William Jamess monumental Principles of Psychology has long been on my to-read list. To warm up to the task, I decided to read a couple shorter books of James's. First, I tackled his Varieties of Religious Experiencea pioneering work on the psychology of religion, and a similarly respected classic. So by the end of those two books I suspected that William James's magnum opus was both bloated and bland. As a result, when I heard that William James had himself condensed his larger work of psychology into this volume, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to both lay my curiosity to rest and to avoid getting bogged down in a verbal Slough of Despond. Consider this quote on spacing out: Most of us probably fall several times a day into a fit somewhat like this: The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into a confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time. But it does continue, pulse after pulse, and we float with it, untilalso without reason that we can discoveran energy is given, somethingwe know not whatenables us to gather ourselves together, we wink our eyes, we shake our head, the background ideas become effective, and the wheels of life go round again. The next attraction of this great book is the multitude of fascinating glimpses it provides into the psychology of the past.
The "Principles" is a grand work which a group of distinguished psychologists described in 1969 as "the most literate, most provocative, and at the same time the most intelligent book on psychology that has ever appeared in English on any other language." The "Principles" proved greatly influential on many philosophers, notably Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as on psychologists. The "Psychology" is about one-third the length of the "Principles." It consists of approximately 40 percent new material, most of which is in the opening chapters of the book on sensation and on anatomy and physiology. The "Psychology" is an accessible and endlessly fascinating book on at least three levels: first, for its insight into the science of psychology; second for the suggestive character of its discussion of the relationship between psychology (and the natural sciences)on the one hand and philosophy and religion on the other hand; third, for the eloquence of James's writing and for his passion for the ethical and active life. In other words, as James writes, "the immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres." An illustration of the physiological basis of James work is his theory of the emotions, called the James-Lange theory, in which he argued that human feelings and emotions were rooted in actions and efforts rather than, is is still frequently supposed, the other way round. For all its emphasis on physiology, James analysis of the mind begins in chapters 9 and 10 with his discussions of the "stream of consciousness" and of the nature of the "self". James distinguishes the scientific approach of psychology from the questions of metaphysics of philosophy while showing their interrelations. What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!" The edition of the "Psychology" I am reviewing here is the authoritative edition of "The Works of William James" published by Harvard University Press.
Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, he is considered to be one of the greatest figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of the functional psychology. He was the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, his godson William James Sidis, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Macedonio Fernández, Walter Lippmann, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Jr., Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud. He was subject to a variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War. The other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice James) all suffered from periods of invalidism.