William James The Early Years Essay Research

William James: The Early Years Essay, Research Paper

William James: The Later Years

William James introduced experimental psychology to America. He began giving laboratory demonstrations to students at least as early as Wundt, and he and his students started performing laboratory experiments about the same time as Wundt and his students. Ironically, while James made much of the value of experimentation, he himself found it boring. He usually spent no more than two hours a day in the laboratory. Yet he believed in it and had his students perform a broad array of experiments. Although James hated to do experiments, he forced himself to when it was the best way to prove or disprove a theory.

But James’s own experiments were only one source of his ideas about psychology.

He came up with many of his major insights and hypotheses from another and very different source: introspection, of a kind quite unlike that practiced by Wundt and his students. In James’s opinion, any effort to seize and isolate individual elements of a thought process by means of Wundtian introspection would fail. But he felt that a naturalistic kind of introspection, to observe our own thoughts and feelings as they actually seem to us, could tell us alot about our mental life. This was for him, the most important of the investigative methods. Introspection required both concentration and practice, because inner states follow each other rapidly and often are blended and difficult to distinguish from one another. Just as with practice one can notice, observe, name, and classify objects outside oneself, one can do so with inner events. Introspection is in reality, immediate retrospection; the conscious mind looks back and reports what it has just experienced.

James admitted that introspection is difficult and prone to error. Who could be sure of the exact order of feelings when they were excessively rapid? Etc But he said that the validity of some kinds of introspective reports could be tested and verified by at least half a dozen kinds of well-established experimentation. The duration of simple mental processes for one, could be estimated introspectively and then verified by reaction-time experiments; the introspective report of how many digits or letters one could simultaneously keep in mind for another, could be verified by apperception experiments. And while introspective reports of the more complex and subtle mental states might be impossible to verify experimentally, James said that since those acts are introspectively observable, any straightforward account of them can be regarded as literal.

One other source of James’s psychological ideas possibly the most important of all was personal and nonscientific: his naturalistic, perceptive, and wise interpretation of human behavior, based on his own experience and understanding. Many of his major insights came from psychologizing.

James had influence in many topics of psychology but is main studies were in his following concepts:

Functionalism: Mainly applied to James. Unlike the New psychologists, who maintained that higher mental processes are assembled in each individual from simple elements, James held that the higher processes were developed over the ages by evolution because of their adaptive value. It was clear to James that the mind’s complex processes had evolved because of their life-preserving functions, and to understand those processes one had to ask what functions they perform.

Functionalism is accurate enough, except that it applied only to some parts of James’s psychology. He viewed mental life as real, and the physiological view that mind was nothing but physical reactions to outside stimuli as unworthy of belief or even debate:

The proper subject of psychology was therefore, the introspective analysis of the “states of mind” that we are conscious of in daily life and of the functions they perform for the organism.

The unconscious: James’s psychology was concerned almost entirely with conscious mental life. In discussing voluntary acts, James distinguished between acts which we perform by consciously commanding muscular movements and those others of voluntary acts which, long performed and practiced, immediately and automatically follow the mental choice as if of themselves. We walk without thinking of the movements that are necessary; a principle in psychology states that consciousness deserts all processes where it can no longer be of use. James s research, which has shown that with practice, complex voluntary movements such as driving, or playing tennis become “overlearned” and are carried out unconsciously as soon as the conscious mind issues a general order.

He also recognized that when we do not attend to experiences, we may remain mostly unconscious of them even though they have their normal effect on our sense organs.

Emotion: One minor theory advanced by James became more famous and led to more research than any of the present theories. This was his theory of emotion. That emotion we feel is not what causes such bodily symptoms as a racing heart or sweaty palms; rather, the nervous system, reacting to an external stimulus, produces those physical symptoms, and our perception of them is what we call an emotion.

Will: Some commentators say that James’s most valuable contribution to psychology was his theory of the will, the conscious process that directs voluntary movements.

James’s discussed will as neurophysiological, dealing with how the will generates the nerve impulses that produce the desired muscular movements. But the far more interesting question he took up was how we come to will any act in the first place. The key factor, in his view, was a supply of information and experience about our ability to achieve a desired end.

After twelve years of research, introspection, psychologizing, and writing, James completed Principles, which had been an almost intolerable burden to him. Principles was a big success, and had a lasting effect on the development of American psychology.

By 1892, when James completed Jimmy, he had been teaching and writing about psychology for seventeen years, and grown tired of it. From then on he turned his creative efforts toward other things such as education , the practical results of different kinds of religious experience, and philosophy. He did, however, continue to write of some of the ideas he had advanced in Principles and to keep up with psychological developments.

James was willing to explore forms of psychology outside accepted scientific bounds. He took a keen interest in spiritualism and “psychical” phenomena, considering them an extension of abnormal psychology; closely followed the efforts of psychical researchers and attended seances; and in 1884 founded the American Society for Psychical Research.

From 1898 on, James had personal reasons to be interested in the afterlife. That year, at fifty-six, he overtaxed his heart while climbing in the Adirondacks, and thereafter had chronic heart trouble. His health gradually worsened; he resigned from Harvard in 1907 and died in 1910, at sixty-eight.

James s influenced psychology in two ways. One his suggested applications of psychological principles to teaching became the core of educational psychology. The other in 1909, James, as an executive committee member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, was largely responsible for getting the Rockefeller Foundation and similar groups to allocate millions of dollars to the mental hygiene movement, the development of mental hospitals, and the training of mental health professionals. William James was know as one of America s most respected pschologist.


1.) William James. Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. 1998.

2.) William James. World Book Encyclopedia. 1995.



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