William James

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(1842-1910)

William James, born January 11, 1842, was an American philosopher and psychologist who was also trained as a physician. The first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”.  He is considered to be one of the greatest figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology.

Born into a wealthy family, James was the brother of both the prominent novelist Henry James, and the diarist Alice James. James wrote widely on many topics.  Among his most influential books are Principles of Psychology, which was a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology, Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy, and The Varieties of Religious Experience, which investigated different forms of religious experience.

He took up medical studies at The Harvard Medical School in 1864. He took a break in the spring of 1865 to join naturalist Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, as he suffered bouts of severe seasickness and mild smallpox. His studies were interrupted once again due to illness in April 1867. He traveled to Germany in search of a cure and remained there until November 1868; at that time he was 26 years old.

James spent almost his entire academic career at Harvard. He was appointed instructor in physiology for the spring 1873 term, instructor in anatomy and physiology in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, full professor in 1885, endowed chair in psychology in 1889, return to philosophy in 1897, and emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

Following his January, 1907 retirement from Harvard, James continued to write and lecture.  His heart failed him on August 26, 1910 at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. He was buried in the family plot in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.