The Father of American Psychology
William James was the first American psychologist. He has been quoted as saying that “the first psychology class I ever attended was the one I taught.” This course was offered at Harvard University in 1875 and it began the study of psychology in America. William strove to understand human consciousness as a whole; he did not compartmentalize the psyche. His vast interests included religious experiences, the nature of belief, free will and the human instincts- just to name a few. In 1890 he published “Principles of Psychology” in which he developed a comprehensive theory of consciousness based upon laboratory findings and philosophical speculation. He was also one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research. William defined psychology as “the description and explanation of states of consciousness as such.”
Five aspects of William James’ theory of mental life are:
1. Experience is complete chaos without selective interest. Before something can be experienced it must
be attended to.
2. Thoughts emerge from a stream of consciousness. An individual thought receives its force, focus and
direction from the thoughts which precede it.
3. Pragmatism, which holds that truth is to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. It can be
summed up with the phrase: “whatever works, is likely true.”
4. The self is really made up of many selves that exist in a fluctuating field.
5. Human beings have animal instincts, such as fear, that are inborn rather than taught.
William James was one of the most original thinkers in the field of depth psychology. His ideas continue to impact how we conceive ourselves and our world. For further reading I would recommend “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and “The Will to Believe.”