Encyclopedia Entry on William James

Paul Jerome Croce, "William James," Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Bron Taylor, ed. (Continuum Publishers, 2005)

William James (1842-1910), the oldest of five children born to Henry James, Senior, and Mary James, was immersed from his youth in the family's romantic hopes to find spiritual significance in the natural world. The elder James read the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg's works extensively, lectured widely on his idealistic solutions to contemporary religious and social issues, and firmly believed that the material world was a mere shadow compared to the reality of spiritual forces that would bring about a more righteous and democratic society.In his young adulthood, William resisted these spiritual insights, especially when he began his own career in the wake of Darwinism by studying chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and medicine at Harvard in the 1860s.

The young James did not remain satisfied for long with the scientific and secular insights that surrounded him during his first career steps in the New Psychology.A traumatic personal crisis signaled his return to the issues his father had taught because he felt repulsed by the notion that material nature possessed only mundane physical reality.Although he worked in mainstream professions, as a teacher at Harvard throughout his career and as a respected and popular psychologist, philosopher, and social commentator, his own commitments remained on the margins because of his drive to understand spiritual meanings in nature.

James's commitments remained fairly muted in his first major publications.He wrote his influential Principles of Psychology (1890) "from a natural science point of view," with comprehensive references to the experimental psychology of Europe and America and with a working assumption that reflected the scientific orthodoxy that mental life could be understood with physical explanations.However, his guiding motivation was to find the relation between brain and mind, between things material and impulses immaterial.

Those interests grew even as the psychology profession took an increasingly laboratory orientation in the 1890s.James quickly turned his attention to philosophy and to spiritual, psychical, and other exceptional experiences of human consciousness. He expressed his commitment to religious belief against the withering criticism of agnostics in his declaration of the importance of a "Will to Believe" (1895) in ideas that satisfy our need for commitment even when they cannot be empirically verified. He wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) to document the extraordinary depths of personal religion and to showcase the profound impact of belief on human saintliness and mystical insight.In the essays collected as Radical Empiricism (1912), James proposed to show the intimate relation between subjective ideas and empirical objects. In A Pluralistic Universe (1909), he argued for looking at the world in terms of the multiplicity of its empirical parts, without losing the sense of purpose derived from religious worldviews. James is perhaps most famous for his theory of Pragmatism (1907), which proposed that usefulness and practical action should be the way to measure the worth of ideas, and he was particularly interested in showing how pragmatism could endorse religion's ability to motivate and sustain.

In his work, William James did not dismiss science, but he proposed that its insights, along with those of religion were all useful as paths for increasing our awareness of human possibilities embedded in our physical frames. With these commitments, he anticipated twentieth-century humanistic psychology and the flowering of personal spiritualities that have flourished across denominational lines in the last few generations.His influence is perhaps best expressed with the image he used in The Varieties: our normal waking consciousness is only a doorway to some other cosmic consciousness, of which we occasionally get glimpses, especially with the help of religious geniuses.And so, by the end of his life, James found a way to express his father's commitments in more secular terms; like a psychologist, he investigated the human mind in its relation to the brain, but with his spiritualist drive, he proposed that those physical, psychological facts are just a first step in comprehending profound spiritual meaning.

Further Reading:

G. William Barnard. Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism.Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Paul Jerome Croce. Science and Religion in the Era of William James, Volume One: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Gerald Myers. William James: His Life and Thought.New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Ralph Barton Perry. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols., Boston: Little Brown, 1935.

Linda Simon. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James.New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Eugene Taylor. William James on Exceptional Mental States.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.