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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

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...

(The entire section contains 2368 words.)

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