The Thinker Who Believed in Doing
William James and the philosophy of pragmatism
Born: January 11, 1842; Died: August 26, 1910
Philosophy Matters posted from NEH.gov
Here’s William James posed like some bohemian bad ass. Maybe he was, he certainly didn’t play by the rules. He was a famous procrastinator and an adored teacher (Harvard). His rambling lectures and topics that were not outlined excited thought and questions. None of the other professors took the same approach and resented his unorthodox behavior, especially since it generated a respected following. In his biography of James, Robert Richardson says, “William James was one of America’s great teachers.”
The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, was praised in America and Europe both by academics and lay readers. Historian Jacques Barzun declared it a classic and likened it to Moby-Dick. This is the book that took James to the heights of fame. It was also a book that he promised the publisher would be completed in two years. He finished it 12 years later.
An early chapter of Psychology, “Habit,” was typical of his style: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” James makes the case for habit, calling it the “enormous fly-wheel of society,” and offers specific suggestions about how to make useful actions automatic: Make resolutions, publicize them, act on them, and persist. Proper habits acted upon and pursued become embedded in the brain. Automaticity diminishes fatigue and sets free “our higher powers of mind.” It makes daily life bearable and civilization flourish.
It was James who invented the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the workings of our minds. Our thinking is not orderly or logical but chaotic, our moods constantly and inexplicably shifting.
I’m sure that William would have been welcomed at any Bohemian gathering or Salon.