William James. Biografia

Silvia Lattanzi

William James nasce a New York nel 1842. Proviene da una ricca e colta famiglia americana: il padre, Henry Sr. , è un esponente di rilievo della filosofia trascendentale e uno dei suoi cinque fratelli, Henry Jr., diverrà un celebre romanziere. Trascorre la giovinezza viaggiando per l’Europa, dove ha l’occasione di frequentare i corsi di Wundt. Si laurea in medicina nel 1869 all’Università di Harvard, ma negli anni successivi si dedica allo studio della filosofia e della psicologia, di cui negli Stati Uniti è il primo docente universitario, precisamente ad Harvard, dove nel 1875, fonda uno dei primi laboratori di psicologia sperimentale. Nel 1890, sempre ad Harvard, ottiene la cattedra di filosofia e pubblica la sua opera più famosa, The Principles of Psychology, nella quale applica alla comprensione dei fenomeni psichici un metodo insieme fenomenologico e genetico – funzionale di matrice darwiniana, in cui la realtà psichica è vista come “flusso di coscienza” da descriversi nella sua immediatezza al di là di ogni sovrastruttura metafisica. Tra le altre opere che meritano di essere ricordate ci sono The Will to Believe and Other Essay (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism: A new Name for Some of Life’s Ideals (1907), The Meaning of Truth (1909), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), Essays in Radical Empiricism (postumi, 1912). Muore a Chocoura, nel New Hampshire, nel 1910.

William James è l’esatto alter ego di Peirce. Abituato al successo e ai salotti buoni impone il Pragmatismo come corrente di pensiero dominante degli Stati Uniti. Se ad avviare il movimento è Peirce, cosa che James riconosce, è William a far si che esso venga conosciuto a livello internazionale.


William James was a physician, naturalist, artist, psychologist, philosopher, religious thinker, psychic researcher, drug experimenter, writer, lecturer, and professor. One of the most influential Americans of his time, his impact remains undiminished 90 years after his death, primarily through his classic 1902 book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience." A man of foreceful intellect but deep emotional conflicts, James attempted to balance his rational mind with his intense need to create spiritual meaning in his life.
The following resource contains a brief description of main landmarks in the life and work of William James, who is considered to be the father of modern American psychology.

William James: Early Years
William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City. During his boyhood and adolescence, he moved with his family from New York to London, Geneva, Paris, Boulognesur-mer, Newport, Dresden, and Boston before finally settling down in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1866. Such travel was made possible by the inherited wealth of his remarkable father, Henry James, Sr.
The elder James believed strongly that his children should receive the best possible education, but could never quite decide what that was. After trying several private schools and home tutoring in New York, he concluded that a European education would be superior. Then he began an odyssey in which his five children attended different schools in Europe and America. No school ever worked out quite as well as had been hoped. Nevertheless, the children were familiar with several different languages and cultures, and also greatly benefited from stimulating home environment. Everyone was encouraged to engage in intellectual discussions, to express opinions freely, and to be prepared to defend them. They also listened and talked to such frequenters of their household as Thoreau, Emerson, Greeley, Hawthorne, Carlyle, Tennyson, and J.S.Mill. Henry James, Sr., to his friends' horror, even allowed his children to attend theatre.
The three youngest children - Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice - despite their early promise, grew up susceptible to neurotic illnesses and led generally unhappy adult lives. For William and his brother Henry Jr., the famous writer, the results were much more positive. Much of the vitality, sensitivity, and worldly sophistication that later characterized their writings undoubtedly had roots in their childhood experiences. But still both grew up subject to periodic emotional disturbance.
William, as the oldest, was always 'out front' - the first and prime result of his father's educational experiments. From boyhood on, he liked to experiment with things, to ingest various substances to determine their pharmacological effects on himself, and to mix chemicals indiscriminately. This led his father to conclude very early that William was destined for a career in science. At a particular point in his life he expressed an interest in art as a career, but when he demonstrated, after all, only moderate artistic talent, he admitted he had been wrong and in 1861 went off to study chemistry at Harvard. But he found chemistry to be difficult and not really absorbing, and he became more interested in physiology. Finally, he chose medicine because it offered both scientific training and a reasonable income.
In 1865 William accompanied Louis Agassiz, Harvard's eminent biologist, in his specimen-hunting expedition to the Amazon. The trip was far from personal success: seasickness, smallpox made him return home and resume his medical studies in Harvard. Unfortunately, smallpox had left him with an eye weakness and severe back pain, which made him depart for Germany in April of 1867 to take mineral baths and to perfect his German. In 1868, as his back was not improving, he returned home in a greatly dispirited condition and went through the motions of completing his medical degree. In 1870 the death of a favorite female cousin brought his emotional crisis to climax. `I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with the sense of the insecurity of life that I never new before, and that I never felt since'. He abandoned all intentions of practicing medicine without any prospects for another career.
One of the ideas that most oppressed James during this low period in his life was the vision of a mechanistic universe promulgated by the German physiologists. If all things in the universe were mechanistically determined, then all of his mental and physical suffering was nothing more than the result of interacting physical particles and there was nothing he could do personally to alter his fate. William's emotional recovery was inspired by the chance reading of an essay on free will by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier. James adopted a belief in free will to the end of his life. Evaluation of ideas in terms of the utility became a life-long habit, and the foundation of his later philosophy of pragmatism.
William had completed his medical studies while still living with his parents in Cambridge, and spent his time reading and conversing with friends. Approaching thirty, he had never held a paying job, and remained very much tied to the parental purse. But in 1872 Harvard's president Charles Eliot asked James to teach half of a newly instituted physiology course. He did so well that was asked to take over the entire course the next year. He accepted the position and for the rest of his life his primary identity was that of a professor at Harvard, where he became one of its legendary figures.

James as a Teacher

James was a born teacher; he was very far from authoritarianism and treated his students as intellectual equals. He was probably the first professor in the United States to solicit course evaluations from his students at the end of the semester. An important reason for James's success as a teacher lay in his approach to subject matter: he constantly extracted from it what was useful for living, for understanding himself and his world more clearly.
Initially appointed to teach anatomy and physiology, by 1875 he was calling his course `The Relations between Physiology and Psychology' and he developed his small demonstration laboratory in connection with this course. Although James hated to do experiments, he forced himself to when it was the best way to prove or disprove a theory. He dropped anatomy and physiology from his curriculum in 1878, and for several years his courses were explicitly psychological. During the last years of his life his course offerings were almost exclusively in philosophy. Even though his tenure as a psychologist was temporary and brief, it was very influential. In fact, he brought it recognition in the world at large.
In 1878, just as James was beginning to teach his first pure psychology courses, he contracted with the publisher Henry Holt to write a psychology text. The book finally began to materialize in late 1880s, and two volumes of `The Principles of Psychology' were finally published in late 1890. (By the way, in the same 1878, at thirty-six, after a prolonged courtship, he married Alice Gibbens, a Boston schoolteacher and accomplished pianist, who became his dutiful, strong wife and helpmeet, mother of his five children and his lifelong intellectual companion).
`The Principles' was a huge book, and it described psychology as a `natural science' and also as an unsystematic and incomplete one. But it was also a beautifully written document, which quickly became the best selling psychology text in English. In his book he constantly stressed the utility and potential relevance of psychological ideas for his reader. In brief, the book includes chapters on such topics as brain function and structure, neural activity, habit, `the automaton-theory', the stream of consciousness, conception, discrimination, sight, hearing, touch, the temperature sense, the muscular sense, pain, sensations of motion, the self, attention, association, the sense of time and space, memory, sensation, imagination, perception, reasoning, voluntary movement, instinct, the emotions, will, and hypnotism; will, the conscious process that directs voluntary movements, proved to be an organizing theme for James's `Principles'. The so-called James-Lange theory of emotion was also included in the book; this theory postulated that emotional feelings follow bodily arousal and despite some inaccuracies, it had practical applications: to the degree that we control a physiological response to a stimulus, we govern the associated emotion.
His book was not a finished system, nor did it offer absolutely certain conclusions it was full of `productive paradoxes' which often left open the kernel of a problem for others to work on.

James's Influence on Psychology
Apart from his `Varieties of Religious Experience' (1902), which explored the relationships between religious experience and `abnormal' psychology, James's psychological writings after 1890 were abridgments and popularizations of what he had already said in his `Principles of Psychology'. In 1894 he was the first American to call favourable attention to the recent work of relatively obscure Viennese physician, Sigmund Freud. But he did no more original thinking in psychology itself, confining his creative efforts to philosophy, where he promulgated the doctrines of pragmatism and radical empiricism, which extended his notion that ideas should be evaluated for the their utility rather than for some illusory absolute truth. This work was influential enough that at his death in 1910 James was called `the most famous American philosopher since Emerson'.
Despite his relatively brief tenure as a psychologist, James's impact on the discipline was enormous; but rather than expounding a theory, he provided a point of view that captured the imagination of psychologists, especially in America. He directly inspired the movement there known as functionalism, which flourished during the early years of the 20th century and which focused on the operational rather than on the elemental character of the mind. From this point of view, individual differences in psychological characteristics were very important, because they determined how well or poorly different people could adapt to their environments. In 1903 he received an honorary degree from Harvard and was publicly proclaimed by President Eliot `Psychologist, physical researcher, willer-to-believe, religious experiencer'. His suggested applications of psychological principles to teaching became the core of educational psychology. In 1909 he was also an executive committee member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene and was largely responsible for getting the Rockfeller Foundation and similar groups to allocate millions of dollars to the mental hygiene movement, the development of mental hospitals, and the training of mental health professionals. Perhaps most important of all, James transformed psychology, this `nasty little subject', this `hope for science', from a somewhat abstract science into a discipline that spoke directly to personal interests and concerns.
(Biography by Ekaterina Roubina, Winter 1996)

Born New York City Jan. 11, 1842 as the eldest in a family of 4 sons and 1 daughter, James' religiously orthodox and aggressively acquisitive (Irish immigrant) Grandfather had become a leading citizen of the state of New York and a millionaire several times over. James father Henry inherited neither the church going Calvinism nor the interest in finance much to his father's disappointment. Henry was a profoundly introspective and religious man that, after several career mis-starts, settled into a life of a professional academic.
After his father's death and the eventual breaking of his Last Will, Henry was at last able to incur sufficient income for a life of study and writing. This also provided him the opportunity to experiment with his children's education. Henry James frequently changed his children's schools or tutors as he swept from one city to another in both the US and Europe. This was obviously a stimulating situation for the children to be brought up in and resulted with their cosmopolitan character. On the other hand, this kind of situation could have resulted with instability and alienation in their lives. Thus we find that the situation incurred a heavy dependence of William on his father Henry in spite of their differences in outlook and religious conviction. This dependency played a role in seriously prolonging his childhood and effecting his writing.
William began his career interests as a promising artist. The choice to do so was particularly difficult as he was talented in both the creative arts as well as science. Some biographers claim that it was the inconsistent family life of always being on the move, his father's educational experiments, a strong need to develop his own identity, and so on that lead to his struggle for a career decision, while, on the other hand, his inability to be decisive and may have had something to do with his subsequent ill health.
James thus decided at 18 to become a painter but less than a year later he changed his mind and never again used his talent in any serious way. Instead, the next fall he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard College to study chemistry and then comparative anatomy, a pre-medicine course of study.
The motives of this abrupt change in mind as to his career has been the subject of considerable speculation. Some think it may have been due to his ill health--eye trouble experienced as student artist. Other considerations may have played a role--his instructor informing him of the impossibility at that time of making a career in N. America as a painter.
Others, however, suggest that it was James's father that convinced him to enter into science. His father, it is well known, had strong preference for science. Also after James had begun his artistic studies his father had attacks of fainting spells and predicted that he would soon be dead. In a family that is said to have practiced "manipulative invalidism" (...) such a maneuver would finally succeed in causing James to turn to science. Yet James the painter is said to have lived on--filled with violent anger which expressed itself in recurrent physical symptoms of illness. In fact James, at one point, equated the rejection of a career under way with a murdering of the self.
In any event his time at Cambridge was the first that he had spent away from his parents for more than a few days at a time. After 3 terms at Harvard, his poor health forced him to return home for half a year, during which time he read widely in science, philosophy and literature. His return to the scientific school in 1863, came with a shift of program from chemistry to comparative anatomy. A still later shift to medicine was yet to come. This choice came only after months of indecision between considerations of practicality and interest. He decided to enter medicine as it allowed him to continue to pursue his interest in the human body and that it may have appealed to a psychological state he was in at the time (depressive?).
James studied medicine between 1863 and 1869. His studies were interrupted twice--once for a trip to the Amazon collecting samples (he was discouraged by this work and the harsh conditions, etc.) and another time when he went to Germany to study physiology.
His trip to Germany followed a winter of suffering due to eye trouble, digestive disorders, insomnia, painful back weakness, and profound depression. He at last decided that he might find relief in the mineral baths of Germany (a popular medical misconception of that time). Although physically incapable of doing laboratory work, he read extensively the German writings on the nervous system and psychology as well as philosophy and literature. The outcome of these months of reading and writing was a liberal education that he could not have received at Harvard college.
James did not see his time spent as such, and returned to Cambridge weary and discouraged. He then prepared for his medical school examination which he passed without difficulty in 1869. But he turned his back on what others thought was a promising career. The practice of medicine seemed to James to be a dead end.
During the time of invalidism in his parent's home, following is trip to Germany, James took extensive notes on a large number of books--physiology, neurology, psychology and philosophy, as well as German, French and English literature. Underneath the surface of quiet preoccupation, we sense a man who is concerned with a profound melancholy and helplessness that was convinced that he was incapable of any kind of affectionate relationship.
He later had a brush with insanity that he barely escaped (p 472) by turning to scripture texts. This experience was included in his Varieties and credited to an anonymous source. He recounts that one day at twilight, while in a state of "philosophical pessimism and general depression..." he was suddenly overcome by a fear for his existence. This feeling of terror, he writes, was accompanied by the mummy-like image of an idiotic and totally withdrawn epileptic youth whom James had seen in an asylum. He felt such a state could in an instant be his own.
It was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since...[The experience] gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.
The texts he turned to that helped him escape insanity were ones like "the eternal god is my refuge' and 'I am the resurrection and the life.' etc. During this time he also found solace in the writings of the French Philosopher Charles Renouvire and the British psychologist Alexander Bain. From Renouvier he obtained a definition of free will that he thought he could provisionally accept: "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts." (NB the basis of the pragmatic theory of truth). Thus like his father, who had undergone a similar experience, he found relief in a new intellectual understanding.
This spiritual crisis has prompted much theorization of its causes--ranging from physical to psychological factors and to cultural and philosophical ones. Much has been written on his depression and its effects on his resulting philosophy and psychology.
In 1872 he received an appointment at Harvard college which provided him the time to study his insights from the illness, that would preoccupy him for the rest of his years. This illness is said to have also "gave [him] a personal intimacy and intensity to the deepest problems that philosophy and religion can present to man's understanding."
He viewed his appointment in physiology as a helpful diversion from his introspective studies which he said bred in him a kind of philosophical hypochondria. At the same time he was having doubts of the scientific method, and came to the opinion that physiology did not provide the key to psychic states. To the contrary, his own experience had taught him that the mind could be approached directly through self-observation. Thus he began on the road to the study of psychology and philosophy--the two fields in which he was to make his most lasting contributions.
In 1878, shortly before his marriage, James was contracted to write The Principles of Psychology, a monumental, two volume work that is still described today as the most provocative and at the same time most intelligible books on psychology that has been published in any language. Ironically this 1400 page work--12 years in the making--marked the end of psychology's domination in his life. Transferred to the philosophy department in 1880, he increasingly gave his attention to philosophical questions, to the pragmatism and radical empiricism that were to be his contribution to American philosophy.
Behind all of his academic interests and titles, it seems that religion was his all prevailing interest. Interestingly enough, no matter how pervasively his religious interests were, they remained unusually muted in his works. To James the interest was in the "personal religious experience" and he considered it to have its "roots and centre in mystical states of consciousness"; yet his own constitution, he adds, "shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely." The contempt that Henry James had for any institution ensured that William would have no official church association. Even though James did, as a Harvard professor, regularly attend morning chapel services, he otherwise found himself incapable of any other ordinary form of piety. To James prayer seemed foolish, yet he wrote in the Varieties that prayer was "the very souls an essence of religion." The bible had no personal authority to him; and even though he was open to the possibility of personal immortality, he never keenly believed in it.
To James the religious impulse consists of, it seems, a sympathetic response to the cumulative testimony of other's experiences. His own mystical seed, undeterred by rational criticism, compelled him to recognize in these accounts lies truth. He became famous and was criticized for his openness to whatever phenomena that came his way however much it clashed with medical and scientific orthodoxy. In fact the type of experience that, in less critical minds, inspires such an affirmation of the other world was not entirely foreign to James. There is a description of another mystical experience in James's life. One July evening in 1898, James, while on a camping trip with friends in the Adirondack mountains, found himself in a state of "spiritual alertness." He spent the evening wandering through the moon-lit woods experiencing a ferment of "tumultuous mixture of impressions and memories: of magically illuminated nature, of his wholesome companions and beloved family..." It seemed to him "a regular Walpurgis Nacht"--a discordant meeting within himself of the "Gods of all the nature-mythologies" and "the moral Gods of the inner life." It was an experience that he was never able to capture in words and thus ever remained as a "boulder of impressions" and was remembered as one of the happiest nights of his life.
The immediate reason for writing Varieties was provided by am invitation to give the Grifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh. What James did in these lectures is characteristic of his own life and interests. James maintains that the understanding of another's perspective requires familiarity with that individual's personal life. This seems to be a special rule for James as the key to his influence is said to lie in his personality rather than his expounded principles, his distinctions or the few hypotheses he proposed.
After this religious experience, he suffered a period of invalidity before and during his trip to Europe for the Grifford lectures. During this time he continued to read religious biographies. His illness, however, cause a double postponement of these lectures and it was not until 1900 that he began writing them and even then the progress was agonizingly slow.
The task he set himself would not have been easy even under ideal circumstances. He wanted to [1] defend experienced against philosophy as being the backbone of the world's religious life and [2] to make the hearer and reader believe, that, although the specific manifestations of religion may have been absurd (creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind's most important function. To James it was his religious act even if he recognized the inherent impossibility of the task.
In spite of his writing style, his self-deprecatory comments, and wishy-washiness of generalizations the Varieties was an unqualified success. In the first year the lectures were attended by 300 persons each day, in the second year attendance swelled to 400. The book itself was immediately so popular that there was a need of half a dozen reprintings in the first year alone; it is still being printed today.
The Varieties is called quintessentially James in many respects--emphasis on individuality and feeling, sympathetic understanding of human suffering and eccentricity, and predominance of vivid fact over abstract formulation. Yet it contains little of his philosophy which he is said to have given the last decade of his life to. He died after a few years of retirement in August 26, 1910.