William James Psychologist Biography

The Father of American Psychology

Psychologist William James sitting on a stone will with another man

Margaret Mary James / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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William James was a psychologist and philosopher who had a major influence on the development of psychology in the United States. Among his many accomplishments, he was the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S. and is often referred to as the father of American psychology.

James was also known for contributing to functionalism, one of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. His book The Principles of Psychology is considered one of the most classic and influential texts in psychology's history. He was also the brother of the noted writer Henry James and diarist Alice James.

"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook," William James once wrote. Learn more about his life, career, ideas, and contributions to psychology in this brief biography.

He was often called the father of American psychology and is best known for:

William James' Early Life

William James was born into an affluent family. His father was deeply interested in philosophy and theology and strove to provide his children with an enriched education.

The James children traveled to Europe frequently, attended the best possible schools, and were immersed in culture and art, which apparently paid off - William James went on to become one of the most important figures in psychology while his brother Henry James became one of the most acclaimed American novelists. 

Henry James was the author of several acclaimed works, including The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors.

Early in school, William James expressed an interest in becoming a painter. While Henry James Sr. was known as an unusually permissive and liberal father, he wanted William to study science or philosophy. Only after William persisted in his interest did Henry permit his son to formally study painting.

After studying painting with the famed artist William Morris Hunt for more than a year, James abandoned his dream of being a painter and enrolled at Harvard to study chemistry. While two of James' brothers enlisted to serve in the American Civil War, William and Henry did not due to health problems.

Timeline of Events

  • Born January 11, 1842 in New York City
  • 1869 - Received M.D. from Harvard
  • 1875 - Began teaching psychology at Harvard
  • 1882 - Death of William's father, Henry James Sr.
  • 1890 - Published The Principles of Psychology
  • 1892 - Turned lab over to Hugo Munsterberg
  • 1897 - Published Will to Believe and Other Essays
  • 1907 - Published Pragmatism and officially resigned from Harvard
  • Died August 26, 1910, at the age of 68

The Career of William James

As the family money began to dwindle, William realized he would need to support himself and switched to Harvard Medical School. Unhappy with medicine as well, he left on an expedition with naturalist Louis Agassiz, although the experience was not a happy one.

"I was, body and soul, in a more indescribably hopeless, homeless, and friendless state than I ever want to be in again," he later wrote.

Developing health problems and severe depression, James spent the next two years in France and Germany. This period played an important role in shifting his interest in psychology and philosophy.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1869, James continued to sink into depression. Following a period of inactivity, the president of Harvard offered James a position as an instructor of comparative physiology in 1872. Three years later, James began teaching psychology courses.

While he famously commented that "the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave," James went on to teach at Harvard until 1907. In addition to his other important contributions, James helped shape the course of psychology by teaching the many students that passed through his classroom.

James also founded one of the first psychology laboratories in the United States. His classic textbook The Principles of Psychology (1890) was widely acclaimed, but some were critical of James' personal, literary tone. "It is literature," psychologist Wilhelm Wundt famously commented, "it is beautiful, but it is not psychology."

Two years later, James published a condensed version of the work titled Psychology: The Briefer Course. The two books were widely used by students of psychology and were known to most as "the James" and "the Jimmy" respectively.

James Williams' Theories

James' theoretical contributions to psychology include the following:

  • Functionalism: James opposed the structuralist focus on introspection and breaking down mental events to the smallest elements. Instead, James focused on the wholeness of an event, taking into the impact of the environment on behavior.
  • James-Lange Theory of Emotion: The James-Lange theory of emotion proposes that an event triggers a physiological reaction, which we then interpret. According to this theory, emotions are caused by our interpretations of these physiological reactions. Both James and the Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently proposed the theory.
  • Pragmatism: James wrote extensively on the concept of pragmatism. According to pragmatism, the truth of an idea can never be proven. James proposed we instead focus on what he called the "cash value," or usefulness, of an idea.

William James' Influence on Psychology

In addition to his enormous influence, many of James' students went on to have prosperous and influential careers in psychology. Some of James' students included Mary Whiton Calkins, Edward Thorndike, and G. Stanley Hall.

Selected Works

  • James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
  • James, W. (1897). The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  • James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.


  • Myers, G. (2001). William James: His Life and Thought. Yale University Press.
  • Simon, L. (1999). Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. University Of Chicago Press.
7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. James W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co.; 1890:369.

  2. James W. The Letters of William James. Vol 1. James H, ed. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1920.

  3. Schultz DP, Schultz SE. A History of Modern Psychology. 10th ed. Cengage Learning; 2011.

  4. Harvard University Press Catalogue. Psychology: The Briefer Course.

  5. Brioschi MR. How novelty arises from fields of experience: A comparison between W. James and A.N. Whitehead. Eur J Pragmatism Am Phil [Online]. 2013. doi:10.4000/ejpap.595

  6. Coleman AE, Snarey J. James-Lange Theory of Emotion. In: Goldstein S, Naglieri JA, eds., Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Boston, MA: Springer; 2011. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9

  7. White H. William James’s pragmatism. Eur J Pragmatism Am Phil [Online]. 2010. doi:10.4000/ejpap.941 

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.