William James has an interesting (and possibly confusing) family tree, being the son of Henry James, the religious philosopher, and brother of another Henry James, the novelist. He himself was a philosopher and psychologist who taught at Harvard, publishing The Principles of Psychology (1890), an account of how the brain is related to the mind, or rather ‘consciousness’.
Taking DARWIN’s view that consciousness has an EVOLUTIONARY origin and purpose, he dismisses the idea that we are all effectively automata or machines, and considers instead the possibility that we may have some sort of ‘soul’, before rejecting that too on the grounds that consciousness seems to be a transient state of the brain, continually being destroyed and refreshed. This is what has become famous as the ‘stream of consciousness’.
Another influential element of his analysis is the distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. James says that the ‘I’ is the ‘thinker’; while the ‘me’ is made up of a ‘material me’, essentially preoccupied with bodily concerns, and the ‘social me’, which is concerned with how others perceive it in social situations. Our personal identity consists in the ‘I’ remembering the demands of the various ‘me’s. In this sense, James is a ‘PHENOMENOLOGIST’ as he sees mental states being based on physical processes. The exception is ‘free will’, which James hopes is indeed ‘free’, since the ‘I’ is able to choose ‘freely’ the thoughts it wants to think about.
His version of the ‘will to believe’ is that even if we lack any ‘rational’ basis for believing something, we can reasonably allow the emotional consequences to determine our decision. He is, after all, considered one of the leading ‘PRAGMATIST’ philosophers.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.