Ellis Washington
On William James: the father of psychology
By Ellis Washington
May 23, 2015

Belief creates the actual fact. Truth is what works.

Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.

~ William James

Biography of William James

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) although trained as a medical doctor, was most celebrated as an American philosopher, psychologist and Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Harvard. A pioneer in the then new field of psychology, James was the first professor in America to offer a class in psychology. Known as the "Father of American psychology," James was a foremost philosopher in the late nineteenth century, carrying the distinction of being one of the most important philosophers America has ever produced. Along with his friend and colleagues, Charles Sanders Peirce, known as "the Father of pragmatism" and John Dewey, known as "the Father of Progressive education," James is also celebrated as a central figure connected with the philosophical school known as Pragmatism, and is one of the founders of functional psychology and also advanced the philosophical worldview of radical empiricism.

Born into family affluence and wealth, James was the son of Henry James Sr., a theologian and the brother of Henry James, a famous novelist, and sister, Alice James, a diarist. A very prolific writer, James wrote extensively on many subjects, including psychology, education, epistemology, metaphysics, mysticism and religion. His most famous books are The Principles of Psychology (1890), which was a pioneering opus in the relatively new discipline of psychology, Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), a posthumously published collection of miscellaneous writings James had deposited in the Harvard Department of Philosophy for supplemental use by his students, and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), a book based on a series of lectures regarding the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion. James' collected writings have had far-reaching influence on succeeding generations of academics, writers, philosophers and intellectuals, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Emile Durkheim, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Husserl, and Nelson Goodman; also including neopragmatists like Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, Susan Haack and Roger Sperry.

William James and The Principles of Psychology

The Principles of Psychology (1890) is William James' magnum opus, a substantial text and a classic in the history of psychology which analyzes many varied subjects, however some subjects stand out as being more expedient and germane than others, particularly the sections on Stream of consciousness, Emotion, Habit (Behavior), and Will which I will briefly summarize below.

Stream of consciousness is perhaps James' most well-known psychological metaphor. He reasoned that human understanding can be described as a flowing stream, which was a ground-breaking idea of his era since the prior worldview understood human thought with the metaphor of the links of a chain. He also viewed consciousness as endless and constant and understood that individuals can never have the exact same impression or idea more than once.

James developed a new theory of Emotion (later known as the James – Lange theory), which contended that an emotion is the result rather than the cause of the physical experiences associated with its expression. Another way of expressing this idea that a stimulus causes a bodily response and that an emotion follows the response. Although not as universal as when the James – Lange theory was originally introduced, the criticism it suffered has not fully disproven its value in philosophy even to this day.

Human behavior or his theory of Habit are frequently formed to realize definite results since strong feelings of desire or demand are such an instinctive aspect of human nature. James highlighted the prominence and power of human tradition and came to very innovative and intriguing conclusions. James' psychological worldview argued that the laws of behavior formation are dispassionate since human behavior can cause either good or bad actions. Therefore since human nature is an intractable phenomenon, once either good or bad behaviors are established, they become exceedingly resistant to change.

His theory of Will is the concluding chapter of James' book Principles of Psychology, which in many respects was a biographical chronicle of his own personal experiences in life. For example, there existed a recurring question that distressed James during most of his lifetime regarding the existence of free will – did it really exist or not? Demonstrative of the author's grappling with the questions of free will, he wrote, "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."

William James and the "Cash Value" of Pragmatism

Bruce Kuklick, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania wrote a revealing introduction to William James' book Pragmatism, therefore I have quoted this passage below which gets to the core of many important ideas James promoted regarding his philosophy of pragmatism, the singular idea most people today remember William James. Professor Kuklick writes:
    James went on to apply the pragmatic method to the epistemological problem of truth. He would seek the meaning of 'true' by examining how the idea functioned in our lives. A belief was true, he said, if it worked for all of us, and guided us expeditiously through our semi-hospitable world. James was anxious to uncover what true beliefs amounted to in human life, what their "cash value" was, and what consequences they led to. A belief was not a mental entity which somehow mysteriously corresponded to an external reality if the belief were true. Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say they were true was to say they were efficacious in this environment. In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth applied Darwinian ideas in philosophy; it made survival the test of intellectual as well as biological fitness.
For William James 'cash value' meant pragmatic efficiency and applicative achievement, yet it did not mean a disconnected group of academics or theoreticians, but a diversified group of actual, real-life people. For that reason the idea of Truth for James is what really drives and motivates human individuals to have faith, to achieve; it is the condition of 'what pays by way of belief' in the progression of human action within the existing society; and its achievement is a scientifically measureable development, not a faith-based revelation. Regarding James's worldview of truth, the reliability of a proposition or a theory is determined in relationship of its experimental consequences far beyond its purely observational sense – a sense that applies to the emotional experiences also.

William James and the Philosophy of History

One of the continuing battles in the philosophy of history regards the role of individuals in social change. One group sees individuals (as seen in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution, A History), as the zeitgeist of history, and within the wider society as the tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which they compose their deeds. The other faction views society as established on universal values or laws, and views individuals as involuntary cogs of a dystopian machine called society. In 1880, James solidified his ideas taking Carlyle's side in his famous essay published in the Atlantic Monthly, Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment. Nevertheless, in James' essay he expanded upon Carlyle's rather myopic view highlighting the political/military domain, to extend his arguments emphasizing heroes of history as the originators and conquerors of nations and empires.

James promoted the idea that a philosopher must accept and develop genius for the health of society in the similar way as a biologist accepts the theory of Darwin's 'spontaneous variations.' The role of an individual will be contingent on the level of its conformity within the moment, social environment, age, movement, even within a revolution.

James presents an idea of receptivities of the moment. Following Darwin's evolution atheism and spontaneous variation theory, James believed that the societies' mutations from generation to generation are characterized by the actions or patterns of individuals whose genius was adapted to the receptivities of the age or whose chance position of power was so critical that they became inciters of movements, trend setters of precedent or style, champions of corruption, or corrupters of society, who but for these spontaneous variations or mutations of Darwin's evolution theory, would have affected society in a different direction. Here, James seems to have Nature (chance) triumph over Nurture (what we are taught).

Instinct was another major philosophical idea of William James, who similar to Sigmund Freud, was tremendously influenced by Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection, spontaneous variations and survival of the fittest. At the center of James' theory of psychology, as defined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), was a system of "instincts." James thought that humans had multiple instincts, above even animals. These instincts, he said, could be superseded by experience and by other individuals, since instincts by nature were in a state of flux; in existential conflict with each other. In the 1920s, however, psychology started to reject natural selection in evolutionary theory in favor of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism which embraces the genetic and biological endowment and ultimately evolved nature of the organism, while asserting that behavior is a separate field of study with its own meaning and significance.

William James in Modern Times

William James was a major proponent of the philosophical view called Pragmatism, which is an important and influential ethical worldview that originated in America around 1870. Pragmatism is a refutation of the notion that the purpose of thought is to define, characterize, or reflect reality. On the other hand, pragmatists believe thought to be a consequence of the interaction between organism and environment. Accordingly, the meaning of thought is viewed as a mechanism or instrument for expectation, problem solving and achievement. Pragmatists argue that many philosophical subjects – for example, belief, meaning, science, language, concepts, and the nature of knowledge – are all generally understood according to their practical values and achievements.

A principal legacy of William James left to us in modern times is that he removed the traditional strictures between thought and thinker, challenging both Platonic idealism, Hegelian determinism and Marxist materialism as he explored the powers of the human will to understand and triumph in the world it experiences. For example, Robert D. Richardson's intriguing 2007 book, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism – studies with singular vigor James' expeditions into the deep, profound and complex psychology of belief in The Varieties of Religious Experience, examining how James declared the human devotion for faith in God as a condition for successful action. Readers of Richardson's revelatory book therefore understand how James synchronized religious hope with his own creation of both psychology and pragmatism as the dynamic progression that defines modernity.

Harvard Law Professor Roberto Unger, a noted expert and pioneer of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement, held a strong intellectual influence over a young Barack Obama when he attended Harvard Law School (1988-91). Obama studied under Professor Unger and was attracted to Unger's CLS movement because it actively and aggressively sought to destabilize traditional conceptions of law and to unravel and challenge existing legal institutions. That is Utopian Socialism and it defines Obama's Socialist policies and evolution atheist worldview. Professor Unger's book The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, advocates for a "radical pragmatism," one that 'de-naturalizes' society and culture, and thus insists that we can "transform the character of our relation to social and cultural worlds we inhabit rather than just to change, little by little, the content of the arrangements and beliefs that comprise them." From this school of pragmatism we get Obama's Progressive brand of Utopian Socialism encapsulated in his infamous speech Obama gave in Chicago, Feb. 5, 2008 – We are the ones we've been waiting for. William James would have been proud to hear Obama proclaim such over pragmatism philosophy to the assembled masses of his adopted home of Chicago.

In summary, Pragmatism = Progressivism, which is a corollary philosophy to Liberalism or Utopian Socialism that has dominated law, policy, economics, medicine and politics in America, Europe and throughout the world – inimical ideas which Barack Obama and the Progressives are hellbent on propagating by any means necessary, and destructive pragmatic ideas which William James, dating as far back as the 1870s, summarized with these two very dangerous expressions of Pragmatism that seems to ignore and deconstruct normative, moral and constitutional concerns: "Belief creates the actual fact" and "Truth is what works."

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 34 – Idea; Vol. 2, Chap. 43 – Knowledge; Vol. 2, Chap. 49 – Logic; Vol. 3, Chap. 84 – Sense; Vol. 3, Chap. 88 – Soul; Vol. 53 – William James. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, Ted Honderich [Editor], (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 747-50.

Book Notice

Please purchase my latest opus dedicated to that Conservative Colossus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Here are the latest two new volumes from my ongoing historical series – THE PROGRESSIVE REVOLUTION: History of Liberal Fascism through the Ages (University Press of America, 2015):
However, before the book is officially released to the public, I have to place 100 pre-publication orders (50 orders per each volume). I need your help to make this happen ASAP. Please place your order today for Volume 3 & Volume 4. Of course, if you can order all 100 copies today, the book will become official tomorrow.

Please circulate this flyer to all your email contacts & Facebook/Twitter followers who may be interested in purchasing this opus which will serve as a ready apologetic against the rampant Marxist-Progressive propaganda taught in America's public schools, colleges, universities, graduate schools, and law schools. Thanks in advance to all my friends, associates and colleagues for your invaluable support! Law and History Blog: www.EllisWashingtonReport.com

Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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