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William James

1842-1910. American psychologist and philosopher. After a career first as an artist, then as a medical student, James developed an interest in experimental psychology (1867), and taught physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard. Although plagued with ill-health after 1865, he was very active in lecturing both in America and Europe, and in writing what were to become classics of American philosophy. Among his most important books are The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). James wrote for a wide, popular audience. It is partly for this reason that his work seems often unguarded and difficult to summarize. James was a pragmatist in the sense that for him truth is that which we must take account of if we are not to perish. The mind is not simply a passive recipient of sense-data, as in classical empiricism, but is characteristically active. He was anti-reductionist in temper in that he stressed the richness, the “pluralism” of experience, including religious experience, against what he took to be the rigidities of scientific or religious orthodoxy. Religious experience is a well-nigh universal phenomenon; it endures; there must therefore be “truth” in religion. James's brilliance as a descriptive psychologist is apparent in his accounts of religious experience. His brother was Henry James the novelist.