Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter J - JAMES, WILLIAM

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

William James (1842-1910), the father of American psychology and leading American philosopher, was also a pioneer in the psychological study of religion. A person of diverse talents, James distinguished himself in numerous fields related to religion and spiritual development. He is perhaps most famous for his seminal books in psychology-the two-volume work The Principles of Psychology (1890), and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In the last decade of his life, he focused on the development of an American stream of philosophy, pragmatism. James's contributions are so substantial that several disciplines consider him a key historical figure.


Born on January 11, 1842, in New York City, William James was the eldest of five children. His father, Henry James Sr., had received a significant inheritance that allowed him to live as a man of leisure and a freelance free-thinking theologian, while his mother espoused a more conventional Christian path. Life in the James household was intellectually rich and unorthodox. James and his brother Henry Jr. (the future novelist) attended a succession of schools in Europe and the United States, and they benefited from a series of language tutors and diverse cultural experiences as the family lived in Dresden, Geneva, London, and Paris, and eventually settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

James's father was a gifted conversationalist, and the James children were encouraged to participate in family discussions. Other participants in those discussions regularly included visitors to the James home- Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Stuart Mill, and many others. William developed an eagerness for ongoing intellectual exploration, and a willingness to seriously engage with perspectives different from his own.

Art Student

The earliest identifiable vocational interests that James pursued were those of naturalist and artist. At the age of 18, he began formal studies with American painter William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but his vocation as art student lasted only 6 months. Nevertheless, the training James received as an artist continued to influence the ways that he focused his attention in other areas. He continued to sketch and draw and retained a keen observational eye for detail in his scientific pursuits. His observational abilities surfaced both in his empirical work and in his recognition of the importance of attention in human psychology.

Medical Student

In 1861 James began his lifetime association with Harvard University when he enrolled to study chemistry. His interest in chemistry soon paled, however, and he turned to physiology and medicine. James continued to combine his interests in science and nature, and in 1865, at the age of 23, James traveled to Brazil with Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz. James was to serve as a field naturalist, collecting and marking species as they were added to Agassiz's collection. James's career as naturalist was cut short when he caught varioloid, a form of smallpox, and was hospitalized. Destabilized by illness, and deeply upset by the death of a favorite cousin, James returned to Boston to resume his medical studies. The following year, he began a clerkship at Massachusetts General Hospital, but by April he again fell ill and suspended his medical education. Periods of study alternated with periods of rest and travel until, in 1869, he completed training as a medical doctor at Harvard University.

Physiologist Stream

After completing his medical degree, James was still unclear about his vocational path. He experienced 3 years of ill health, and thus did not seriously pursue clinical practice. During these years, he remained interested in physiology and comparative anatomy, and when a friend, Henry Bowditch, decided to take a year's leave from teaching physiology at Harvard, he recommended James as a replacement. James was appointed instructor of physiology in 1872, and assistant professor of physiology in 1876. He taught physiology for 8 years.

During this time he became interested in physiological psychology. In 1875, James taught the first psychology course and established the first psychological laboratory in the United States, both at Harvard. Wilhelm Wundt, also in 1875, established the first psychological research laboratory in Europe. James's and Wundt's laboratories signaled that a "new" psychology was emerging. James himself clarified the link between the physiological and the psychological when he wrote to a colleague, "[A] union of the two 'disciplines' in one man seems then the most natural thing in the world, if not the most traditional." James's training in physiology influenced the way in which he approached future disciplinary endeavors. James's future writings would all be informed by his understanding of and the centrality he gave to the physical body.