James, William 1842-1910
William James, often referred to as the Father of American Psychology, was born in New York City on January 11, 1842. As a youth, he was educated in private schools and had a succession of tutors in Europe and the United States. In 1864 he entered the Harvard Medical School, where five years later he received his medical degree, the only degree James ever received.
In 1873 James was offered a post at Harvard teaching physiology. His acceptance signaled the start of a prestigious career, for James was to become a gifted teacher, skilled orator, and prodigious thinker and writer. In 1875 he established the first laboratory of experimental psychology in the United States, and a year later he became the country's first professor of psychology. “The first lecture in psychology that I ever heard,” he later wrote, “was the first I ever gave.” In 1878 he married Alice Howe Gibbens. They had five children. His brother Henry became a famous novelist.
The Principles of Psychology, a two-volume work that had taken James 12 years to complete, was published in 1890. At the urging of his publisher to create a book with greater classroom appeal, James later condensed the two volumes into one, Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892). The complete work came to be known as The James, and the abridged tome as The Jimmy. For years, the two served as the standard psychology texts for generations of American university students.
The dawn of the 20th century found James at the height of his eminence both in philosophy and psychology. The Will to Believe (1897) and Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) reflected his growing spiritual and philosophical concerns. In 1907 he published Pragmatism, a concept that identified one of the prevailing philosophical movements of the 20th century. A method for resolving philosophical disputes, pragmatism aimed to discover the truth of an idea and to consider its value in terms of its practical, ethical/moral, and intellectual consequences.
James was the first American psychologist to directly address educational concerns. In July of 1892, he delivered the first of 12 lectures on psychology to teachers in Cambridge under the title of “Talks on Psychology of Interest to Teachers.” Published in 1899 as Talks to Teachers on Psychology, the book became popular with educators, who subsequently used it prominently in teacher training programs throughout the world.
In Talks, James urged educators to familiarize themselves with the needs and interests of their students so that teaching practices could be geared to helping students develop the habits and make the associations and connections necessary to ensure effective learning. Progressive for its day, James's approach offered a view of teaching and learning in which freedom and compulsion each play an appropriate role. His educational psychology abounds with references to rigor, effort, ambition, competition, pugnacity, and pride.
The impact of James's ideas on modern educational psychology has been profound. In 1903 John Dewey referred to James as the “spiritual progenitor” of the progressive education movement launched at the University of Chicago. His emphasis on the importance of habit
and associations on human functioning influenced the behaviorist movement in psychology, but when humanistic psychologists searched for an antidote to behaviorism, they too stumbled on to James and his plea for a psychology centered on the individual and receptive to the importance of self-processes and introspection. Albert Bandura's social cognitive view of reciprocal determinism is also indebted to the Jamesian view of human functioning in which individuals and environments influence each other reciprocally.
Emphasis in the early 2000s on the importance of self-processes such as self-concept and self-efficacy in education is rooted in the critical aspects of self-awareness and personal cognition that James believed vital to the study of psychology. Moreover, 21st-century interest in conceptual change can be traced to James's vivid description of this process. Interest and research on habit (subsequently referred to as automaticity) also continues to thrive. Additionally, motivation researchers are active in their study of Jamesian concepts such as interest, attention, memory processes, modeling and imitation, and transfer. Modern theories of constructivism can also be traced to James's theory of knowledge.
After his retirement from Harvard in 1907, James was in constant demand for lectures. In 1909 he published A Pluralistic Universe and The Meaning of Truth. Soon, however, his health began to deteriorate. On August 26, 1910, cradled in the arms of his wife Alice, William James died of an enlarged heart. He was 68. Two years after his death, a number of his articles were published as Essays in Radical Empiricism.
James, W. ( 1981). Principles of psychology. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
James, W. ( 2001) Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Dover.
James, W. ([1899–1900] 2001). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life's ideals. New York: Dover.
James, W. ( 1990). Varieties of religious experiences. New York: Vintage Books.
James, W. ( 1978). Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
James, W. ( 1978). The meaning of truth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
James, W. ( 1996). Esssays of Radical Empiricism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Dewey, J. Excerpt from a letter to William James, March 1903. In R. B. Perry, The thought and character of William James as revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings (pp. 520–521). Boston: Little, Brown.
Gale, R. M. (2005). The Philosophy of William James: an introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Garrison, J., Podeschi, R., & Bredo, E. (2002). William James and education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Pawelski, J. O. (2007). The dynamic individualism of William James. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Richardson, R. D. (2006). William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism: a biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Viegas, J. (2006). William James: American philosopher, psychologist, and theologian. New York: Rosen.
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