Psychologist William James Quotes

Psychologist and Writer

William James Portrait
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Psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) is often referred to as the father of American psychology. His landmark textbook, The Principles of Psychology, is considered a classic text and one of the most significant works in psychology history. In addition to his work as a teacher and researcher, James was also known as a writer of great eloquence. Wilhelm Wundt, who is called the founder of modern psychology, famously remarked that James's Principles was beautiful.

James's own assessment of his ability was far less glowing. At one point he wrote, "I have no facility for writing, as some people have." The following quotations offer insight into William James's beliefs, theories, and philosophy.

On Thinking

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

"Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

"Compared with what we ought to be, we are half awake."

  • From "The Energies of Men" (1907)

"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."

  • From The Principles of Psychology (1890)

"Truth in our ideas means their power to work."

  • From Pragmatism (1907)

"Truth happens to an idea."

  • From Pragmatism (1907)

"If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more."

  • From The Letters of William James

"What an awful trade that of professor is—paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words."

  • From The Letters of William James

"Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits."

  • From Pragmatism (1907)

On Success, Failure, and Acceptance

"Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune."

"Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf."

  • From The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)

"It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome."

"There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man's lack of faith in his true Self."

"He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had tried and failed."

  • From The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)

"All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish."

  • From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

On Human Nature

"Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice."

"How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure."

  • From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

"If merely 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."

  • From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

"The best argument I know for an immortal life is the existence of a man who deserves one."

"We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause."

  • From The Letters of William James

"The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated."

  • From The Letters of William James
1 Source
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  1. Schultz DP, Schultz SE. A History of Modern Psychology. 10th ed. Cengage Learning; 2011.

Additional Reading
  • James W. The Letters of William James. James H, ed. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1920.

  • James W. The energies of men. Science. 1907;25(635):321-332.

  • James W. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.; 1907.

  • James W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co.; 1890.

  • James W. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.; 1902.

  • James W. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.; 1897.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."