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Psychologist Theorist: William James

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William James was a philosopher and psychologist but was most well known in the field of Psychology for developing the philosophy of pragmatism, or the Functionalist theory: "Theory of mental life and behavior that is concerned with how an organism uses its perceptual abilities to function in its environment." He was also the first Psychologist to be born in America. William James was born on January 11, 1842 in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr

was a Swednborgian theologian, and one of his brothers was the great novelist Henry James. Throughout his youth, William attended private schools in the United States and Europe.

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James's book, Principles of Psychology, has had far reaching impacts on the field of psychology. The massive 1200 page book was published in two separate volumes, and took more than a decade to complete. Two years after its publication, an abridged version, Psychology: The Briefer Course, was released. In these books, James defined beliefs as those ideals that serve a purpose to the believer. He developed a theory of truth that states that a truth is legitimate if the statements are in line with theories or things, but the truth must also fit cohesively together in order to be considered verifiable. In collaboration with Carle Lange, James developed the James-Lange theory of emotion. This theory argues that emotions are physiological reactions. When people experience an event, the event causes physiological changes, and these changes act as cues for emotion. For example, the body of a person in danger initiates the fight or flight reaction, which elevates heart rate and blood pressure

The person then feels afraid based upon these physiological experiences. James remains a widely read philosopher, and his theories on pragmatism have contributed both to the field of psychology and philosophy. According to James's pragmatism, the value of an idea is dependent upon its usefulness in the practical world rather than its absolute truth.

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William James was an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology, psychology and philosophy. His twelve-hundred page masterwork, The Principles of Psychology (1890), is a rich blend of physiology, psychology, philosophy, and personal reflection that has given us such ideas as “the stream of thought” and the baby’s impression of the world “as one great blooming, buzzing confusion” (PP 462). It contains seeds of pragmatism and phenomenology, and influenced generations of thinkers in Europe and America, including Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. James studied at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School and the School of Medicine, but his writings were from the outset as much philosophical as scientific. “Some Remarks on Spencer’s Notion of Mind as Correspondence” (1878) and “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1879, 1882) presage his future pragmatism and pluralism, and contain the first statements of his view that philosophical theories are reflections of a philosopher’s temperament. In 1878, James agreed to write a psychology textbook for the American publisher Henry Holt, but it took him twelve years to produce the manuscript, and when he did he described it to Holt as “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is an incapable” (The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James

(Boston: Little, Brown, 1926, pp. 393–4). Nevertheless, this thousand page volume of psychology, physiology and philosophy has proved to be James’s masterwork, containing early statements of his main philosophical ideas in extraordinarily rich chapters.

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In the final analysis, the decision carried with it the abandonment of all determinisms—both the scientific kind that his training had established for him and that seems to have had some relation to his neurosis and the theological, metaphysical kind that he later opposed in the notion of “the block universe.” His revolutionary discoveries in psychology and philosophy, his views concerning the methods of science, the qualities of human beings, and the nature of reality all seem to have received a definite propulsion from this resolution of his poignant personal problem.

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Essays in Philosophy. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1978 [E].

Some Problems of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1979. Originally published in 1911.

The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, Boston: Little Brown, 1926.

The Correspondence of William James, ed. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, 12 volumes. Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 1992–.

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