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William James

William James (January 11, 1842, New York - August 26, 1910 Chocorua[?], New Hampshire), elder brother of Henry James, was born in New York. He studied in France and taught at Harvard until his death. Together with Charles Sanders Pierce, who coined the term, James founded the philosophical school or (perhaps more accurately) orientation of pragmatism. James was not trained as a philosopher, but rather as a psychologist, at the time when the two disciplines were only beginning to separate themselves. He was in fact one of the first laboratory psychologists in America, though he was also skeptical of the ultimate value of laboratories for understanding the human mind.

James's was a markedly pluralistic and relativistic philosophy, even for a pragmatist's. While, like pragmatists generally, he held experimentation to be a way of life, he did not look to it for objective knowledge. Unlike John Dewey, James had no problem with people holding widely divergent views of the world, each on the basis of their own experience.

James also did important work in the study and philosophy of religion, providing a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreting them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard:

  • Religious genius should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions--since institutions are merely the remnant of genius.
  • The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind--that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
  • In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.

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