You are here

William James

Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University
1842 to 1910

William James was born in New York City on 11 January 1842. His father, a man of independent means gained through inheritance, was associated with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and their transcendentalist circle. At the behest of his father, James received an unorthodox education. The young man attended ten different schools during a period of eight years in New York and also studied in London, Geneva, Paris, Dresden and Boston. By the time he had completed his secondary education he had attained fluency in five languages. He entered Harvard in 1861 (the year the Civil War broke out). Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in 1864, he entered Harvard’s Medical School. In 1865, James took a hiatus from medical school and accompanied the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz on a trip up the Amazon. Although he contracted a mild form of smallpox on the expedition, he recovered.

Returning to medical school in 1865, James faced painful eye and back problems as well as a severe suicidal depression, yet managed to persevere and complete his M.D. in 1869. During this period of study he spent a further year in Europe (Dresden, Bad Teplitz, Berlin, Geneva, Paris and Berlin), where he studied physiology, psychology and philosophy. After he suffered another bout of ill health and depression in 1870–71, the president of Harvard invited him to teach comparative physiology to undergraduates. In 1873, James was offered a full year of teaching a newly developed course focussed on physiology and anatomy, but he deferred the invitation for a year for further travel in Europe, sustained by his parents’ wealth. Upon his return in 1874, James entered permanent employment at Harvard, teaching the anatomy and physiology course (which he renamed ‘The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology’ the following year) and founded the American Psychology Laboratory. He married Alice Howe Gibbens, a schoolteacher and pianist, in 1878, and published his first major academic work, Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence. In 1880 he was appointed assistant professor of philosophy, but James continued to teach psychology. He published The Principles of Psychology in 1890, and it rapidly became a standard textbook on the subject. At a lecture in Berkeley in 1898, he declared himself a pragmatist. James found international acclaim for his psychological and philosophical contributions. He is heralded as the first American philosopher to have been widely accepted in Europe, while upon Freud and Jung’s visit to the United States in 1909, it was William James they wanted to meet above any other American academics. Among the numerous honorary degrees he received were three doctorates of law from Princeton (1896), Edinburgh (1902) and Harvard (1903). His obituary in the New York Times called him ‘America’s fore-most philosophical writer, virtual founder of the modern school of psychology and exponent of pragmatism’. His international mark was indelible.

William James’s Gifford Lectures of 1901–1902 have been heralded by some as the greatest lectures ever to be presented in the series and perhaps the most seminal of his works (alongside The Principles of Psychology). Published initially in 1902, The Varieties of Religions Experience: A Study in Human Nature has stood the test of time and been republished thirty-six times, while the board of the Modern Library declared it to be the second best nonfiction book of the twentieth century. The lectures address religious experience not at the corporate level, but focus on personal religious experience. It has been suggested that one cannot read the lectures without being struck by the resonance of James’s own individual struggles with severe depression. The published version of the lecture series continues to be regarded as a fundamental text in the study of religious experience.

James died of heart disease on 26 August 1910 in his summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. He was sixty-eight.

Some of James’s most important publications include: Remarks on Spencer's Definition of Mind as Correspondence (1878); The Principles of Psychology (1890); The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897); Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results (1898); Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals(1899); The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); Pragmatism (1907); A Pluralistic Universe (1909); The Meaning of Truth (1909); Problems of Philosophy (1911).

For further reading on James and his thought, see: Wesley Cooper, The Unity of William James’s Thought (2002); Howard M. Feinstein, Becoming William James (1999); Michael G. Johnson and Tracy B. Henley, eds., Reflections on ‘The Principles of Psychology’: William James after a Century (1990); Bruce Kuklick, William James: Writings 1902–1910 (1988); Doris Olin, ed., William James: ‘Pragmatism’ in Focus (1992); Stephen C. Rowe, ed., The Vision of James (1996); Linda Simon, Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (1998); Linda Simon, ed., William James Remembered (1996); Ellen Kappy Suckiel, Heaven’s Champion: William James’s Philosophy of Religion (1996). For a recent scholarship on The Varieties of Religions Experience, see Charles Taylor, The Varieties of Religious Experience Today: William James Revisited (2002) and Edward F. Crangle’s review in The Journal of Religious History 30, no. 3 (Oct. 2006): 382–83.

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh