Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Introduction to

The Principles of Psychology
William James (1890)

Robert H. Wozniak

© 1999 Robert H. Wozniak. All rights reserved. Previously published in Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Classics in Psychology, 1855-1914: Historical Essays. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

William James's The Principles of Psychology[1] is widely considered to be the most important text in the history of modern psychology. Twelve years in the writing,[2] The Principles was, and in many ways still is, a document unique in the history of human thought. It's author was not only completely conversant with the psychological literature in English, but with that in French, German, and Italian; and, as a result, The Principles presented the discipline for the first time as a truly international endeavor. James was also an artist, with the artist's eye for shading and detail, and one of the English language's truly great prose stylists.[3] In The Principles these characteristics combined to yield some of the richest descriptions of human experience, human behavior, and human nature ever to appear in a work of non-fiction.

As a psychologist, James was as interested in and knowledgeable about the phenomena of psychopathology and exceptional mental states as he was in those of normal consciousness; and in The Principles he drew constantly from this material to enrich his analyses. Trained as a biologist and a physician, James felt compelled to ground his psychology wherever possible in the facts of nervous physiology; but he was also at heart a philosopher concerned with issues such as the problem of other minds, the relationship of mind to body, the continuity of self, the mechanism of objective reference, and the nature of necessary truths. In The Principles, both of these orientations were manifest, as James moved effortlessly back and forth from one level of analysis to another.

More important than any of these characteristics for the claim of James's text to uniqueness and for its extraordinary and continuing influence was the exceptionally innovative way in which the subject matter of psychology was approached. The more traditional topics (e.g., the functions of the nervous system, sensation, the perception of time, space, objects, and reality, imagination, conception, reasoning, memory, association, attention, emotions, and will) were rarely dealt with in a traditional manner; and a whole series of non-traditional topics (e.g., habit, the stream of thought, consciousness of self, discrimination and comparison, the production of movement, instinct, and hypnotism) were introduced in ways that forever changed the discipline.

Not surprisingly The Principles can still be read in its entirety with great profit.[4] Of all James's contributions, however, there are three for which he has been especially famous in the history of psychology: his analysis of the stream of thought, his characterization of the self, and his theory of emotion. Each of these will be briefly described; but it should be kept in mind that, with James, there is no substitute for reading the original.

James's analysis of the stream of thought was first published in an article in Mind, entitled 'On some omissions of introspective psychology.'[5] As it appeared in edited form in The Principles, it consisted of a number of components. Three of these, all of which flowed directly from James's recognition that psychology had traditionally attributed to thought a characteristic true only of the objects of thought(viz., analyzability into discrete elements), will be addressed here.

The first of these components was an attack on the idea that sensations constituted the fundamental elements of consciousness. Sensation, James argued, was an abstraction from not a fact of experience. 'No one,' he wrote, 'ever had a simple sensation by itself. Consciousness, from our natal day, is of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations, and what we call simple sensations are results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.'[6]

The two remaining components emphasized change and continuity in thought. For James, thought contained no constant elements of any kind, be they sensations or ideas. Every perception was relative and contextualized, every thought occurred in a mind modified by every previous thought. States of mind were never repeated. Objects might be constant and discrete, but thought was constantly changing and sensibly continuous. 'Consciousness,' he wrote, '...does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.'[7]

James's chapter on the self introduced numerous self-related concepts and distinctions into psychology.[8] The phenomenal self (the experienced self, the 'me' self, the self as known) was distinguished from the self thought (the I-self, the self as knower). 'Personality,' he wrote, 'implies the incessant presence of two elements, an objective person, known by a passing subjective Thought and recognized as continuing in time. Hereafter let us use the words ME and I for the empirical person and the judging Thought.'[9]

In discussing the me-self, James wrote of three different but interrelated aspects of self: the material self (all those aspects of material existence in which we feel a strong sense of ownership, our bodies, our families, our possessions), the social self (our felt social relations), and the spiritual self (our feelings of our own subjectivity). These aspects were then treated in terms of relevant feelings of self-worth and self-seeking actions; and in the course of this analysis, James made three major contributions to self theory. He articulated the principle of multiplicity of social selves ('a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind'[10]), defined self-esteem in terms of the ratio of successes to pretensions, arguing that self-esteem can be as easily increased by lowering aspirations as by increasing successes, and distinguished ideal selves from real selves ('In each kind of self, material, social, and spiritual men distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential...'[11] ).

In addressing the I-self, James turned first to the feeling of self identity, the experience that 'I am the same self that I was yesterday,'[12] pointing out that 'the sense of our own personal exactly like any one of our other perceptions of sameness among phenomena.'[13] He then proceeded to review the classical (spiritualist, associationist, and transcendentalist) theories of personal identity and concluded with an extremely important discussion of the phenomena and implications of multiple personality. In this last especially, we see James in his element, struggling with the nature of the most complex manifestations of the self.

Finally, James's chapter on the emotions, revised from an 1884 paper,[14] presented his famous theory of emotion. The chapter began with a clear recognition of the close relationship between action and the expressive and physiological concomitants of emotion 'Objects of rage, love, fear, etc.,' he wrote, 'not only prompt a man to outward deeds, but provoke characteristic alterations in his attitude and visage, and affect his breathing, circulation, and other organic functions in specific ways.'[15] Here James also made it clear that emotion could be as easily triggered by memory or imagination as by direct perception of an emotion producing event. As he phrased it, 'One may get angrier in thinking over one's insult than at the moment of receiving it.'[16]

In what was to become known as the James-Lange theory of emotion,[17] James then went on the argue that emotion consists of our experience of these bodily changes. As he put it, 'My that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion...we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.'[18] Although James may have been a bit overstrong in equating emotion with experience of bodily change (and in other sections of the chapter made claims in relation to the neural basis of emotion that have not been supported),[19] his description of the nature of emotion anticipated much of what is commonly held by modern theorists to be characteristic of emotion: the presence of an external or internal precipitating event, physiological change, expressive movement, and a characteristic affective experience.

It is impossible in brief to summarize the many ways in which James's Principles, read and assimilated by those coming to academic maturity in the decades following its publication, altered the course of development of the newly emerging scientific psychology. James's views, especially those on the stream of consciousness, played a major role in shifting psychology away from elementalism toward a functional, process oriented account of mind (and eventually behavior). James's concern with emotion, motivation, and the nature of the self, the social self, and self-esteem, not only lay the groundwork for dynamic psychology, but for a dynamic psychology that recognized the importance of social factors in personality. And James's deep and abiding concern with exceptional mental states helped legitimize an emerging, indigenous American psychotherapy and pave the way for the eventual acceptance of psychoanalysis within psychology.[20]


[1] James's dates are 1842-1910; for general biographical information on James, see Allen, G.W. (1967). William James. New York: Viking Press; for biographical information presented in the context of portions of James's extensive correspondence, see Perry, R.B. (1935). The Thought and Character of William James (2 vols.). Boston: Little, Brown. The work under discussion here was first published as: James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology (2 vols.). New York: Henry Holt (Reprinted Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999).

[2] James signed a contract for the book with Holt in 1878. In the 12 years between signing of the contract and the book's appearance, James published sixteen articles on which he drew extensively in writing the Principles.

[3] It has frequently been said of the James brothers that Henry James was a novelist who was really a psychologist and William a psychologist who was really a novelist.

[4] Almost the only discussions in the Principles that appear truly dated are those devoted to the specifics of nervous structure and function. The more properly psychological analyses can still be mined for insight into the nature of human mental function. For multiple examples of the continuing value of James's work in this regard, see Johnson, M.G. & Henley, T.B. (Eds.). (1990). Reflections on "The Principles of Psychology." William James After a Century. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[5] James, W. (1884a). On some omissions of introspective psychology. Mind, 9, 1-26.

[6] James (1890), op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 224.

[7] Ibid., p. 239.

[8] For an excellent and more in-depth discussion of James's self theory, see Leary, D.E. (1990). William James on the self and personality: Clearing the ground for subsequent theorists, researchers, and practitioners. In M.G. Johnson & T.B. Henley (Eds.), op. cit., pp. 101-37.

[9] James (1890), op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 371.

[10] Ibid., p. 294.

[11] Ibid., p. 315.

[12] Ibid., p. 332

[13] Ibid., p. 334.

[14] James, W. (1884b). What is an emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.

[15] James (1890), op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 442.

[16] Ibid., p. 443.

[17] The theory was independently articulated by James (1884b), op. cit., and by the Danish physiologist, Carl Lange, in Lange, C. (1885). Om sindsbevaegelser: et psyko-fysiologisk studie. Kjøbenhavn: Jacob Lunds.

[18] James (1890), op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 449-50.

[19] James, for example, argued that there were "no special brain-centres for emotion," see ibid., pp. 472-4.

[20] For a superb account of this side of James's psychology, see Taylor, E. (1996). William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.