William James: Life And Work Of The Father Of Psychology In America

We review the life and work of a pioneer in psychological study.

The  Psychology has given birth to lots of theories and theoretical models through which seeks to explain human behavior. 

They are concrete proposals that in most cases only seek to explain a small portion of the set of issues that psychology can explain, since they are based on the work that many researchers have been doing months, years and decades ago. However, all this web of proposals had to start at some point where practically nothing was known about how we behave and perceive things. 

What was it like to face the study of Psychology in those years? What was it like to have to lay the foundations of modern psychology?

To answer these questions, it is convenient to look back and review the life and work of William James, a philosopher and psychologist who set out to investigate one of the most basic and universal concepts when it comes to the study of the mind: consciousness. .

Who was William James?

The life of William James began like that of any representative of the American upper classes. He was born in 1842 in New York, into a wealthy family, and the fact of being able to dispose of the considerable financial resources of his parents allowed him to train in good schools, both in the United States and in Europe, and soak up the different philosophical and artistic trends and currents that characterized each place he visited. His father was also a well-connected famous theologian, and the bourgeois culture that enveloped the entire family probably helped make William James ambitious when it came to setting vital goals.

In short, William James had everything to become a well-positioned person: material resources and also the influences of the New York elites related to his relatives accompanied him in this. However, although he began to study medicine at Harvard in 1864, a series of academic hiatuses and health complications meant that he did not finish his studies until 1869 and, in any case, he never became a doctor.

There was another field of study that caught his attention: the binomial formed between Philosophy and Psychology, two disciplines that in the 19th century had not yet been completely separated and that at that time were studying matters related to the soul and thought.

Psychologist William James is born

In 1873, William James returned to Harvard to teach classes in Psychology and Philosophy. Certain things had changed since he graduated from medicine. He had subjected his life experience to a philosophical examination, and had worked so hard at it that he felt strong enough to become a teacher despite no formal education on the subject.

However, despite not having attended philosophy classes, the subjects he became interested in were of the type that had marked the beginnings of the history of great thinkers. As he could not base his studies on previous research in Psychology because it had not yet been consolidated, he focused on studying consciousness and emotional states. That is, two universal themes and intimately linked with philosophy and epistemology, as they are present in all our ways of interacting with the environment.

Consciousness, according to James

When it came to approaching the study of consciousness, William James encountered many difficulties. It could not be otherwise, since, as he himself recognized, it is very difficult to even define what consciousness is or be aware of something. And, if the object of study is not known, it is practically impossible to conduct research on it and make it come to fruition. That is why James’ first great challenge was to explain what consciousness is in philosophical terms so that, later, he could put its working mechanisms and its verifiable foundations to the test.

He managed to get close to an intuitive (though not entirely exhaustive) idea of ​​what consciousness is by drawing an analogy between it and a river. It is a metaphor to describe consciousness as an incessant flow of thoughts, ideas, and mental images. Once again, at this point the intimate connection between William James’s approach to Psychology and philosophical issues can be verified, since the figure of the river had already been used many millennia before by Heraclitus, one of the first great thinkers of the West. .

Heraclitus’ precedent

Heraclitus was faced with the task of defining the relationship between “being” and the change that apparently are part of reality. All things seem to remain and show qualities that make them stable over time, but at the same time all things change. Heraclitus argued that “being” is an illusion and that the only thing that defines reality is constant change, like a river that, although apparently it is a single thing that remains, is still a succession of parts of water that is never repeated again.

William James found it useful to define consciousness as if it were a river because in this way he established a dialectic between a stable element (consciousness itself, what is being defined) and another that is constantly changing (the content of this consciousness). Thus he emphasized the fact that consciousness is composed of unique and unrepeatable units of experience, linked to the here and now, and that lead from one “section” of the flow of thoughts to another part of it.

The nature of consciousness

That implied recognizing that in consciousness there is little or nothing that is substantive, that is, that can be isolatable and storable for study, since everything that passes through it is linked to the context. The only thing that remains in this “current” is the labels that we want to put on it to define it, that is, our considerations about it, but not the thing itself. From this reflection, William James reaches a clear conclusion: consciousness is not an object, but a process, in the same way that the operation of an engine is not in itself something that exists separately from the machine.

Why does consciousness exist, then, if it cannot even be located in a certain time and space? For our body to function, he said. To allow us to use images and thoughts to survive.

Defining the stream of thoughts

William James believed that in the flow of images and ideas that constitute consciousness there are transitive parts and substantive parts . The former constantly refer to other elements of the stream of thoughts, while the latter are those in which we can stop for a while and notice a sense of permanence. Of course all these parts of consciousness are transitory to a greater or lesser extent. And, what is more important, they are all private, in the sense that other people can only know them indirectly, through our own awareness of what we live.

The practical consequences of this for research in psychology were clear. This idea involved admitting that experimental psychology was unable to fully understand, through its methods alone, how human thought works, although it can help. To examine the flow of thoughts, says William James, one must begin by studying the “I”, which appears from the current of consciousness itself.

This means that, from this point of view, studying the human psyche is equivalent to studying such an abstract construct as the “I”. This idea did not appeal to experimental psychologists, who preferred to focus their efforts on studying verifiable facts in a laboratory.

The James-Lange Theory: Do we cry because we are sad or are we sad because we cry?

Having made these basic considerations about what consciousness is and is not, William James was able to begin to propose concrete mechanisms by which our streams of thought guide our behavior. One of these contributions is the James – Lange Theory, devised by him and Carl Lange almost at the same time, according to which  emotions appear from the awareness of one’s own physiological states.

Thus, for example, we do not smile because we are happy, but we are happy because our consciousness has been informed that we are smiling. In the same way, we do not run because something has scared us, but we feel scared because we see that we are fleeing.

This is a theory that goes against the conventional way in which we conceive of the functioning of our nervous system and our thoughts, and the same happened at the end of the 19th century. Today, however, we know that it is most likely that William James and Carl Lange are only partially right, since we consider that the cycle between perception (seeing something that scares us) and action (running) is so fast and with so many neural interactions in one direction and the other that it is not possible to speak of a causal chain in only one sense. We run because we are scared, and we are also scared because we run.

What do we owe William James?

The beliefs of William James may seem bizarre today, but the truth is that a large part of his ideas have been the principles on which interesting proposals have been built that are still valid today. In his book The Principles of Psychology , for example, there are many ideas and notions that are useful for understanding the functioning of  the human brain, despite having been written at a time when existence was just being discovered of the synaptic spaces that separate some neurons from others.

In addition, the pragmatist approach he gave to psychology is the philosophical foundation of many psychological theories and therapies that place more emphasis on the usefulness of thoughts and affective states than on their correspondence with an objective reality.

Perhaps because of this union between Psychology and the philosophical current of American pragmatism (which later would also define the behaviorist BF Skinner ) and because of the fact of being one of the pioneers in American lands, William James is considered to be the father of Psychology in the United States and, much to his regret, the one in charge of introducing Experimental Psychology that in Europe was being developed by  Wilhelm Wundt.

In short, although William James had to face the costly mission of helping to establish the beginnings of Psychology as an academic and practical field, it cannot be said that this task has been ungrateful to him. He showed a real interest in what he was researching and was able to use this discipline to unfold exceptionally sharp proposals about the human mind. So much so that, for those who came after him, there was no choice but to accept them as good or make an effort to refute them.

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