William James’ Legacy in Psychology

William James’ Legacy in Psychology


William James contributed to the field of scientific psychology as it developed in the United States and was known as the leading American Psychologist. His work in establishing the book, The Principles of Psychology was the major American antecedent to functional psychology. 

James claimed that the best way to prove or disprove a theory is through experimentation, thus he became the one to introduce experimental psychology in America. James was referred to as the “Father of Psychology” by David Krech in a speech celebrating 75 years of the American Psychological Association (APA). 

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William James: Life and Contributions to Psychology 

Born in 1842, James belonged to a wealthy and influential New York family. He travelled quite a lot as a child, attending schools in both Europe and the USA. At 18 years of age, James decided to become an artist, however owing to the insufficient talent to be a truly great artist, he decided to enroll at the Scientific School at Harvard.

His health and self-confidence began to decline and he turned into an intensely troubled neurotic man. He was frequently ill and complained of depression, digestive disorders, insomnia, visual disturbances and a weak back. He finally qualified as a physician in 1869, however, he never practised medicine. 

During the dark months of 1869, he had himself committed to an asylum in Massachusetts. However, none of the treatments seemed to work. He began to construct a philosophy of life motivated by his despair. He decided that he could cure himself of his depression by believing in the power of the will. 

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In 1875-1876, James returned to Harvard where he taught his first psychology course which focused on, ‘The relations between physiology and psychology’. Thus, Harvard became the first university in the USA to offer a course in the new experimental psychology. 

He signed a publishing contract in 1878 with Henry Holt, which resulted in one of the classic books in the psychology field. It took him 12 years to write the book while he continued to teach psychology at Harvard. ‘The Principles of Psychology’ was finally published in 1890 in two volumes and proved to be a success and a significant contribution to the field. 

The Principles of Psychology 

According to James as in the book ‘The Principles of Psychology’, the goal of psychology is not to break down the mental processes into the most basic elements as stated by the Structuralists. It is to study the living people as they adapt to their environment. The purpose and function of human behaviour, i.e. consciousness, is to ensure survival. 

James considered introspection and the breaking down of the consciousness as artificial and narrow. He believed that mental life is a unity, a total experience. Consciousness was described as a continuous flow wherein any attempt to divide it can distort it. Thus, came in the phrase the stream of consciousness. 

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“Consciousness is not a thing but a process. It allows us to reflect upon the past, present and future to plan and adapt to circumstances and so fulfil the primary purpose of staying alive.” Our consciousness is a result of the cumulative experiences we go through on a day-to-day basis. We can never experience the same thought or sensation twice. We may go through identical experiences more than once such as watching a beautiful sunset at two different points, but our thoughts each time will not be identical. They will differ because of all the experiences we go through in between watching the two sunsets. Thus, consciousness is continuous and not recurrent. 

James believed there must be a biological use for consciousness to exist otherwise it would not have survived over time. Thus, highlighting the integration of evolutionary psychology as inspired by Charles Darwin.

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The Theory of Emotions 

While researching consciousness, James realised that emotions play an important role in the actions we take and behave in our daily lives. He developed a theory of emotions stating that we feel emotions because we perceive the physiological condition that a situation induces within us. A basic example by James is seeing a bear which then causes the action of running away. 

The theory says that first comes the physiological changes in the body due to seeing the bear such as increased heart rate and heavy breathing. These reactions then cause the action of running away. The feeling of fear comes in when you perceive the physiological changes and action of running away as fear.

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So first we see the bear, our body physiologically reacts, we run and then we interpret these responses and the preceding behaviour as the emotion of fear. Despite the controversies, James supports the idea by reasoning with the help of introspective observation. He said that if bodily changes did not occur, then there would be no emotion. 

The Three-Part Self 

A person’s sense of self is made up of three parts: 

  • The material self: Everything that is unique to us, for example, our family, body, home or dress style. 
  • The social self: There are many social selves since we behave differently with different people. For example, you will behave in a particular way with your parents than you will with your acquaintances or friends. Each will see a different side of you. 
  • The spiritual self: James referred to our spiritual self as our subjective well-being.

James used to dress in a way that was unusual according to the norm for his position and social class. Dressed in polka-dot bow ties and brightly-coloured checkered pants, he was a clear “deviation from the polite standard” (Watson 2004, p. 218) He believed that the way people clothe themselves reflects their material, social and spiritual selves. He called it a form of self-expression. 

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Further research 

After the death of James, there was little theorizing and experimenting in the study of consciousness. The world saw the rise of behaviourism up until the 1950s. The German-based Gestalt movement studied the whole experience of consciousness and stated that the “Whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, thus a reflection of James’ Functionalism. 

Neuroscientists, since the 1980s, have been researching the content of consciousness among normal, healthy people and people with impairment in their state of awareness. The goal is to experiment with consciousness objectively. 

We know the meaning of “consciousness” so long as no one asks us to define it -William James (1842-1910) 

William James claimed that consciousness is hard to define which is evident since different perspectives exist for the same. Francis Crick believes consciousness is localized to a specific part of the brain- the prefrontal cortex. Antonio Damasio claims consciousness to be “an organism’s awareness of its self and its surroundings.” 

References +
  • Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2015). A history of modern psychology. Cengage Learning. 
  • Green, C. D. (1997). The principles of psychology William James (1890). Classics in the History of Psychology
  • Shiraev, E. (2014). A history of psychology: A global perspective. Sage Publications.