William James Psychology


William James Theories

William James (1842 – 1910) is an American philosopher.

Master of the psychological analysis, keen observer who has opened a new path into introspection theorist of emotions and the subconscious, analyst of religious beliefs, but founder of  the  metaphysical doctrine called “pluralistic universe” and a pragmatic theory of truth, William James is one of the great figures of pragmatism, which continues to diversify after him.

James’ exploration of psychic life

Physiology and metaphysics

With the publication of Principles of Psychology in 1890, William James became famous all around the world. In the conclusion of the book that guides American psychology in the direction of functionalism and behaviorism announcement of the next generation, the author rejects the notion of consciousness.

Against the principle of inertia, which is the basis of the physical sciences, James, founder in 1873 of one of the first experimental psychology laboratories in the United States, invokes the heart of psychic life, the stream of consciousness, which continues to dig a bed through the multitude of our sense impressions. Mental life is, as Bergson James, fluid and transitive. Organic changes, particularly evident in the emotions, far from the result of a conscious decision as required by intellectualism, “immediately following the perception, and it is the awareness that we have as they occur which is emotion as a psychological fact. ” So wrote James, contrary to what common sense suggests, we are not afraid because we meet a bear, we do not get angry because we insult. In fact, demonstrations, plant stand between perception (“fact of consciousness representative”) and emotion (“emotional state of consciousness”): because we are afraid that the sight of the bear makes us tremble, and we ‘re angry because we strike the one who insults us. Without the bodily states, the perception will not cause any emotional charge: “We could then see the bear and decide that it is best to run away, heard the insult and judge should be hitting, but we felt neither fear or anger, in the sense that these words express a psychological reality. ”

James’s emphasis on the physiology, his concern to describe psychic life as concretely as possible does not necessarily mean he shares the disdain with which ordinary minds with regard to metaphysics. On the contrary, for him, the problems addressed by metaphysics is “the most important are, for anyone who wants to penetrate in depth the internal constitution of the universe considered as a whole.”

Pragmatism and the tension between belief and reality

In 1907, James published a series of lectures on philosophy called pragmatism, stating that the name of this philosophical trend, founded by John Dewey (1859-1952), appeared for the first time in 1878 in an article by Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Forgotten for twenty years, the term is used again by James in a speech on religion delivered at the University of California.

According to James, pragmatism is a radical empiricism – a way hostile to any abstraction – but it’s also a theory of truth, whose originality lies in its concrete vision of things. Any investigation undertaken by this school of thought starts, passes and ends with the concrete.

Like any thinker claiming pragmatism, James is primarily concerned with a truth that has practical applications that is useful to action: “The truth is simply what is good for our thoughts, as well as the right consists simply of what is good for our conduct. ”

But, unlike other versions of pragmatism, as James has a constant tension between the subjective pole and the objective pole of knowledge, ie between belief and reality, which are the two benchmarks to validate the truth.

Religious experience

The truth is that religion has a different order from scientific truth, but it is not necessary unless our membership. Belief in the possibility of miracles is well accepted by James as a prudent reserve in respect of universal determinism which science attributes the production of phenomena. Consciousness, with its aspirations, plans, beliefs, is not a mere epiphenomenon, but a policy instrument that plays a role in the course of events.

The subjective world of our beliefs produces forms of existence, grouped by James under the term “religious experience”, which refer to realities which science physical-mechanical and can not account for any scientific law can not occur. Religion and science are both “organizations of our representations,” in which reality is seen as conducive to achieving our purpose: ie, in the long term, the long detour impersonal and symbolic scientific theories is, however, by a short circuit between the divine and dazzling to me, in different varieties of personal religious experience.

James is, without regret, the multiplicity of sects, creeds, different types of religion, which should give everyone a satisfactory solution to its own difficulties, for “everyone, from his point of view, sees a set of realities more or less compelling and can adapt as an original attitude. ” Ultimately, the reality is composed exclusively of “individual experience”.

Truth and opinion

One of the criticisms most often addressed to James is that it confuses the truth with any purely subjective illusion. However, in his last two books, the idea of ​​truth and a pluralistic universe, published in 1909, James is working to overcome the opposition between the plurality of experiences and the unity of truth, as he tried to beyond the usual religious point of view, raises one hand and God on the other, men, distinct and different. The philosopher rejects the opposition between subjectivism and realism by saying that the particular human beliefs are not false because they refer to realities that can not be known if we did not. Having set out in a pluralistic universe essentially religious conception of the metaphysical structure of the universe, James finally defines truth as “an ideal set of formulas to which we can expect to see during the experience, converge the long run all opinions. ”

This hope of ultimate convergence, beyond the irreducibly singular character of any experience, gives the pragmatism of James’s great originality, he was also far more successful than the original theory of Charles S. Peirce. But in 30 years, pragmatism is divided into several rival schools, so that one could identify thirteen different meanings of the term and that the label “pragmatism” has fallen into relative disrepute.

After referring once a certain style of thought, which are associated with Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, William James is back today in the philosophical debate, precisely because of the many opportunities offered by his work. Indeed, whether the origin of concepts, issues of truth, reality or appropriateness of language, his thought is at the heart of the discussions that oppose the main representatives of American philosophy (Willard Quine, Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty), opponents or supporters of the pragmatism of James, Peirce and Dewey.

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