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, William 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, William 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.
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 William a position as an instructor. While he famously commented that “the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave,” William accepted the job and went on to teach at Harvard for the next 35 years. He also founded one of the first experimental 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, William published a condensed version of the work titled Psychology: The Briefer Course.
William wrote considerably on the concept of pragmatism. According to pragmatism, the truth of an idea can never be proven. He proposed we instead focus on what he called the “cash value,” or usefulness, of an idea.
William opposed the structuralism 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 William James and the Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently proposed the theory.
“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.”
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”
“Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.”
“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”
“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
“Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”
“Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.”
“If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.”
“If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.”
“If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.”
“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.”
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
“Let everything you do be done as if it makes a difference.”
“Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.”
“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”
“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”