JAMES, William

Born: January 11, 1842, in New York City, New York, United States

Died: August 26, 1910 in Chocorua, New Hampshire, United States

William James is considered a pioneer of pragmatism and radical empiricism. His work has had an enormous influence in the fields of psychology and philosophy, and he is also personally remembered for his warmth, wisdom and "spiritual generosity."

He was born into what was to become known as the "Great James family," as the eldest of five children. His father, Henry James (Sr.) was well- connected in the intellectual world; among the visitors to William's nursery were Emerson and Thackeray. Henry James Sr. was known to be passionately devoted to his family, and the strength of his religious dedication, if not his actual beliefs (he was a Swedenborgian theologian), was to later show its influence on his eldest son. His mother Mary Walsh James also gave birth to Alice James, Robertson James, Garth (Wilky) Wilkinson James, and Henry James (Jr.), later to be known as one of America's most famous novelists.

As Henry once wrote, they were almost "hotel children," moving from place to place both within the States and abroad. He attended school and was tutored in England, France, Switzerland and Germany as well as in the United States. His father encouraged his early talent in painting, allowing him to study with William M. Hunt, but later planned for James' scientific education.

Despite his artistic yearnings, James thus dutifully attended the Lawrence Scientific School and Harvard medical school, graduating in 1969. It is thought, however, that the depression and various somatic symptoms he experienced for some years around this time were due to his uncertainty regarding this medical vocation. In his later book The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, James revealed his deep understanding for similar suffering in others. Writing of what he later admitted was his own identification with an epileptic in an asylum, he noted that "Nothing that I possess can defend me from that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him... [the whole thing] made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others." This sympathetic understanding of the beliefs as well as the experiences of others makes the book and its depiction of religious experiences relevant to this day.

He began teaching at Harvard in 1873, and in the upcoming years he was to also teach and lecture at Stanford, Columbia and Oxford. At age thirty-six he married Alice Gibbons, with whom he had four children who lived to adulthood, as well as one who died in childhood. His first important text, Principles of Psychology, was completed two years later. During this time James also began teaching philosophy while continuing to write. His openness and willingness to explore new ideas and areas is reflected in both the style and content of his texts; some of the appeal of Varieties is the sense that James is at the same time a clever skeptic and religious enthusiast.

James' pluralism is also evident in the sheer breadth of his scholarly studies; over time he wrote and lectured on anatomy, physiology, psychology, and philosophy, as well as paranormal psychology. His interest in psychical research was undertaken, according to biographers, with "unusual delight, hospitality and enjoyment." In addition to the many books and lectures, James left behind volumes of letters, now published, written to family members and such noted individuals as naturalist Louis Agassiz, with whom he had undertaken a Brazilian exploring expedition in his youth. The work accomplished by James before his death in 1910 served to stimulate new thought and form a great influence on the scholars who followed him.