Type of paper: Term Paper

Topic: Psychology, Emotions, Theory, William James, Perception, Education, Functionalism, Mind

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2020/11/20


In this paper, I will defend my thesis that William James was a scientific genius. The term genius should not be used very lightly, and it will, therefore, require a lot of proof to defend this thesis. I will rely on different sources of information that will explain the impact that William James has on the field of psychology and his published work on this field. Based on my research, I will argue that the term scientific genius is the best to describe him since he was knowledgeable in the field of psychology and philosophy. I will also look at his family background, his thought process based on the different theories he developed, his career and his influence on the field of philosophy to this day.
In 1842, William James was born in New York City as the oldest of five children. His oldest brother was Henry James and he also had two other brothers and a sister. His family traveled between Europe and America often. William had a passion for drawing while growing up. In 1860, his family moved to Rhode Island to study with one of the leading American Portraitist since he wanted to become a painter. He then gave up on his talent a year later even though he had talent. William had decided that doing first-rate work was not enough for him. He had the support of his family in his aspirations; he wanted to achieve excellence, and he found it difficult to commit to a career path.
He studied physiology and chemistry before joining medical school in 1863. He experienced bad health in his life. At some point, he went to Germany to recover his health and to study medicine and physiology. He could not find a cure for his curious medical conditions. He later received his medical degree, but he did not intend to pursue medicine for the rest of his life. Later that year, his neurological symptoms became worse, and he even considered suicide. He then found a solution to his medical problem; a voluntaristic act where he committed himself to believing he was free of it, even though, there was no objective evidence this was the case. He started recovering although he still suffered other psychosomatic troubles in his life such as chronic mood swings, digestive problems, exhaustion, and back pains.


William James was a philosopher and psychologist and was a big part of establishing the psychology department at Harvard, and initially it was part of the department of philosophy in its inception. According to James, psychology was not a distinct discipline. Initially, James trained to be a painter but he abandoned this and enrolled at Harvard to study Chemistry and Anatomy. He developed an interest in studying the mind and the body during his stay in Germany. In 1872, he was recruited to teach vertebrate physiology at Harvard. He conducted laboratory research on sensation and perception in his fist half of the career. He discovered a connection between the mind and the body that led him to develop a theory that is now known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. The theory claims that the human experience of emotion usually arises from the physiological changes that are in response to external events. James also developed a theoretical perspective on psychology that is also known as functionalism. The theory explains the relationship between internal states and various external behaviors. In 1890, James published his highly influential work called principles of psychology. His books are highly read in both Europe and America, and they have been praised by influential people including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. William James later moved from experimental psychology and produced more works on philosophy, but he still continued to teach psychology until his retirement from Harvard in 1907 (Harvard University, 2010).

Thought Process

Understanding James’ thought process requires a look at his explanation on the theories of pragmatism, functionalism, and the theory of emotion. Discussing the theory of emotion also involves discussing Carl Lange, who is also part of the theory, and it is called the James-Lange theory. In the 1890s, both William James and Carl Lange attempted to explain emotional feelings. They suggested that the subjective experience of emotion is usually a consequence of perceiving a person’s emotional responses. For instance, if somebody is being attacked, they may either defend themselves or prepare to run. Based on the common-sense view, what happens is a person perceives the situation, gives an assessment of it and the assessment results to production of emotion and other autonomic responses.
Both James and Lange suggested that a person does not run because they are afraid. Instead, they are afraid because they run. It is usually the emotional response or action that comes before the sensation of the emotion. People experience the emotion once changes in the body have occurred. James also claimed that one cannot differentiate feeling from the perception of the responses. For example, one cannot try to imagine being afraid without the associated responses such as sweating, feeling the heart racing or doing anything that makes you afraid. James, therefore, argued that the subjective experience of emotion is usually the perception of various responses that are a result of perceiving emotional stimuli that produces the emotional response. The James-Lange theory explains the emotion as a subjective experience. The theory has been relied on in the research on motion over the years. Critics claim that this theory suggests that different emotions are associated with different feelings. It implies that every emotion has its unique physiological changes accompanying it, and the emotion is not expressed unless it has the Sympathetic Nervous System activity accompanying it (University of Derby, 2015).
Pragmatism was a major contribution to philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Charles Pierce founded the theory, but it then gained popularity through William James. According to Pierce, pragmatic is used to describe a judgment made where there is no objective evidence but one where the person is certain. Belief is a basis of an action. Saying that a person believes in something means that they have a certain way of acting when under certain circumstances. Previously, people believed that the purpose of an inquiry is to discover the truth but Pierce claimed that truth is usually an outcome of the inquiry when conducted in a proper way. William James later modified the ideas by Pierce. According to James, an idea is true if it works in practice. James also claimed that an idea has meaning if it would cause the person believing it to behave in different ways meaning that if an idea can result in a difference in conduct then it has meaning. According to Pierce, reality was independent of human speculation but James claimed that reality was subject to change depending on a person’s desires.
According to James, it is important to determine the cash value of any idea by analyzing the difference that it would make to a person’s life if the idea were true. Therefore, when judging different philosophical arguments, it is important to compare the cash values of both philosophical positions. If one position results in more cash-value, it is preferred but if both have no difference then the entire dispute is useless. People use theories and philosophies to solve problems, and the truth is judged by how successful they are in solving the problems. Pragmatism is hence a method of obtaining results that are different from time to time, and it does not offer specific results. James also claimed that an idea is only true if it benefits lives (Aftab, 2008).
William James developed functionalism; that is a study of consciousness. Functionalists believe that the key to understanding a human mind and behavior is by studying the process of how and why the mind works instead of studying structural elements and contents of the mind. They are more interested in asking people probing questions that are meant to further the process of discovering how a person’s mind works. The questions asked do not have immediate answers but they measure usefulness and validity. People use functionalism in their day-to-day activities in making their activities easier. For example, a student has to modify their learning styles each semester to fit into their new units (Stonecipher, 2012). Functionalism is the theory about the nature of mental states. Mental states can be identified by what they do and not what makes them. The main arguments of functionalism are based on showing that it is superior to identity theory and behaviorism (Polger, 2015).
William’s personality is seen from the many works he wrote over the years. His works were free of petty arguments that most psychologist theorists relied on. James was more concerned in clarifying issues, and he also understood there were different models necessary for understanding the different kinds of data. His explorations in psychology defined this field in the late 19th and 20th century. He was a self-confessed moral psychologist, and he was aware that science was not value free. He reminded teachers that it was important for students to believe what they are taught and to act on the beliefs, and it is the only real consequence of teaching.
William James had a major contribution in the field of Social Psychology. He had an impact on Gestalt and Cognitive Psychology, and he had two ideas that contributed to this. In his first idea, he despised the atomistic approach to psychology, and he wrote extensively on the mind, cognition, action and other purposeful events. In his second idea, he viewed the mind as a stream of consciousness. According to him, the mind does not work in discrete perceptions, emotions or thoughts. He claimed that it would not be possible to understand a stream by just examining a drop of water, but it is possible to understand a drop of water by studying a stream. Many psychologists later drew inspiration from his views and this lead to the development of more theories in the field of psychology.
James’ work have had a major impact on the field of psychology and are sometimes referred to even today. His views on consciousness, sensation, perception, emotion and will are very important in the psychology field. He explained five characteristics of thoughts. They are that all thoughts are owned by some personal self and thoughts as experienced by the human consciousness are not static. He also explained that there is continuity of thought for every thinker as they move from one object to another. Also, that thoughts usually deal with objects that are different from and independent of the consciousness itself. He also claimed that consciousness takes interest in certain objects and chooses to focus on them instead of the others. The self is said to be an object of thought or a subject of thought. James also had major claims on sensation, perception, imagination and belief. He claimed that by tracking a person’s mental activity, one can understand the standard pattern from sensation to perception to imagination and then belief. Sensation gives people an understanding of a given fact. Sensation and perception are about an immediate intuition about certain objects. The imagination retrieves mental copies of past sensations and perceptions even in the absence of the external stimuli. A proposition can be analyzed in terms of the object involved and if that object is believed (Pomerleau, 2011).
William James also had and still has a major influence on the definition of emotion and will. Human beings just like other animals usually have primitive instincts including fear, desires and sympathy that are not taught. Humans also have emotions that can be learned behavior, and they involve certain focus. At some point, instincts and emotions overlap but emotions cover a larger range of objects compared to instincts. According to James, the right sequence is perception, then bodily expressions, emotional feelings and then the physical events. Emotions ultimately lead to physical causes, and this shows the relationship between the mind and the body. Human will is important for deliberately acting on emotions and beliefs. People usually consider alternative courses of action, and they select one of them as if making a decision. According to James, there are five sorts of decision-making. One of them is the reasonable sort where a person accedes to rational arguments. There is also a sort triggered by external circumstances like rumors. There is a sort that is prompted by a person’s submission to something within themselves such as past actions or habits. There is a sort that is usually as a result of the sudden change in mood, and it may be caused by a feeling of grief. The final sort is a result of personal voluntary choice, and it is also referred to as the will to believe (Pomerleau, 2011).
I have argued that William James can be said to be a scientific genius. That means more than the faculty of perceiving in a non-habitual way. William’s works are still referenced even to this day in the field of psychology and philosophy. It is difficult for a person to come up with arguments about certain topics in a field such as the psychology and for those arguments to remain viable even centuries later. William managed to write and argue about different things he even developed his theories of pragmatism, functionalism and the theory of emotion. If not for any other reason he can and should be considered a scientific genius for such incredible work. He still holds major influence in the field of psychology and it is difficult for anyone to talk about famous and influential people in this field without mentioning him. My assessment is based on looking at his family history, his career, published work and the resulting impact he has had on this day.


Aftab, A. (2008). An Amateur’s History of Modern Philosophy. Retrieved from http://historyofmodernphilosophy.blogspot.com/2008/07/pragmatism-and-william-james.html
Harvard University. (2010). William James. Retrieved from http://www.isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k3007&pageid=icb.page19708&pageContentId=icb.pagecontent44003&view=view.do&viewParam_name=james.html
Polger, T. (2015). Functionalism. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/
Pomerleau, W. (2011). William James. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/james-o/
Stonecipher, C. (2012). William James’ Functionalism: Theory of Attention and Consciousness. Retrieved from https://cognition-perception-senses.knoji.com/william-james-functionalism-theory-of-attention-and-consciousness/

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