Who was William James in Psychology? William James was a highly influential figure in the joint fields of psychology, philosophy, and physiology, and a self confessed “moral psychologist”. One of his best known works is The Principles of Psychology (1890), a 1,500 page discussion on a variety of different subjects, that includes chapters on “The Consciousness of Self”, “Emotion”, and The Stream of Thought”, along with plenty of personal reflections thrown in for good measure. He defined his seminal work as “looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover”.
The work of William James psychology ran the gamut from psychology to philosophy, biology and religion and he was partly responsible for introducing psychology as an area of study in the United States: he established the first psychology laboratory and taught the first course in Psychology, although he later admitted that he had “drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave”.
One of the best known chapters in The Principles of Psychology is “The Stream of Thought” and in it he discusses the idea that consciousness is a stream rather than a series of different ideas. During the course of his studies, he examined a wide range of different states of consciousness, stating that psychology should consider all and any “mental states” as useful data for religion, medicine, and education. Thanks to his work, the study of consciousness spawned a neuroscience revolution that focussed on the biology of consciousness. Other well known chapters in The Principles of Psychology are “Emotions” and “Will”.
In 1884, William James published an article: “What is an Emotion?” in which he discussed the theory of emotion and his view that emotion was based on our mind’s perception of certain physiological responses —and then went on to answer his own question. “it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind’s perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.”
When discussing “will”, he talks about how some actions require resolve, whereas others do not: “I sit at table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about. There is certainly no express fiat here…” Another one of his other major works was entitled: “The Will to Believe” (1896).
Thanks to the eclectic works of William James psychology, the field of psychological study expanded into a series of speciality studies and modern students still refer to his seminal texts on psychology, philosophy, and religion. He has also had a lasting effect on the fields of philosophy and education, and since the 1960s, his work on “consciousness” has been expanded upon while many of his other contributions have been absorbed into the mainstream.