William James

28.04.2015 |

Episode #6 of the course “Influential Psychologists Throughout History”

William James is best known for the ideas of pragmatism, functionalism, and the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. He is sometimes called the father of American psychology. He taught one of the first classes on psychology at Harvard in 1869 and established one of the first psychology laboratories in the United States.

Every psychologist after James seems to have built upon his original ideas. He wrote two famous textbooks on the general ideas of psychology that were very widely used: The Principles of Psychology and Psychology: The Briefer Course. James developed pragmatism, which is the idea that the truth of an idea can never really be proven. Instead, James argued that we should not try to determine whether it is true, but whether it is useful. James wrote a book on this theory as well: Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.

James also developed functionalism, which analyzed an entire event instead of breaking it down into its parts, as was the trend for psychological analysis at the time. Structuralists broke down thought into parts, arguing that if they could understand the pieces, then they could understand the whole. James’ theory, on the other hand, wanted to look at the underlying purpose of the behavior. Functionalists also emphasized individual differences in a way that was overlooked by structuralists.

James’s third most notable contribution is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. This theory essentially argues that every event triggers a physiological reaction, and then we interpret this reaction. Our emotions are then caused or created by this interpretation. For example, if someone sees a shark, they may begin to tremble and their heart rate will increase. According to the theory, they will notice their physical changes and conclude that they are afraid (this is opposite of the emotion leading to the reaction). Interestingly, both William James and Carl Lange proposed this theory, but they did it independently.

Without James, American psychology would have developed very differently. He laid the foundation for virtually every advance in this field.


Expand your knowledge universe in just 5 minutes a day via bite-sized email courses. 

Go Highbrow


Share with friends: