profile: William James - Decision Making & Emotions

30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011

profile: William James
Decision Making & Emotions

Genius, it seems, runs in the family. And there are few families that demonstrate this better than the Jameses of New York. Not only was the patriarch of the family, Henry James Sen., a wealthy and respected theologian in his own right, but he was the father of three children who would in turn go on to achieve recognition in their own fields: the writer Henry James, the diarist Alice James and the psychologist William James.

It can’t have been easy being a James progeny, however, as all five of Henry James Sen.’s children suffered variously from depression and/or miscellaneous physical ailments. Their upbringing, although privileged, was unsettling — travelling frequently between the United States and Europe — and seems to have affected the famous sons in parallel ways. While Henry started studying law at Harvard before switching to literature, William studied painting before switching to medicine and then teaching psychology at Harvard. Similarly, while Henry pioneered the use of the unreliable narrator and interior monologues in fiction, William, as well as being credited for the concept of ’stream of consciousness’, is also known for his pragmatic theory of truth, in which he examined the nature of truth. One thing both brothers seemed certain of is that nothing is certain.

Like his brother, William was a prolific writer, but it was the publication of The Principles of Psychology, which took some twelve years to complete, that confirmed him as the ’father of American psychology’. The 1200-page tome and its condensed version Psychology: The Briefer Course (known respectively as The James and The Jimmy) soon became the standard reference for students of the subject. William himself was less enamoured with his creation, describing it as a ’loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: first, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and second, that WJ is an incapable’. Harsh words indeed. His truth, however, was not everyone’s truth.


Born, New York City


Studies painting


Travels up the Amazon


M.D. from Harvard


Teaches anatomy and physiology at Harvard


Teaches psychology at Harvard


Marries Alice Howe Gibbens


Teaches philosophy at Harvard


Publishes The Principles of Psychology


Resigns from Harvard


Dies, Chocorua, New Hampshire