Article abstract: Seeking to reconcile a deep commitment to scientific thought with man’s emotional nature and longing for some kind of religious faith, James helped create and popularize the modern science of psychology and the uniquely American approach to philosophy called pragmatism.
William James was born on January 11, 1842, the eldest son of Henry and Mary (Walsh) James. His parents, who were of Scotch and Scotch-Irish ancestry, had four other children and provided one of the most remarkable home environments on record. There is little doubt that his childhood as part of this unusual family was instrumental in creating William James, the psychologist and philosopher, just as it helped mold his bother Henry, the equally famous American novelist.
Henry James, Sr., was a restless, perhaps even tortured intellectual with a religious bent, able to pursue his own private quest for truth because of a small inheritance. His family naturally became part of his search, and conversation around the Jameses’ dining table was more like a philosophical seminar than typical family chatter. The children were encouraged to think and to question and even defend their ideas under the watchful eyes of their parents. Education was considered too important to be left to chance. Henry, Sr., moved his family from the United States to Europe and back again several times, enrolling his children in numerous schools in an attempt to find the perfect atmosphere for learning. This varied and unsettled experience gave both William and his brother Henry an excellent command of languages and the basics of a liberal education without providing in-depth knowledge in any particular area. The gypsylike introduction to the academic world and family debates did provide, however, a healthy respect for diversity and a tolerance for other opinions, including sometimes very strange ones, that marked William James throughout his life.
As a youth, James was of slight to medium build with blue eyes and a less-than-robust constitution. Gradually, the determination to overcome his tendency toward physical and emotional illness became an important undercurrent in his celebrated attitude toward life. If by the force of will a sickly, neurotic youth could transform himself into a dynamic professor with an iron-gray beard, who seemed to his students perpetually engaged in productive thought, then others were also free to make such transformations. His mature outlook was open and optimistic, and his personality, dominated by humor and tolerance, made him almost impossible to dislike. His students treated him with near worship, and his many friends and acquaintances in the intellectual community of the world, even when they disagreed violently with his ideas, loved the man himself. Yet the surface of this congenial thinker hid a storm raging beneath.
Life as part of the James family had been challenging, but it had not produced happiness. As a young man, William James continually struggled with bouts of emotional illness that at times necessitated an almost total retreat from the active world. At the center of the problem was the inability to reconcile his growing commitment to the rationalistic, scientific outlook of his age with the deep religious faith of his father. The elder James, who had rejected established religion as a young man, had been introduced to the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg when William was two years old. Though Henry James, Sr., was never able to become a strict follower of the Swedish theologian, he constructed his own system of belief that became a necessary spiritual consolation. His son could never accept his father’s simplistic faith, yet he always respected it and sometimes seemed to long for the certainty it provided. He later paid homage to his father’s ideas when he published some of the elder James’s letters in The Literary Remains of Henry James (1885).
The inability to please his father even haunted James’s choice of vocation. When William was eighteen, the family had moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he could study art with William M. Hunt. His father had not been happy with this choice, but he was even less happy when his eldest son abandoned art a year later and entered the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. This decision, however, was a significant turning point. Not only did it begin a lifelong connection between William James and Harvard but it also began the gradual development of his personality beyond the influence of his family. The process would be difficult and never complete, but it was well on its way when the young man gravitated almost naturally toward medical school at Harvard. His studies were interrupted for a year in order to accompany the famous anthropologist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon, but James still received his M.D. in June, 1869.
Too unstable emotionally to begin a medical practice, he remained in a state of semi-invalidism until he was appointed instructor in physiology at Harvard, in 1872. Characteristically, James believed that the conquest of his emotional problem was made possible by a philosophical conversion. While in Europe during a phase of his medical education, he had been introduced to the ideas of the French philosopher Charles Renouvier, whose stress on free will helped James reject the paralyzing fear of determinism. James’s struggle for personal independence would reach a climax of sorts with his marriage to Alice H. Gibbens of Cambridge, Massachusetts. By all accounts, the union was a happy one and eventually produced five children. More important, however, the establishment of his own family at the advanced age of thirty-six coincided with the beginning of his productive career.
In the same year as his marriage, James agreed to a contract with Henry Holt and Company for the publication of a textbook on psychology. The agreement was, in part, recognition of his growing influence in an area of study that was undergoing transformation from a kind of mental philosophy into a laboratory science. During his European travels James had been influenced by the experimental approach to psychology current in Germany, and he taught his first course in psychology in 1875. His approach was revolutionary. Rather than the vague, often theological,...