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

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

Chapter 4
William James
and Gestalt Psychology1

Mary Henle

New School for Social Research

William James has been widely claimed as a forerunner of various later developments in psychology (cf. Perry, 1935, Vol. 2, p. 91). Since this chapter concerns William James and Gestalt psychology, it may be remarked at the outset that James was perhaps closer in spirit to Gestalt psychology than were any of his contemporaries, particularly in his respect for direct experience and his faithfulness to it, his sensitivity to its nuances, his welcoming of new problems to psychology, and his lively relation to them. Still, it would be a mistake to call James, as Perry did, "a father of 'Gestalt' psychology, especially in its rejection of 'associationism'" ( James, 1892/ 1948, p. viii; introduction by R. B. Perry).2 Prior to other considerations to be detailed here, it must be stated that although James was widely familiar with contemporary continental developments in philosophy and psychology, like other psychologists of his time, he was unaffected by the revolution in natural science that took place after his student days (indeed mainly after his floruit), a revolution that so much influenced the Gestalt psychologists. Both treated psychology as a natural science, but their conceptions of natural science were radically different. The Gestalt psychologists relied on field theory, whereas James's thinking rested on an older physics. This difference

____________________
1
This chapter will confine itself for the most part to James Principles of Psychology. Others of his works will be drawn upon only sparingly. The 1890 edition of the Principles has been used.

James was a prolific user of italics. Many of these will be omitted without comment where, for example, they are used only for a definition or a summary. Only where italics are used for emphasis will they be retained.

2
In 1935 Perry pointed out that James "did not, of course, deny association."

In that place he stated more correctly, " James's antiatomism is closely related to the contemporary Gestalt movement" ( 1935, Vol. 2, p. 79, n. 22).

-77-

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