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William James: life and work of the father of Psychology in America

William James: life and work of the father of Psychology in America

January 22, 2021

Psychology has given birth to a large number of theories and theoretical models through which it seeks to explain human behavior.

They are concrete proposals that in most cases they only seek to explain a small plot of the set of themes that can explain the psychology, since they are based on the work that many researchers have been doing months, years and decades ago. However, all this framework of proposals had to start at some point where we knew almost nothing about how we behave and perceive things.

What was it like to face the study of Psychology in those years? What was it that had to lay the foundations of modern psychology?


To answer these questions it is convenient to look back and review the life and work of William James , a philosopher and psychologist who set out to investigate one of the most basic and universal concepts in regard to the study of the mind: the consciousness.

Who was William James?

The life of William James began as that of any representative of the American upper classes. He was born in 1842 in New York, in the bosom of a well-to-do family, and the fact of being able to avail himself of the considerable financial resources of his parents allowed him to train in good schools, both in the United States and in Europe, and get soaked in the different tendencies and philosophical and artistic currents that characterized each place visited. His father, moreover, was a famous theologian very well connected, and the bourgeois culture that surrounded the whole family probably helped that William James was ambitious when it was time to set vital goals.


In short, William James had everything to become a well-positioned person: the material resources and also the influences of the New York elites related to his relatives accompanied him in it. However, although in 1864 he began studying medicine at Harvard, a series of academic parentheses and health complications meant that he did not finish his studies until 1869 and, anyway, never got to practice as a doctor .

There was another area of ​​study that called his attention: the binomial formed between Philosophy and Psychology, two disciplines that in the nineteenth century had not yet separated completely and that at that time studied matters related to the soul and thought.

The William James psychologist is born

In 1873, William James returned to Harvard to teach Psychology and Philosophy . Certain things had changed since he graduated in medicine. He had submitted his life experience to a philosophical examination, and he had taken such great pains to see that he had the strength to become a professor despite not having received formal education on the subject.


However, despite not having attended philosophy classes, the topics he was interested in were of the type that had marked the beginnings of the history of great thinkers. Since he could not base his studies on previous research in Psychology because it had not yet been consolidated, focused on studying consciousness and emotional states . This is, two universal themes and intimately linked with philosophy and epistemology to be present in all our ways of interacting with the environment.

Consciousness, according to James

When addressing the study of consciousness, William James encountered many difficulties. It could not be otherwise, since, as he himself acknowledged, It is very difficult to even define what consciousness is or be aware of something . And, if you do not know how to limit the object of study, it is practically impossible to direct the investigations on this and make them reach a successful conclusion. That is why James' first great challenge was to explain what consciousness is in philosophical terms, then to be able to test its functioning mechanisms and its verifiable foundations.

He managed to approach an intuitive (though not entirely exhaustive) idea of ​​what consciousness is by drawing an analogy between it and a river. It is a metaphor to describe consciousness as if it were an incessant flow of thoughts, ideas and mental images . Once again, at this point the intimate connection between the approach to the Psychology of William James and the philosophical subjects can be verified, since the figure of the river had been used many millennia before by Heraclitus, one of the first great thinkers of the West .

The precedent of Heraclitus

Heraclitus faced the task of defining the relationship between "being" and change that apparently are part of reality. All things seem to remain and show qualities that make them stable over time, but at the same time all things change . Heraclitus maintained that "being" is an illusion and that the only thing that defines reality is the constant change, like a river that, although in appearance it is only one thing that remains, it does not stop being a succession of parts of water that never come back again.

William James thought it useful to define consciousness as if it were a river because it established in this way a dialectic between a stable element (consciousness itself, what one wants to define) and another that is constantly changing (the content of this consciousness). He emphasized the fact that Consciousness is composed of unique and unrepeatable units of experience, linked to the here and now , and that led from a "section" of the flow of thoughts to another part of it.

The nature of consciousness

That meant recognizing that in consciousness there is little or nothing that is substantive, that is, that it can be isolable and storable for study, since everything that happens through it is linked to the context . The only thing that remains in this "current" is the labels that we want to put to define it, that is, our considerations about it, but not the thing itself. From this reflection William James comes to a clear conclusion: consciousness is not an object, but a process, in the same way that the operation of an engine is not in itself something that exists separately from the machine .

Why does consciousness exist, then, if it can not even be located in a certain time and space? For our body to work, he said. To allow us to use the images and thoughts to survive.

Defining the stream of thoughts

William James believed that in the flow of images and ideas that constitute consciousness there are transitive parts Y substantive parts. The first refer constantly to other elements of the flow of thoughts, while the second are those in which we can stop for a while and notice a sense of permanence. Of course all these parts of consciousness are transitory to a greater or lesser extent. And, what is more important, they are all private, in the sense that the rest of people can only know them indirectly, through our own awareness of what we live .

The practical consequences of this in the face of research in Psychology were clear. This idea supposed to admit that the experimental Psychology was incapable to totally understand, only through its methods, how the human thought works, although it can help. To examine the flow of thoughts, says William James, we must begin by studying the "I", which appears from the current of consciousness itself .

This means that, from this point of view, studying the human psyche is equivalent to studying a construct as abstract as the "I". This idea did not please experimental psychologists, who preferred to focus their efforts on studying verifiable facts in a laboratory.

The James Theory - Lange: Do we cry because we are sad or are we sad because we cry?

Having made these basic considerations about what is and what is not consciousness, William James could begin to propose concrete mechanisms by which our thought flows guide our behavior. One of these contributions is the James - Lange Theory, devised by him and Carl Lange almost at the same time, according to which emotions appear from the awareness of one's physiological states.

For example, we do not smile because we are happy, but we are happy because our conscience has been informed that we are smiling . In the same way, we do not run because something has scared us, but we feel scared because we see that we are running away.

This is a theory that goes against the conventional way in which we conceive the functioning of our nervous system and our thoughts, and the same happened in the late nineteenth century. Today, however, We know that it is most likely that William James and Carl Lange have only part of the reason , since we consider that in the cycle between perception (seeing something that frightens us) and action (running) is so fast and with so many neural interactions in both directions that we can not speak of a causal chain in only one sense. We run because we are scared, and we are also scared because we run.

What do we owe William James?

The beliefs of William James may seem bizarre to this day, but the truth is that many of his ideas have been the principles on which interesting proposals have been erected that are still valid today. In his book The Principles of Psychology (Principles of Psychology), for example There are many ideas and notions that are useful to understand the functioning of the human brain, in spite of having been written at a time when the existence of the synaptic spaces separating neurons from others was scarcely being discovered.

In addition, the pragmatic approach he gave to Psychology is the philosophical foundation of many psychological theories and therapies that place more emphasis on the usefulness of thoughts and affective states than on their correspondence with an objective reality.

Perhaps because of this union between Psychology and the philosophical current of American pragmatism It is considered that William James is the father of Psychology in the United States and, much to his chagrin, he is in charge of introduce in its continent the Experimental Psychology that in Europe was being developed by Wilhelm Wundt.

In short, although William James had to face the costly mission of helping to establish the beginnings of Psychology as an academic and practical field, it can not be said that this task has been ungrateful. He showed real interest in what he was researching and was able to use this discipline to make exceptionally sharp proposals about the human mind. So much so that, for those who came after him, there was no choice but to take them for good or to try to refute them.


biography of psychologist William James (January 2021).


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