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William James

(1842—1910) American philosopher and psychologist

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American psychologist and philosopher. James was born into a wealthy New York family, and surrounded from an early age by a humanitarian, literary, and scholarly family life (his father was a theologian, and his brother the novelist Henry James). James had already spent years in Europe and begun an education as an artist, when he entered Harvard medical school in 1863, and he travelled in Brazil and Europe before he graduated with a medical degree in 1869. There followed years lecturing both on psychology and philosophy. James's first major work was the two-volume Principles of Psychology (1890), a work that does justice both to the scientific, laboratory study of experimental psychology, and the importance of a sound phenomenology of experience. James's own emotional needs gave him an abiding interest in problems of religion, freedom, and ethics; the popularity of these themes and his lucid and accessible style made James the most influential American philosopher of the beginning of the 20th century. His Gifford Lectures of 1901–2 were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature; they are widely regarded as the most important work on religion produced in America (although see Santayana).

The philosophy of pragmatism, of which together with Peirce he is the founding figure, became a rallying-point for opposition to absolute idealism. Its central tenets are, however, not easy to disentangle in James. He believed that philosophies express large currents of feeling as much as rigorous intellectual theorems, so that exactitude is not a particular virtue, and refuting a philosopher by seizing upon and refuting some statement is like trying to divert a river by planting a stick in it. This goes some way towards excusing his lecturer's fondness for aphorism and overstatement. Formulae such as ‘the true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving’ (Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907, p. 222) brought instant denunciation, and James wrote many papers (collected in The Meaning of Truth, 1909) softening the doctrine and replying to detractors. Part of the trouble is that whilst James is in many respects a humanist and empiricist, he also wanted to preserve a place for religious belief, allowable if it ‘works’, in spite of the fact that working is here not the survival of verification or integration with the rest of our world view, but the generation of emotional benefits. James's later philosophy also included a ‘radical empiricism’ in which streams of experience regarded in one way constitute minds, and in another way constitute the objects of the external world (see also neutral monism). As well as those mentioned, major works include The Will to Believe (1897) and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). An audio discussion with James's biographer A chronology of James's life and works, with bibliographies and extracts from his writings

Subjects: Philosophy

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