The Principles of Psychology
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Title page from the first edition.
|Publisher||Henry Holt and Company|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
The Principles of Psychology is an 1890 book about psychology by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist who trained to be a physician before going into psychology. There are four methods from James' book: stream of consciousness (James' most famous psychological metaphor); emotion (later known as the James–Lange theory); habit (human habits are constantly formed to achieve certain results); and will (through James' personal experiences in life).
Nineteenth-century experimental results
The openings of The Principles of Psychology presented what was known at the time of writing about the localization of functions in the brain: how each sense seemed to have a neural center to which it reported and how varied bodily motions have their sources in other centers.
The particular hypotheses and observations on which James relied are now very dated, but the broadest conclusion to which his material leads is still valid, which was that the functions of the "lower centers" (beneath the cerebrum) become increasingly specialized as one moves from reptiles, through ever more intelligent mammals, to inhumans while the functions of the cerebrum itself become increasingly flexible and less localized as one moves along the same continuum.
James also discussed experiments on illusions (optical, auditory, etc.) and offered a physiological explanation for many of them, including that "the brain reacts by paths which previous experiences have worn, and makes us usually perceive the probable thing, i.e. the thing by which on previous occasions the reaction was most frequently aroused." Illusions are thus a special case of the phenomenon of habit.
In the use of the comparative method, James wrote, "instincts of animals are ransacked to throw light on our own...." By this light, James dismisses the platitude that "man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts". There is no such absence, so the difference must be found elsewhere.
James believed that humans wielded far more impulses than other creatures. Impulses which, when observed out of their greater context, may have appeared just as automatic as the most basic of animal instincts. However, as man experienced the results of his impulses, and these experiences evoked memories and expectations, those very same impulses became gradually refined.
By this reasoning, William James arrived at the conclusion that in any animal with the capacity for memory, association, and expectation, behavior is ultimately expressed as a synthesis of instinct and experience, rather than just blind instinct alone.
Selected important topics
The Principles of Psychology covered a large number of topics, but some topics stand out as being more useful and applicable than others, particularly the sections on stream of consciousness, emotion, habit, and will.
Stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness is arguably James' most famous psychological metaphor. He argued that human thought can be characterized as a flowing stream, which was an innovative concept at the time due to the prior argument being that human thought was more so like a distinct chain. He also believed that humans can never experience exactly the same thought or idea more than once. In addition to this, he viewed consciousness as completely continuous.
James introduced a new theory of emotion (later known as the James–Lange theory), which argued that an emotion is instead the consequence rather than the cause of the bodily experiences associated with its expression. In other words, a stimulus causes a physical response and an emotion follows the response. This theory has received criticism throughout the years since its introduction, but regardless, it still has its merits.
Human habits are constantly formed to achieve certain results because of one's strong feelings of wanting or wishing for something. James emphasized the importance and power of human habit and proceeded to draw a conclusion. James noted that the laws of habit formation are unbiased, habits are capable of causing either good or bad actions. And once either a good or bad habit has begun to be established, it is very difficult to change.
Will is the final chapter of The Principles of Psychology, which was through James' own personal experiences in life. There was one question that troubled James during his crisis, which was whether or not free will existed. "The most essential achievement of the will,... when it is most 'voluntary', is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind..." Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will."
Influence and reception
The Principles of Psychology was a vastly influential textbook which summarized the field of psychology through the time of its publication. Psychology was beginning to gain popularity and acclaim in the United States at this time, and the compilation of this textbook only further solidified psychology's credibility as a science. Philosopher Helmut R. Wagner writes that most of the book's contents are now outdated, but that it still contains insights of interest.
- James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology, in two volumes. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- James, W. (1950). The Principles of Psychology, 2 volumes in 1. New York: Dover Publications.
- James, W. (1983). The Principles of Psychology, Volumes I and II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (with introduction by George A. Miller).
- James, William (1890-01-01). The principles of psychology. New York : Holt. p. 194.
So it has come to pass that the instincts of animals are ransacked to throw light on our own; and that the reasoning faculty of bees and ants, the minds of savages, infants, madmen, idiots, and the deaf and blind, criminals, and eccentrics, are all invoked in support of this or that special theory about some part of our own mental life.
- James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. p. 395.
Nothing is commoner than the remark that man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts, and the assumption of their work in him by 'reason.'
- James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. p. 395.
Man has a far greater variety of impulses than any lower animal; and any one of these impulses taken in itself, is as 'blind' as the lowest instinct can be; but owing to man's memory, power of reflection, and power of inference, they come each one to be felt by him after he has once yielded to them and experienced their results, in connection with a foresight of those results.
- James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. p. 396.
It is plain then that, no matter how well endowed an animal may originally be in the way of instincts, his resultant actions will be much modified if the instincts combine with experience, if in addition to impulses he have memories associations inferences and expectations on any considerable scale.
- Rutherford, Raymond E. Fancher, Alexandra (2012). Pioneers of psychology: a history (4th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393935301.
- Wagner, Helmut R. (1983). Phenomenology of Consciousness and Sociology of the Life-world: An Introductory Study. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press. p. 218. ISBN 0-88864-032-3.
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