An Introduction to William James

Austin Tannenbaum
10 min readMar 29, 2021

William James was a 19th century American philosopher who co-founded the school of pragmatism, which presents truth as contextual and useful rather than universal and certain. Born into a wealthy family, he was delivered on January 11, 1842 at the Astor House, the first luxury hotel in New York City. His grandfather had been an Irish immigrant and a rags-to-riches story, and his father, upon inheriting the former’s fortune, lost the need to work and turned to religion to find meaning in life, becoming a Christian theologian. William was the eldest of his siblings, which included the famous novelist Henry James and the diarist Alice James. His godfather was the transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As a child, James received a cosmopolitan education, frequently traveling to Europe with his family and becoming fluent in both German and French. Initially interested in becoming a painter, James apprenticed under William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island as an adolescent, but eventually dropped his artistic pursuits to study medicine at his father’s behest.

Throughout his life, James was plagued by ailments of the eyes, skin, stomach, and back, among others. He and his older siblings were exempted from participating in the Civil War due to their invalidism while his two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson and Robertson, enlisted. James also suffered from neurasthenia, becoming depressed and contemplating suicide for months on end.

A major source of his moodiness was his dismay that the universe may be determined and that he may thus lack free will. After witnessing an epileptic patient at an asylum while studying as a medical student, James fell into crisis, realizing that he too could succumb to such a fate, powerless to stop it. He later wrote that it wasn’t until 1872 that he cured his “soul sickness” after an intense period of philosophical searching.

Three years earlier, James had earned his MD at Harvard, although he never went on to practice medicine. Instead, he began publishing essays in literary periodicals and became a professor at Harvard. He taught many students who became leaders and public intellectuals, including Theodore Roosevelt, George Santayana, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1878, James married a woman named Alice Gibbins and had five children with her. He spent his mature life teaching and writing. In August of 1910, after unsuccessfully seeking treatment in Europe for his heart condition, James returned to the U.S. and passed away shortly after.

As the co-founder of pragmatism, James sought to correct what he viewed as mistakes within the epistemological tradition of his time. He dismissed abstract postulating about truth as too removed from the real world, preferring instead to observe how truth arises and operates in our day-to-day lives. His thesis is that truths are not eternal, fixed laws that we merely uncover, but narratives that we continually create and recreate to help us navigate the world. James distinguished between facts, which are neither true or false, but simply are, and truths, which are concepts that we form using facts. These concepts are not theoretic entities formed for their own sake, but functional entities that are used to advance our interests. James describes truths as having a “cash value,” meaning they produce worth for an individual in some aspect of their life.

One implication of this is that truth is context-dependent: never “truth always,” but “truth insofar.” James illustrates this in his lecture “What Pragmatism Means” with a thought experiment involving a squirrel and a human on opposite sides of a thick tree. The human chases, but never catches up with the squirrel as the two race around the tree. The question is, does the human “go round” the squirrel? James writes that during a campfire trip, a debate on this question raged among his friends, with half swearing the answer was yes and the other half swearing the answer was no. When queried himself, James answered that, in truth, it depends. If “go round” means having been in all directions of the squirrel, the answer is yes, as the human is variously to the south, east, north, and west of it during the chase. But if “go round” means circling the squirrel’s body, the answer is no, as the squirrel keeps its belly to the tree as it is being chased.

With this, James is accused of cheapening truth, if not denying it altogether. But James does distinguish between truth and falsity, stating that,

“True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.”

He then gives an account of how we arrive at truth by combining existing epistemological notions with his own original thought. First, he unites the rationalist and empiricist schools, stating that he is “interested in no conclusions but those which our minds and our experiences work out together.” Second, he affirms both the correspondence theory of truth, which states that true ideas are confirmed by actual things in the world, and the coherence theory of truth, which states that true ideas harmonize with existing ideas to form a consistent picture of reality. Relatedly, James describes truth as performing a “marriage function,” wedding new ideas to old ideas by tailoring the new to fit the old with as little disruption to an individual’s worldview as possible. Third, he suggests that any bona fide truth must have some practical consequence — in other words, “it must make a difference.” Using pragmatism co-founder Charles Sanders Peirce’s maxim that beliefs are really just “rules for action,” James asserts that choosing among competing truths is only consequential when each leads to a different way of acting, and thus to a different outcome — otherwise, it is merely an academic exercise. Finally, ultimate test of an idea’s truth is to put it into practice and observe the results. If the idea compliments old truths and “agreeably leads” to new truths, it ought to be adopted. In James’s words,

“Any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.”

Yet even truths that check all of these methodological boxes fall short of certainty. James is an adherent of pluralism, which depicts reality as an irreducible diversity. His theory of “radical empiricism” states that because each of our constitutions, environments, and experiences influence how we view the world, we will all arrive at slightly different conclusions, which aren’t wrong per se but aren’t universally right either. James also accepts the fallibilist view that there remains a sliver of doubt in all truths, both because, a la Hume, it is possible that the laws of nature, which inform our truths, could change, and because history shows that truths are unstable, with even the most seemingly inviolable ones being periodically undermined by new discoveries.

The last key point in James’s pragmatism is that truth matters to us. If it didn’t — if a thing’s being true or false did not make a difference in our lives — we wouldn’t concern ourselves with truth in the first place. As an early proponent of evolutionary psychology, James believed that we evolved a desire for truth because it helps us distinguish the “ useful” from the “harmful” and reconcile “inwardly troubling” contradictions that we encounter. With this in mind, James concludes that truth is not a freestanding entity but a “species of good,” not an end itself but a “means toward other vital satisfactions.”

James applies this pragmatist lens to investigations of religion and mysticism. He begins with a shift in focus from institutionalized religion to mystical experience, bracketing the question of objective metaphysical truth in Husserlian fashion and instead investigating what it’s like subjectively to have such an experience. James believed that mystical experiences arise from a combination of faith and insanity and experimented with hallucinogenic drugs in an attempt to reach such a state. James himself was interested in the occult, even co-founding a parapsychology society. According to James, mystical experiences have four major qualities:

  1. Passivity: being directed by a force that feels beyond one’s control.
  2. Ineffability: an inability to adequately express the experience in words.
  3. Noetism: acquiring wisdom, which seems underivable from any other source.
  4. Transience: the experience is temporary and quickly fades.

By examining what these experiences are like, James suggests that psychologists may gain insight into the workings of the mind, particularly regarding belief. James is interested in what he calls “overbeliefs”: ideas that cannot be proven, which we nonetheless adopt. Faith and occultism are examples of overbeliefs that we incorporate into our worldview despite there not being enough evidence to justify them. Far from rejecting overbeliefs as too uncertain, James holds that they are what make life meaningful. While there is no concrete proof in matters such as love, friendship, and morality, for instance, from a pragmatic standpoint they ought to be embraced anyway, for without them, we would all be leading impoverished lives.

With this, James uncovers an important dynamic in the psychology of belief: we accept ideas as true not because they are certain, but because they are useful. James was a pioneer in psychology, being the first educator in the U.S. to offer a course on the subject as well as a founder of functional psychology, which identifies the evolutionary advantages of human behavioral patterns. At root, psychology, or “the study of the soul,” explores the nature of the psyche. James describes the psyche as one’s personal thoughts about themself and the world, which are in constant flux yet simultaneously preserve an overall sense of continuity of self. This process is said to consist of four parts:

  1. Sensation, which acquaints us with some fact about reality.
  2. Perception, which relates this fact to other facts.
  3. Imagination, which retrieves mental copies of past sensations and perceptions via the memory.
  4. Belief, which establishes that a certain idea corresponds to reality.

James conceptually divides the self into the outward-facing “me” and the inward-facing “I.” The “me” views itself as an object perceived by others and consists of social markers such as one’s relationships, possessions, reputations, personalities, and values. The “I” is the self-aware subject that recognizes the totality of its experience as belonging to a single, enduring identity.

Notably, James places an emphasis on our instincts, or our automatic responses to stimuli, in determining how we feel. In fact, he maintains that the physical precedes and triggers the mental, with chemical changes in the body inducing emotions in the mind. James’s famous example posits that upon encountering a bear, we do not fear the bear and as a result run away. Instead, our adrenal glands secrete fight or flight hormones, causing us to run, and only then do we become scared.

Given this causal relationship between physiology and psychology, an important question arises: is there any room left for free will? James believes there is, and offers some ideas to support his stance. First, while some aspects of our world are determined, with only one possible outcome, others are left to chance, with multiple possible outcomes. In James’s two-stage model of decision-making, we are given the chance to decide among a set of possibilities and then choose among them. All possibilities are said to be known by God in the same way that a fictional perfect grandmaster may know all the possible moves on a chessboard. The implication is that while all possibilities lead to a foreknown destination, we have the freedom to choose how we get there. James supplies the familiar situation of being faced with two equidistant routes for getting home and argues that since there is no reason why we must take this or that route, we use our agency to choose one — rather than remaining paralyzed like Buridan’s ass.

Second, in describing the decision-making process, James identifies two major factors that guide our choices:

  1. Propensities, or what is easiest.
  2. Ideals, or what is best.

James acknowledges that in the absence of effort, we would simply act in accordance with our propensities, effectively negating our free will. However, since we are capable of effort, we may resist what is easiest to pursue what is best despite its difficulty. According to James, free will is thus “the amount of effort of attention or consent which we can at any time put forth.”

Lastly, borrowing from Kantian notions of responsibility, James suggests that it would be absurd to possess feelings of guilt and pride if all of our actions were determined. In such a scenario, no act would be blameworthy or praiseworthy, as no act would be the product of one’s own virtue or vice, but rather the mere unfolding of inescapable cause and effect.

Despite all of these arguments for free will, James admits that he has fallen short of proving its existence. In fact, James argues that such a feat is impossible, as free will involves possibilities rather than actualities. But James maintains that it is far more useful to affirm free will than to deny it, as its affirmation causes us to believe that we can improve ourselves and society, while its denial leaves us either in a gloomy pessimism that the world’s suffering and evil are completely out of our control or a passive optimism that shirks responsibility on the assumption that everything is for the best. In pragmatist fashion, James declares that his first act of free will is to believe that he has free will and that humans are capable of bettering the world through their efforts.

James holds that our ultimate pursuit in life is happiness, which motivates us to act and endure. Happiness is described as life satisfaction, attained by setting goals for ourselves and feeling like we are making progress toward them. Partly due to this striving, humans are said to be antagonistic, tending toward violence and war. Interestingly, James acknowledges that war cultivates some virtues, including patriotism, loyalty, social solidarity, and national vigor. However, as a pacifist, and in light of the destructiveness of modern war, James places an urgent need on counteracting our penchant for war and finding an alternative that fosters the above virtues without the accompanying carnage.

Fortunately for humans, we do not just possess self-interested striving, but also an instinctual moral sense that James describes as being given shape and form by our environment. The human project is thus to create a society that morally educates its citizens to be peaceful and tolerant. Envisioning such a society, James advocates an “intellectual republic” in which wealth is distributed more equitably and adults are drafted not into the military but a “national service” to combat common enemies such as famine, disease, and pollution. In keeping with James’s stance on free will, it is entirely up to us whether we use our volition to see this ideal through.