William James was the oldest son of the antiecclesiastical Swedenborgian mystic and theologian Henry James, Sr., and the elder brother of the novelist Henry James. In keeping with their father’s theories of education and life, the brothers had a similar upbringing: irregular schooling in America and Europe, extensive travel, and parental encouragement to follow their own interests in art and science.
In 1865, after a brief study of art under William M. Hunt and an interrupted period of training at the Harvard Medical School, William James accompanied the great Louis Agassiz on the Thayer zoological expedition to explore the reaches of the Amazon River. Poor health caused him to return to Boston and to resume his medical studies before going to Germany in 1867, where he worked with Hermann Helmholtz and Rudolf Virchow. In 1869, James took his medical degree at Harvard, but continuing illness prevented his beginning a practice. As a semi-invalid in his father’s house, he experienced a terrific mental turmoil that ended with his decision, influenced by reading Charles-Bernard Renouvier, that his “first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” From his abandonment of all determinisms and his embracing of an “open” rather than a “blocked” universe stem all his later discoveries in psychology and philosophy.
From 1872 to 1876, James taught physiology and anatomy at Harvard University. From that time on, his interest shifted gradually to physiological psychology and psychological philosophy, which occupied him throughout the rest of his career at Harvard. In...
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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.”
Cooper, Wesley. The Unity of William James’s Thought. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Argues that a systematic philosophy can be found in James’s writings. Provides a two-level approach to his philosophical system: the metaphysical level of pure experience and the empirical level of science and everyday life.
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...
(The entire section is 501 words.)