William James


William James was a very popular and famous late 19th century American philosopher and psychologist. Born in 1842 in New York City, William was raised in an eccentric yet intellectually liberal family. His father was a transcendentalist, a very intuitive and liberal form of thinking; he raised his children to question the main issues in life and come to their own conclusions. Such freedom paid off in that two of his children gained great creative fame and success: William in philosophy and psychology, and Henry James in literature and fiction (author of such stories as The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller).

William studied throughout Europe in his youth and was interested in both science and art. He attempted to focus on painting, but concluded that he was more gifted in the sciences. He went on to study chemistry first, then anatomy and physiology, disciplines he continued to study when he transferred to medical school. He ultimately received a medical degree from Cambridge in 1869.

But there was more to James's life than what these facts reveal. He, like most of his siblings, suffered from minor physical ailments and various psychological neuroses. He also found himself in a great philosophical dilemma, unable to make sense of his life. One fateful reading, however, turned his entire life around; he was reading an article by the Frenchman Charles Renouvier about human freedom and free will. Suddenly James seemed able to find an order in the chaos and formulate from some of Renouvier's ideas about free will a rational and optimistic view of the world.

>From that point on his life was on an upswing until the day he died. He began teaching as a professor at Harvard first in physiology, then in psychology, and then in philosophy. Upon marrying Alice Howe in 1878, his health and spirits lifted even more, and he was generally known from that point on as an energetic and charming person.

William James was very popular. His strides and insights in philosophy are matched and perhaps even surpassed by his mastery of human psychology. Many Americans and international figures thought of him as the intellectual ambassador of the United States, for like America, he was known for his energy, frankness, and humanism. He was well known for his great kindness, curiosity, and warmth-- all excellent traits for any good philosopher.


William James had no intention of pursuing topics he felt had no practical value to the average person; as a result, his work is remarkably readable, straight-forward, warm, and filled with common sense.

His primary interest was in what improved the lives of humankind, and from this stems two main subjects among many he wrote about: his justification for the belief in religion and pragmatism.

Being raised under a very religious father, James had a natural interest in the role religion played in people's lives. But his angle on the age-old question of God and religion was fresh and innovative; he chose not to determine whether God truly existed or not, but rather whether the consequences of people's belief in God were beneficial to them or not. Here he clearly called upon his understanding of human psychology to assert that the belief in God and religion was in fact a viable belief, and just as rational as the scientific view of agnosticism and atheism.

First, he set up the hypothesis that God either exists or does not exist. We as intelligent human beings have a choice to believe in God's existence or not; we take the evidence and are free to make our own conclusions. James showed that the evidence can only go so far before one realizes that, on this issue, the argument can be made either for or against God with equal strength and validity. Therefore, the option is ours to make, but it is an option we must make because it is "forced" and "momentous"; "forced" because there is no in-between, middle ground on the issue, and "momentous" because the decision we make will greatly affect our lives. James believed that God was a viable "living" option for many people, because no good evidence good refute it empirically, it empirically was compatible to reality, and people live productive lives because of it. Therefore, God is not only an option according to James, but a good one for many people. On many occasions James said that such a belief was preferable to atheism, although he respected that belief as well.

This was an unpopular opinion in a time when many philosophers and scientists were rejecting God and religion. It was generally thought of by many as a moot issue with too little evidence to make any real conclusion about, but James boldly showed that it is too important an issue to simply have no opinion about. Agnostics and people who chose not to address the issue were essentially nonbelievers in God for all intents and purposes, according to James. This all ties directly into his concept of the right and "will to believe" (which is the title of one of his most famous essays); it applies to any "living," "momentous," and "forced" moral options in our lives, including religion.

This relatively unorthodox method of evaluating religion based on its consequences is also part of the theory of pragmatism that C.S. Pierce first coined, and William James quickly elaborated and revised upon. James did not believe that truth is some absolute state of things, and even if it was, it would be beyond human understanding. Instead he thought that truth "happens to an idea;" an idea is made, and if it works compatibly with life and nature, it is essentially true.

James said ideas must have a "cash-value" for us as humans if we are to use them and consider them true. Many of the issues he saw being discussed by philosophers were ideas with no "cash- value;" believing in them or disbelieving in them affected one's life in no way. If certain ideas do not affect our lives, they are essentially ideas that have no meaning and should not really be discussed. This view is essentially "pragmatism;" an idea is only as true as it practically helps you by believing in it. Ideas must be practical and empirically compatible to be considered true or not, though; you can't just believe in anything you want, because if an idea doesn't square away with the "brute facts" of nature, it can only hurt you and fool you.

He also tried to show that pragmatism is not only a theory about what is true or not, but also a method of resolving disputes. He believed that if parties who disagree over a certain issue look at the practical consequences of that debate, they can settle the issue pragmatically. If the two opinions make no practical difference from each other, the dispute is merely verbal; it is a misunderstanding or failure to communicate terms, not a real issue or real disagreement on the hard facts of the matter.

Other than the belief in God, James believed it was pragmatically preferable to believe in free will as well. This is apparently an issue that plagued him in his younger days, but one that he seemingly solved in his later life. He believed that any religion, or at least any satisfactory system of thought, must provide in it a belief that the individual is able to make a difference in the world. Without that, he felt there was no emotional gratification or motivation for living a productive life.

Major Works

Some of the books you will find regarding the philosophy of William James are in compilations of his essays; this makes for good reading, for James' directness suits him well for the medium of essay. You can just browse and choose which subject you wish to read about.


There is a unique appeal to James's frankness and down-to- earth quality, but this style is also a double-edged sword. There is a strange, vague intuition that James uses and justifies, but what is this intuition? It was never defined. He wields common sense brilliantly, but he occasionally seems to oversimplify the issues at hand by addressing them so vaguely and generally.

There is something to pragmatism that still reeks of reckless ideological abandonment; couldn't you essentially justify belief in anything? James was quick try to counter the critics in his own lifetime by underscoring that beliefs need to be empirically compatible in order to be "living;" if they aren't living, they are not viable and are thus just some idea that someone is pretending to really believe in. Still, he seems to dangle very close to rampant subjectivism, which seemingly was not his exact intention. Many critics feel he never conquered this criticism.

Overall, it is James's language that seems to come into question the most. Oftentimes it is very vague, asking as many questions as it attempts to answer. Take, for example, in his essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life:" he says of determining whether something is right or wrong, "the nobler thing tastes better." What does that mean? He is almost poetic at times, and he seems to concede to a certain incomprehension of the scheme of morality. Nonetheless, many critics do not appreciate this intuitive, vague approach. What James gains in level-headed, common sense, he seems to lose in precision and definition. He gauges reality with the strict rules of science, being the educated scientist that he was, but then seems to fly into arbitrary faithfulness and intuition when the facts fall short of the issue. Like so many philosophers, he at times can be just as inconsistent as he can be eloquent and insightful.