William James (January 11, 1842, New York - August 26, 1910 Chocorua, New Hampshire), philosopher and elder brother of the writer Henry James, was born in New York, son of a Swedenborgian theologian, Henry James, Sr. He received an eclectic and trans-Atlantic education as his eccentric father's son.
Together with Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term, James founded the philosophical school or (perhaps more accurately) orientation of pragmatism.
James received his degree in medicine at Harvard, and taught anatomy there from 1872, philosophy after 1882.
He first made a mark with Principles of Psychology (1890), which criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism of his day as competing dogmatisms, of little explanatory value, and which sought to re-conceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.
James defined truth as that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. The lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse" but "all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere," he wrote.
Pragmatism as a view of the meaning of truth is considered obsolete in contemporary philosophy, because the predominant trend of thinking in the years since James' death (1910) has been toward non-epistemic definitions of truth, i.e. definitions that don't make truth dependent upon the warrant of a belief.
A contemporary philosopher or logician will often be found explaining that the statement "the book is on the table" is true if and only if the book is on the table.
Pragmatism remains an important contribution, though, to discussions of the theory of knowledge, i.e. the question of when we can be said to know that the book is on the table.
Philosophy of Religion
James also did important work in the study and philosophy of religion, providing a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreting them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard:
Religious genius should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions--since institutions are merely the remnant of genius.
The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind--that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
Theory of Emotion
James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Gustav Lang in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James' oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.
This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, "Principles of Psychology," that spells out those consequences.
"[W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one's taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made."
One can readily block out the subsequent history of art (subsequent to James, not to us!)with the aid of that passage. Modernism in literature and abstractionists in the visual arts expelled the romantics, and constituted a return to what James saw as the essence of classic taste. In painting, especially, the "frippery and foliage" that they stripped away included not just the picturesque mystery and gloom that, James says here, "make a work of art romantic," but the very act of representing the world.
Likewise, modernism in its turn has been expelled for now by post- modernism, and in the visual arts representation, along with "complex suggestiveness," have made their comeback. The classic/romantic pendulum continues to swing, and James has defined fairly well in this brief passage the two halves of its arc.
Philosophy of History
One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns the role of individuals in producing social change.
One faction sees individuals ("heroes" as Thomas Carlyle called them) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy with "Great Men and Their Environment," an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle's side, but without Carlyle's one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as the founders or over-throwers of states and empires.
"Rembrandt must teach us to enjoy the struggle of light with darkness," James wrote. "Wagner to enjoy peculiar musical effects; Dickens gives a twist to our sentimentality, Artemus Ward to our humor; Emerson kindles a new moral light within us."