The Principles of Psychology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Principles of Psychology)
The Principles of Psychology
Title page from the first edition.
AuthorWilliam James
CountryUnited States
PublisherHenry Holt and Company
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pagesxviii, 1393

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. The four key concepts in James' book are: stream of consciousness (his 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).


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 humans 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.

Key features[edit]

Stream of consciousness[edit]

Stream of consciousness is arguably James' most famous psychological metaphor.[1] 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.[2]


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.[1] 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.


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.[1]


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.[1] "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."[1]

Use of comparative psychology[edit]

In the use of the comparative method, James wrote, "instincts of animals are ransacked to throw light on our own...."[3] By this light, James dismisses the platitude that "man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts".[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

Influence and reception[edit]

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.[7]

... we are disposed heartily to thank Prof. James for all that he has given. Of the 1,400 pages—whose number he himself regards with a modest horror—we do not think we have found one dull, though, perhaps, more than one superfluous.[8]

In 2002, James was listed as the 14th most eminent psychology author of the 20th century, with his theory on emotion (the James-Lange Theory) presented in this book being a contributing factor for that ranking[9]

In areas outside of psychology, the book was also to have a major impact. The philosopher Edmund Husserl engages specifically with William James's work in many areas. Following Husserl, this work would also impact many other phenomenologists.[10] Furthermore, the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein read James's work and utilized it in his coursework for students,[11] though Wittgenstein held philosophical disagreements about many of James's points. For instance, Wittgenstein's critique of William James in sec 342 of Philosophical Investigations.[12]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Rutherford, Raymond E. Fancher, Alexandra (2012). Pioneers of psychology: a history (4th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393935301.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Bowling, Lawrence Edward (1950). "What is the Stream of Consciousness Technique?". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 65 (4): 333–345. doi:10.2307/459641. ISSN 0030-8129. JSTOR 459641. S2CID 163481157.
  3. ^ James, William (1890-01-01). The principles of psychology. New York : Holt. pp. 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.
  4. ^ James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. pp. 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.'
  5. ^ James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. pp. 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.
  6. ^ James, William (1893-01-01). Psychology. Henry Holt. pp. 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Review of The Principles of Psychology by William Jame. 2 vols". The Athenaeum (3382): 246–248. August 20, 1892. (quote from p. 247)
  9. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; Warnick, Renee; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; Powell, John L.; Beavers, Jamie; Monte, Emmanuelle (June 2002). "The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. ISSN 1089-2680. S2CID 145668721.
  10. ^ Edie, James M. "William James and Phenomenology." The Review of Metaphysics 23, no. 3 (1970): 481-526.
  11. ^ Goodman, Russell B. "What Wittgenstein Learned from William James." History of Philosophy Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1994): 339-54.
  12. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and G. E. M. Anscombe. 1997. Philosophical investigations. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

External links[edit]