Thursday, June 18, 2015


The next part of the series - Initially Not A Psychologist ...

William James

William James is one of the pioneers of modern psychology. He was the major precursor behind the establishment of one of the earliest schools of thought of psychology. He is considered, by many, to be the greatest American psychologist. William James, however, initially was not a psychologist.
William James began his career as a reluctant medical student. He, initially wanted to be an artist, but was told that he lacked the talent. He then enrolled himself in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard to study chemistry. Shortly after being enrolled, he began to have health issues and felt very low on self-confidence.
He then left studying chemistry and got enrolled in a medical school, even though he had very little interest in studying medicine. After a while, due to his lack of interest, James left his medical studies and went to Brazil to assist the zoologist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had a very good influence on James, and led him to have an interest in biology, even though he did not pursue it further.
Despite his lack of interest, James went on to restart his studies in medicine that he had left earlier. At this time, he frequently began to fall ill. He began to suffer from depression, insomnia, and eating disorders. It was then that he decided to leave America and go to Europe. This decision turned out to change his life.
While being in France and Germany, James read literature, philosophy, and psychology. He attended lectures on physiology at the University of Berlin. It was during this time that James began to conceive his ideas about psychology and how he believed that psychology could be a science.
After returning to America, James completed his studies in medicine and earned his medical degree in 1869, from Harvard. His feelings of insecurity and depression, however, worsened. This made him to extensively read philosophy. He believed that philosophy would help him to overcome depression, which actually happened to quite an extent.
In 1872, James accepted a teaching position in physiology. Three years later, in 1875, the course had evolved, and he called it The Relations between Physiology and Psychology. This was the first time that a psychology course was offered in the United States of America. After another three years, he dropped the physiological component, and began teaching a course that was explicitly psychological.
While the course was continuously evolving, in 1876, James established a laboratory. This was three years earlier when Wundt had established his laboratory at Leipzig, making this actually the first psychology laboratory. James, however, used this laboratory for teaching demonstrations, and not for experiments, and thus, Wundt is credited to establish the first psychology laboratory.
In 1878, James signed a publishing contract to write a psychology book. In 1890, twelve years later, he was able to complete and publish the book titled Principles of Psychology. The book was in two volumes and became a huge success, probably the best-selling textbook in the history of Psychology and is still in print.
This was the first psychology textbook to be published in the United States of America. It is a book that is highly influential and widely read. It is considered to be a comprehensive treatment of psychology and was used as an introductory textbook for many years. The book is considered to be a classic.
In the meantime, in 1885, James was promoted to professor of philosophy. Four years later, the title was changed to professor of psychology. With being known as a professor of psychology and shortly after, publishing the highly influential book, Principles of Psychology, the psychology that James had envisioned was well on its verge.
1890, the year of publication of Principles of Psychology, is often regarded as the beginning of the second school of thought of psychology, known as Functionalism or functional psychology. Functionalism is the approach to the study of behavior, which emphasizes the analysis of the processes by which the mind works.
James, in his book, Principles of Psychology, had presented his ideas about psychology. His perspectives opposed the already existing Wundtian approach that the goal of psychology was an analysis of consciousness into elements; he offered an alternative way of looking at mind.
James defined psychology as the science of mental life. He coined the phrase stream of consciousness, which suggests that consciousness is a continuous, flowing process and that any attempt to reduce it to elements will distort it. He proposed that experience is a continuous stream of consciousness and accepted an enlarged scope of psychology compared to the Wundtian model. According to James, mental life is a unity, a total experience that changes.
Additionally, James proposed that experience must be described in both physical and mental terms, and thus, emphasized a truly physiological psychology that stressed brain functions in accounting for mental experiences, or consciousness. He, further, emphasized the value for psychology of pragmatism, the basic tenet of which is that the validity of an idea or conception is to be tested by its practical consequences.
In his younger days, William James was an indifferent medical student, having little interest in the field. Later, he turned towards physiology and philosophy, and eventually got into psychology. He turned out to be a highly influential psychologist, who gave an alternative view of psychology that opposed the already existing and well established Wundtian approach; his ideas being the major precursor behind the establishment of Functionalism, the second school of thought of psychology. 

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