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Is life worth living? This question, the title of one of William James’ essays, is one James himself struggled with in his life and work. Trained as a doctor, James never practiced medicine. Perhaps due to his own struggles with depression and melancholy, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. That interest turned into a serious academic career. Known as the father of American psychology, James is the founder of functional psychology and cofounder of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. He also wrote an important work on the psychology of religious experience. James’ philosophical work forms some of the seminal thinking on pragmatism—the belief that usefulness, not truth, should be the focus of philosophical ideas.
The Select Works of William James contains James’ key texts on psychology and philosophy. All eight volumes are indexed, allowing you to search for a word or a phrase with a click. Citations are automatically generated according to your preferred format. Look up difficult medical and philosophical terms using the dictionary lookup tool. References to other philosophers and psychologists are linked to their books. This allows you to see exactly what James is refuting or supporting by pulling up the reference and comparing the two side by side.
In The Will to Believe, James argues for the validity of religious belief even in the absence of evidence. He argues that one cannot determine the evidence for certain belief until one has already adopted the belief. Part of James’ argument is that people are always faced with decisions and inevitably choose, even if that choice is not to decide at the moment. Some of these decisions cannot be made on intellectual grounds and thus must be made using the passions.
Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine
Given as the Ingersoll Lectures in 1897, Human Immortality seeks to argue for the possibility of immortality based on the transmission theory of cerebral action. James argues, against the materialism of his contemporaries, that the brain may not be the source and end of consciousness. Rather, consciousness may pervade all of reality. In this way, when a human dies, his consciousness remains in that larger sea of consciousness (James makes clear that it could be many larger seas, i.e., he denounces pantheism).
The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James offers a psychological account of personal religious experiences across the major world religions. Defining personal religion as the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals in relationship to the divine, James develops a taxonomy of various experiences. He makes comparisons, noting similarities and differences between particular religious figures (e.g., Ignatius Loyola and William Booth). He also examines specific types of religious experiences, such as prayer or mystical visions. He seeks to give a psychological account of these various experiences, while not attempting to question their validity. He also looks at the psychological benefits of things like prayer.
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking
Many philosophers consider Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking one of the most important works of American philosophy. In the book, James lays out his philosophical pragmatism, building on the work of his friends John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. James defines pragmatism as a methodology that steers between the Scylla of rational absolutism and the Charybdis of empirical materialism. It is a method, says James, of choosing theories. In pragmatism, the validity of an idea is judged by whether or not it has results, not by whether it is a priori true. Truth, for James, does not live in any one proposition. Rather, says James, “truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation.” In other words, a proposition is said to be truthful if it has practical consequences in concrete experience. As such, James affirms rationalism by making its ultimate value contingent upon empiricism.
Noting the controversy caused by his Pragmatism, in The Meaning of Truth, James seeks to clarify his theory of truth by compiling everything he has written on the subject. He says his aim is to forward the cause of what he calls “radical empiricism” by further expounding the nature of truth in his theory of pragmatism. Radical empiricism, says James, is the proposition that only things which are observable are debatable by philosophers. In order to forward this proposition, James must address the problem of the relationships between true things. Rationalists claim that that these relationships are unobservable; their truth can only be accessed by reason. James wants to argue that these relationships themselves are observable. Their truth-value should be judged with the same pragmatic view as the propositions that they connect.
A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy
In A Pluralistic Universe, James directly attacks philosophical monism, specifically, the concept of the Absolute. This idea, which has dominated philosophy since Plato, is the belief in a single essence that makes up the universe. It is the belief that the universe is coherent and that all experience of it is of more or less the same ilk. Against this, James argues for pluralism. “Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism . . . means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related. Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely external environment of some sort or amount. Things are with one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence.” In other words, though some objects may be inherently connected to other objects, there is nothing inherent in every object that connects it to every other object. Ultimately, the world is many, not one.
Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy
In Some Problems of Philosophy, James gives an overview of philosophy geared toward the reader of philosophy. He examines the following topics: metaphysics, the problem of being, perception and conception, pluralism v. monism, and novelty. James does not simply give a straightfoward account of philosophy; rather, he gives his own critique of existing philosophical systems. Particularly, James attacks the ideas of monism and intellectualism in favor of pluralistic empiricism.
Essays in Radical Empiricism contains a number of James’ essays collected and published posthumously by his colleague Ralph Barton Perry. It contains essays from the whole of James’ career across a number of philosophical and psychological topics. The essays focus particularly on James’ theory of radical empiricism.
Title: Select Works of William James
Author: William James
About William James
William James (1842–1910) was born at the Astor House in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr., was a Swedenborgian theologian. His godfather was poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. James studied science at Harvard University and enrolled in Harvard Medical School, earning an MD in 1869. In 1878, he married Alice Gibbens, and in 1882, he became a member of the theosophical society. James suffered various forms of depression throughout his life. Though he studied medicine, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. He began writing on these subjects and eventually began teaching at Harvard. He held professorships of both philosophy and psychology, ending his career as emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907. Medical historians consider him the 14th most eminent psychologist of the twentieth century.