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Summary Article: James, William
From The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology

William James (1842–1910) is widely regarded as one of the fathers of psychology and the first great American psychologist. A founder of American pragmatism (a school of philosophy that emphasizes the importance of practical consequences for both meaning and truth), he was also one of the most important philosophers of his day. He taught physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard University in a professorial career that lasted some 35 years. During this time he also served as president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. The older brother of the novelist Henry James, William was a gifted writer, lecturer, and teacher, who numbered among his students the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Gertrude Stein.

In 1890, James published the two-volume Principles of Psychology, which has had a profound influence on the development of psychology and which some still consider to be the best introduction to the field. James’s own abridged version of this work became the standard text in undergraduate psychology courses in the United States for the next forty years.

Throughout his writings, James emphasizes the importance of individual subjective experience, its scientific study, and its cultivation and improvement. Important themes in the Principles of Psychology include the will, attention, and habit. Although James did not believe the question of free will could be decided on purely psychological grounds, he was a strong defender of free will on moral grounds. He believed that through mental effort we can attend to certain thoughts instead of others, thus influencing our beliefs and actions, and through them our habits and character.

James’s Varieties of Religious Experience was a founding document in the psychology of religion. In this work, James (1902/1985) examined “healthy-mindedness,” which he defined as “the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good” (p. 78). While he was critical of certain shallow or extreme forms of healthy-mindedness, he defended this perspective of life on the grounds that it led to a large number of positive physical and psychological results for many of those who adopted it.

In his presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, James lamented that healthy-mindedness had not been scientifically studied. He called for the founding of a new branch of psychology that would make a rigorous study of human functioning at its best. Of particular interest to James were experiences (e.g., religious conversions), practices (e.g., yoga), events (e.g., battles), and ideals (e.g., liberty) that could unlock new and deeper levels of energy in individuals. He called for the systematic study of these various levels of energy and the means by which they can be accessed.

James believed that we have a great deal of control over our thoughts and actions, and that through them we can regulate our emotions, select adaptive beliefs, shape our environment, and help make the world a better place. He believed that we could regulate our emotions through action. When we do not feel cheerful, we can simply act as if we are. This action tends to bring the positive emotions we were lacking. He also believed that we can use our wills to select beliefs that in turn affect our external reality. There are times, James (1897/1979) argued, where “faith in a fact can help create the fact” (p. 29).

James was a passionate defender of meliorism, the doctrine that the world can be improved through human effort. As a psychologist and public philosopher, he raised his voice in support of education, tolerance, freedom, and justice. His thought has directly influenced the content of Alcoholics Anonymous programs as well as the founding of the Peace Corps and the development of service learning approaches in education.

SEE ALSO: ▸ Freedom ▸ Justice ▸ Religiousness ▸ Mental health

  • James, W. (1979). The will to believe and other essays in popular philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published in 1897).
  • James, W. (1985). The varieties of religious experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published in 1902).
  • James O. Pawelski
    University of Pennsylvania
    © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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