William James

Best known for his philosophy of pragmatism, William James helped redirect psychology into greater concern with higher mental functioning.

Educated as was befitting of a rich young man (private schools, extended periods in Europe), William and his younger brother Henry (who became a famed novelist) had all of the advantages of wealth and all of the disadvantages of a tyrannical father.

Although trained as a medical doctor, James taught philosophy at Harvard (1872). Similarly, he was not an experimentalist, and yet began what could arguably be called the first laboratory devoted to the study of psychology. In 1875 (four years before Wundt), Harvard gave him $300 to buy experimental equipment, but James did not have an overriding theoretical perspective to make his efforts a laboratory. Essentially, James was always a philosophy and occasionally a psychologist.

A predecessor of functionalism , James was less concerned with the mental structures of the mind than with the functions it performs. His book (Principles of Psychology, 1890) had a tremendous impact of the philosophy and direction of psychology. James shorter version of Principles, popularly known as “Jimmy,” was a great commercial success.

James proposed that there are 3 types of religious experience: shallow (superficial but healthy-minded), denial of anguish (able to wrestle with evil and anguish over it), and mystical. James was in the latter category, being a firm believer is psychic experience and extrasensory phenomena.

Chronologically between Wundt and Titchener, James was more of a mind-body dualist (Wundt was a parallel-ist, and Titchener a physical monist). Influenced by Darwin, James maintained that behavior is adaptable, and that in order to survive psychologically people must be conscious of and adjust to their psychological and emotional environment.

For James, consciousness is not a static picture but more like a flow of a river or stream. It is personal, ever changing, and has no breaks or cracks in it. James also held that consciousness is selective (we don’t attend to everything) and that it is object oriented (does not deal with itself).

Although not a systematic theory, James envisioned a personal self. He distinguished between “self as known” and “self as knower.” In the former, he put the “me hierarchy” (e.g., the spiritual self, the social self, and the material self). It is self as other people experience it. There also is a pure self, a soul, known only to oneself; it is the “self as knower.”

Although James discussed habit, instinct, memory, and reason, his theory of emotion has endured the longest. Before James, emotion was described as being the cause of action (I see the bear, I feel fear, I run). James maintained that emotion was a result of action (I see the bear, I run, I feel fear). Formally known as the James-Lange theory of emotion (after Danish physiologist C.G. Lange), it represented a major shift in thinking about emotion.


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