William James

William James

(1842-1910), at Harvard 1872-1907
William James

William James, philosopher and psychologist, was instrumental in establishing Harvard's psychology department, which at its inception was tied to the department of philosophy. James himself remained unconvinced that psychology was in fact a distinct discipline, writing in his 1892 survey of the field, Psychology: Briefer Course,  "This is no science; it is only the hope of a science" (p. 335). Despite James’s skepticism, in the ensuing century this hope was fully realized in the department he helped to found. 

Initially trained in painting, James abandoned the arts and enrolled in Harvard in 1861 to study chemistry and anatomy. During an extended stay in Germany after graduating, James developed an interest in studying the mind, as well as the body. In 1872 James was recruited by Harvard’s new, reformer president, Charles Eliot, to teach vertebrate physiology.  In 1875 James taught one of the university’s first courses in psychology, “The Relations between Physiology and Psychology,” for which he established the first experimental psychology demonstration laboratory.  James oversaw Harvard’s first doctorate in psychology, earned by G. Stanley Hall in 1878.  Hall noted that James’s course was, “up to the present time the only course in the country where students can be made familiar with the methods and results of recent German researches in physiological psychology” (Hall, 1879).

James’s laboratory research on sensation and perception was conducted in the first half of his career. His belief in the connection between mind and body led him to develop what has become known as the James-Lange Theory of emotion, which posits that human experience of emotion arises from physiological changes in response to external events.  Inspired by evolutionary theory, James’s theoretical perspective on psychology came to be known as functionalism, which sought causal relationships between internal states and external behaviors.

In 1890 James published a highly influential, two-volume synthesis and summary of psychology, Principles of Psychology. The books were widely read in North America and Europe, gaining attention and praise from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in Vienna.  James then moved away from experimental psychology to produce more philosophical works (he is credited as one of the founders of the school of American Pragmatism), although he continued to teach psychology until he retired from Harvard in 1907. 

James profoundly inspired and shaped the thinking of his students, many of whom (including Hall, Mary Whiton Calkins, and E.L. Thorndike) went on to have prominent careers in psychology. He also advised an undergraduate project on automatic writing by Gertrude Stein. William James is listed as number 14 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. 

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