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By William James / Longman / 1907
Is life worth living? This question, the title of one of William James’ essays, is one James himself struggled with in his life and work. Trained as a doctor, James never practiced medicine. Perhaps due to his own struggles with depression and melancholy, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. That interest turned into a serious academic career. Known as the father of American psychology, James is the founder of functional psychology and cofounder of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. He also wrote an important work on the psychology of religious experience. James’ philosophical work forms some of the seminal thinking on pragmatism—the belief that usefulness, not truth, should be the focus of philosophical ideas.
Many philosophers consider Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking one of the most important works of American philosophy. In the book, James lays out his philosophical pragmatism, building on the work of his friends John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. James defines pragmatism as a methodology that steers between the Scylla of rational absolutism and the Charybdis of empirical materialism. It is a method, says James, of choosing theories. In pragmatism, the validity of an idea is judged by whether or not it has results, not by whether it is a priori true. Truth, for James, does not live in any one proposition. Rather, says James, “truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation.” In other words, a proposition is said to be truthful if it has practical consequences in concrete experience. As such, James affirms rationalism by making its ultimate value contingent upon empiricism.
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William James (1842–1910) was born at the Astor House in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr., was a Swedenborgian theologian. His godfather was poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. James studied science at Harvard University and enrolled in Harvard Medical School, earning an MD in 1869. In 1878, he married Alice Gibbens, and in 1882, he became a member of the theosophical society. James suffered various forms of depression throughout his life. Though he studied medicine, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. He began writing on these subjects and eventually began teaching at Harvard. He held professorships of both philosophy and psychology, ending his career as emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907. Medical historians consider him the 14th most eminent psychologist of the twentieth century.