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James began teaching psychology, as an assistant professor through the Department of Philosophy, in 1880. James's self-styled Darwinian approach to psychology became known as "functionalism" because the mind's stream of consciousness was understood as consisting of functional processes that allow people to adapt to their living environment. In contrast to James's functional psychology, Wundt's approach was known as "structuralism" because his structural analysis tried to break consciousness down into static elements and states. In addition, and in contrast to functionalists who studied individuals as they adapted to their everyday environment, structuralists studied people in laboratory settings.
James was appointed professor of psychology in 1889 and, in 1890, he published The Principles of Psychology, on which he had labored for 12 years. Its publication became a landmark event in psychology, brought James to prominence, and is still perhaps the best-known book in the field of psychology. The roles of physiologist and psychologist are intricately interwoven in The Principles. James considered the interconnectedness of mind and body a "general law." He believed no mental "modification" could occur without being accompanied by a corresponding "bodily change."
James's contributions were critical in helping psychology emerge as a separate discipline, distinct from philosophy. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1894.
Psychologist of Religion Stream
After publication of The Principles, James began to study extraordinary states of consciousness. This intellectual stream led him to a closer study of religious experiences, which he defined as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of" individuals "in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." He studied the role that religion plays in people's lives, and emphasized that he was studying religion as an "essential organ of life" from a psychological perspective. Focusing on individual religious experience instead of institutionalized religion, James believed that the most intense forms of religious experience could demonstrate normal processes of the human mind in high relief, and accordingly could be invaluable in its study. He presented his findings in The Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, and published them in book form as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. The Varieties is widely regarded as the greatest classic in the psychological study of religion, and is the best known of his works among religious studies scholars. In The Varieties, James clarified the functions, dynamics, and integrity of personal religious encounters. Two years after its publication, James was elected president of the American Psychological Association for the second time.
Looking back, by the 2nd decade of the 20th century, the psychoanalytic movements of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had become the dominant psychological schools, although the work of James and G. Stanley Hall were foundational for the school of functionalist psychology that flourished under John Dewey and others in the 1920s. Subsequently, the "pure research" of the German laboratory model became foundational for the dominant school of behaviorism, while the person-centered work of James laid the foundations for contemporary personality psychology and humanistic psychology.
James had always read philosophy, even during his medical school years, but it emerged as his primary preoccupation during the last decade of his life. During these years, his writings were primarily philosophical and, through them, he advanced the pragmatist movement.
Pragmatism (1907) is James's most well-known book among philosophers, some of whom have credited James's pragmatic philosophy with moving epistemology and ethics into the modern world. At the center of James's pragmatism is the idea that ideas are true because they work (i.e., help one to adapt to particular circumstances) instead of the other way around. James and his colleagues-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Charles Sanders Peirce-viewed ideas as tools that individuals designed in order to better cope with demands of the world. They also believed that ideas were solidified socially, not simply individually.
The growth of ideas depended on the interaction and exchange of their human "carriers." Ideas were provisional responses, and the ideas that would best survive over time were those that demonstrated adaptability to varying circumstances. Truth and value are no less constructed than discovered; this task carries with it an enormous ethical responsibility, and it is not coincidental that pragmatism arose in the wake of the Civil War.