The Great Philosophers

William James: founder of the first homegrown American school of philosophy

What difference could a life make if every action, thought and hope were caused by prior events, asked William James

Tuesday 30 November 2021 21:30
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<p>American philosopher and psychologist William James</p>

American philosopher and psychologist William James

William James (1842–1910) was the brother of the novelist Henry James. Along with CS Peirce, James would achieve his own recognition with the founding of the first homegrown American school of philosophy: pragmatism.

In 1905, William James (1842-1910) recorded the following entries in his diary, as he considered the possibility of retiring from professional teaching: 26 October, “Resign!”; 28, “Resign!!!”; 4 November, “Resign?”; 7, “Resign!”; 8, “Don’t resign”; 9, “Resign!”; 16, “Don’t resign!”; 23, “Resign”; 7 December, “Don’t resign”; 9, “Teach here next year”. He continued at Harvard until somehow managing to resign in 1907. You can form the impression from this, probably rightly, that James’s mind moved in several directions at once. Possibly this trait nearly killed him, but it also provided the roots for pragmatism, the first homegrown American philosophical movement.

Many commentators trace James’s breathtaking indecisiveness to the fact that he spent his childhood in a kind of benevolent upheaval. James’s grandfather, an Irish immigrant, was a multimillionaire, and, following his death, James’s father Henry enjoyed financial independence. This was probably just as well, as Henry James was something of a restless intellectual, with religious aspirations but no head for business, and the income enabled him to pursue his interests and devote himself to his children’s education. The five children – James’s brother Henry was the well-known novelist – were taught to think freely and fiercely, with breakfast table discussion ranging as widely as their interests carried it. The family moved regularly back and forth between the United States and Europe, largely with the aim of gaining the best possible education for the children. They spoke many languages between them and had a decidedly cosmopolitan tolerance for the beliefs of others. James was able to see virtually every side of every argument or possible choice, the merits and disadvantages of all.

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