American Philosophy – James

William James

William James (1842 – 1910 CE) was a philosopher and psychologist, one of the first to teach psychology classes in America.  His father was a Swedenborgian theologian, a believer in the unity of science and religion for the understanding of human psychology and metaphysics, and James is most famous for his work on the psychology of religion, author of the influential book The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902).  His godfather was the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James later joined the Theosophical Society, early proponents of Buddhism and esoteric spiritualism, very much the New Agers of their day and the group from which Krishnamurti emerged.  As Peirce’s friend from his Harvard school days, James is credited with being one of the founding Pragmatists.  Later, he was a friend and colleague of Dewey, Russell, Freud, and Bergson.

Koryak Shaman

Like Nietzsche, James suffered from many health conditions throughout his life.  He taught philosophy and psychology at Harvard for his entire career.  His students include Gertrude SteinTheodore RooseveltW. E. B. Du Bois and George Santayana.  James was a strong supporter of Pragmatism in philosophy and functionalism in psychology, both similar positions.  His functionalism influenced his view that religion is not about the verifiable truth of beliefs but about their social function and benefit.  An opponent of Hegel, James argued that Hegelian dialectics were an unhelpful system of metaphysics that was more limiting than revealing.


James argued that beliefs are true if they are useful.  While, like a Positivist, James argued that useful truth would be correspondent and coherent, would fit together with the world and fit together with itself, he argued, like a Pragmatist, that these are dimensions of its usefulness, not categories that can be abstractly applied.  The most ancient of human beliefs were based on new discoveries and debatable, yet in both ancient and modern times, he wrote, “Purely objective truth…is nowhere to be found”.  Entirely objective analysis is impossible in a situation that is always in motion.


James similarly argued that consciousness is a stream, often referred to as “stream of consciousness”, and so individual and social forms of thought are never in an entirely stable place to take full account of themselves.  This is similar to Heidegger’s idea that the world is inarticulate unless an area is of particular concern to us.  For James, our thought process is similarly a flow that we only articulate in part.  Some have speculated that Heidegger may have borrowed his idea of flow from James, as he had a colleague at Freiburg who studied the work of James and other American Pragmatists.

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