The Echoes of the Mind (9-29) William James

William James

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

American physician, psychologist, and philosopher William James (1842–1910) won his outsized reputation not for poignant insights, but by penmanship. His 1890 book Principles of Psychology was a roaring commercial success.

James objected to the form-over-function approach proposed by Wilhelm Wundt, which got codified into the short-lived school of thought known as structuralism through the work of English psychologist Edward Titchener. Structuralism sought to describe the makeup of the mind.

James instead focused on the workings of the mind: mentation. This begat functionalism, which typified James’ emphasis on stream of consciousness rather than searching for the elements of thought.

To James, the salient feature of human awareness was its fluidity, affording adaptation to circumstance. James characterized consciousness as personal (subjective), continuous, ever-changing, and selective.

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. ~ William James

James considered humans creatures of habit, governed largely by instinct, but that habits may be modified. James proposed habit creation as repetition that trained neural pathways. His physiological account of habit formation was selfsame to that of his contemporary, Ivan Pavlov.

Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. Begin to be now what you will be hereafter. ~ William James

James imagined that emotion emanated from a reflexive shift in the nervous system that arose from the perception of external stimuli. This facile proposition fared better with psychologists than physiologists, to whom the idea seemed far-fetched.

In 1932, American physiologist Walter Cannon refuted James’ theory of emotion with several pieces of evidence, beginning with the observation that emotions often linger long after the physiological response has expired.

James thought that there were 2 types of people: tough-minded and tender minded. Tough-minded people put great store in facts: materialistic, pessimistic, and skeptical. In contrast, tender-minded people are idealistic, optimistic, and religious.

James’ writings were infused with philosophic pragmatism: that beliefs were best chosen for their value in creating a more effective and satisfying life.

As a rule, we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use. ~ William James

James’ pragmatic approach to belief systems was shaped by his prolonged depression after graduating medical school at the age of 27. James’ interpretation of German matterism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and consideration of science as cause and effect led him to believe in the inexorable power of fate (predeterminism). Paradoxically, James chose to believe in free will, at least to the extent of voluntary behavior.

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. ~ William James