William James

The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890)
Psychology (Briefer Course) (1892)
The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897) – read online


Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1897)
Talks to Teachers and Students (1899) – read online

  • Talks to Teachers
    10. INTEREST
    12. MEMORY
    15. THE WILL
  • Talks to Students
    1. THE GOSPEL OF RELAXATION – read online
    3. WHAT MAKES A LIFE SIGNIFICANT? – read online

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902)
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)


A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy (1909) – read online

  1. The Types of Philosophic Thinking – read online
  2. Monistic Idealism
  3. Hegel and his Method
  4. Concerning Fechner
  5. The Compounding of Consciousness
  6. Bergson and his Critique of Intellectualism – read online
  7. The Continuity of Experience
  8. Conclusions
  9. Appendices
      1. The Thing and its Relations.
      2. The Experience of Activity
      3. On the Notion of Reality as Changing

The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism” (1909)
Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy (1911) – read online

  1. Philosophy and its Critics – read online
  2. The Problems of Metaphysics
  3. The Problem of Being
  4. Percept and Concept – The Importance of Concepts
  5. Percept and Concept -The Abuse of Concepts
  6. Percept and Concept -Some Corollaries
  7. The One and the Many
  8. The One and the Many (continued) – Values and Defects
  9. The Problem of Novelty
  10. Novelty and the Infinite – The Conceptual View
  11. Novelty and the Infinite – The Perceptual View
  12. Novelty and Causation – The Conceptual View
  13. Novelty and Causation – The Perceptual View
  14. Appendix – Faith and the Right to Believe

Memories and Studies (1911) – read online

  1. Louis Agassiz
  2. Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord (1903) – read online
  3. Robert Gould Shaw
  4. Francis Boott
  5. Thomas Davidson: A Knight-Errant of the Intellectual Life (1905) – read online
  6. Herbert Spencer’s Autobiography
  7. Frederick Myers’ Services to Psychology
  8. Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher
  9. On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake
  10. The Energies of Men (1906) – read online
  11. The Moral Equivalent of War (1910) – read online
  12. Remarks at the Peace Banquet
  13. The Social Value of the College-Bred
  14. The University and the Individual
    • The Ph. D. Octopus – read online
    • The True Harvard
    • Stanford’s True Destiny
  15. A Pluralistic Mystic

Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) – read online

  1. Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?
  2. A World of Pure Experience
  3. The Thing and its Relations
  4. How Two Minds Can Know One Thing
  5. The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience
  6. The Experience of Activity
  7. The Essence of Humanism
  8. La Notion de Conscience
  9. Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic?
  10. Mr. Pitkin’s Refutation of ‘Radical Empiricism’
  11. Humanism and Truth Once More
  12. Absolutism and Empiricism

Letters of William James, 2 vols. (1920)
Collected Essays and Reviews (1920)
Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (1935) (contains some 500 letters not in the Letters of William James)
William James on Psychical Research (1960)
The Correspondence of William James, 12 vols. (1992–2004)

Further reading

Robert D. Richardson – William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, 2006
Mark Johnson – Feeling William James’s But (from a 2001 pragmatism conference)
Jacques Barzun – A Stroll with William James


I am a-logical, if not illogical, and glad to be so when I find Bertie Russell trying to excogitate what true knowledge means, in the absence of any concrete universe surrounding the knower and the known. Ass! – WJ, letter to Peirce, 24 Dec 1909

The sight of their [some Florentine philosophers’] belligerent young enthusiasm has given me a queer sense of the gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young Ph.D.’s, boring each other at seminaries, writing those direful reports of literature in the “Philosophical Review” and elsewhere, fed on “books of reference,” and never confounding “Æsthetik” with “Erkentnisstheorie.” Faugh! I shall never deal with them again on those terms! Can’t you and I, who in spite of such divergence have yet so much in common in our Weltanschauung, start a systematic movement at Harvard against the desiccating and pedantifying process?
– W James, letter to Santayana, from Orvieto, May 2, 1905

He approached philosophy as mankind originally approached it, without having a philosophy, and he lent himself to various hypotheses in various directions. He professed to begin his study on the assumptions of common sense, that there is a material world which the animals that live in it are able to perceive and to think about. He gave a congruous extension to this view in his theory that emotion is purely bodily sensation, and also in his habit of conceiving the mind as a total shifting sensibility. To pursue this path, however, would have led him to admit that nature was automatic and mind simply cognitive, conclusions from which every instinct in him recoiled. He preferred to believe that mind and matter had independent energies and could lend one another a hand, matter operating by motion and mind by intention. This dramatic, amphibious way of picturing causation is natural to common sense, and might be defended if it were clearly defined; but James was insensibly carried away from it by a subtle implication of his method. This implication was that experience or mental discourse not only constituted a set of substantive facts, but the only substantive facts; all else, even that material world which his psychology had postulated, could be nothing but a verbal or fantastic symbol for sensations in their experienced order. So that while nominally the door was kept open to any hypothesis regarding the conditions of the psychological flux, in truth the question was prejudged. The hypotheses, which were parts of this psychological flux, could have no object save other parts of it. That flux itself, therefore, which he could picture so vividly, was the fundamental existence. The sense of bounding over the waves, the sense of being on an adventurous voyage, was the living fact; the rest was dead reckoning. Where one’s gift is, there will one’s faith be also; and to this poet appearance was the only reality.
+++++This sentiment, which always lay at the back of his mind, reached something like formal expression in his latest writings, where he sketched what he called radical empiricism. The word experience is like a shrapnel shell, and bursts into a thousand meanings. Here we must no longer think of its setting, its discoveries, or its march; to treat it radically we must abstract its immediate objects and reduce it to pure data. It is obvious (and the sequel has already proved) that experience so understood would lose its romantic signification, as a personal adventure or a response to the shocks of fortune. “Experience” would turn into a cosmic dance of absolute entities created and destroyed in vacuo according to universal laws, or perhaps by chance. No minds would gather this experience, and no material agencies would impose it; but the immediate objects present to any one would simply be parts of the universal fireworks, continuous with the rest, and all the parts, even if not present to anybody, would have the same status. Experience would then not at all resemble what Shakespeare reports or what James himself had described in his psychology. If it could be experienced as it flows in its entirety (which is fortunately impracticable), it would be a perpetual mathematical nightmare. Every whirling atom, every changing relation, and every incidental perspective would be a part of it. I am far from wishing to deny for a moment the scientific value of such a cosmic system, if it can be worked out; physics and mathematics seem to me to plunge far deeper than literary psychology into the groundwork of this world; but human experience is the stuff of literary psychology; we cannot reach the stuff of physics and mathematics except by arresting or even hypostatising some elements of appearance, and expanding them on an abstracted and hypothetical plane of their own. Experience, as memory and literature rehearse it, remains nearer to us than that : it is something dreamful, passionate, dramatic, and significative.
+++++Certainly this personal human experience, expressible in literature and in talk, and no cosmic system however profound, was what James knew best and trusted most. Had he seen the developments of his radical empiricism, I cannot help thinking he would have marvelled that such logical mechanisms should have been hatched out of that egg. The principal problems and aspirations that haunted him all his life long would lose their meaning in that cosmic atmosphere. The pragmatic nature of truth, for instance, would never suggest itself in the presence of pure data; but a romantic mind soaked in agnosticism, conscious of its own habits and assuming an environment the exact structure of which can never be observed, may well convince itself that, for experience, truth is nothing but a happy use of signs – which is indeed the truth of literature. But if we once accept any system of the universe as literally true, the value of convenient signs to prepare us for such experience as is yet absent cannot be called truth : it is plainly nothing but a necessary inaccuracy. So, too, with the question of the survival of the human individual after death. For radical empiricism a human individual is simply a certain cycle or complex of terms, like any other natural fact; that some echoes of his mind should recur after the regular chimes have ceased, would have nothing paradoxical about it. A mathematical world is a good deal like music, with its repetitions and transpositions, and a little trill, which you might call a person, might well peep up here and there all over a vast composition. Something of that sort may be the truth of spiritualism; but it is not what the spiritualists imagine. Their whole interest lies not in the experiences they have, but in the interpretation they give to them, assigning them to troubled spirits in another world; but both another world and a spirit are notions repugnant to a radical empiricism.
+++++I think it is important to remember, if we are not to misunderstand William James, that his radical empiricism and pragmatism were in his own mind only methods; his doctrine, if he may be said to have had one, was agnosticism. And just because he was an agnostic (feeling instinctively that beliefs and opinions, if they had any objective beyond themselves, could never be sure they had attained it), he seemed in one sense so favourable to credulity. He was not credulous himself, far from it; he was well aware that the trust he put in people or ideas might betray him. For that very reason he was respectful and pitiful to the trustfulness of others. Doubtless they were wrong, but who were we to say so? In his own person he was ready enough to face the mystery of things, and whatever the womb of time might bring forth; but until the curtain was rung down on the last act of the drama (and it might have no last act!) he wished the intellectual cripples and the moral hunchbacks not to be jeered at; perhaps they might turn out to be the heroes of the play. Who could tell what heavenly influences might not pierce to these sensitive half-flayed creatures, which are lost on the thick-skinned, the sane, and the duly goggled? We must not suppose, however, that James meant these contrite and romantic suggestions dogmatically. The agnostic, as well as the physician and neurologist in him, was never quite eclipsed. The hope that some new revelation might come from the lowly and weak could never mean to him what it meant to the early Christians. For him it was only a right conceded to them to experiment with their special faiths; he did not expect such faiths to be discoveries of absolute fact, which everybody else might be constrained to recognise. If any one had made such a claim, and had seemed to have some chance of imposing it universally, James would have been the first to turn against him; not, of course, on the ground that it was impossible that such an orthodoxy should be true, but with a profound conviction that it was to be feared and distrusted. No : the degree of authority and honour to be accorded to various human faiths was a moral question, not a theoretical one. All faiths were what they were experienced as being, in their capacity of faiths; these faiths, not their objects, were the hard facts we must respect. We cannot pass, except under the illusion of the moment, to anything firmer or on a deeper level. There was accordingly no sense of security, no joy, in James’s apology for personal religion. He did not really believe; he merely believed in the right of believing that you might be right if you believed.
+++++It is this underlying agnosticism that explains an incoherence which we might find in his popular works, where the story and the moral do not seem to hang together. Professedly they are works of psychological observation; but the tendency and suasion in them seems to run to disintegrating the idea of truth, recommending belief without reason, and encouraging superstition. A psychologist who was not an agnostic would have indicated, as far as possible, whether the beliefs and experiences he was describing were instances of delusion or of rare and fine perception, or in what measure they were a mixture of both. But James – and this is what gives such romantic warmth to these writings of his – disclaims all antecedent or superior knowledge, listens to the testimony of each witness in turn, and only by accident allows us to feel that he is swayed by the eloquence and vehemence of some of them rather than of others. This method is modest, generous, and impartial; but if James intended, as I think he did, to picture the drama of human belief, with its risks and triumphs, the method was inadequate. Dramatists never hesitate to assume, and to let the audience perceive, who is good and who bad, who wise and who foolish, in their pieces; otherwise their work would be as impotent dramatically as scientifically. The tragedy and comedy of life lie precisely in the contrast between the illusions or passions of the characters and their true condition and fate, hidden from them at first, but evident to the author and the public. If in our diffidence and scrupulous fairness we refuse to take this judicial attitude, we shall be led to strange conclusions. The navigator, for instance, trusting his “experience” (which here, as in the case of religious people, means his imagination and his art), insists on believing that the earth is spherical; he has sailed round it. That is to say, he has seemed to himself to steer westward and westward, and has seemed to get home again. But how should he know that home is now where it was before, or that his past and present impressions of it come from the same, or from any, material object? How should he know that space is as trim and tri-dimensional as the discredited Euclidians used to say it was? If, on the contrary, my worthy aunt, trusting to her longer and less ambiguous experience of her garden, insists that the earth is flat, and observes that the theory that it is round, which is only a theory, is much less often tested and found useful than her own perception of its flatness, and that moreover that theory is pedantic, intellectualistic, and a product of academies, and a rash dogma to impose on mankind for ever and ever, it might seem that on James’s principle we ought to agree with her. But no; on James’s real principles we need not agree with her, nor with the navigator either. Radical empiricism, which is radical agnosticism, delivers us from so benighted a choice. For the quarrel becomes unmeaning when we remember that the earth is both flat and round, if it is experienced as being both. The substantive fact is not a single object on which both the perception and the theory are expected to converge; the substantive facts are the theory and the perception themselves. And we may note in passing that empiricism, when it ceases to value experience as a means of discovering external things, can give up its ancient prejudice in favour of sense as against imagination, for imagination and thought are immediate experiences as much as sensation is : they are therefore, for absolute empiricism, no less actual ingredients of reality. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James

In the discourse on “The Energies of Men,” certain physiological marvels are recorded, as if to suggest that the resources of our minds and bodies are infinite, or can be infinitely enlarged by divine grace. Yet James would not, I am sure, have accepted that inference. He would, under pressure, have drawn in his mystical horns under his scientific shell; but he was not naturalist enough to feel instinctively that the wonderful and the natural are all of a piece, and that only our degree of habituation distinguishes them. A nucleus, which we may poetically call the soul, certainly lies within us, by which our bodies and minds are generated and controlled, like an army by a government. In this nucleus, since nature in a small compass has room for anything, vast quantities of energy may well be stored up, which may be tapped on occasion, or which may serve like an electric spark to let loose energy previously existing in the grosser parts. But the absolute autocracy of this central power, or its success in imposing extraordinary trials on its subjects, is not an obvious good. Perhaps, like a democratic government, the soul is at its best when it merely collects and coordinates the impulses coming from the senses. The inner man is at times a tyrant, parasitical, wasteful, and voluptuous. At other times he is fanatical and mad. When he asks for and obtains violent exertions from the body, the question often is, as with the exploits of conquerors and conjurers, whether the impulse to do such prodigious things was not gratuitous, and the things nugatory. Who would wish to be a mystic? James himself, who by nature was a spirited rather than a spiritual man, had no liking for sanctimonious transcendentalists, visionaries, or ascetics; he hated minds that run thin. But he hastened to correct this manly impulse, lest it should be unjust, and forced himself to overcome his repugnance. This was made easier when the unearthly phenomenon had a healing or saving function in the everyday material world; miracle then re-established its ancient identity with medicine, and both of them were humanised. Even when this union was not attained, James was reconciled to the miracle-workers partly by his great charity, and partly by his hunter’s instinct to follow a scent, for he believed discoveries to be imminent. Besides, a philosopher who is a teacher of youth is more concerned to give people a right start than a right conclusion. James fell in with the hortatory tradition of college sages; he turned his psychology, whenever he could do so honestly, to purposes of edification; and his little sermons on habit, on will, on faith, and this on the latent capacities of men, were fine and stirring, and just the sermons to preach to the young Christian soldier. He was much less sceptical in morals than in science. He seems to have felt sure that certain thoughts and hopes – those familiar to a liberal Protestantism – were every man’s true friends in life. This assumption would have been hard to defend if he or those he habitually addressed had ever questioned it; yet his whole argument for voluntarily cultivating these beliefs rests on this assumption, that they are beneficent. Since, whether we will or no, we cannot escape the risk of error, and must succumb to some human or pathological bias, at least we might do so gracefully and in the form that would profit us most, by clinging to those prejudices which help us to lead what we all feel is a good life. But what is a good life? Had William James, had the people about him, had modern philosophers anywhere, any notion of that? I cannot think so. They had much experience of personal goodness, and love of it; they had standards of character and right conduct; but as to what might render human existence good, excellent, beautiful, happy, and worth having as a whole, their notions were utterly thin and barbarous. They had forgotten the Greeks, or never known them. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James

There is a sense in which James was not a philosopher at all. He once said to me : “What a curse philosophy would be if we couldn’t forget all about it!” In other words, philosophy was not to him what it has been to so many, a consolation and sanctuary in a life which would have been unsatisfying without it. It would be incongruous, therefore, to expect of him that he should build a philosophy like an edifice to go and live in for good. Philosophy to him was rather like a maze in which he happened to find himself wandering, and what he was looking for was the way out. In the presence of theories of any sort he was attentive, puzzled, suspicious, with a certain inner prompting to disregard them. He lived all his life among them, as a child lives among grown-up people; what a relief to turn from those stolid giants, with their prohibitions and exactions and tiresome talk, to another real child or a nice animal! Of course grown-up people are useful, and so James considered that theories might be; but in themselves, to live with, they were rather in the way, and at bottom our natural enemies. It was well to challenge one or another of them when you got a chance; perhaps that challenge might break some spell, transform the strange landscape, and simplify life. A theory while you were creating or using it was like a story you were telling yourself or a game you were playing; it was a warm, self-justifying thing then; but when the glow of creation or expectation was over, a theory was a phantom, like a ghost, or like the minds of other people. To all other people, even to ghosts, William James was the soul of courtesy; and he was civil to most theories as well, as to more or less interesting strangers that invaded him. Nobody ever recognised more heartily the chance that others had of being right, and the right they had to be different. Yet when it came to understanding what they meant, whether they were theories or persons, his intuition outran his patience; he made some brilliant impressionistic sketch in his fancy and called it by their name. This sketch was as often flattered as distorted, and he was at times the dupe of his desire to be appreciative and give the devil his due; he was too impulsive for exact sympathy; too subjective, too romantic, to be just. Love is very penetrating, but it penetrates to possibilities rather than to facts. The logic of opinions, as well as the exact opinions themselves, were not things James saw easily, or traced with pleasure. He liked to take things one by one, rather than to put two and two together. He was a mystic, a mystic in love with life. He was comparable to Rousseau and to Walt Whitman; he expressed a generous and tender sensibility, rebelling against sophistication, and preferring daily sights and sounds, and a vague but indomitable faith in fortune, to any settled intellectual tradition calling itself science or philosophy. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James

He probably conceived what he said more deeply than a more scholastic mind might have conceived it; yet he would have been more comfortable if some one else had said it for him. He liked to open the window, and look out for a moment. I think he was glad when the bell rang, and he could be himself again until the next day. But in the midst of this routine of the class-room the spirit would sometimes come upon him, and, leaning his head on his hand, he would let fall golden words, picturesque, fresh from the heart, full of the knowledge of good and evil. Incidentally there would crop up some humorous characterisation, some candid confession of doubt or of instinctive preference, some pungent scrap of learning; radicalisms plunging sometimes into the sub-soil of all human philosophies; and, on occasion, thoughts of simple wisdom and wistful piety, the most unfeigned and manly that anybody ever had. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James

The Chinese hate the phrase “logical necessity” because there is no logical necessity in human affairs. The Chinese distrust of logic begins with the distrust of words, proceeds with the abhorrence of definitions and ends with instinctive hatred for all systems and theories. For only words, definitions and systems have made schools of philosophy possible. The degeneration of philosophy began with the preoccupation with words. …Kung Tingan, said : “The Sage does not talk, the Talented Ones talk, and the stupid ones argue.”…
+++++For this is the sad story of philosophy: that philosophers belonged to the genus of Talkers and not the Silent Ones. All philosophers love to hear their own voice. …As time went on, the philosophers began to use more and more words and longer and longer sentences; epigrams of life gave place to sentences, sentences to arguments, arguments to treatises, treatises to commentaries, and commentaries to philological research; more and more words were needed to define and classify the words they used and more and more schools were needed to differ and secede from the schools already established; the process continued until the immediate, intimate feeling or an awareness of living has been entirely lost sight of… the few independent thinkers who have felt the direct impact of life itself – a Goethe, a Samuel Johnson, an Emerson, a William James – have refused to speak in the jargon of the Talkers and have always been intractably opposed to the spirit of classification. For they are the wise ones, who have kept for us the true meaning of philosophy, which is the wisdom of life. In most cases, they have forsaken arguments and reverted to the epigram. …
+++++…We have today a philosophy that has become stranger to life itself, that has almost half disclaimed any intention to teach us the meaning of life and the wisdom of living, a philosophy that has lost that intimate feeling of life or awareness of living which we spoke of as the very essence of philosophy. It is that intimate feeling of life which William James has called “the stuff of experience.” As time goes on, I feel that the philosophy and logic of William James will become more and more devastating to the modern Western way of thinking. Before we can humanize Western philosophy, we must first humanize Western logic. We have to get back to a way of thinking which is more impatient to be in touch with reality, and above all with human nature, than to be merely correct, logical and consistent. For the disease of thinking typified by Descartes’ famous discovery “I think, therefore I exist,” we have to substitute the more human and more sensible statement of Walt Whitman’s: “I am sufficient as I am.” Life or existence does not have to go down on its knees and beg logic to prove that it exists or that it is there.
+++++William James spent his life trying to prove and defend the Chinese way of thinking, without knowing it. Only…if William James had been a Chinese, he would not have written so many words to argue it out, but would have merely stated in an essay of three or five hundred words, that he believed it because it is so…for fear that the more words he used, the greater the chances for misunderstanding. But William James was a Chinese in his keen awareness of life and the varieties of human experience, in his rebellion against mechanistic rationalism, his anxiety to keep thought constantly fluid, and his impatience with people who think they have discovered the one all-important, “absolute” and universal truth and have enclosed it in a self-sufficient system. He was Chinese, too, in his insistence on the importance of the artist’s sense of perceptual reality over and against conceptual reality. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1939.

CAMBRIDGE, Nov. 28, 1908.
DEAR WELLS, “First and Last Things” is a great achievement. The first two “books” should be entitled “philosophy without humbug” and used as a textbook in all the colleges of the world. You have put your finger accurately on the true emphases, and in the main on what seem to me the true solutions (you are more monistic in your faith than I should be, but as long as you only call it “faith,” that’s your right and privilege), and the simplicity of your statements ought to make us “professionals” blush. I have been 35 years on the way to similar conclusions simply because I started as a professional and had to debrouiller them from all the traditional school rubbish.
+++++The other two books exhibit you in the character of the Tolstoy of the English world. A sunny and healthy-minded Tolstoy, as he is a pessimistic and morbid-minded Wells. Where the “higher synthesis” will be born, who shall combine the pair of you, Heaven only knows. But you are carrying on the same function, not only in that neither of your minds is boxed and boarded up like the mind of an ordinary human being, but all the contents down to the very bottom come out freely and unreservedly and simply, but in that you both have the power of contagious speech, and set the similar mood vibrating in the reader.
Be happy in that such power has been put into your hands!
This book is worth any 100 volumes on Metaphysics and any 200 of Ethics, of the ordinary sort.
Yours, with friendliest regards to Mrs. Wells, most sincerely,

…his book on Pragmatism marks the complete decline of his mental faculties, the final impotence of his thought. Here the pragmatist method is represented as a method of avoiding metaphysical discussions, or, better, of solving every problem by caprice. Is the world one or many? It is one if we look at it one way, many if we look at it in another. Let us say, then, that it is at the same time one and many, and let us live in peace. Must we decide between theism and materialism? The past does not tell us anything in favour of either the one or the other. Let us look within us. The world of materialism closes in tragedy and gloom: that of theism legitimizes our sublimest hopes. Is this latter in our interest? If so, let us accept it. This is magnificent reasoning: and the whole book is strewn with similar gems of logic. Truth is reduced to an economic fact, a form of wealth, a “property” of our ideas; thought has an exchange value like that of a bank-note which “passes” so long as nobody rejects it; and so on through a series of ineptitudes that bring disgrace on the name of philosophy.
– Guido de Ruggiero, Modern Philosophy, III.1.7 Pragmatism, 1921

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