Born in New York City, William James was the son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James. In 1872 he joined the Harvard faculty as lecturer on anatomy and physiology, continuing to teach until 1907, after 1880 in the department of psychology and philosophy. In 1890 he published his brilliant and epoch-making Principles of Psychology, in which the seeds of his philosophy are already discernible. James's fascinating style and his broad culture and cosmopolitan outlook made him the most influential American thinker of his day.
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), and L. Simon (1998); studies by B. P. Brennan (1968), J. Wild (1969), and P. K. Dooley (1974); 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); H. S. Levinson, The Religious Investigations of William James (1981); J. Barzun, A Stroll with William James (1984).