American Medical Biographies/James, William

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2779904American Medical Biographies — James, William1920

James, William (1842–1910)

William James, philosopher, brother of Henry James, novelist, was born in New York, on January 11, 1842, of devout and independent parentage. Throughout life his studies were much disturbed by ill health. In his youth he attended a Lycée in France and afterwards the University of Geneva, there gaining an unusual command of French. His German he acquired a few years later at the University of Berlin. In 1862–64 he was in the Lawrence Scientific School at Cambridge, Massachusetts, then for four years in the Harvard Medical School, from which he received the degree of M. D. in 1869. He also studied with Agassiz in the Cambridge Museum.

The progress of his mind can be traced in the successive topics of his teaching. In 1872– 1873 he was an instructor in physiology at Harvard; instructor in anatomy and physiology 1873–1876, and assistant professor in that subject, in 1876. During the latter period he offered a course on the theory of evolution in the department of philosophy. In 1880 he abandoned anatomy and physiology altogether, becoming in that year assistant professor, and in 1885 professor, of philosophy. He now gave himself enthusiastically to psychology, and under his energetic guidance a psychological laboratory was established here. He was professor of psychology from 1889 to 1897 and professor of philosophy 1897–1907, and emeritus professor to the time of his death. But after the publication of his treatise on psychology, in 1890, his interest in it declined, and he turned more towards the history of philosophy and the theory of knowledge. In 1892 he resigned the directorship of the laboratory, and after 1897 was never willing to offer a psychologic course. Religion and metaphysics claimed him, and his last years were devoted to the elaboration of a comprehensive philosophy in which the portion known as "Pragmatism" occasioned wide discussion. His scientific equipment lent him authority, while his remarkable literary gifts secured for him a wider hearing than that accorded to any other living philosopher. His name was chiefly associated with his persuasive exposition of the doctrine of "Pragmatism," by which the value of any assertion that claims to be true is tested by its consequences, i.e., its practical bearing upon human interests and purposes—a doctrine which he derived from C. S. Peirce at Cambridge (Massachusetts) in the early "seventies." Of the permanent value of this doctrine it is difficult to speak. But there can be no question of the impetus which he lent to the study of psychology by a combination of qualities which placed him among the foremost thinkers of his time.

Whether readers agreed with his books or dissented, all perceived that they vitalized their subjects. Several obliged a kind of new departure of human thought in their respective fields, the most notable being "The Principles of Psychology," 1890; "Talks to Teachers on Psychology," 1899; "The Varieties of Religious Experience," 1902; and "Pragmatism," 1907. Perhaps four short papers should also be mentioned: "The Feeling of Efforts," 1880; "The Dilemma of Determinism," 1884; "Is Life Worth Living?" 1895; "The Will to Believe," 1896.

The honors received by Prof. James were many and great. He was a member of the National Academy in America, France, Italy, Prussia, and Denmark; was a doctor of letters at Padua and Durham, of laws at Harvard, Princeton and Edinburgh, of science at Geneva and Oxford. He delivered a course of Lowell Lectures in Boston, of Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, of Hibbert Lectures in Oxford. He was one of the founders, and always a chief supporter, of the Society for Psychical Research, a subject which profoundly interested him.

Professor James's personality had a strong influence on the students in his philosophical courses—they idolized him. In his later years he became involved in his diction, like his brother Henry, and in espousing the cause of Christian Science, departed from his early medical training.

Records of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard, Oct., 18, 1910.
Harv. Univ. Gaz., 1910, vol. vi.