Biography of Famous Psychologists William James

About the famous psychologist William James, biography and history of the man.


WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910)

From his teens until his death, philosopher-psychologist William James suffered from "nervous disorders." His father, Henry James, was an eminent philosopher and brilliant conversationalist who had rather unorthodox ideas about child rearing, which were only partially curbed by his more practical but passive wife Mary. While he believed that children should be raised with love, spontaneity, and freedom, he also believed that childhood should be extended as long as possible. This overprotection from life's crueler realities later proved very unhealthy for William.

Henry James wholeheartedly devoted himself to the education of his five children. Unfortunately, he couldn't quite decide upon the best method of teaching. Consequently, the children were dragged back and forth from one school to another in the U.S. and Europe so often that they later claimed they had had a "hotel" childhood. In 1860 the family finally settled in Newport, R.I., so that William could study painting with the respected William M. Hunt. This career decision did not please his tyrannical father, who wanted his eldest son to enter a scientific field. Although William had apparently won the battle of wills, it was during this time that he began to suffer from several psychosomatic illnesses, including severe eyestrain, a nagging backache, and a nervous stomach. Within just a few months he announced that he was giving up painting to enter the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University.

Although William James subsequently entered medical school, he continued to wrestle with the many soul-searching philosophical and moral issues that had dominated his family's dinner-table conversations since childhood, often to the extent that he denied himself the pleasures of being a warm, feeling human being. He wrote in his diary, "Nature and life have unfitted me for any affectionate relations with other individuals." He also became obsessed with the idea of suicide. These feelings of inadequacy in relationships, the stifling and overindulgent family atmosphere, and his frustrations in his choice of career finally culminated in a nervous breakdown and a prolonged period of invalidism that lasted nearly three years. He wrote of these times: "If I had not clung to scripture texts like 'The eternal God is my refuge,' etc. . . . I think I should have grown really insane."

In 1872 James began teaching physiology at Harvard and soon became immersed in the new field of psychology. He set up the first laboratory for psychological research in the U.S. and wrote the definitive Principles of Psychology. His marriage to Alice Gibbens in 1878 helped to resolve many of his earlier doubts and his depression began to subside. Yet even with a stable personal life and his place in history as one of America's foremost philosophers assured, James continued to suffer the physical effects of a nervous, depressive personality until the day he died. He was not the only member of his family to emerge scarred from their volatile homelife; younger brother Robertson was an alcoholic and sister Alice had several nervous breakdowns and required close supervision throughout her life.

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