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William James

Life and Works
. . Psychology
. . Meaning
. . Truth
. . Religion
Internet Sources

William James was raised in a highly intellectual household: his father Henry, Sr. was a Swedenborgian theologian, his sister Alice wrote lengthy, literary diaries, and his brother Henry, Jr. became a renowned novelist. William himself studied art and geology before recieving a professional medical degree from Harvard university, where he taught for thirty-five years. Despite an energetic constitution, James struggled throughout life with such severe bouts of hypochondria, melancholy, and depression that he regarded himself as persisting only by means of a deliberate effort of will. Upon his death, however, a friend expressed great respect for James's wisdom, integrity, and equanimity. James

Work in psychology with Hugo Munsterburg at Harvard resulted in publication of James's Principles of Psychology (1890), the classic exposition of a discipline in transition from reliance upon anecdotal introspection toward its experimental foundations as a natural science. James himself emphasized the notion of the individual self or person as a continuous "stream of consciousness" capable of exercising free will.

In Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) James offered significant expansions of C.S. Peirce's philosophy of pragmatism. James He not only accepted Peirce's method of using pragmatic meaning to resolve dispute, but also spelled out a pragmatic theory of truth as whatever is "expedient in the way of our thinking." During the same period, James wrote the mature expression of his epistemological principles that was published posthumously in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). There, his application of empirical principles results in neutral monism as a foundation for a phenomenalist analysis of human experience.

Since for James it was the consequences of believing that matter, he argued in "The Will to Believe" (1897) that belief must remain an individual process and that we may rationally choose to believe some crucial propositions even though they lie beyond the reach of reason and evidence. This position has important implications for religious convictions in particular, which James explored in detail in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Henry and William James

A frequent commentator on public affairs, James proposed a system of national voluntary service in The Moral Equivalent of War (1906).

Recommended Reading:

Primary sources:

  • William James, Works, ed. by Frederick Burkhardt (Harvard, 1975- )
  • William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (Penguin, 2000)
  • William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, ed. by Ellen Kappy Suckiel (Nebraska, 1996)
  • William James, The Meaning of Truth (Prometheus, 1997)
  • William James, Principles of Psychology (Dover, 1955)
    • Volume 1
    • Volume 2
  • William James, The Will to Believe and Human Immortality (Dover, 1985)
  • William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Random House, 1999)

Secondary sources:

  • Howard M. Feinstein, Becoming William James (Cornell, 2000)
  • The Cambridge Companion to William James, ed. by Ruth Anna Putnam (Cambridge, 1997)
  • Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric (Chicago, 1996)
  • Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, ed. by Charlene Haddock Seigfried (Vanderbilt, 1996)
  • Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Harvard, 2002)

Additional on-line information about James includes:

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