American philosopher and psychologist who was the principal figure in the establishment and development of functionalism.
William James was born in New York City to a wealthy, educated family that included the future novelist, Henry James, his younger brother. The family traveled extensively in Europe and America in James's youth. James studied chemistry, physiology, and medicine at Harvard College, but was unable to settle on a career, his indecision intensified by physical ailments and depression. In 1872, at the invitation of Harvard's president, Charles Eliot, James began teaching physiology at Harvard and achieved a reputation as a committed and inspiring instructor. Throughout the 1870s, his interest in psychology—initially sparked by an article by the German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)—grew. In 1875, James taught the first psychology course offered at an American university and in the same year received funding for the first psychological laboratory in the United States.
James began writing The Principles of Psychology in 1878 and published it in 1890. It had been intended as a textbook, but the original version, over 1,000 pages in length, was unsuitable for this purpose (James wrote an abridged version shortly afterwards). Nevertheless, the original text became a seminal work in the field, lauded for James's influential ideas and accessible writing style. James believed that psychology should be seen as closely linked to physiology and other biological sciences. He was among the earliest to argue that mental activity should be understood as dynamic functional processes rather than discrete structural states. The overall name generally associated with this outlook is functionalism, and it contrasts with the structural division of consciousness into separate elements that was the practice among early German psychologists, including Wundt, whose ideas James eventually
came to reject. Influenced by Charles Darwin's theories of evolution in On the Origin of Species, the functionalist view held that the true goal of psychology was the study of how consciousness functions to aid human beings in adapting to their environment.
Probably the most well-known individual topic treated in Principles of Psychology is the concept of thought as an unbroken but constantly changing stream, which added the phrase "stream of consciousness" to the English language. Following in the footsteps of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, James argues that the exact same sensation or idea can never occur twice, and that all experiences are molded by the ones that precede them. He also emphasized the continuous quality of consciousness, even when interrupted by such phenomena as seizures or sleep. In contrast, scientific attempts to "break up" or "freeze" consciousness in order to study its disparate elements, such as those of Wundt or Edward Titchener (1867-1927), seemed misguided to James. Also treated prominently in Principles of Psychology is the importance and power of habits, as a force either to resist or cultivate, depending on the circumstances.
An especially influential part of James's book is the chapter on emotion, which expresses a principle that became known as the James-Lange Theory because the Danish physiologist Carl Lange published similar views at about the same time as James. The theory states that physical responses to stimuli precede emotional ones. In other words, James posited that emotions actually result from rather than cause physical changes. Based on this conclusion, James argued that a person's emotional state could be improved by changing his or her physical activities or attitudes.
Related to this observation about emotion were James's theories of the human will, which were also central to Principles of Psychology and contained the germ of his later philosophy of pragmatism. His emphasis on the will had its roots in his personal life: while in his twenties, an essay on free will by the French philosopher Charles-Bernard Renouvier (1815-1903) had inspired him to overcome his emotional problems. James rejected the idea of human beings responding passively to outside influences without power over their circumstances. Having himself triumphed by a strenuous exertion of the will, he recommended this course for others as well, defining an act of will as one characterized by focusing one's attention strongly on the object to be attained.
James served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1894 and 1904. He applied some of his psychological theories to his other studies, including education and religion. In 1909, the year before his death, James traveled to Clark University to meet Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, during the latter's only visit to the United States. In addition to Principles of Psychology and his other books, James had a great impact on psychology in America through his teaching. The work of his student G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) provided a link between James's psychological theories and the functionalist school of psychology that flourished during the 1920s. James's other books include The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe(1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
Toward the end of his career, James concentrated his work in the area of philosophy and maintained few ties to the field of psychology.
Perry, Ralph B. The Thought and Character of William James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948.