William James

William James (1842–1910) was a famous American philosopher and psychologist, the ‘father of American psychology’. Among his most influential books is the two volume work, The Principles of Psychology (1890).


William James was born in New York City. His father, a wealthy man, sent his children to European boarding schools and travelled widely in Europe with them. James first studied chemistry, then medicine. In 1865 he travelled with the biologist Louis Agassiz to the Amazon River basin to collect sample of species. In 1867 James studied physiology in Germany under Herman Helmholtz (1821–94). About this time James began to suffer from back pain, insomnia, and depression. He turned to philosophy and was inspired by the French philosopher named Charles Renouvier (1815–1903), to believe in the power of free will. During 1871–72 James met Charles Sanders Peirce (originator of pragmatism) and other intellectuals in Boston, and these meetings provided further material for James’ philosophy. In 1872 James was appointed instructor of physiology at Harvard. Here he became professor of philosophy (where psychology belonged in those days before it became a field in its own right). He changed his title himself to professor of psychology in 1889. Among James’s students at Harvard University were notables such as Theodore Roosevelt, George Santayana, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Barton Perry, Walter Lippmann, Mary Whiton Calkins, Gertrude Stein, and Horace Kallen.[1] (Later both Stein and Kallen had lessons with Alexander.)

While at Harvard James raised money for a new and expanded laboratory at Harvard, but did not himself run it, instead arranged for one of Wundt’s students, Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916), to be its director. (Münsterberg is mentioned in passing in Alexander’s MSI.[2])

William James’ younger brother, Henry James (1843–1916), was a prominent US-British novelist, and his sister, Alice James (1848–92), was a well-known diarist.


Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) and William James are usually thought of as the fathers of psychology. Both started their own ‘psychology laboratory’. James, however, relied more on introspection for analyses of consciousness whereas Wundt to a greater extent pioneered psychology experiments. William James had a huge influence on philosophy and psychology, influencing many early 20th century philosophers and psychologists, including John Dewey (who later became a pupil of Alexander).

Alexander’s references to William James

Afflicted with cardiac pain during his last years James underwent experimental treatments in Europe in the spring of 1910. This included ‘Nauheim bath’ (mineral spring water with a high concentration of carbon dioxide) which was widely known at the time for the treatment of heart disease and considered by some as a cure for cardiac ailments.[3] However, they proved unsuccessful and James returned home and died of heart failure in August 1910.[4] Alexander writes in his ‘Preface to New Edition’ to CCC, that William James had been due to meet him (Alexander) for a course of lessons, but unforeseen circumstances had prevented this meeting.[5] We do not know when this was supposed to have taken place or who attempted to arrange it – Alexander only refers to ‘a close friend’ of William James. Alexander then relates that to him this has been ‘a lifelong regret’ because he was convinced he could have restored trustworthiness to James’ ‘sensory processes’, thus enabling James to ‘bridge the gap between the instinctive and the conscious way of living’.[6]

Alexander also quotes from Ralph Barton Perry’s large two-volume work, The Thought and Character of William James (1935),[7] in his ‘Preface to New Edition’ to the 1946 edition of CCC.[8]

See also John Dewey, Horace M. Kallen, ideo-motor.


[2] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 19.
[5] F. Matthias Alexander Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Mouritz, 2004), pp. xvi–xvii.
[6] F. Matthias Alexander Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Mouritz, 2004), p. xvii.
[7] F. Matthias Alexander Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Mouritz, 2004), pp. xvi–xvii.
[8] Perry, Ralph Barton The Thought and Character of William James Vol. 2 (Boston, Little, Brown, and Co., 1935), pp. 682–83.