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This textbook marked an important transition from mental philosophy to scientific psychology and from a narrow focus on the structure of consciousness to the psychological study of the purpose and processes of human functioning. At the time of its publication in 1890, the idea from associationistic philosophy that complex thought results from the mechanical compounding of correlated sensations was still the prevailing assumption of experimental psychologists. These psychologists used their own introspections to attempt the dissection of conscious experience into its elements.

William James was influenced by strands of thought outside this tradition. Influencing James’s psychological viewpoint were naturalist Charles Darwin and his ideas about adaptive evolutionary change, philosophical pragmatism with its notion that all theories should be judged by their practical usefulness, and a scattering of German psychologists, called “act psychologists,” who viewed psychology as the study of psychological processes. James therefore posited a more practical, more dynamic view of a human being pulsating with change, actively selecting the relevant from the world of experience, and combining this experience in adaptive ways. These themes were soon to become the dominant approach in early twentieth century American psychology, which was called “functional.” Themes from James continue to reverberate throughout psychological thinking into the twenty-first century.

Antecedents of Mental Life

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James defines psychology as the science of mental life, both its phenomena and its conditions. By phenomena, James means such human characteristics as consciousness, the self, desires, habits, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. By conditions, James refers to all the antecedents of this mental life. Such antecedents include innate predispositions, the brain, and associations formed from experience.

The antecedent innate predispositions James called instincts. James cited some forty such built-in tendencies to direct activity to certain classes of goals. His list of instincts included the entire gamut of human motives, from fear, pugnacity, and acquisitiveness to sympathy, sociability, and curiosity. The actual expression of each of these directional tendencies becomes greatly modified by experience. One can learn indirect methods of expressing each tendency, or even learn to inhibit the tendency completely in most situations. Since such instincts as curiosity and fear inevitably conflict with each other, inhibition is inevitable. Through associative learning, instincts become linked to specific objects as well. We learn to crave specific foods and to love specific people.

Experience also plays an antecedent role in forming mental associations between ideas that frequently occur together—”horse and carriage,” for example. Associations are also formed based upon the logical similarities between ideas. The association between an apple and a banana, both classifiable as fruit, is such a logical relationship. Each of these types of similarities is reflected in corresponding links in underlying brain processes. The brain, James speculates, involves several levels of linkage, with simple associations, such as reflexes and habits, linked at lower levels of the brain. The more abstract, logical associations are reflected in “diffuse excitement” in the higher brain centers of the cerebrum. James is most specific about underlying physiological processes in his discussion of emotion. He is emphatic that the underlying physiological reaction comes before the emotional feeling that interprets this process. In the words of James, “We do not shudder because we are afraid; we are afraid because we shudder.”


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Phenomena, as studied by psychologists, include consciousness, the self, and habits. Consciousness consists of dynamic and ever-changing mental activity. A moment in this ever-changing stream of consciousness never returns again in exactly the same fashion. Consciousness is continuous. The consciousness of any given moment is linked with relevant memories from the past and intentions for the future. Consciousness is personal. The conscious memories of each of us are endowed with a warmth and intimacy that eludes a simple acquaintance with objective events. It is my consciousness. My thoughts are owned by me. Consciousness is selective. The consciousness of each of us selects from the confused world of events and memories the information most relevant to our concerns and interests. Although much of our conscious experience can be put into words, parts of this experience are too complex or too unique to label. Like every aspect of organisms, consciousness has adaptive significance. It permits a flexible response to new challenges and problems.

The Self

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Part of our conscious experience reflects our strongest personal involvements and is endowed with special meaning and value. This part James calls the self. The self includes all that a person can call “my.” It includes one’s family, friends, cherished possessions, the “material self.” It includes one’s significant interactions with others and the roles played in such interactions, the “social self.” It includes one’s central and most valued characteristics, sensibilities, and values, the “spiritual self.” It includes the feeling of identity that gives unity to our experience, the “pure ego.” Aside from our actual self, each of us carries around a picture of ourselves as we would like to be, the “ideal self.” How close each person is to his or her ideal self influences self-esteem—or, in the famous equation of James, esteem reflects one’s success divided by one’s pretensions. James notes that competition between the various social selves may force us to pick and choose. Each person’s self is unique. This uniqueness has sometimes been given transcendent importance by the older religious term, the “soul.”

Other aspects of human functioning may lie outside conscious awareness. For example, habits are automatic, learned reactions made to frequently recurring situations. Habits are established by the refinement of sensory-motor arcs in the nervous system and become more precise and refined with practice. Habits become more firmly established with age. They serve as a powerful conservative force that keeps society operating in its accustomed way, the “great fly wheel of society.” They allow a quick, adaptive response to recurring situations, making it possible for us to save conscious thought for new situations and special challenges.

Consciousness operates upon the environment by the processes of selective attention, perception, concept formation, and reasoning. In each of these operations, the individual is viewed as actively responding to the environment rather than passively receiving messages from it. By attention is meant the selective focusing of consciousness to become alerted to only part of thousands of bombarding stimuli. Intense, exciting, and vivid stimuli are likely to be noticed. Stimulus objects in line with the individual’s expectations and interests are also more likely to compel attention. James uses the term “will” to suggest the sustaining of attention on a single idea, one reflecting the self perhaps, suppressing conflicting instinctual pressures in order to complete a sequence of activity.


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The sensory information once awarded attention must then be perceived. Although every experience is essentially new, we deal with each new experience by identifying it with memory images of similar objects and events in the past. Objects seen only partially or dimly, once identified, are endowed with solidity and wholeness. The object must also be placed into a context of space and time. We automatically see objects at a distance from us, assigning them places in space. Spatial concepts are developed in each of us by first localizing sensations felt by the body, learning something about the “real” sizes of objects, and thereafter seeing such familiar objects at given distances and directions from us. Events must also be placed in time or else each episode would become like “the light of the glow worm and quickly fade away.” Our orientation to periods of time such as months and years is dependent upon our placing in symbolic memory a sequence of key episodes as markers. Into this sequence we place individual events.

A final perceptual task is separating the real from illusion and fantasy. James suggests that we accept as real all that is not contradicted by an overwhelming preponderance of information. We accept as real the physical reality of our senses, certain shared abstract truths, the beliefs of our culture, beliefs about the supernatural world, and certain convictions that relate to one’s particular self.

Perceived images then enter the stream of consciousness. Many of the loose associations of reverie are based upon simple contiguity and repetition. An ordered conceptual system results from comparing objects and combining them within systems of useful similarities. Domesticated animals that bark we may denote as dogs. The essence of the similar property can be understood only by differentiating the concept from similar objects that are just enough different no longer to be included. That animal makes doglike sounds but is not domesticated; it is a jackal.


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Reasoning involves the further requirement that we come up with precisely the association that solves a particular problem. Of all the associations we can dredge up, we must locate the one that fits. Abstract thinking involves the use of labels that fit a large number of individual objects that are particularly useful in reasoning because they make available to the reasoner more possible solutions. James notes how often the more creative levels of reasoning seem to involve an intuitive process.


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Memory is also dependent upon these associative links. We remember material best when many such links have been formed, when our interest in the material is high, and when we can direct our attention in a systematic search for associations. Strong links are sometimes formed with the conditions under which the material was originally stored. Material learned under hypnosis, for example, can sometimes be retrieved only when the subject is in a hypnotized state.

Legacy for Contemporary Psychology

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James’s assumptions about the broad nature of psychological science, more than those expressed in any other work of the time, fit contemporary views. James assumed that developmental processes involve an interaction of nature and nurture. Almost all contemporary developmental psychologists hold this view, with little support for the alternative empirical view that the environment molds all. James maintained that brain processes reflect psychological experience at many levels, with abstract thought reflecting diffuse excitement of the higher brain centers. This view has been supported by a century of research. Little support for the alternative view of specific thoughts localized in specific brain areas remains. A decade before Sigmund Freud, James hypothesized that important behavioral tendencies and certain states of consciousness lie outside self-awareness. Few contemporary psychologists question the validity of an unconscious so broadly construed. James’s emphasis upon the selective nature of attention and the importance of personal factors in perception were given a new importance in the psychology of the late twentieth century when the “cognitive revolution” once again made the study of such mental processes scientifically respectable. James never saw a computer, but much of what he said about conceptualization and reasoning is quite compatible with modern computer models of these processes.

The Principles of Psychology anticipates the framework of assumptions underlying scientific psychology. It also contains the germ of many ideas that were later to become implemented in specific traditions of practice and research. James’s characterization of the self has been particularly influential. The importance of self-validation and the treatment of wounded self-esteem became the central objectives of the humanistic psychotherapy of Carl Rogers. The proposition that “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him” has become the very cornerstone of contemporary social psychology. Research on possible selves, on self-attribution, on strategies of self-enhancement proceeds apace. Like James’s description of habit and of consciousness, James’s characterization of the self is still quoted word for word in contemporary psychology texts. To this day, no one has said it better.


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Additional Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This reliable and readable biography situates James in his social and historical context.

Bauerlein, Mark. The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A helpful treatment of James’s views about the relationships among belief, consciousness, the human will, and knowledge, and claims about truth.

Brown, Hunter. William James on Radical Empiricism and Religion. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000. A study that argues for the consistency of James’s philosophy of radical empiricism and his examination of religious experience in “The Will to Believe.”

Cotkin, George. William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Cotkin explores the social and political context in which James worked and draws out James’s contributions to the important debates of his day as well as the lasting implications of his work.

Croce, Paul Jerome. Science and Religion in the Era of William James. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Assess how debates about science and religion informed James’s philosophy.

Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A well-written, carefully researched, comprehensive study of James’s life and thought.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996. A reprint of a classic by a well-respected philosopher, this book contains valuable information about James’s life and work.

Putnam, Ruth Anna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Significant essays by well-qualified James scholars interpret and assess a wide range of topics and problems in his philosophy and psychology.

Roth, John K. Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1969. Focuses on key themes in James’s moral philosophy and evaluates the significance of James’s ethics.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. An important interpreter of James’s philosophy appraises continuities and discontinuities between American pragmatism and feminist theory.

Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998. A worthwhile account of James’s life and his pioneering work in psychology and philosophy.

Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. Heaven’s Champion: William James’s Philosophy of Religion. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. A study of the themes and lasting significance of James’s philosophy and its emphasis on religion.

Taylor, Eugene. William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Explores James’s interests in and theories about human consciousness, psychology, religious experience, and other forms of experience.

Wild, John. The Radical Empiricism of William James. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Shows how James’s psychology and pragmatism relate to European phenomenology and existentialism.