William James (1842-1910)
William James was a philosopher and psychologist but was most well known in the field of Psychology for developing the philosophy of pragmatism, or the Functionalist theory: "Theory of mental life and behavior that is concerned with how an organism uses its perceptual abilities to function in its environment." He was also the first Psychologist to be born in America.
William James was born on January 11, 1842 in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr. was a Swednborgian theologian, and one of his brothers was the great novelist Henry James. Throughout his youth, William attended private schools in the United States and Europe. He later attended the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University and then Harvard Medical School, where he received his degree in 1869 in the field of Physiology. The way that William got into the field of Psychology was that he got his degree in physiology and also enjoyed studying philosophy in his spare time, in psychology, he found, linked the two together. Before finishing his medical studies, he went on an exploring expedition in Brazil with the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz and also studied psychology in Germany. During this time, William retired due to illness but that didn’t stop his from excelling in the field. Three years later, in 1872, at the age of thirty, William become an instructor in physiology at Harvard University. In 1875, William started teaching Psychology at Harvard and after 1880 he was teaching both classes.
He taught at Harvard for thirty-five years, during which time; he wrote his first (and only) book; had his essays and lectures published in three different books: The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), Human Immortality (1898), and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); and wrote a sympathetic psychological account of religious and mystical experiences, which was William’s last-named work. William James’ book was entitled: Principles of Psychology which was published in 1890 and also established him as one of the greatest thinkers of his time.
In the book, he explained the principle of Functionalism as relating to psychology which gave people a new way of thinking about the traditional "branch of philosophy" and labeled it among the laboratory sciences based on experimental method. His essays that were published in the three books dealt with his empirical methods of investigation to philosophical and religious issues. He explored the questions regarding the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, free will, and ethical values by referring to human religious and moral experience.
William finally left Harvard University in 1907 and later that year, his later lectures were published in Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking. This Publication basically summed up William’s contributions to the theory of pragmatism. Pragmatism was first used by an American logician named C. S. Peirce which William expanded upon it, generalizing the pragmatic method, and developing it from the logical basis of the sciences into a basis for the evaluation of all experiences. William says about pragmatism that ideas are meaningless without their consequences which is what scientists use as a method of defining terms and for testing hypotheses which then result in predictions. The hypotheses can be considered true if the predicted events take place and meaningful theories are crucial for dealing with problems that arise in experience.
James grasped the idea of the Functionalist theory because he disagreed with Wilhelm Wundt’s "atoms of experience". James argued that sensations without associations don’t exist in real-life experiences. He believed that our minds are constantly going and that some mental processes are automatic such as daily routines. He says that when habits are formed something is changed in the nervous system so that every time we repeat the act it gets easier and easier for us to perform that act. Thus becoming the functionist theory of mental life and behavior and the conclusions he came to with relating to only human life merely scratches the surface. It also tries to explain how any living thing deals with their certain environment.
William James died on August 26, 1910 in Chocorua, New Hampshire. Throughout the course of William’s life he was not a follower, but a leader; he didn’t accept society’s way of popular thinking, he challenged it and made people believe what he thought was right. He made discoveries which will forever change the field of psychology and have inspired famous people in the sciences such as: John Dewey and Albert Einstein. These men had both used James’s theories and benefited greatly from them.