William James - mystic, psychologist, philosopher

William JamesPioneer psychologist, unique philosopher and religious thinker

Influential in the young sciences of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James.

Without ignoring James' contributions to psychology and philosophy, this page focuses mostly on his work in the field of religion.

See also: Books by William James still in print.

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

What made William James famous?

  1. He wrote about religious experience from it's own perspective
  2. He was one of the founders of psychology
  3. He was a famous philosopher


  1. William James was a theosophist
  2. and quoted Blavatsky's Voice of the Silence in his famous 'Varieties of Religious Experience'.

Since he makes sure to quote a large variety of sources, this may not impress non-theosophists, but there you have it.

William James - summarized biography

William James (January 11, 1842 - August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher trained as a medical doctor. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James.

William James was born at the Astor House in New York City, He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Jr., James George Frazer, Henri Bergson, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Carl Jung and Benito Mussolini.


William James Quotes

Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 51

Religion is "That personal attitude which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards what he apprehends to be the divine."

Lecture I, Religion and Neurology:

There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience . . . that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings; a discordancy which will be brought home to us acutely enough before these lectures end.

Lecture II, Circumscription of the Topic:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in Human Nature

What William James is most famous for...

Not only is this book an absolute classic in the world of psychology and the psychology of religion - it was also very influential in the philosophy of religion.

Not that that's surprising: William James was both a philosopher and a psychologist (easier then than now).

I thought the quotes from a variety of sources - people's own spiritual experiences - made this book timeless. Aside from that: William James' insight into religion and it's clash with modernity ages well also.

On Reason and Religion

The perspective of William James

William James felt that reason and religion could be combined - and had to be.

The limits of reason had to be faced though.

In other words: People have the will to believe.

Another way of putting it is:

Skeptics hate falsehood. They will not believe what cannot be proved.

Believers love truth. They will believe what hasn't been proved wrong.

Pragmatism - a school of philosophy

Pragmatism is a philosophic school generally considered to have originated in the late nineteenth century with Charles Peirce, who first stated the pragmatic maxim. It came to fruition in the early twentieth-century philosophies of William James and John Dewey. Most of the thinkers who describe themselves as pragmatists consider practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth.


Psychological works

William James wrote voluminously throughout his life. A fairly complete bibliography of his writings by John McDermott is 47 pages long.

He gained widespread recognition with his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), twelve hundred pages in two volumes which took twelve years to complete. Psychology: The Briefer Course, was an 1892 abridgement designed as a less rigorous introduction to the field. These works criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism of his day as competing dogmatisms of little explanatory value, and sought to re-conceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.