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

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

Chapter 6
William James and Habit:
A Century Later

John C. Malone Jr. University of Tennessee

But what is the use of being a genius, unless with the same scientific evidence
as other men, one can reach more truth than they? (James, 1926, p. 168)

Many writers have praised James for the great influence he had on the psychology of his time and on subsequent developments. The Principles was a masterpiece and it remains so today. But virtually nothing in it was original; all of the ideas that we normally attribute to James, from the stream of consciousness to ideo-motor action to his analysis of the self were taken from the writings of others, both predecessors and contemporaries. In most cases he acknowledged those from whom he borrowed, although David Hume ( 1739) contribution to James's description of the spiritual self is an exception.

The book admirably presented much of what was known of psychology at that time but it was highly selective. There is virtually no coverage of the "New Psychology" of Wundt and Titchener and the reader who searches for research results or for data of any kind will not find much. Where coverage of experimental work had to be included, as in Chapter 17 ( "Sensation"), we find James relying on a ghostwriter, so that 14 pages come ". . . from the pen of my friend and pupil Mr. E. B. Delabarre" (II: 13).

Research and data were of little interest to James throughout his career; and this book, like his other works, was confined to his perceptive analyses of what were commonly considered the interesting phenomena of psychology. This was very different from other texts of the late 19th century. For example, Bain The Senses and the Intellect appeared in four editions from 1855 to 1879 and was so filled with data and "hard facts" that one wonders that anyone could be so diligent as to compile it all. Bain's final ( 1879) edi-

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