James William 1842 - 1910 (68)

The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.


The Varieties of

Religious Experience

William James (January 11, 1842 - August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher. He was born in New York. His grandfather had arrived in America from Ireland in poverty and when he died he left to his son a huge fortune, which William's father used on long trips for himself and his family. Both James and his four brothers (one of whom was the later author Henry James) attended more than ten schools in Europe and America and lived in many different cities. After finishing school, James took part in a mission in the Amazon Valley in Brazil, during which he suffered almost constant nausea and contracted smallpox.

He began studying medicine at Harvard, gradually he became interested in psychology. He began reading works of psychology and philosophy and continued his medical studies at Harvard. After graduation (he never practiced medicine) he went through a period of deep depression. His diary from that period reveals almost nothing but misery and disgust for himself. He suffered so much that he went alone to a shelter in Somerville, Massachusetts. There he read an essay by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier on free will and decided to use his own free will to overcome depression. He went to Germany where he began attending university courses in psychology and philosophy.

In 1872, he accept a professorship in physics at Harvard, and in 1875 he began teaching the relationship between physiology and psychology, making Harvard the first US university to offer experimental psychology. It took another decade for him to publicly present his theory of emotions, outlining it in an article published in 1884 entitled "What Is an Emotion?" In 1890 he was recognized as a leader in the field of functional psychology. His lectures at the University of Edinburgh (1901-1902) became the book "Variations of Religious Experience, A Study of Human Nature". This book, is the psychological and philosophical research on the nature of religion in human culture.

William was married in 1878 and had 5 children, one of his boys died before he was one year old. His fragile health deteriorated during the last years of his life and he died at home in 1910.