William James entered the field of psychology not with a bang or an explosion but as the morning dew distilling upon fields of clover. He was a reluctant psychologist, who did not want to even be called a psychologist, but he forever changed the course of modern psychology. William James not only changed the course of American psychology, in some ways he was the Course. James did not produce original research, he did not perform experiments, yet he became the driving force behind psychology. How did he accomplish this feat?
James was born to wealthy parents. His grandfather was one of the richest men in America and William’s father inherited a considerable sum of money. William’s father did not fall into the frivolous failings of inherited money though. He was very involved in his children’s lives, educating them himself in matters both temporal and spiritual. He was not an indulgent father but allowed the children to make their own decisions about life and to formulate their own ideas. He also provided them with opportunities to experience the world’s cultures and diversities. William and his family took a number of trips to Europe in order to be exposed to languages, cultures, arts, and philosophies.
William became interested in art initially. He wanted to become an artist but after studying some in Paris, he decided that, while he was good, he was not good enough. So he decided to become a scientist. He started attending Harvard, where he worked with different scientists. He discovered that he abhorred scientific experimentation, finding it tedious. He appreciated the work of other scientists but did not want to do any experimentation himself. After graduation he started medical school at Harvard. While he enjoyed the subjects he studied, William did not want to be a practicing physician; he decided he liked philosophy best. James had by then also been exposed to the work of the great German psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and was impressed by their research.
However, instead of becoming a philosopher, he was offered a job at Harvard teaching physiology. After two years he started teaching psychology. His course incorporated all the modern research of German, English, French, and American psychologists and anyone else who investigated mind, brain, and behavior. James’ genius lay in his ability to bring together the work of so many diverse researchers and psychologists and then formulate a coherent forward-facing phenomenological foundation for psychology.
William James is most famous for his psychology textbook he published in 1890 – Principles of Psychology. It took 12 years for him to write and filled 2 volumes with roughly 1400 total pages. It was an instant hit. Of the many topics he addressed, James is most famous for his theories about emotions and consciousness.
Concerning emotions, James believed that a person is exposed to a stimulus, has a physiological reaction, and then interprets that reaction as emotion. So, first comes physiological arousal – the coursing of hormones, racing of the heart, sweating of the palms – then the subjective interpretation of those processes as emotion. An independent researcher in Denmark, Carl Lange, developed a similar theory of emotion at roughly the same time as James did. Their view of emotion came to be known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. It was later determined to not be an accurate theory of how emotions work. The theory was highly influential though in conceptualizing the connection between physiology and emotion. It was one of the major catalysts for future research into emotions.
William James also conceptualized consciousness concretely. He frequently compared consciousness to a river or a stream – constantly changing, never the same, and continuous. Modern researchers have recognized the role his ideas played in shaping future psychological thought and research, including attention and memory (Mangan, 2007). Mangan also stated that many scientists bias against introspection hinders their appreciation of the theories of William James.
Other researchers are finding the writings of James very relevant today. For example, some researchers point out that there has been considerable disagreement concerning the process of the study of memory but that James’ idea that the only way to study memory was through its retrieval makes both common and scientific sense (Sara, & Hars, 2006). Numerous others continue to focus on James’ relevance today. Indeed, a PsychINFO search using “William James” as keywords yields more than 1000 results.
Many of William James’ writings and theories have direct application to clinical work in addition to research. He often stated that humans need to establish good habits to be successful in life. What’s more, he believed that action precedes emotion and that the best way to feel happy is to act happy (what he actually said was that a person cannot be happy without action, even if action does not cause happiness. In other words, action is a necessary condition for happiness even if it is not sufficient). This idea is part of the foundation of behavioral therapy such that doing something is an important step in overcoming depression, for example. This is known as behavioral activation.
William James also wrote about the brain. He devotes a few early chapters in The Principles of Psychology to the brain and its function. While much of what he wrote has been updated with further research of the brain and its relationships to behavior, many of the things that he wrote have not changed substantially since 1890. Of course, James did not perform the original brain research but he wrote about the work of Broca and Wernicke in addition to many others. By the time his textbook was published researchers had discovered that some behaviors were localized in the brain. He also wrote about the research of scientists who systematically removed different portions of animals’ brains in order to see how their behavior was affected. It was through the work of these neuropsychological pioneers that we understand so much about the brain today. James acted as a mediator, disseminating the information to the masses in an easily incorporated and digestible manner.
Overall, William James likely did more to further the interest in psychology than any other 19th century psychologist. He was a reluctant psychologist but his legacy transcends time. His writings set the stage for every field and philosophy of psychology – from psychodynamic, to behavioral, to cognitive, to social, to clinical, to neuropsychological. He may have had his faults and many of his theories have not been supported by later research but no other person has likely had such a large and grand impact upon the wide field of psychology as William James has had.
Mangan, B. (2007). The Blackwell companion to consciousness. (M. Velmans, Ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Sara, S. J., & Hars, B. (2006). In memory of consolidation. Learning & Memory, 13, 515-521.