William James (1842–1910)

1. Brief Vita

William James was born in 1842, the eldest son in a remarkable family which contained his Swedenborgian father Henry senior, the novelist Henry junior, and a sister, Alice, who became known subsequently as a diarist. After studying to be a painter in Rhode Island against his father’s wishes, he entered the Lawrence Scientific School in 1863 and the Harvard Medical School two years later. He taught anatomy and physiology at Harvard from 1873–1876, was made a Professor of physiology in 1876 and of philosophy in 1880. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s he published work on psychology and philosophy which culminated in the publication of the two-volume Principles of Psychology in 1890. Subsequently his work was associated with the American Pragmatist movement and its other chief founders, C.S. Peirce and J. Dewey. James’s commitment to that movement was documented most directly in the publication of the lectures on Pragmatism in 1907. Well known throughout Continental Europe and Britain at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, he gave the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh in 1901–2, subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. After a trip to Britain to see his brother Henry, he fell ill on the return journey and died at his country home in Chocorua in 1910.

2. James’s Background in Philosophy and Psychology

James’s central period of philosophical and psychological work, from 1870 to 1910, overlapped with Whitehead’s early career. The latter’s important formal work with Russell during the first decade of the twentieth century, culminating in the publication of Principia Mathematica, would not have brought him into direct contact with James’s philosophy, but his subsequent interests were undoubtedly influenced by the American. Whitehead’s later work in process philosophy and his period as a professor of philosophy at Harvard would have brought him into close contact with his predecessor’s philosophy. The description of a party for Whitehead in May 1945 held by the James family at their house at 95, Irving Street shows something of William James’s continuing influence in Harvard (see Price 1954, 314-15). In his later philosophy Whitehead was conscious of James’s work in philosophy and psychology and shared some of James’s central attitudes, especially his criticism of traditional philosophy from Descartes to Kant.

Nevertheless Whitehead and James approached philosophy from very different positions. Whitehead came to his most general philosophical interests from a background in mathematics and contemporary physics. One of his deepest metaphysical convictions was that new developments in mathematics and physics entailed a radical revision of traditional philosophy and our understanding of reality. That new conception of reality was derived from non-classical mathematics, especially non-Euclidean geometries, and non-classical physics in such theories as Maxwell’s field equations, Einstein’s relativity theories, and quantum mechanics. Whitehead’s philosophy tried to make explicit the ramifications of these developments and he held that new developments in science entailed a rejection of both ordinary conceptions of experience and of earlier scientific theories.

James, by contrast, came to philosophy through a background in natural science and an interest in psychology, and his initial reputation was fixed by the publication in 1870 of his two-volume Principles of Psychology (James 1918). The Principles has been evaluated in many ways. On the one hand, it was one of the first general surveys of human psychology to qualify as a genuine “science of mental life” (James 1918, Vol. 1, 1). On the other, J.B. Watson and James’s behaviorist successors regarded the work more as a systematization of “common sense” or “folk” psychology: for them, it would require a behaviorist analysis of mind to provide a scientific foundation for the discipline. James himself, in The Meaning of Truth (1909), characterized his own work as “descriptive psychology, hardly anything more” (James 1978, 180).

Despite differing evaluations, one of the principal claims to fame of James’s psychology, thoroughly deserved, was its accessibility. Readers could enjoy, understand, and recognize the plausibility of James’s accounts in virtue of their own nature as mental agents. Although James invoked technicalities in neuro-physiology and canvassed apparently counter-intuitive views such as the James-Lange theory of the emotions, his work could still be read and appreciated without a technical background. James himself was hostile to over-technical appeals in both psychology and philosophy, and to what he regarded as an undue enthusiasm for detailed experimental work. That hostility extended also to a dislike and suspicion of logic—a fact that, again, highlights the significant differences in the backgrounds of Whitehead and James.

James’s chronological career cannot be divided neatly into a scientific and a philosophical phase. Much of his early work addressed standard issues in philosophy, and the Principles evidently mixes descriptive psychology and philosophy. Topics such as free will, the higher-order methodology for a developing scientific psychology, the self, and the development of our basic cognitive faculties, figure in James’s account just as do the more detailed accounts of brain mechanisms, and of experimental results from earlier psychologists, mainly German and French. Psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and Jean Charcot in Europe had begun to address empirical issues in developmental and clinical psychology in a scientific way, and their work undoubtedly influenced James.

But at a time when scientific psychology was only beginning to separate itself from traditional philosophical accounts in British empiricists like Locke and Hume, it was inevitable that James’s psychology should overlap with those more philosophical interests. James himself insisted upon division between questions of empirical psychology and those of metaphysics, but he recognized that the two could not be kept in completely separate compartments. In the Principles he writes:

the data assumed by psychology, just like those assumed by physics and other natural sciences, must some time be overhauled. The effort to overhaul them thoroughly and completely is metaphysics; but metaphysics can only perform her task well when distinctly conscious of its great extent. Metaphysics fragmentary, irresponsible, and half-awake, and unconscious that she is metaphysical, spoils two good things when she injects herself into natural science (Preface vi).

James recognized that sciences have to make assumptions which metaphysics traditionally questions, but he also admitted that psychology rested on questionable foundations which needed metaphysical support if it was to develop into a genuine science.

When we talk of psychology as a natural science we must not assume that that means a sort of psychology that stands at last on solid ground. It means just the reverse; it means a psychology particularly fragile, and into which the waters of metaphysics leak at every joint (James 1908, 467-68).

The Principles consequently discusses traditional issues in philosophy about the relation between mind and body, about free will, personal identity, and belief at the same time as it attempts to develop more accurate empirical descriptions of, and explanatory theories for, those aspects of the human mind.

James’s psychology consequently has those two dimensions: a philosophical account of the central concepts of human mentality and a more detailed empirical survey of its central features. The former makes more of a connection with Whitehead’s philosophical work. Although Whitehead, like James, wished to reject traditional philosophical accounts of cognition, of science, and of the self, he did not offer James’s detailed descriptive survey of human mentality. Though Whitehead’s work might influence a scientific psychology it belonged more firmly to its metaphysical background. In the period after James’s death, when behaviorism began to be generally accepted by practicing psychologists, Whitehead’s interests would have qualified unreservedly as philosophical rather than scientific. Like James Whitehead thought that traditional philosophers such as Descartes and the British empiricists had made mistakes in their basic views about mind and the relation between mind and body, but, unlike James, he did not pursue those errors far into the territory of outlining in detail the way in which an empirical psychology should develop. Whitehead’s own philosophical convictions, however, have a clear similarity to James’s, and in what follows I summarize those aspects of James’s psychology and philosophy which seem to have the closest connection with Whitehead’s views. These are: his accounts of methods in psychology (Section 3); cognitive development, the stream of consciousness and the self (Section 4); and pure experience and neutral monism (Section 5).

3. Methods in Psychology

James’s psychological work occurred at a time of transition for the discipline. In previous periods, psychology had been dominated by more purely philosophical writers like the empiricists Locke and Hume. Hume aimed to provide a foundation for a science of human nature, which included psychology, in his Treatise of Human Nature and Inquiry into Human Understanding. He talks of his research into the “secret springs and principles by which the human mind is activated in its operations” (Hume 1955, § 1), and develops a more subtle vocabulary for, and a more thorough survey of, mental activity than his predecessors. The terminology of “impressions” and “ideas” and the accounts of memory, of belief, and of personal identity, all contribute to that research, but Hume’s account was both introspective and philosophical. He offered analyses of impressions and ideas, belief and self identity which focused on the way such phenomena feel to individual subjects. Such items were distinguished in terms of the “vividness” or “liveliness” of the related imagery, and the differences we may feel in believing or merely imagining something.

Kant later began to draw a distinction between empirical and philosophical psychology in his Critique of Pure Reason, but the terminology he used to distinguish “empirical,” “transcendent” and “transcendental” psychology was generally misunderstood throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless Kant’s aim of distinguishing an empirical, scientific psychology from metaphysics would have been approved by James. Kant’s position is nicely encapsulated in a passage from his lectures on Metaphysics (L1):

It is good to determine the boundaries between sciences and to depict them in a system; otherwise we are always apprentices and know nothing. For example how psychology and metaphysics are related, and whether they do not involve several different disciplines […]. The reason why metaphysics was confused with empirical psychology was that we didn’t know exactly what metaphysics was, and hadn’t outlined its boundaries. So much was included under the heading ‘First principles of Human Knowledge’ (Kant 1968, 223).

It was only later in the nineteenth century that professional psychologists began experimental investigations of a wide range of psychological features without directly addressing traditional philosophical issues. Those detailed enquiries concerned the normal development of human cognitive powers, mental disorders and phenomena such as hypnotism. Jean Charcot investigated these matters in his clinical work, while others, such as Wilhelm Wundt began to investigate experimentally cognitive development in a way later pursued by Jean Piaget. At the time when James was beginning to write the papers that were eventually incorporated into the Principles of Psychology, he was influenced by these new developments and wished to summarize them. He was aware, as were his immediate predecessors, of the underlying philosophical principles and problems which those detailed investigations rested on, but much of his discussion in the Principles sets those underlying philosophical issues aside. His discussion covered the whole range of issues, from cognitive development to mental pathology. Towards the end of his career his work in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) continues his descriptive psychology by focusing on the characteristics of admittedly abnormal religious mystical experiences. James’s interest in abnormal psychological states was undoubtedly influenced by the well documented mental breakdowns which both he and his father had suffered early in their lives.

Despite his empirical interests and his recognition of the inadequacies of earlier enquiries into psychology, James’s apparatus and methods for discussing psychological phenomena were not significantly different from those of his more philosophical predecessors. He was perhaps more aware of the need to clarify those methodological principles in an adequate foundation for the new science, and recognizes this in the discussion. Throughout the Principles he wrestles with the general problem of the relation between mind and matter but recognizes in the end that “the relations of a mind to its own brain are of an unique and utterly mysterious sort” (James 1918, 126). But the central pillars on which he thought such a science should rest were not fundamentally different from those which Kant had identified almost one hundred years earlier. Basically these approved, accepted methods were introspection, “experimental” methods, and “comparative” methods. Experimental methods include both behavioral and neuro-physiological data, although the latter are not specifically identified. Comparative methods refer in part to the study of behavior, but in general incorporate more anthropological study of comparative social forms. These three resources remained for James the central basis for a psychological science. Of the three, he gave priority to introspection, while recognizing its fallibility and potential subjectivity.

In the Principles the discussion of the mind-body problem focuses on the explanatory value of various forms of materialism and idealism. James is particularly concerned with the way in which physiological explanations harmonize with our understanding of their corresponding mental events. He is critical of what he calls “psychic chemistry,” that is, the idea that there are mental effects corresponding to every physical change in the brain. His principal objections to this notion are that it is unnecessary but also unverifiable, since it requires some ‘medium’ in which the mental changes take place. The only evident, but plainly insufficient, medium is the physical state of the brain, but independently of that he thinks the hypothesis of psychic chemistry is potentially absurd. In one passage he pours scorn on the idea that just as a yellow pigment results from mixing green and red, so a feeling of yellow might result from mixing a feeling of red and a feeling of green. In another passage he derides the idea of interaction between the mental and physical as akin to the claim that the coaches of a train might be held together by the feelings of amity existing between the driver and the guard. James’s preferred solution is to suppose that all the machinery operates within the physiological sphere which then gives rise directly to its mental accompaniments. In this way, there is no need to invoke parallel operations in the mental sphere. Yet it still leaves a query about the relation between body and mind at the point of interaction which James calls “mysterious.”

Similarly inconclusive are James’s more formal discussions of alternative philosophical theories such as the “automaton” (materialist) and “mind-dust” (spiritualist) theories. He discusses and rejects the underlying principle of continuity which both such theories invoke, and provides good reasons for doubting both alternatives, but is less decisive in providing an alternative view of his own. Of the “brain world” and the “soul world” and the relations between them, he writes that “the only trouble that remains to haunt us is the metaphysical one of understanding how one sort of world or existent thing can affect or influence another at all” (James 1918, Vol. 1, 181). He is evidently drawn towards materialism in virtue of the importance of physiological explanations, but also recognizes the strength of a spiritualist resolution:

I confess that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own seems to me the line of least logical resistance (James 1918, Vol. 1, 182).

He nevertheless also points towards an alternative account:

[That view] does not strictly explain anything, but is less positively objectionable than either mind-stuff or material monad creed. The bare phenomenon, the immediately known, which is in opposition to the entire brain process, is the state of consciousness, not the soul […] this is certainly only a provisional halting place and things must some day be more thoroughly thought out (James 1918, Vol. 1, 182).

In the Principles James evidently did not succeed in choosing between materialist and spiritualist theories, or in explaining how their different phenomena might be linked together. He did not, like later psychologists and philosophers, investigate an analytic behaviorism which would focus solely on behavioral patterns and reject any appeal to introspective methods. Nor did he suggest a materialist theory in which brain states and mental states were treated as contingently identical, as different aspects of one and the same physiological phenomenon. In his psychology, the investigations into mental phenomena simply appealed to each of the basic resources—introspection, behavior, physiology, and anthropology—as seemed to him most appropriate, and the underlying metaphysical problem of relating mind to matter was left as a mystery. Despite that philosophical indecisiveness the book provides thoroughly readable, lucid, and plausible introspective descriptions of what it is like to have and exercise a mind. For James, at this stage in the development of psychology these were the primary goals for a scientific psychology.

4. Cognitive Development, the Stream of Consciousness and the Self

It might also be said that James’s topics and apparatus for outlining the basic cognitive development of normal humans are not significantly different from those given by his empiricist predecessors. James certainly approved of empiricism generally and argued for what he called a “radical empiricism.” But he claimed that his pragmatism, in its support for a philosophical method and a theory of truth, did not entail empiricism. James employs the same vocabulary of “sense,” “understanding,” “reason,” “memory,” “belief,” and “emotion” as his predecessors and undoubtedly accepts the empiricist claim that the whole of our normal cognitive development rests on the a posteriori deliverances of the senses.

But in one central respect James’s radical empiricism differed from its Humean predecessor and claimed to improve on it. This point of difference had wider implications for his treatment of the basic psychological faculties (e.g. memory) and of central problems of psychology (e.g. personal identity). It also provided that further examination of the mind-body problem which James had mentioned in the Principles. According to James, empiricists like Hume had provided too abstract and theoretical an account of the basic human mental experience. For them, experience consisted of simple, distinct ideas (or impressions) whose connections were constructed by the mind or understanding. Relations between the basic elements in consciousness were conceived, as James puts it, exclusively in terms of “disjunctive” relations that linked the individual simple discrete “atoms” at the basis of experience. James, by contrast, thought that this was a seriously inaccurate account of the character of our experiences and wished to supplement the traditional view with a reference to what he called “conjunctive” relations. In that account, experience is not like a pearl necklace which strings together the substantial matter of experience, but more like a uniform stream in which each successive event contains echoes of its antecedents and premonitions of its successors. Conjunctive relations are themselves as much an aspect of experience as are the identifiable discrete units and their separating, disjunctive relations.

James uses a number of vivid metaphors to capture what everyone will recognize as a plausible account of that succession in the stream of consciousness. He talks of the continuous flights of birds interrupted by occasional perchings, or of the continuity of a bamboo cane with its intermittent joints. The apparent atomic character of certain of the elements in the stream, James suggests, is due to two misleading features: First, we objectify those aspects of the stream in which we are momentarily interested, and second, we may adopt a theoretical and abstract conception of mind which departs from a common sense recognition of its principally non-atomic character. The former is a faulty motive which applies to all of us, but the latter is a fault endemic to theorists such as philosophers and psychologists. These dangers in abstract theorizing were a theme which provided for James a quite general corrective therapy for over-intellectual philosophers and provided some support for his own descriptive folk psychology. James’s intention is first to recall our natural acceptance of the common sense flow or stream of consciousness and second to provide psychological descriptions, and explanations, of mental events which acknowledge that basic characteristic.

This revision to traditional empiricism affects the detailed survey of mental events in many ways. It brings into the description of experience and its development a dynamic element in which memory plays a central role. The stream of consciousness which recognizes at any point an immediate appeal to its predecessors and its successors depends on a built-in short term memory. Similarly James’s account of personal identity, or, as he says, of the sense of personal identity, requires that at any given point there is an implicit appeal to memories of earlier points in the stream. James’s rejection of a substantial self identified within the stream of consciousness forms part of his more general rejection of abstract, discrete, items, but his view of self identity adds other points to that general idea. He is influenced by Hume’s apparent failure to locate that postulated substantial self:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception (Hume 1978, Book I, vi, 252).

In response, James argues that Hume failed to find a substantial self because his own empiricist “atomism” prevented him from recognizing the conjunctive relations that characterize the stream of consciousness. Though he put forward his own view as an improvement on Hume, he thought that it “will be recognized by the instructed reader as the ordinary description professed by the empirical school” (James 1912, 132). James’s belief was that the imagined, but elusive, substantial self can be replaced by a succession of elected experiences which stand for the sense of personal identity through their recall of earlier, and anticipation of later, moments in an overall stream of consciousness. One analogy that James employs is that of a herd of cattle which is led or owned at different periods by one member chosen from the herd. There is no one member of the herd which exists throughout the herd’s career, but there are those nominated representative cows in whom the herd’s identity is successively vested. In an analogous way, James writes that “the passing thought is the thinker” (James 1912, 37). In such an account at least there is no need to look for, and no anxiety about failing to find, some continuous and substantial ego which might constitute personal identity.

The philosophical theory thus built on the initial revision to a Humean atomism nevertheless raises problems despite its initial plausibility. James recognized that his account needed more elaboration and he sought to provide this with his apparatus of “appropriation” which relates different members of the stream of consciousness to each other and to a subject’s body. In the account James contrasts a “warm” and “intimate” first-hand knowledge of ourselves linked to our bodies with a “cold” second-hand knowledge we might acquire of our past without being able recall the relevant item. But the relations between the conscious memories and the body, however warm and intimate, refer back to the basic difficulties of the mind-body problem, and it remains unclear whether James intended to provide a strict criterion for personal identity or only to describe the way in which we recognize our own “sense of identity.”

5. Pure Experience and Neutral Monism

James’s psychology is directed on one side against the errors he detected in a Humean, empiricist account of disjunctive experience, but in his wider philosophy he also challenged and ultimately rejected a more fundamental Cartesian conception of the mind and its relation to matter. His primary criticism of that traditional Cartesian conception, like his criticisms of empiricist atomism in experience, was that its separation of mind and matter was too abstract and theoretical. To think of them in a Cartesian way as separate substances—res cogitans and res extensa—is to make the problem of their apparent unification difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. James held two connected views about this background conception which, he believed, required it to be amended or abandoned.

The first common-sense idea is that it is unrealistic to regard as strictly separate in our experience those aspects which we call “mental” and those we call “physical.” All mental experiences occur within the framework of a body, though the reference to a body may become vanishingly small or implicit. Descriptions such as “frown” or “smile” make a necessary reference to mentality but indicate primarily also certain sheer bodily movements. James’s idea is that to identify a pure mental phenomenon without any physical attachments, or to identify a pure physical phenomenon without any mental references, is impossible. Just as all mental events refer, directly or obliquely, to a body, so all physical phenomena require an appeal to sentience or cognition if they are to be identified or known at all. An abstract pure mentality and pure physicality may be theoretically satisfying, but they are unrealistic as given items of experience, and their theoretical value is limited by the difficulty of reconciling them to each other.

That background conviction led James to construct a formal picture of the underlying character of our experience, in which the “basic stuff” of which it was ultimately composed should be characterized neither as “mental” nor as “physical,” but in some way as “neutral” between these two general characterizations. The doctrine became associated among later American and British philosophers with the label “neutral monism,” purporting to identify that fundamental non-physical, non-mental, “stuff.” James’s own term, however, was “pure experience.” Russell in The Analysis of Mind and The Philosophy of Logical Atomism expressed strong approval of neutral monism, as he understood it, but he, like many other critics, objected to James’s term “pure experience.” He thought it misleading since the term “experience” suggests, counter-productively, a non-neutral mental “stuff.” It might seem, consequently, to reinstate a Cartesian preference for a basic inner, mental, experience, when that was precisely what James, and Russell, had hoped to avoid.

James’s doctrine contains, moreover, a fundamental ambiguity: should it be seen as an ontological doctrine, or only as an analysis of experience? The former is apparent in the idea that what is identified is a basic “stuff,” itself neither mental nor physical, but from which the derivative categories of the mental and physical can be reconstructed. The latter is apparent in the analytic explanation of the way in which that reconstruction can be implemented. James has a vivid picture of a grid in which the careers of minds and bodies can both be represented by different trajectories of the basic pure experience. In one such trajectory pure experience maps a line corresponding to some person’s mental life; in another it maps a line corresponding to the temporal development of a physical object. When the person experiences that object the two lines intersect and, as we might say, the mind is in contact with the object; but both before and after that point the two lines naturally diverge. James’s analytic thesis is that pure experience can be used in this way to account for both mental and physical phenomena. The ontological consequences are developed in Essays in Radical Empiricism, where James talks of our tendency to count experiences twice over and so to duplicate reality unnecessarily. His suggestion is that there is just one thing

figuring in one context as an object or field of objects, and in another as a state of mind; and all this without the least actual self-diremption on its own part into consciousness and content. It is all consciousness in one taking and all content in another (James, 1912, 17-18, 21).

Nevertheless it is possible to propose the analytic thesis without drawing the ontological conclusion, and this is reinforced by difficulties in the theory which were partly recognized by James himself.

James himself makes a number of provisos about the ontological thesis. He says that despite talking of the “stuff of pure experience,” he wants to contend that “there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made, there are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced.” He adds that if you ask what a bit of experience is made of, the answer can only be that “it is made of that, of just what appears” (James 1912, 26). Or, again, he writes that it is “a bald that, a datum, fact, phenomenon, content or whatever other neutral or ambiguous term you prefer” (James 1912, 123). Pure experience is said to be the “immediate flux of life” as found only in “new-born babes or men in semi-coma from drugs, sleep or illnesses, [and then is] pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet a definite what […].” (James 1912, 93)

James’s general intention, shared not only with Russell but also with Whitehead, is to reject a Cartesian “bifurcation” into separate physical and mental substances. Pure experience ultimately was to be seen as of one fundamental category—neither pure mentality nor pure physicality. But James’s intentions, however understandable, are not altogether successful. His terminology and characterization of pure experience is misleading and unclear, but the theory also contains an ambiguity between a weak and a strong form. The terminology of “pure experience” inevitably suggests that the basic “stuff” is mental, even though this runs counter to James’s thesis. The provisos already noted about the ineffable character of pure experience, that it is a that but not any particular what, make it difficult to identify the basic stuff. In its weak form the theory might claim, against materialists and idealists, that there is no ontological primacy attaching either to the mental or to the physical. Such a thesis would gain some support from the noted fact that typically mental and physical items overlap in ordinary experience. But that weak claim does not entail the stronger conclusion that there is some other non-physical, non-mental stuff out of which both ordinary mental and physical items are constructed, and into which they can both be analyzed.

The doctrine may as a result emphasize not the ontological conclusion but the claimed analytic reduction of the physical and mental into two different partitions among ordinary experiences. This would be to give up the idea of a prior stuff which is neither physical nor mental and to admit straightforwardly that the construction is of a physical world out of inner, mental experiences. The result would be a phenomenalist programme of some kind in which series of mental events, taken in one way, constitute a succession in the career of a physical object. The requirements of the “grid” metaphor would be satisfied by recognizing that the series of such inner experiences may also be taken in another way as a succession in some particular mind. Understood in these terms, the basic stuff out of which the successions in physical objects and minds can be constructed remain particular inner mental experiences. Consequently even that retreat turns out to be unsatisfactory. It is in danger of reinstating a Cartesian priority for the mental over the physical, contrary to the original intention; it was never worked out in detail by James; and phenomenalist programmes subsequently have come to be seen as highly doubtful and have certainly never been shown to succeed.

6. Conclusion: James’s Influence on Whitehead

Whitehead undoubtedly found James’s philosophical views congenial in many respects and acknowledged his influence (see Weber 2002 for a more detailed account). Whitehead responded particularly to James’s un-pompous attitude to intellectual enquiry and strongly approved of James’s emphasis on the basic reality of felt experience both in cognition and in religious experience. Whitehead’s later philosophy shares with James’s one major feature and a number of its derivative corollaries. Both James and Whitehead attach a primacy to the “flowing” character of experience. It emerges in James’s accounts of conjunctive relations and of the continuing stream of consciousness, and it leads in both James and Whitehead to their criticisms of Cartesian and Humean accounts of the self. In Whitehead it emerges in the primacy he attaches to “events” or “processes” in contrast to the traditional emphasis on “substances” and “things.” Both regarded the characterization of such objects in experience as abstractions from the real continuity of felt experience, and their misrepresentation as responsible for errors in traditional philosophy. If the traditional problems arising from the Cartesian bifurcation of mind and matter rest on such a misrepresentation, then those problems can be seen to be unreal and artificial (Section 4 above). Similarly, skepticism about the self can be set aside if it, too, rests on the error of supposing that the self is an actual object in the stream of consciousness instead of a complex set of relations among events in that stream (Section 3 above).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Bird, Graham. 1986. William James (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Eisendrath, Craig R. 1971. The Unifying Moment: The Philosophical Psychology of William James and Alfred North Whitehead (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Ford, M. P. 1982. William James’s Philosophy: A New Perspective (Amherst, University of Massachussetts Press).

Gale, Richard. 1999. The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Hume, David. 1955. An Inquiry into Human Understanding, edited by A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

_____. 1978. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience (London, Longmans Green).

_____. 1908. Psychology: A Briefer Course (London, Macmillan).

_____. 1912. Essays in Radical Empiricism (London, Longmans Green).

_____. 1918. Principles of Psychology, 2 Vols. (London, Macmillan).

_____. 1978. The Meaning of Truth (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Kant, Immanuel. 1929. Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (London, Macmillan).

_____. 1968. Metaphysik L1, Vol 28 of Kant’s gesammelte Schriften, Akademie Ausgabe (Berlin, Walter de Gruyter).

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

Price, Lucien. 1954. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, recorded by Lucien Price (London, Max Reinhardt).

Russell, Bertrand. 1921. The Analysis of Mind (London, George Allen & Unwin).

_____. 1956. Logic and Knowledge, edited by R.C. Marsh (London, George Allen & Unwin).

Weber, Michel. 2002. “Whitehead’s Reading of James and its Context,” Streams of William James, 4, 1, 18-22.

Author Information

Graham Bird
Professor Emeritus, Centre for Philosophy, Department of Government, University of Manchester
Honorary Professor, University of Wales
Honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool

How to Cite this Article

Bird, Graham, “William James (1842–1910)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/contemporaries/william-james/>.