William James Psychology Term Paper

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William James was a prominent psychologist and philosopher in the early 20th century. Presently, James' work is outdated, but only in the sense that Galileo's or Darwin's work is outdated. Both Darwin and Galileo were originators in their respective fields. Their work served as a basis for many incredible discoveries and innovations in the modern world. The work of James, too, serves as a foundation for modern science. He is one of the founders of what we currently call psychology and philosophy today ("Significance and Influence," 2002).

James was the originator of "pragmatism," and this new school of philosophical thought was so useful, that it even resonated in the works of such prominent early physicists as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. These men depended upon, "a world of events connected with one another by kinds of next-to-next relations, a world various, manifold, changeful, originating in chance, perpetuated by habits... And transformed by breaks, spontaneities, and freedoms" ("Significance and Influence," 2002). This world is a world that was first described by James in his works on pragmatism. In his famous novel entitled Pragmatism, James claims that the pragmatic method attempts "to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences" (p. 28). He also claims that in order to "develope a thought's meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance" (p. 29). In other words, James describes for men such as Einstein and Bohr a way to view scientific data -- everything has a consequence and thus everything has an origin. Because of James, men such as Einstein and Bohr knew that if they developed a thought or idea inside of their heads, they needed to determine its consequence and its origin in order to connect it, practically, with the rest of the world.

But if one only studies the influence that James had on men who worked in the fields of "pure" science such as physics, one is only gaining a periphery view of the influence, and thus the achievements of the great William James. Perhaps in order to understand better the accomplishments of this unique man, one should view his obituaries, and thus view a summary of the legacy he left on Earth when he died. One of his obituaries was printed in the New York Times in August 26th, 1910. This obituary claims that James' text entitled Principles of Psychology, "practically founded the modern science of psychology in America" ("Obituary," 2002, p.1). The obituary also claims that this text became a standard textbook for University uses. James thus has had, and will continue to have, an everlasting influence on modern psychology. Without James, perhaps American psychology wouldn't be what is it today.

Besides changing the world of psychology forever, William James can add several other accomplishments to his resume. Early in James life, he was influenced by Louis Agassiz, who was a pupil of Charles Darwin. Agassiz started James out in a career as a zoologist. James studied plants and fish in 1865 in an expedition to Brazil with Agassiz. James then abandoned this study in order to go onto Harvard Medical School and graduate with an M.D. In 1870. In 1872, James became an Assistant Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology, and he retained this post until 1880. From 1880 to 1885, he was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and then he became a professor of Philosophy until 1889. He was then a Professor of Psychology from 1889 to 1897, and then a Professor of Philosophy from 1897 to 1907 ("Obituary," 2002, p.1).

James first began to take up mental studies when he graduated from Harvard Medicine. After he did this, he began to work as an independent investigator in a small laboratory room that Harvard had given to him. There, he collected sheep's heads and frogs and pursued physiological psychology. It was from these studies that he deduced the information written in his famous textbook Principles of Psychology ("Obituary," 2002, p.1).

James' accomplishments do not end with this textbook, however. In 1880, he submitted many writings for The Atlantic Monthly. He was also a longtime contributor to The International Journal of Ethics. He later became president of the American Psychological Association and of the International Society for Physical Research.

James also received honorary degrees from Padua, Princeton, Edinburgh and Harvard. He was a Gifford Lecturer on natural religion at the University of Edinburgh from 1899 to 1901, as well. He was also a corresponding member of the Institute of France and of the Royal Prussian Academy of science. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences ("Obituary," 2002, p.1).

It wasn't until James retired from teaching that he began to study pragmatism, whereupon he became the chief American advocate of pragmatism. Using the words of the New York Times' obituary: for James, pragmatism was "a trend in philosophical thought which holds that 'that is true which works'" ("Obituary," 2002, p.1). It is this study of pragmatism that made James truly famous.

These achievements, and the influence that James had on the field of philosophy and psychology, can be compared to that of famous psychologists Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung. Judging this fact, one should look at the lives of all three men and compare whether or not their early experiences have any similarity in order to determine whether James represents an "eminent" psychologist.

Sigmund Freud grew up as a Jewish boy in a time when the Jewish world was undergoing many enormous changes. When Freud's father, Jacob, was a boy, Christians would often accost him, and he would do nothing to defend himself. Because Sigmund was appalled by his father's conduct, Sigmund continually sought "substitute" father figures in historical men such as Hannibal, a figure who was a Semitic general from Carthage. This, combined with Freud's childhood need for the sole attention of his mother, is probably the reason that he developed his theory of the Oedipal complex. Moreover, traumatic experiences in Freud's early life, such as sexual abuse, are thought to have influenced him in his theories about the psyche in general and in his theories about human piety (Fonda, 1990, p.1). Freud was thus obviously greatly influenced by his childhood. If it wasn't for the experiences of his early life, he would have probably never come up with the groundbreaking psychological theories that he did.

The theories of Karl Jung were also influenced by traumatic childhood experiences. According to lectures given in the Department of Religious Studies and Carleton University by Marc Fonda:

When we look at Jung's psychology of religion we find many themes that were important in his own life and early experience (e.g.: the division of the personality into two opposing halves, the contracting forces of light and darkness, a god that is both good and terrible, the emptiness of Protestant ritual and dogma, the contrasting power of the catholic church, and so on.) We also note his early familiarity with the power of natural symbols as well as his notions that the writings of any psychologist is intimately related to his personal experience. (Fonda, 1990, p.1)

One need to only look at the life of William James, and then at his philosophical views, to conclude to that James, like Freud and Jung, drew philosophical conclusions about life based upon his upbringing. James believes that, "all the magnificent achievements of mathematical and physical science - our doctrines of evolution, of uniformity of law, and the rest - proceed from our indomitable desire to case the world into a more rational shape in our minds than the shape into which it is thrown there by the crude order of our experiences (James, 1956, p. 147). In other words, James believes that all of the theories that man constructs about the world are based upon man's experiences in the world. James no doubt developed this theory because this was how he constructed his theories of the world. James was brought up in a very educated family. He had many experiences that were not only American in nature, but European as well. Although James received his medical degree at Harvard, he also studied psychology in Germany. An article in radicalacademy.com entitled "The Philosophy of William James" puts it most succinctly when it claims:

The results of his thinking are by no means confined to his native country, and his background is anything but exclusively American. Very few American families maintained such intimate contact with Europe as did Henry James, Sr., a theologian and philosophical writer, and a great amateur of wide culture, and his sons William and Henry.

William James formed his theories of pragmatism in the same fashion that both Freud and Jung formed their theories -- through and based upon his childhood experiences. He thus fits the profile of most eminent psychologists. Although all three of these men have different backgrounds, there is one thing that is similar within all of these backgrounds: it is the experiences…

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