Who was William James And How Did He Influence The Field of Psychology?

Key Takeaways

  • William James (1842 – 1910) was a leading figure in psychology and philosophy at the turn of the 19th century, whose contributions laid the groundwork for many modern philosophers and behavioral psychologists.
  • James’ two main schools of thought, pragmatism, and functionalism, shape his theories on the world and his mission to seek out behaviors’ practical value and function.
  • According to pragmatism, the truth of an idea can never be proven. James proposed we instead focus on what he called the “cash value,” or usefulness, of an idea.
  • According to functionalism, mental activity (e.g., perception, memory, feeling) is to be evaluated in terms of how it serves the organism in adapting to its environment.
  • James also made notable contributions beyond pragmatism and functionalism, namely the James-Lange theory of emotion and the theory of self.
  • In addition to being a theorist and publishing many books, James was also a highly-esteemed professor at Harvard University and was the first to teach a psychology course in the United States.
Functionalism and a magnifying glass on English word Functionalism to symbolize studying, examining or searching for an explanation and answers related to a concept of Functionalism

William James is often called the father of American psychology. He contributed significantly by founding the school of functionalism, focusing on how mental activities help individuals adapt to their environment.

He also wrote The Principles of Psychology, a foundational text in the field. His Theory of Self concept and pragmatic approach to psychology has had long-lasting influences.


Early Life William James was born in New York City as the oldest of Henry James and Mary Walsh’s five children (Goodman, 2009).

As a child, he traveled to Europe multiple times with his parents, paving the way for 13 more journeys throughout the course of his life and leading to his fluency in both German and French (Nubiola, 2011).

In 1858, his family settled in Newport, Rhode Island, where James began to serve as an artistic apprentice in the studio of William Morris Hunt.

He quickly abandoned the artistic route, and just three years later, he entered the Lawrence Scientific School (known today as the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, or SEAS) at Harvard College (Goodman, 2009). Three years later, in 1864, James joined the Harvard School of Medicine to study chemistry and anatomy.

Throughout his life, James suffered from various physical ailments and was tone-deaf (Sachs, 2008). He also experienced neurasthenia, a medical condition characterized by fatigue, headache, and irritability, and endured periods of depression.

Due to his illnesses and a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, James’ medical school studies were interrupted multiple times.

Nevertheless, he ultimately graduated and earned his MD in 1869, although he never actually ended up going on to practice medicine (Goodman, 2009).

However, during these years at Harvard Medical School, James studied physiology in great depth and this foundational knowledge strongly assisted and shaped his eventual psychological framework.

Academic Career

After being a member of the Harvard community as a student, William James went on to be an instrumental figure as a professor, maintaining a strong allegiance to the institution.

In 1875, after teaching a course on vertebrate physiology in years prior, James taught one of the college’s first psychology courses, titled “The Relations between Physiology and Psychology,” for which he created the first experimental psychology demonstration laboratory.

James was the founder of the Harvard psychology department and is known as the father of American psychology.

During his time as a Harvard faculty member, James not only taught courses, but he also conducted laboratory research on sensation and perception during the first half of his career.

James also supervised Harvard’s first doctorate in psychology, earned by G. Stanley Hall in 1878, and engaged in several debates with other prominent scholars.

After his retirement in 1907, James continued to be engaged in the world of academia, publishing Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking (James, 1907) among others, detailing the philosophical underpinnings of pragmatism as well as his philosophical stance on truth, knowledge, reality, and religion.

James’ philosophical views greatly shaped his psychological approach, and his theories of psychology strongly influenced his philosophy – the two worked closely hand in hand.


In 1870, William James and Charles Sanders Pierce founded the school of American Pragmatism (Hookway, 2008).

Pragmatism is rooted in the idea that philosophical topics, such as knowledge, language, meaning, belief, and science, are best understood in terms of their practical use.


James classifies philosophers according to their temperaments, distinguishing between tough-minded – those who are empirical, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, and skeptical – and tender-minded – those who are rationalistic, intellectualistic, optimistic, religious, and assertive (Goodman, 2009; James, 1907).

The role of the pragmatist is to serve as a mediator between these two extremes.

“Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true, it says, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms”? (James & Perry, 1943, p. 97).

James’ belief in pragmatism subsequently shaped his perspective on the right to believe, religion, free will, and the meaning of life.

The Right to Believe

James believes in the right to believe. That is, under certain circumstances, we have the right to believe that future, unknown outcomes will occur so as to help bring about those outcomes.

In other words, “a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (James, 1896).

An example of this is having to cross an icy ledge. While your ability to do so is unknown, with death being the alternative, you are much better off believing in your ability to do, which, in turn, might actually lead to a successful walk across the ledge (Goodman, 2009).

Similarly, James holds that we can choose to believe in the absence of any objective justification for our belief. Just as there is no objective reason for why we would believe in our ability to cross the icy ledge, we also do this naturally in many other ways, such as with our moral and political ideas (Pomerlou, 2014).

Although there is no true objective support of a certain belief, there is still pragmatic value to holding certain political values or operating on some form of a moral code, or, for some, believing in God.


William James also has a strong perspective on religion. His interest is not particularly in religious institutions or even specific religious ideas but rather in the spiritual experience that religion brings about (Goodman, 2009).

James applies the same logic that justifies believing in certain ideas, morals, or political standpoints to believing in God.

He posits that one’s salvation depends on believing in God, in advance of any proof that God actually exists (Goodman, 2009; James, 1896). So, even in the absence of any objective justification, there is still utility in holding this belief.

However, James does not theorize that one must believe in a monotheistic God in order to connect with religion. He specifically defines religion to be the broad experiences of humans to the extent that they view themselves as related to anything that may be considered divine (James, 1985; Pomerlou, 2014).

Regardless of the unique religious experience, its purpose is to connect us with a greater reality that is not otherwise accessible (Goodman, 2009).

Thus, James believes there is more to reality than our natural world (James, 1985; Pomerlou, 2014). He holds that each person has a soul, existing in some form of a spiritual universe.

This soul is the main actor in the greater reality and leads us to act in the ways we do in the physical world (Richardson, 2007).

In the sense of pragmatism, religion functions as a mechanism by which we can access what is beyond the tangible, concrete world in a greater attempt to achieve salvation.

Free Will

James believes in free will. In other words, he is a supporter of indeterminism, meaning that there is some degree of possibility not dictated by the rest of reality (James 1896; Pomerlou, 2014).

From a practical standpoint, indeterminism helps to render life worth living by understanding the agency we have in our actions and choices. Indeterminism also allows us to hold others responsible for their actions to maintain order in society.

For example, if a man murders his wife, we can either adopt a deterministic approach which holds that his actions were just “supposed to be that way,” or we can adopt an indeterministic approach, viewing his actions to be motivated by his own will, thus allowing us to recognize the evil in the individual and inflict the necessary punishment (James 1896; Pomerlou, 2014).

The meaning of life. Lastly, William James believes that the meaning of life can be reduced to one word: happiness. Happiness is the motivating factor that causes us to act and survive (James, 1896; Pomerlou, 2014).

He views evolution to be an advancement towards maximizing happiness – the sole purpose of living.

A Shift to Psychology

But even beyond his endeavors in the philosophical world was James devoted to the world of psychology.

As the man who is commonly given the title “father of American psychology,” William James made multiple notable contributions to the field, shaping the way future psychologists and scholars see the world.

James defined psychology as the conscience of the mental life because he thought that consciousness is what makes mental life possible. He sought to discover the utility of human consciousness and how it is fundamental to survival.

He was the first to coin the phrase “stream of consciousness,” recognizing that “is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described” (James, 1890).

William James saw this stream of consciousness not as a thing but as a process or function. Just as breathing is what the lungs do, conducting conscious mental life is what the brain does (Hunt, 1920).

James’ interest in the function of consciousness led him to develop one of the most foundational theories of psychology: that of functionalism.

Functionalism (vs. Structuralism)

Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern psychology, developed the first school of psychology, that of structuralism.

Structuralism focuses on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components (Freedheim, 2010), and to understand these simple elements, researchers used introspection, a process that relies on analyzing one’s own mental state (Schultz & Schultz, 2015).

Functionalism formed as a reaction to structuralism and denied the value of introspection. This school of thought was more so focused on understanding the biological processes behind and purpose of human consciousness rather than the inner workings of thinking.

While structuralism tried to understand the individual parts of going to the supermarket (leaving your house, walking to the store, choosing ingredients, paying, etc.), functionalism tackled the root of why we even go to the store in the first place (because we need food for survival!).

Functionalism is concerned with explaining the function or purpose of certain forms of behavior, namely that of consciousness or our internal mental states. This theoretical perspective on psychology sought causal relationships between internal states (such as being happy) and external behaviors (such as laughter).

Functionalism was heavily influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In contrast, Darwin was concerned with the evolution of a species in terms of the natural selection of physical attributes (think the survival of the fittest!).

James was preoccupied with the evolutionary value, or function, of specific behaviors and mindsets.

His classic text, The Principles of Psychology (James, 1890), used the phrase “evolutionary psychology” to argue that certain behaviors operate in the same way as instincts (inherited predispositions to respond to certain stimuli in adaptive ways).

A key example of an instinct is that of the sneeze. We are predisposed to respond to a nasal irritant with a rapid blast of air (Kenrick, 2019). That is the adaptive value of a sneeze.

In the same vein, James theorized that the mind’s complex processes had evolved because of their life-preserving capabilities and that to understand those complicated processes, one had to ask what functions they perform (Hunt, 1920).

The Function of Consciousness

James came to understand consciousness as a process that allows us to both consider the past, present, and future and to plan ahead in order to adapt our behavior to the current circumstances (Hunt, 1920).

James (1890) argued against the structuralist position that states consciousness could be broken into constituent parts.

Coining the phrase “stream of consciousness”, James proposed that mental life is a unity that flows and changes (thus consciousness is a continuum).

The function of consciousness, put simply, is to ensure survival. We have evolved to be conscious beings because we would otherwise cease to exist.

Instead of understanding the moving parts of consciousness (like Wundt), James devoted years to understanding why we even go to the store in the first place.

Although functionalism is generally not in practice today, this school of thought greatly influenced psychology, such as the development of behaviorism and applied psychology.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Consciousness was not the only mental concept that functionalism investigated. Similarly, James was interested in emotions and how and why our minds perceive stimuli in certain ways.

The James-Lange theory of emotion proposes that an event triggers a physiological reaction, which we then interpret. According to this theory, emotions are caused by our interpretations of these physiological reactions (Vianna et al., 2006).

It is only after the interpretation of a physiological reaction (arousal) can a person experiences emotion. If the arousal is not noticed or is not given any thought, then a person will not experience any emotion based on this event.

To experience emotion, we must go through a series of steps:
  1. Perception of a stimulus or situation.
  2. Bodily changes result from the perception of a situation.
  3. Recognition of bodily changes produces subjective feelings or emotions.

According to this theory, people feel sad because they cry, and likewise they feel happy because they smile.

At the same time as James, Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently proposed a similar theory of emotion, leading the overall theory to be referred to as the James-Lange theory of emotion.

However, this theory was not met without criticism. Many psychologists and scholars pushed back on the idea that physical reactions map onto a single, corresponding emotion.

For instance, as some argued, an increased heart rate could suggest fear, excitement, anger, or another emotion (Vienna et al., 2006). The emotions are different, but the physical response is the same, so how are we supposed to interpret our bodily response?

This question led psychologists to further examine the function of emotion and devise new theories that helped explain how and why we feel the way we do.

Theory of Self

William James’s Theory of Self postulates that the self comprises two parts: the ‘I’ and the ‘Me.’

The ‘I’ is the self that thinks, acts, and has experienced (the subjective self), while the ‘Me’ is the self as an object of knowledge, including the sum of a person’s thoughts, feelings, social roles, and recognition from others (the objective self). His theory emphasizes the dynamic and social nature of the self-concept.

The “Me” is a separate individual a person refers to when talking about their personal experiences.

On the other hand, the “I” is part of the self that knows who they are and what they have accomplished in life (Pomerleau, 2014).

For example, in the statement, “I know it was me who ate the cookie,” the “Me” is the empirical self, the one who does the acting, whereas the “I” is the self that is capable of thinking and reflecting (Cooper, 1992).

The “I” is a pure ego – it is what provides continuity between past, present, and future, allowing us to view ourselves to have a consistent, individual identity, one brought about by the stream of consciousness that James first defined (Hunt, 1920).

Although the “I” self cannot be further divided, the “Me” can be further broken down into three sub-categories: a material, social, and spiritual self.

  • The material self consists of what belongs to a person, such as the body, family, clothes, or money.
  • The social self marks who you are in a specific social situation. We tend to change our actions, thoughts, emotions, words, and mannerisms based on the current social situation or the people with whom we are interacting.

    For example, we act differently when at work as opposed to when out with friends, as do we when talking to our boss as opposed to a coworker.

  • Finally, our spiritual self is who we are at our core, including our personality, values, and conscience. Our spiritual self typically remains relatively stable throughout our lifetime (Green, 1997).

Together, these aspects form the self – the conscious entity capable of experiencing physiological responses, emotions, and thoughts.
William James’ contributions to the field of psychology run unparalleled to most other players in this field.

His theories, written works, and foundational school of thought paved the way for decades of research and intellectual pursuits to come.

Works Published

As a philosopher and theorist, James seldom relied on empirical experiments to validate or inspire his views. Rather, he drew upon all his reading in both philosophical and physiological psychology.

James spent time in Europe from 1882-1883, during which he visited universities, attended laboratory sessions and lectures, talked to countless leading psychologists, and gathered reports and clinical studies of abnormal minds (Hunt, 1920).

James relied on observation, the intellect of his colleagues and other scholars, and, funny enough, his own mind – the very entity he was fascinated by – to develop this powerful school of thought.

As a famous philosopher and psychologist, James was the author of many academic books.

The following is a list of some of his most influential works:
  • James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
  • James, W. (1897). The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • James, William (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harvard University Press.
  • James, William (1906). Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longman Green and Co.
  • James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • James, W. (1907). The Meaning of Truth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • James, W. (1909). A Pluralistic Universe . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Five Fun Facts

While it is clear that James’ notable accomplishments span far and wide, a few specific facts about this distinguished figure are worth emphasizing.

  1. William James is credited with establishing the first teaching lab in the U.S. in 1875, and his doctoral student, G. Stanley Hall, created the first experimental psychology lab in the U.S. at Johns Hopkins University (Shiraev, 2014).
  2. James was also the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S. (Cherry, 2020).
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson (the famous transcendentalist and philosopher) was his godfather (Taylor, 2010).
  4. As a professor, James had many students who went on to also become major historical figures. Specifically, EL Thorndike (a famous behaviorist psychologist), W.E.B. Dubois, Gertrude Stein, and Teddy Roosevelt were all students of James (Gibbon, 2018; Gooding-Williams, 2017).
  5. James is listed as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, according to a paper written by Steven Haggbloom and colleagues that quantitively analyzed the work of hundreds of 20th-century psychologists (Haggbloom et al., 2002).

William James’ accomplishments in both psychology and philosophy, as the father of two important schools of thought, publisher of countless books, and making history in multiple ways while at Harvard, all serve to demonstrate his incredible contributions to the field.

James was a pioneer who inspired many to follow in his footsteps. Without him, psychology would not be able to be what it is today.

According to William James, what was the true purpose of psychology?

According to William James, often considered the father of American psychology, the true purpose of psychology is to study the processes of consciousness and understand the functional, practical aspects of human behavior and mental processes.

He emphasized the study of individuals’ adaptation to their environment, believing that the value of any mental activity, such as consciousness, lies in its impact on behavior and the individual’s capacity to adapt and survive, hence the term “functionalism” associated with his approach.


Cooper, W. E. (1992). William James’s theory of the self. The Monist, 75 (4), 504-520.

Freedheim, D. K. (2010). Handbook of Psychology: Vol. I.

Gibbon, P. (2018). The thinker who believed in doing: William James and the philosophy of pragmatism. Humanities, 39.

Gooding-Williams, R. (2017). WEB Du Bois.

Goodman, R. (2009). William James. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

Green, C. D. (1997). The principles of psychology William James (1890). Classics in the History of Psychology.

Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., … & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6 (2), 139-152.

Hookway, C. (2008). Pragmatism Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hunt, M. (1920). The Psychologist malgré lui: William James . The Story of psychology: http://www. des. emory. edu/mfp/hunt. html.

James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking. New York.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York. Holt and company.

James, W. (1984). Psychology, briefer course (Vol. 14). Harvard University Press.

James, W. (1985). The varieties of religious experience (Vol. 15). Harvard University Press.

James, W. (1896). The will to believe: And other essays in popular philosophy . Longmans, Green, and Company.

James, W., & Katz, E. (1975). The meaning of truth (Vol. 2). Harvard University Press.

James, W., & Perry, R. B. (1943). Pragmatism, a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Together with Four Related Essays Selected From the Meaning of Truth.

Kenrick, D. (2019). Evolutionary psychology. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/evolutionary-psychology

Nubiola, J. (2011). The reception of William James in continental Europe. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 3 (III-1).

Pomerleau, W. P. (2014). William James (1842–1910). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

Richardson, R. D. (2007). William James: In the maelstrom of American modernism. HMH.

Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, revised and expanded edition. Vintage, New York, NY.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2015). A history of modern psychology. Cengage Learning.

Shiraev, E. (2014). A history of psychology: A global perspective. Sage Publications.

Taylor, E. (2010). William James on a phenomenological psychology of immediate experience: The true foundation for a science of consciousness?. History of the Human Sciences, 23 (3), 119-130.

Vianna, E. P., Weinstock, J., Elliott, D., Summers, R., & Tranel, D. (2006). Increased feelings with increased body signals. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 1 (1), 37-48.

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The Legacy of William James

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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Charlotte Ruhl

Research Assistant & Psychology Graduate

BA (Hons) Psychology, Harvard University

Charlotte Ruhl, a psychology graduate from Harvard College, boasts over six years of research experience in clinical and social psychology. During her tenure at Harvard, she contributed to the Decision Science Lab, administering numerous studies in behavioral economics and social psychology.

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