William James was an American philosopher and psychologist. He was also a trained physician. James was the first educator in history to offer a course in psychology in the United States. He once said, “The first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave”. He also authored many influential books on the still young and developing fields of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism.
James was born into a family that encouraged cosmopolitanism in education. His father, Henry James Sr. was a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian. His brother, Henry James was a novelist and their sister Alice James, a diarist. William James enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University to pursue an education in science. In 1864, he began medical studies at Harvard Medical School. Later, in the spring of 1865, William took a break from studies to join the naturalist, Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition through the Amazon River.
However, he had to withdraw from the trip after 8 months due to seasickness and smallpox. He then travelled to Germany searching for a cure to an illness he encountered in April 1867. It was during this period that he started publishing his early works. Also during his time in Germany, William James realized that his true interests lay in psychology and philosophy instead of medicine. Although he finally completed his M.D in 1869, James never practiced medicine. In 1878, William James married Alice Gibbens.
Spending almost his entire academic career at Harvard, James also took up teaching courses of anatomy, psychology, physiology and philosophy. He taught at Harvard for 35 years. After retiring from Harvard in 1907, James continued to write, publish and lecture mostly on Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and The Meaning of Truth. During his last years, James suffered cardiac pain. He sought treatment in Europe but they were unsuccessful. On August 26, 1910, William James died of a heart failure. He was buried in the family plot in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
William James was a huge advocate of the concept of Pragmatism on which he wrote considerably. He believed that the truth of an idea can never be proven. James proposed we instead focus on what he called the cash value, or usefulness, of an idea. Opposing structuralism, William James believed in functionalism. He did not agree to the concepts of introspection and breaking down mental events to the smallest elements but believed in the wholeness of an event, taking into the impact of the environment on behavior. In addition to this, William James also proposed and approved the James-Lange Theory of Emotion.
While his contributions to the field of psychology are many, his classic textbooks including The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892) were and still are studied widely by psychology students all over the world. Many of James’ students including Mary Whiton Calkins, Edward Thorndike, G. Stanley Hall and John Dewey all went on to become influential names in the field of psychology.