His philosophy has three principal aspects—voluntarism, pragmatism, and
radical empiricism. He construes consciousness as essentially active, selective, interested, teleological. We
carve out our world from
the jointless continuity of space. Will and interest are thus primary; knowledge is instrumental. The true is
only the expedient in our way of thinking. Ideas do not reproduce objects, but prepare for, or lead the way to, them. The function of an idea is to indicate
what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare. This theory of knowledge James called pragmatism, a term already used by Charles S. Peirce. James's
radical empiricism is a philosophy of
pure experience, which rejects all transcendent principles and finds experience organized by means of
conjunctive relations that are as much a matter of direct experience as things themselves. Moreover, James regards consciousness as only one type of conjunctive relation within experience, not as an entity above, or distinct from, its experience. James's other philosophical writings include The Will to Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), Some Problems in Philosophy (1911), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
See his letters (ed. by his son Henry James, 1920); the Harvard Univ. Press edition of The Works of William James (17 vol., 1975–88); biographies by E. C. Moore (1965), G. W. Allen (1967), L. Simon (1998), and R. D. Richardson, Jr. (2006); R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (2 vol. 1935, abr. ed. 1948) and In the Spirit of William James (1938, repr. 1958); studies by B. P. Brennan (1968), J. Wild (1969), P. K. Dooley (1974), and H. S. Levinson (1981); J. Barzun, A Stroll with William James (1984). See also studies of the James family by F. O. Matthiessen (1947), R. W. B. Lewis (1991), and P. Fisher (2008).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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