James Ward was born on 27 January 1843 in Hull. His parents were Hannah Aston and James Ward, a repeatedly unsuccessful entrepreneur. Due to his family’s financial difficulties, Ward’s schooling ended at the age of thirteen. At fifteen he entered into an apprenticeship to a firm of architects, where he remained for four years, while also serving as a Sunday school teacher. Much to the approval of his Congregationalist family, in 1863 he decided to pursue a career in the ministry.
Ward was educated at Spring Hill College, Birmingham, taking the London BA degree examinations in 1869. From there he went to Berlin and Göttingen on a scholarship, returning to England to become minister at Emmanuel Congregational Chapel in January 1871.
He continued in this role for just over a year before he resigned, at which point his intellectual commitments to the church had waned. From then on, he pursued an academic career under the influence of Henry Sidgwick, where he became a philosopher and psychologist. In 1873 he attained an open scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was elected to a fellowship there in 1875. He began lecturing in 1878, and by 1897 he was the first to be appointed to the professorship of mental philosophy and logic. He received honorary degrees of LLD from Edinburgh in 1888 and Cambridge in 1920. He continued to be academically active for the remainder of his life.
For the first half of his academic career, Ward was primarily a psychologist, and it is in this capacity rather than that of philosopher that he has notable historical significance. His article, ‘Psychology’, in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1886, had widespread influence in both the teaching and practice of psychology, and is generally credited with bringing about the collapse of the associationist school of psychology. The mental life of a subject, he argued, could not be reduced to the mere passive reception of experiences, mechanically associated with one another, as this school held. For Ward, the mind is an active participant in experience. What is presented is not an aggregate of things which produce corresponding mental atoms, but a varying continuum to which the mind attends and selects. For Ward, psychology could not have the same objective character as the other sciences, for the subject-object relation is fundamental to it. Psychological Principles, based largely on his 1886 article, was finally published in 1918.
Ward’s work in psychology was of a philosophical variety, and his later works of pure philosophy sprang from it. In metaphysics, he believed, we must begin from experience, which crucially requires the subject-object. For Ward, the subject is primary, in contrast to the detached and objective standpoint of the natural sciences. His speculations led him to endorse a Leibnizian pluralistic panpsychism, in which all matter is mind, to some degree or other, all with subjective history. There are minds below us as well as minds above. Although he stopped short of thinking that he or anyone else could prove theism, his system required God as an overall unifier of monads. His exposition of these ideas and converse criticism of scientific naturalism appeared in his Gifford Lectures given between 1896 and 1898, published as Naturalism and Agnosticism (1899), and was further developed in The Realm of Ends (1911).
Ward died in Cambridge on 4 March 1925. He was survived by his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1884. They had had one son and two daughters.
Published works by Ward include ‘Animal Locomotion’ in Nature (1874), ‘An Attempt to Interpret Fechner’s Law’ in Mind (1876), ‘The Physiology of the Nervous System of the Freshwater Crayfish’ in Journal of Physiology (1879), a series of articles ‘Psychological Principles’ in Mind (1883), the article on ‘Psychology’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1886), Naturalism and Agnosticism (1899), The Realm of Ends (1911), Heredity and Memory (1913), Psychological Principles (1918), and A Study in Kant (1923).