William James: Life and Work of the Father of Psychology in America

Psychology has given birth to a large number of theories and theoretical models through which it seeks to explain human behavior.

These are specific proposals which, in most cases they only seek to explain a small plot of all the subjects which may explain psychology, as they are based on the work that many researchers did months, years, and decades ago. However, this whole web of propositions had to start at a time when virtually nothing was known about how we behave and perceive things.

What was it like to tackle the study of psychology during those years? What was it like to lay the foundations for modern psychology?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to look back and review the life and work of William james, A philosopher and psychologist who undertook to study one of the most fundamental and universal concepts concerning the study of the mind: consciousness.

Who was William James?

William James’ life began as that of any representative of America’s upper classes. He was born in New York in 1842 to a well-to-do family, and the fact that he had the financial resources of his parents allowed him to be educated in good schools, both in the United States and in Europe. and the artistic trends and currents that characterize each place he visits. Additionally, his father was a well-connected famous theologian, and the bourgeois culture surrounding the whole family probably helped William James to be ambitious in setting vital goals.

In short, William James had everything to become a well-positioned person: the material resources as well as the influences of the New York elites linked to his relatives accompanied him in this. However, although in 1864 he began to study medicine at Harvard, a series of academic interruptions and health complications prevented him from completing his studies until 1869, and anyway. he was never able to practice as a doctor.

Another field of study caught his attention: the duo formed between philosophy and psychology, two disciplines which in the nineteenth century had not yet separated at all and which at that time were studying questions related to the soul and to thought.

Psychologist William James was born

In 1873, William James returned to Harvard to teach psychology and philosophy. Some things had changed since he had graduated from medicine. He had undergone his life experience as part of a philosophical examination, and had taken so much care of it that he was seen forcefully to become a teacher, although he did not receive any formal education on the subject.

However, although he did not take a course in philosophy, the subjects that interested him were those which marked the beginnings of the history of great thinkers. As he could not base his studies on previous research in psychology because it had not yet been consolidated, focused on the study of consciousness and emotional states. In other words, two universal themes and closely linked to philosophy and epistemology by being present in all our ways of interacting with the environment.

Consciousness, according to James

In dealing with the study of consciousness, William James encountered many difficulties. It could not be otherwise, for, as he himself recognized, it is very difficult to come at least to define what consciousness is or to be aware of something. And, if it is not possible to limit the object of study, it is practically impossible to direct the research on it and bring it to fruition. This is why James’ first big challenge was to explain what consciousness is in philosophical terms so that he could then test its working mechanisms and its verifiable foundations.

He managed to approach an intuitive (but not entirely comprehensive) idea of ​​what consciousness is by drawing an analogy between it and a river. It is a metaphor to describe consciousness as if it were an incessant flow of thoughts, ideas and mental images. Once again, at this point, one can verify the intimate link between William James’ approach to psychology and philosophical themes, for the figure of the river had already been used several millennia before by Heraclitus, one of the first great thinkers of the West.

The precedent of Heraclitus

Heraclitus was faced with the task of defining the relationship between “being” and change which is apparently part of reality. Everything seems to stay and show qualities that make them stable over time, but at the same time everything changes. Heraclitus maintained that “being” is an illusion and that the only thing that defines reality is constant change, like a river which, although apparently only one thing that remains, does not stop being a succession of parts of water that never repeat again. .

William James found it useful to define consciousness as a river because it thus establishes a dialectic between one stable element (consciousness itself, which must be defined) and another in constant evolution (the content of this consciousness). He thus underlined the fact that consciousness is made up of unique and irreplaceable units of experience, related to the here and now, And this led to a “stretch” of thought flow to another part of it.

The nature of consciousness

This involved recognizing that in consciousness there is little or nothing substantial, that is, it can be isolated and stored for its study, because everything that crosses it is linked to the context. The only thing that remains in this “flow” are the labels we want to put on it to define it, that is to say our considerations about it, but not the thing itself. From this reflection, William James draws a clear conclusion: consciousness is not an object, but a process, just like the functioning of a motor is not in itself something that exists separately from the machine..

Why does consciousness exist, then, if it cannot even be located in a given time and space? For our bodies to function, he says. To enable us to use images and thoughts to survive.

Define the flow of thoughts

William James believed that in the flow of images and ideas that make up consciousness there are transitive parts and substantial parts. The former constantly refer to other elements of the current of thought, while the latter are those in which one can stop for a moment and notice a feeling of permanence. Of course, all of these parts of consciousness are more or less transitory. And, above all, they are all private, in the sense that other people can only know them indirectly, through our own awareness of what we are going through.

The practical consequences of this situation for psychological research were clear. This idea meant admitting that experimental psychology was unable to fully understand, only through its methods, the workings of human thought, although it could help. To examine the flow of thoughts, says William James, we must start by studying the “I”, which appears from the very current of consciousness.

This means that, from this point of view, to study the human psyche is to study a construction as abstract as the “I”. This idea did not appeal to experimental psychologists, who preferred to concentrate their efforts on the study of verifiable facts in the laboratory.

James – Lange Theory: Have we cried because we are sad or are we sad because we cry?

Once these basic considerations had been made of what is and what is not consciousness, William James was able to begin to propose concrete mechanisms by which our thought flows guide our behavior. One of these contributions is the James – Lange theory, devised by him and Carl Lange almost at the same time, according to which emotions arise from awareness of one’s own physiological states.

So, for example, no we smile because we are happy but we are happy because our consciousness has been informed that we are smiling. Likewise, we do not run because something scared us, but we are afraid because we are checking that we are running away.

It’s a theory that attacks the conventional way we think of how our nervous system and our thoughts work, and the same thing happened at the end of the 19th century. Today, however, we know that William James and Carl Lange are probably only partially right, Since we consider that in a cycle between perception (seeing something that scares us) and action (running) is so fast and with so many neural interactions in both directions that we cannot speak of a causal chain in one direction. We run because we are afraid, and we are also afraid because we are running.

What do we owe William James?

William James’ beliefs may seem bizarre today, but the truth is that many of his ideas were the principles upon which some interesting propositions were erected and which are still in effect today. In his book The Principles of Psychology, for example there are many useful ideas and concepts to understand how it works human brain, although it was written at a time when the existence of synaptic spaces separating some neurons from others had just been discovered.

Moreover, the pragmatist approach he gave to psychology is the philosophical foundation of many psychological theories and therapies which place more emphasis on the usefulness of thoughts and affective states than on their correspondence with objective reality.

Perhaps because of this union between psychology and the philosophical current of American pragmatism (Which would later define behaviorist BF Skinner as well) and because he was one of the pioneers on American soil, William James is considered the father of psychology in the United States and, much to his regret, the The psychology which in Europe was developed by Wilhelm Wundt.

In short, although William James had to face the costly mission of helping to establish the beginnings of psychology as an academic and practical field, it cannot be said that this task was not appreciated. He showed a real interest in what he was looking for and was able to use this discipline to deploy propositions on the exceptionally keen human mind. So much so that, for those who followed him, there was no choice but to take them for granted or strive to refute them.

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