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William James




William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842, to an affluent, cosmopolitan, and deeply religious family. His father Henry dabbled in theology, doted on his five children, was well connected to literary and philosophical luminaries of the day, and often took the family for extended stays in Europe. His journeys to the continent were primarily theological and philosophical odysseys intended to resolve his conflicting spiritual bouts. His right leg had been amputated after burns suffered in a boyhood accident failed to heal. His spirit never quite recovered. A devoted father, he sought to provide his children with the sort of education that might enable them some day to outdistance their countrymen both in erudition and in breadth of knowledge. To this end, he enrolled them in fine schools, obtained for them gifted tutors, and saw to it that they frequented museums and attended lectures and the theater with regularity. William and two of his siblings would give fruit to their father's liberal educational efforts. Brother Henry became one of America's most famed novelists, and Sister Alice acquired a literary reputation of her own after her diaries were posthumously published. William James, with his younger brother Henry James (who became a prominent novelist) and sister Alice James (who is known for her posthumously published diary), received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French languages along with a cosmopolitan character. His family made two trips to Europe while he was still a child, setting a pattern that resulted in thirteen more European journeys during his life. His early artistic bent led to an early apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but yielded in 1861 to scientific studies at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School. In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was also subject to a variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War, but the other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism. James switched to medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864. He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join Harvard's Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, having suffered bouts of severe seasickness and mild smallpox. His studies were interrupted once again due to illness in April 1867. He traveled to Germany in search of a cure and remained until November 1868. He finally earned his M.D. degree in June 1869, but never practiced medicine. What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878. It was during James’ time in Germany that he would make the change from focusing on medicine, to instead philosophy, a change that would reflect his brilliance for the rest of his life. In the end James would father five children, one would perish at a young age. Falling victim to Pneumonia, and James himself would die in August of 1910 at the age of 68.



James writings however would go on to live far longer obviously. A nearly completed bibliography is known to be roughly 47 pages long (John DcDermott). Further more, James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. His pragmatic theory of truth was a synthesis of correspondence theory of truth and coherence theory of truth, with an added dimension. Truth is verifiable to the extent that thoughts and statements correspond with actual things, as well as "hangs together," or coheres, fits as pieces of a puzzle might fit together, and these are in turn verified by the observed results of the application of an idea to actual practice Truth, he said, is that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse" but "all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere," he wrote. James's assertion that the value of a truth depends upon its use to the individual who holds it is known as pragmatism. Additional tenets of James's pragmatism include the view that the world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be properly understood through an application of "radical empiricism." Radical empiricism, distinct from everyday scientific empiricism, presumes that nature and experience can never be frozen for absolutely objective analysis, that, at the very least, the mind of the observer will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth since, empirically, the mind and nature are inseparable. James's emphasis on diversity as the default human condition — over and against duality, especially Hegelian dialectical duality — has maintained a strong influence in American culture, especially among liberals (see Richard Rorty). James's description of the mind-world connection, which he described in terms of a "stream of consciousness," had a direct and significant impact on avant-garde and modernist literature and art. In What Pragmatism Means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth is, in brief, that "truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." Richard Rorty claims that James did not mean to give a theory of truth with this statement and that we should not regard it as such. James’ theories on emotion were also well noted. James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James' oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion. This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, Principles of Psychology that spells out those consequences. ““We must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one's taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made.”” In closing, it should be noted that William James’ writings were often seen as “wishy-washy”, or seemingly simply “well worded”. Saying that while that some of his arguments, thoughts, and philosophies were indeed brilliant, and of irrefutably quality, others were simply well versed arguments simply made to push his career along. (Marc Fonda 1995)