Philosophy William James
Michael Slater
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0252


William James (b. 1842–d. 1910) was the most influential American philosopher and psychologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the founding father of empirical psychology in the United States. A thinker of unusually broad interests and abilities and a physiologist by training, James rose to international prominence with the publication of his monumental The Principles of Psychology (originally published in 1890), but devoted roughly the last twenty years of his life to popular lecturing on philosophical and psychological topics and to the articulation and development of his philosophical views, the seeds of which can be largely found in Principles. He is perhaps best known to philosophers today as one of the originators of pragmatism (along with Charles Sanders Peirce), and for his defense of innovative and controversial philosophical doctrines such as radical empiricism and “the will to believe.” In addition to Principles, James’s most famous works are The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (published first in 1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (published in 1902), and Pragmatism (first published in 1907).

General Overviews

A number of outstanding general studies of James’s philosophy have been published since the 1980s, and the list offered here is necessarily partial and selective. All such studies build upon Perry 1935, which, while not always entirely fair to James, nevertheless remains an essential reference point in the secondary literature. Myers 1986 offers perhaps the most comprehensive, careful, and detailed account of James’s thought available, and is especially helpful in sorting through the various features of his psychology. Seigfried 1990 offers an extended reading of James as a radical philosopher who rejected and sought to reconstruct many inherited features of the Western philosophical tradition. Gale 1999 is perhaps the most philosophically rigorous book-length study of James to date, and has generated a great deal of discussion among specialists in American pragmatism since its publication, in part due to its unpopular thesis that James’s philosophy contains a number of fundamentally inconsistent and irreconcilable positions. Cooper 2002 offers a direct response to Gale 1999, and argues for a unified reading of James, albeit one that frequently involves reconstructing James’s views in the service of such a project. Gale 2004 presents the same basic line of argument as Gale 1999 in a more accessible form. Jackman 2008 and Goodman 2013 are both highly accessible and philosophically astute short introductions to James’s philosophy, and ideal resources for undergraduate and graduate students approaching James for the first time.

  • Cooper, Wesley. The Unity of William James’s Thought. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive study of James’s thought, which aims, in the author’s words, to show that “there is a systematic philosophy in James’s writings, however it may have been with the philosopher” (p. 2).

  • Gale, Richard M. The Divided Self of William James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173292

    The most rigorous and provocative interpretation of James’s philosophy written in the late 20th century. An excellent resource for graduate students and professional philosophers and a pleasure to read, but technically demanding at times.

  • Gale, Richard M. The Philosophy of William James: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511617300

    One of the very best short introductions to James’s philosophy. Presents Gale’s “divided self” interpretation of James (Gale 1999) in a more distilled form.

  • Goodman, Russell. “William James.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013.

    A brief, balanced, and informative introduction to James’s thought that contains a helpful list of some of the best secondary literature on James. Its easy accessibility also makes it a useful reference for students.

  • Jackman, Henry. “William James.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy. Edited by Cheryl Misak, 60–86. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199219315.001.0001

    A finely written and insightful introduction to James’s philosophy by one of the leading contemporary interpreters of James and American pragmatism.

  • Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

    A philosophically rich and balanced historical study of James. It offers the most extensive and detailed treatment of James’s psychology available in the secondary literature.

  • Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.

    The classic study of James’s life and ideas by one of his leading former students (and occasional critics). It is essential reading for the James scholar, but offers a more biased interpretation of James than Myers 1986.

  • Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

    A comprehensive study of James’s philosophy that interprets James through the lens of Deweyan pragmatism and certain trends in 20th-century Continental philosophy.

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