William James Essay

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 Born into a wealthy family of intellectual giants (the novelist Henry James was his brother) and educated both in Europe and at Harvard, William James is regarded as the founding father of American psychology. He introduced experimental psychology to America in a laboratory founded at about the same time as Wilhelm Wundt’s, and was the first professor of psychology in the United States. He began teaching the subject in 1875, having no educational background in psychology himself, since no such courses were available in America until he started teaching them. He famously joked, “The first lecture in psychology that I ever heard was the first I ever gave.”

From these humble beginnings, the field grew rapidly, and by 1895, more than twenty American universities were teaching psychology, the American Psychological Association had been founded, and at least three academic journals were being published. A large measure of the credit for this rapid growth belongs to William James. Because the field barely existed before his work, his influence has been profound. He published dozens of articles, and the first crop of American psychologists studied under him; but his greatest and most influential achievement was undoubtedly the publication of Principles of Psychology (1890), a 1,400-page, two-volume compendium of the sum total of psychological knowledge of the time, infused throughout with wit, humor, and intellectual rigor. The book has been widely credited with transforming the dry, sterile, esoteric laboratory discipline of psychology into a vibrant, widely discussed, practical subject that is highly regarded outside the narrow hallways of academia. The book was originally intended as a textbook, a use that its length rendered impractical, so James went to work on an abridged textbook version, which appeared within two years. In U.S. academic circles, the unabridged version was usually referred to as “James,” while the shorter edition went by “Jimmy.”

Like Wundt and other structuralists, James used introspection to study consciousness, but he disagreed with their theoretical approach. Rather than attempting to break down the conscious experience into its component parts, James emphasized the unitary, unbroken flow of conscious thought, likening it to a stream and pointing out that it is a continuous process rather than a thing to be measured. James also emphasized the function of consciousness rather than its structure; adopting a Darwinian perspective, he argued that consciousness, like all other human traits, must have evolved to serve a particular function. The mind’s complex processes, in other words, exist because of their adaptive value in ensuring survival, both of the individual and the species. For this reason, the label usually applied to Jamesian psychology is functionalism.


  1. James, William. Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1890.

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