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Who is William James?

William James
Photo: pfMS Am 1092 (1185), # 56. Houghton Library, Harvard University
William James at 1887

“That is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.” 

Ludwig Wittgenstein about William James

William James
Photo: pfMS Am 1092 (1185), # 56. Houghton Library, Harvard University
William James at 1887

William James (1842-1910) is one of the most important representatives of American philosophy. However, it was in the field of psychology that he first gained renown with his seminal work The Principles of Psychology (1890), which today is regarded as an interdisciplinary study par excellence. Furthermore, thanks to his study The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he continues to be seen as an important scholar of religion, and his works The Will to Believe (1897) and Pragmatism (1907) laid the foundation for American pragmatism.As a young man, James studied painting for a year. He later earned a medical degree. The diverse range of live experience and scientific sources he brought to his writings is one of the chief reasonsf for his enduring importance as a thinker.

Stages of his life

  • 11.01.1842 - Born in New York City (Astor House), the first child of a wealthy, educated family, grows up together with three brothers and a sister who are very loved and encouraged from an early age on, his young brother Henry is a well-known writer, his sister Alice writes literary diaries
  • 1847-1860 - Visiting a number of public and private schools in New York, London, Paris (1856), Newport (1858), Geneva (1859) and Bonn (1860), he does not graduate
  • 1860 - Family returns after abroad to Newport, William begins at first to study painting
  • 1861 - Change at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard to study the chemistry and anatomy
  • 1864 - Change to the Department of Medicine
  • 1865-1866 - Expedition to the Amazon (Brazil), which is headed by the geologist Louis Agassiz; disease
  • 1867-1868 - Stays in various German spas, lifelong health problems (chronic back and eye problems, insomnia and depression)
    Attending lectures on the physiology and psychology in Berlin and reading the philosophical, psychological and physiological publications of Wundt, Kant, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Renan, Renouvier
  • 1869 - finishing the study of medicine with the Doctor of Medicine (MD), without ever practicing medicine
  • 1870-1871 - Depression and poor health
  • 1870er - Member of the "Metaphysical Club" at Cambridge, lead by Charles Sanders Peirce
  • 1872 - Offer of the President of the Harvard University to teach a basic course in comparative physiology
  • 1873-1907 - Lecturer at Harvard University
  • 1873-1876 - Courses in anatomy and physiology; stay in Europe
  • 1875 - Courses in experimental psychology (for the first time in the U.S.), his students treated collegially, asks them to evaluate his teaching, founded first American psychology laboratory
  • 1876 - Appointment as Assistant Professor of Physiology
  • 1878 - Marriage with Alice Howe Gibbens
  • 1880 - Appointment as Assistant Professor of Philosophy
  • 1882 - Stay in Europe
  • 1885 - Complete change towards philosophy, was appointed full professor of philosophy
  • 1894-1895 - President of the "Society for Psychical Research"
  • 1901 and 1902 - Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh
  • 1903 - Participation on the 5th International Congress of Psychology in Rome; Honorary doctorate from Harvard University
  • 1906 - Visiting Professor at Stanford University
  • 1907 - Lectures in Boston; Retirement, continued his publishing activities
  • 1908 - Hibbert Lectures at Oxford
  • 26. August 1910- Death at his country home in Chocorua, New Hampshire