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William James Biography

(1842–1910), The Principles of Psychology, The Will to Believe, Pragmatism, The Meaning of Truth

American psychologist and philosopher, the brother of Henry James the novelist, born in New York. He gained his MD in 1870 at Harvard University, where he taught from 1872 to 1907 and established a laboratory of psychology in 1876, carrying out the extensive programme of research that resulted in The Principles of Psychology (2 volumes, 1890); its opening statement that ‘Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions’ asserts his intention of transforming psychology from a part-time activity of philosophers into an autonomous empirical science. He was among the first to recognize the import of Sigmund Freud's theories of the unconscious. The Will to Believe (1897), his first major contribution to philosophy, defined his position as ‘radical empiricist’; in its correlation between the truth of a belief and its results in terms of experience, the essay initiated the development of his influential philosophical pragmatism, which derived from the work of Charles Peirce. Among his other publications as a philosopher are Pragmatism (1907); The Meaning of Truth (1909), a response to criticisms of his pragmatist doctrine; A Pluralistic Universe (1909), which contained the principal exposition of his metaphysics; and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). The last-named advanced the hypothesis of ‘neutral monism’, according to which mental and physical experience constituted distinct aspects of a single universal substance, a theory extended by Bertrand Russell in his Analysis of Mind (1921). James's work as Gifford Lecturer in Natural Religion at Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902 resulted in Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), his enduringly important account of the psychological character of subjective religious states. F. H. Burkhardt was general editor of The Works of William James (7 volumes, 19759). R. B. Perry's The Thought and Character of William James appeared in two volumes in 1935.

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