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.
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.
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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.