William James (1842-1910)

William James' religious ideas have a contemporary ring today. One keen pursuit was the psychology of religion and he wrote Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He was a close friend of the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also had much to do with parapsychological research. He was an American founder of scientific psychology, having produced much that was available in 1890. He also focussed on philosophy, especially on the lines of pragmatism and radical empiricism, which have impacts today on religious ideas. Then there are overlaps in his thought with developments in literature. His brother, Henry James, was the famous novelist. He studied with Gertrude Stein who wrote using stream of consciousness, one of James' ideas, later used by James Joyce.

There is almost a theory of the development of the brain in James's understanding of habit. Habit is what we become good at because we keep doing it. Today the best analogy might be driving a car fluently, where the controls become an extension of our bodies. Habitual acts become automatic. The conscious element of this reduces so that in full control we can do other things. The acts we do through our muscles stimulate the brain by use and deepen with continuous repetition. Today neuroscientists might talk about pathways in the brain making who we are and reinforcing what we are good at doing. It is well noted that elderly people continue to do well what they have done in the past (like their ongoing hobbies) but find it difficult to learn new skills such as are demanded by new technology.

On top of habit comes the sense of self in which our mental acts are not distinct but part of a stream. It is like freshwater is nothing without the water cycle that drops it through the air and rushes it down rivers into the estuaries and evaporate from the sea to be ready to drop again. It is from our thinking that discernable mental objects come, or it can be said from doing language that we get words. Stream of consciousness is our minds at work, the process container for everything we produce and the absorber to meaning maker of images and feelings. Writers (like Stein and Joyce) have aimed to mimic this, an ever rushing production from the mind. It is continuous, bridging sleep and states of unconscious (Nordby, Hall, 1974, 93). Some would say it is within dreams too, the narratives that reflect on our life narratives as produced from our minds.

Emotion sees the same kind of reveral of ordinary logic as mental activity. He produced his view independently of Carl Lange's view that therefore has produced the James-Lange theory of emotions (Nordby, Hall, 1974, 93). We do not perceive something and then react but rather our body gives a stimulation and then we perceive. In other words, many people see an event but react differently, and this is because each has a different bodily stimulant that adds meaning (perception) to the event. People think we laugh because we are first joyful and happy. However, the comedian who tells a joke uses some trick of the language or narrative, and we import this, produce a laugh and then we feel happy and joyful. A person can have a miserable day and the comedian can turn this experience around. Some people have little emotion at funerals but others weep at their produced understanding of the event and become sad. Notice how many people cry when the coffin moves away. One hardly needs to know the person, but if the stream of consciousness is already producing the narrative of sadness, the triggers will be easily absorbed and add to the stream.

Being the subject of such a flow of consciousness, the whole matter of free will is thrown into some doubt. James said its existence or otherwise is for philosophy, although will or volition is important to understand in psychology. Having will means having an idea or image of the act to be performed and a view of its consequences. In James' thought, many acts are simply those that follow on from habit but the wise act follows from having experience and he allows for such wise acts where there are many alternatives. Ideo-motor-action (Nordby, Hall, 1974, 94) is where the act follows a fully developed thought of action and its consequences.

William James drawn by Henry Benson - click for the beginning Matters of habit, stream of consciousness, emotion and will raise questions about the self. For James, there is no objective self, because it is just this stream of consciousness and habit. For James the self-as-knower (Nordby, Hall, 1974, 93) is just the flow. This is very Buddhist, perhaps, in the alteration of habit by practice and the control of brain activity in meditation. The goal of nirvana is no-self. There is however an empirical Me, which has several seen aspects: the body, the family, and possessions. It includes the actual spiritual, the states of consciousness we produce, personality traits, attitudes and dispositions. Again this seems quite Buddhist, as these are empirical matters that exist as the surface activity in a transitory material world. The empirical self is also sociologically sophisticated too because of the creation of many social selves in one person from interacting and differing recognition from others, as we act out our dramas with others, and these constructed selves can be seen as postmodern or Buddhist too.


Scanned and coloured picture of William James from the line drawing by Henry Benson in Nordby, Hall, 1974, 91.

Nordby, V. J., Hall, C. S. (1974), A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts, San Fransisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 91-94.

Refers to or uses:

James, W (1890), Principles of Psychology, New York: Holt.

James, W. (1892), Psychology: Briefer Course, New York: Holt.

James, W. (1962), Psychology: Briefer Course, New York: Crowell-Collier.

James, W. (1902), Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Longmans, Green.

James, W. (1963), Varieties of Religious Experience, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books.

Perry, R. B. (1935), The Thought and Character of William James, Boston: Little, Brown.