William James & Psychology: Theories, Overview

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  • 0:00 William James - Background
  • 1:30 Pragmatism And Functionalism
  • 2:55 Principles Of…
  • 4:30 James-Lange Theory Of Emotion
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lawrence Jones

Lawrence "LoJo" Jones teaches Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Critical Thinking

Often referred to as 'The Father of American Psychology,' William James was one of the first prominent American psychologists. His ideas on how the human mind functions led to his development and influence on the budding field of psychology here in the United States.

William James - Background

'The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook,' wrote William James in his groundbreaking 1200-page masterpiece The Principles of Psychology, written in 1890. This is good advice to keep in mind when approaching the life, works, and ideas of one of the most prolific psychologists and philosophers of the 20th century - a figure commonly known as 'the father of American psychology.'

James offered some interesting ideas to counter the psychological concepts of his contemporaries. Psychology was a young field at the time and William James was influential in our understanding of how the mind works. Obviously, he didn't have the modern technology of brain imaging, so he focused on what he could observe and reason from those observations. He spent almost his entire academic career at Harvard University as a professor of not only psychology but also physiology and philosophy.

William James was among the first teachers of psychology here in the U.S. He famously commented 'The first lecture on psychology I ever heard was the first I ever gave.' Among James' students at Harvard were such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein and George Santayana, as well as many psychologists - G. Stanley Hall, Edward Thorndike, Mary Whiton Calkins - who all went on to be hugely influential in their own rights. James is also remembered for having set up one of the first experimental psychology labs in the United States.

Pragmatism and Functionalism

William James' lectures, writings and theories were organized around the dual principles of functionalism and pragmatism. Functionalism considers thought and behavior in terms of how they help a person adapt to their environment. In other words, how they help a person 'function' in the world and be successful. The functional approach was a response to prevailing structuralist approaches in psychology that broke down abstract mental events into their smallest elements through experimental techniques and introspection. Structuralists believed that the parts of the brain acted the same in any circumstance, whereas James was much more interested in its functional adaptability.

James was also active in the world of philosophy and his ideas of Pragmatism reflected his fundamental perspective. The basic assumption of pragmatism is that the abstract 'truth' of an idea can never be fully proven and so philosophy should instead focus on the usefulness of an idea, or the difference they can make in people's lives. James called this the 'cash value' of an idea.

As James developed these views, he moved away from scientific, experimental approaches to psychology, towards a more philosophical approach. His writing is notable for its engaging, accessible, humorous, literary, and almost conversational tone. It was said of his book Principles of Psychology (1890), 'It is literature. It is beautiful, but it is not psychology.'

Principles of Psychology and the Stream of Consciousness

James's famous book examines the history of human psychology in three main ways: first, through an analysis of historical and contemporary views of the mind, particularly those of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, Herbert Spencer and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, all famous philosophers of their time. Secondly, through an introspective account and study of his own states of mind. And lastly, a discussion of 19th-century experimental techniques and findings. The book was especially critical of early ideas of human psychology and considered them of little value. James instead built his own distinct theory of the mind, identifying human cognition as inherently pragmatic, physically motivated and intentionally selective.

The book is also a valuable historical text in its recording of experimental results and discoveries concerning the different locations of certain functions in the brain, or how each sense is located in a particular neural center. One particularly influential chapter titled The Stream of Thought argues that human consciousness is not experienced as a succession of ideas but instead as a blended stream of both oneself and everything outside of oneself.

This concept was hugely influential to avant-garde and modernist art and literature, where experimental stream of consciousness was frequently employed as a technique. We can see this concept at work in ourselves when we take a few minutes to pay attention the thoughts that pass through our heads. They are usually free formed, random associations that lead rather wildly from one thought to the next.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The other important theory that William James proposed in his masterpiece has since been termed the James-Lange theory of emotion due to the fact that he and Danish physician Carl Lange formed the idea independently of each other in the 1800s. The theory suggests that emotions occur as a mental reaction to the physiological conditions that result from stimulus, rather than from the stimulus itself.

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