern ( 1965).

-33-

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