William James Biography (1842-1910)

An image of William James
William James (left) with Josiah Royce, 1903. Public Domain / Margaret Mary James / Wikimedia Commons

William James was a psychologist and philosopher who had a major influence on the development of psychology in the United States. He was the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S. and is often referred to as the father of American psychology. He is also known for contributing to functionalism, one of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. His book The Principles of Psychology is considered one of the most classic and influential in psychology's history.

He was also the brother the noted writer Henry James and diarist Alice James.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
--William James

Best Known For:

Early Life

William James was born into an affluent family. His father was deeply interested in philosophy and theology and strove to provide his children with a rich education.

The James children traveled to Europe frequently, attended the best possible schools, and were immersed in culture and art, which apparently paid off - William James went on to become one of the most important figures in psychology while brother Henry James became one of the most acclaimed American novelists.

Early in school, James expressed an interest in becoming a painter. While Henry James Sr. was known as an unusually permissive and liberal father, he wanted William to study science or philosophy.

Only after William persisted in his interest did Henry permit his son to formally study painting.

After studying painting with the artist William Morris Hunt for more than a year, James abandoned his dream of being a painter and enrolled at Harvard to study chemistry. While two of James' brothers enlisted to serve in the American Civil War, William and Henry did not due to health problems.

Timeline of Events

  • Born January 11, 1842 in New York City.
  • 1869 - Received M.D. from Harvard.
  • 1875 - Began teaching psychology at Harvard.
  • 1882 - Death of William's father, Henry James Sr.
  • 1890 - Published The Principles of Psychology.
  • 1892 - Turned lab over to Hugo Munsterberg.
  • 1897 - Published Will to Believe and Other Essays
  • 1907 - Published Pragmatism and officially resigned from Harvard.
  • Died August 26, 1910 at the age of 68.


As the family money began to dwindle, William realized he would need to support himself and switched to Harvard Medical School. Unhappy with medicine as well, he left on an expedition with naturalist Louis Agassiz, although the experience was not a happy one. "I was, body and soul, in a more indescribably hopeless, homeless and friendless state than I ever want to be in again," he later wrote.

Suffering from health problems and severe depression, James spent the next two years in France and Germany. It was during this time that he studied with Hermann von Helmholtz and became increasingly interested in psychology.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1869, James continued to sink into depression. After a period of inactivity, the president of Harvard offered James a position as an instructor. While he famously commented that "the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave," James accepted the job and went on to teach at Harvard for the next 35 years. James also founded one of the first psychology laboratories in the United States.

His classic textbook The Principles of Psychology (1890) was widely acclaimed, but some were critical of James' personal, literary tone. "It is literature," psychologist Wilhelm Wundt famously commented, "it is beautiful, but it is not psychology." Two years later, James published a condensed version of the work titled Psychology: The Briefer Course. The two books were widely used by students of psychology and were known to most as "the James" and "the Jimmy" respectively.

William James - Theory

  • Pragmatism
    James wrote considerably on the concept of pragmatism. According to pragmatism, the truth of an idea can never be proven. James proposed we instead focus on what he called the "cash value," or usefulness, of an idea.
  • Functionalism
    James opposed the structuralist focus on introspection and breaking down mental events to the smallest elements. Instead, James focused on the wholeness of an event, taking into the impact of the environment on behavior.
  • James-Lange Theory of Emotion
    The James-Lange theory of emotion proposes that an event triggers a physiological reaction, which we then interpret. According to this theory, emotions are caused by our interpretations of these physiological reactions. Both James and the Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently proposed the theory.

His Influence on Psychology

In addition to his enormous influence, many of James' students went on to have prosperous and influential careers in psychology. Some of James' students included Mary Whiton Calkins, Edward Thorndike, G. Stanley Hall and John Dewey.

Selected Works by William James

  • James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. Classics in the History of Psychology, an internet resource developed by Christopher D. Green of York University, Toronto, Ontario.
  • James, W. (1897). The Will to Believe.
  • James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co.

Biographies of William James

  • Myers, G. (2001). William James: His Life and Thought. Yale University Press.
  • Simon, L. (1999). Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. University Of Chicago Press.

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