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William James (1842–1910)

William James was the American philosopher whose work in psychology established that science as an important element in the revision of social and philosophical doctrines at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thereafter it was no longer possible to erect systems in purely deductive fashion. All thought must take account of the deliverances of current natural science, and particularly the branch relating to man's mind. This respect for the organized experience of the laboratory inevitably influenced educational theory and practice, then still known by their proper name of pedagogy.

But James was not merely a scientist in psychology and a proponent of scientific rigor in moral philosophy, including education. He was a philosophical genius–the greatest that America has produced–who touched upon every department of life and culture and who ranks as a chief architect of the reconstruction in Western thought that took place in the 1890s. In the company of Nietzsche, Dilthey, Renouvier, Bergson, Mach, Vaihinger, and Samuel Butler, he led the revolt against orthodox scientism, Spencerism, and materialism and contributed to that enlargement of outlook that affected the whole range of feeling and opinion and has since earned the name of Neo-Romanticism. Every academic discipline and every art was involved in the change; and, in each, thinkers of uncommon scope laid the foundation for the new systems of ideas on which the twentieth century still lives.

William James was in a favored position for adding something unique to the movement: He possessed the American experience as his birth-right and was early acclimated to European ways, British and Continental. He studied in Germany and was fluent in both German and French, and his family circumstances were propitious. He was the eldest son of Henry James Sr., son of the original William James who had emigrated from Ireland to this country and made a fortune. Henry Sr. could devote himself to study and did so. His original ideas on religion and society won no acceptance in his day, but they have been found important by modern scholars, and they certainly influenced the two geniuses who were his sons, William the philosopher and Henry the novelist.

William James's own intellectual career is marked by his father's easy unconventionality, which as will be seen permitted long exploration before "settling down." Every shift in his own development is caught up in, and contributory to, his mature work. James wanted at first to become a painter, but he had the critical sense to see that his talent was insufficient. Next he took up chemistry at Harvard, went on to study physiology in response to his interest in living things, and wound up preparing for a medical degree. He interrupted his course to spend a highly formative year as one of Louis Agassiz's assistants in the Thayer expedition to Brazil. He then went abroad, where he read literature, attended university lectures, and became acquainted with the new psychology, which the Germans had made experimental and exact. He returned to take his Harvard M.D. in 1869 and after further study abroad began to teach anatomy and physiology.

It was not long before his inquiring spirit led him to offer courses in the relations of psychology to physiology, for which he soon established the first psychology laboratory in America. After the publication of his great book, The Principles of Psychology, in 1890, James's work exhibited the flowering of an intellect that had from the beginning been haunted by the enigmas of life and mind: He gave himself exclusively to metaphysics, morals, and religion.

By an oddity of academic arrangements, James was a professor of philosophy four years before he was made a professor of psychology, but nomenclature is irrelevant: His beginnings in the psychology laboratory were very soon followed by his offering of a course in philosophy. In other words, the subjects for him commingled and he was always a philosophical writer and teacher. Those were the great days of the Harvard department of philosophy, and during his thirty-five years of teaching James's direct influence spread over a wide range of students, as disparate as George Santayana and Gertrude Stein.

To the end of the century James, despite his new goals, continued to write and lecture on the subject that had first brought him fame. He pursued his research on the newest topics of abnormal psychology, he read Freud and helped bring him over for a lectureship at Clark University. And what is more to the point of the present entry, between 1892 and 1899, James delivered at a number of places the Talks to Teachers, which were an offshoot of the Psychology and which constitute his important contribution to educational theory.

In any such theory, the assumptions made about the human mind are fundamental and decisive. If "the mind"–which for this most practical of purposes is the pupil's mind–is imagined as a sensitive plate merely, then teaching can take the simple form of making desired impressions on the plate by attending chiefly to the choice and form of those impressions. The rest is done by setting the child to take these in by rote, by repeating rules, by watching and remembering contrived experiments. In other words, the teacher points the camera and pushes the button for a snapshot or time exposure.

No pedagogy has ever been quite so simple, of course, for the least gifted or attentive teacher is aware that the child must exert some effort, be in some way active and not photographically passive, before he can learn the set verses or the multiplication table. So, to start the machinery, a system of rewards and punishments is established, which will by mechanical association strengthen the useful acts of mind or hand and discourage the useless or harmful. In this primitive pedagogy, the pupil's acquirements are deemed a resultant of essentially mechanical forces, and the teacher serves as the manipulator of a wholly environmentalist scheme.

It is unlikely that any good teacher has ever adhered strictly to that role or thought of himself or herself as operating that sort of invisible keyboard. If it were so, no child would ever have learned much of value from any schooling whatever. But it is also true that educational practice always tends toward the crude mechanics just described. And the reasons are obvious: sheer incompetence in many teachers and weariness in the rest. For the two great limitations on classroom performance under any theory are (1) the scarcity of born teachers; and (2) the strenuousness of able and active teaching (which means that even the best teachers can sustain the effort for only a given number of hours at a time).

The state of affairs which James and other school reformers of the 1890s found and sought to remedy was a result of these several deficiencies. The movement of Western nations toward providing free, public, and compulsory education was, it must be remembered, an innovation of the nineteenth century. The inherent difficulties of this new social and cultural goal were great. It made unprecedented demands–on children, parents, administrative systems, and (most important) on the national resources of teaching talent, which are not expandable at will. Theory, too, was wanting for the supervision and teaching of teachers themselves. The confusion that ensued was therefore to be expected. Only a few points were clear: the older pedagogies were too mechanical in their view of the mind; the number of inadequate teachers was excessive; and the exploitive use of the good ones was a danger to the trying-out of mass education.

It was high time, therefore, that psychology put in its word on the subject it supposedly knew all about–the mind. Unfortunately, the mechanical view of the mind existed in two forms–one, as the view natural to ignorant or indifferent persons and, two, as the view that the prevailing scientific metaphor of the time seemed to justify. The universe, according to the Darwin-Spencer philosophy, was a vast machine, and its elements, living or dead, were also moved by the great push-pull of matter like the parts of a machine. The prophets of science–T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Fiske–held audiences spellbound with illustrations of this principle, which everyone was sure could be demonstrated in the laboratory. The newest science, German born and bred, was psychophysics, a name which alone was enough to show that the operations of the mind bore the universal character of mechanism. Man was no exception to the law exemplified by the collision of billiard balls or (in more refined form) by the effect of light on a photographic plate.

To be sure, these scientific interpreters of nature would not have subscribed to a simplistic pedagogy if they had ever turned the full force of their minds on the problem of teaching. One of them, Herbert Spencer, did write a fairly sensible tract on education. And the psychophysicists did not entirely blot out the influence of earlier and richer pedagogies, notably that of the German psychologist Johann Herbart, who died in 1841. But on the whole the situation of the schools in the decades of the nineteenth century was critical, and the strictures and exhortations of the reformers tell us very precisely in what ways.

James, with his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, theoretical and experimental, his mastery of the art of teaching, and his genius for diagnosis in the study of human feeling, was in an ideal position for showing up the false principles, old and new, and propounding the true ones. The root of the matter was to consider the pupil as an active being–not merely a mind to be filled, but complex and growing organism, of which the mind was but one feature. That feature, in turn, was not a receptacle, but an agent with interests, drives, powers, resistances, and peculiarities which together defined a unique person. Nothing can be imagined farther removed from this than a machine built to a pattern and responding passively to external prods and prizes.

Rather, as one marks the difference, the familiar outline appears of the child who presides over the child-centered school of the Progressives–the men and women who came to dominate theory and practice thirty years after James. But it is only the outline of that child, for James was much too wise a philosopher to suppose that doing the opposite of whatever is done will correct present abuses. His Talks to Teachers (1899) fill but a small volume, yet they contain an extremely subtle and complex set of precepts–precepts, not commandments. To follow the precepts one must–alas–use intelligence and judgment, not because James is not clear and definite, but because the teaching situation is infinitely variable–like its object, the child.

To begin with, James does not reject the associationist principle that was the mainstay of the earlier pedagogy. It is a sound principle, but it is not simple or automatic as was once thought. Associations impress the mind not in a one-to-one arrangement, but in groups or constellations, some members of which fight or inhibit each other. Moreover, the structure of the particular mind favors or excludes certain kinds and ranges of associations. It follows that to reach–and teach–any mind, the teacher must multiply the number of cues that will bring to full consciousness in the pupil the points he should retain or remember. The reason for this method, which is in fact less a method than a call to exert the imagination, is that the same reality can be cognized by any number of psychic states. It is accordingly a field theory of thought that James substitutes for the linear-mechanical and would have the teacher act upon.

Throughout his chapters, James moves back and forth from the schoolroom to the world, where the habits and powers of great minds and dull ones can be observed and turned into examples. The point of the shuttling is that there is or should be no difference in kind between what the child is asked to imagine, perform, remember, or reason out and what the grown man does or fails to do. This soon becomes an important criterion. Meanwhile the difference is in degree, which means that the teacher must be aware of differences in development–crudely measured by the age of the child, more closely measured by his rate of maturing, most delicately marked by what is called native ability.

Any teacher starts with the pupil as a lively bouncing creature in which the body and its needs predominate. The curiosity of the child is indeed a sign that mind is present also, but James knows that the "native interests of children lie altogether in the sphere of sensation" (1899, p. 92). Hence James recommends that until artificial interests develop, children be taught through objects, things that move, events of dramatic quality, anecdotes in place of propositions. Stressing also the link between instinct (which rules these early interests) and action, James strongly favors letting the child handle the means of instruction, build, take apart, try out, do.

In this commonsense view that instruction should begin by exploiting native interests (which turn out to be physical and active), James is a fore-runner of the Chicago School, of which John Dewey was the instigator and later the idol. But neither James nor Dewey was an innovator in the desert. The European kindergarten movement, the early, scattered elements of the Montessori method, and numerous other reforms of school and preschool instruction were in full swing even before James. Indeed, Rabelais and Rousseau had long since made the identical point about the value for education of having the naturally restless child learn by playing, both because playing is congenial and because it is the fundamental form of learning: trial and error.

That point evidently has to be made over and over again in history. But each time history gives it a special coloring. It was natural that in the period immediately after Darwin, which saw the popular triumph of science, the reminder about the child's activism should be seen as the root of the scientific march of mind; for if play is the germ of trial and error, trial and error is the germ of experimentation. It is this plausible linkage that set Dewey and the Progressives to pursue the scientific analogy to an extreme. For them–at least as educators–the mind is forever facing problems and seeking solutions. Teaching school therefore becomes the art of devising situations that will challenge the problem-solving mind and build up in its child-owner a stronger and stronger capacity to size up, ascertain, verify, and solve.

William James never had to confront this hypothesis head on, but it is clear what form his refutation would have taken. In the first place, not every adult is a scientist, and though it is true that adults who are not scientists encounter problems and resolve them, that activity is but one of many forms that cerebration takes. The poet, the painter, the mystic, the housewife, the salesman, the rabble-rouser, each performs his task differently, even if at times they all resort to "situation analysis" and "problem-solving." We must remember James's assertion that the mind is continuous: it stretches from the kindergarten, where it learns, to the laboratory, where James studies it, just as it stretches from Plato's garden to the London Stock Exchange; which is to say that within the unity of the human mind reigns a great diversity, not reducible to the very special, historically late, and purposely artificial form of scientific reasoning.

According to James, good teaching, therefore, cannot follow a set form; it is not the curing of a weakness, such as the replacement of unreason by reason and superstition by science. Rather, it is the interaction of a practiced or well-filled mind with one on its way to the same state. The contents of any mind at any moment–that which James first called "the stream of consciousness"–is an ever-flowing rush of objects, feelings, and impulsive tendencies. The art of teaching consists in helping to develop in the child the power to control this stream, to sort out its objects, classify their kinds, observe their relationships, and then multiply their significant associations.

In the abstract, this work may be called attending; the power generated is Attention. James is particularly valuable on this faculty. He points out that if passive attention is sustained by making subject matter continuously interesting, active attention will not develop. He knows that a good part of any subject for any learner of whatever age is bound to be dull; mastering it is drudgery. Therefore, while he encourages the teacher to arouse the pupil's interest in the dull parts of the work by associating them closely with the more interesting through showing unsuspected facets, by challenging pugnacity to overcome difficulty, by dwelling on the concrete effects of the abstract, and by any other means that ingenuity can supply, he does not lose sight of the goal. All this effort at building up enticing associations is to "lend to the subject…an interest sufficient tolet loose the effort" of deliberate attention (1899, p.110).

Not the precept alone but its pattern has significance. Throughout his educational doctrine, James is at pains to counteract what he calls the "softer pedagogy" by qualifying its blind zeal. The softer pedagogy is that which, having seized on a good teaching principle, such as "make the work interesting," forgets that it is only a device and reduces the end of education to its means: What we can't make interesting we won't teach–or at least not require; there is a good reason for the pupil's not learning it: it's not interesting. On the contrary, says James, education that works for voluntary attention is "the education par excellence" (1890, p. 424).

The Jamesian correctives spring from a sense of the original complexity of the human mind. It is not a machine that mysteriously gets more complicated. Thus, when James recommends the use of objects, the indulgence of childish touching, building, and trying out, it is not in order to ingrain a habit of fiddling, but in order to develop mental powers that transcend the tangible and even the visual. Again, he refuses to give objects primacy over words or to deride the utility of abstraction: "…words…are the handiest mental elements we have. Not only are they very rapidly revivable, but they are revivable as actual sensations more easily than any other items of our experience" (1890, p. 266). And he goes on to remark that the older men are and the more effective as thinkers, the less they depend on visualization. The implications for educational method, when we consider its evolution since 1890 and are aware that the abandonment of teaching to read has lately been urged on the strength of the visual substitutes at our disposal, deserve our closest attention.

The retreat from the word was already beginning in James's time and he warned against its dangers. He bore incessant witness to the important connection between words and memory and its role in making knowledge secure. "I should say therefore, that constant exercise in verbal memorizing must still be an indispensable feature in all sound education. Nothing is more deplorable than that inarticulate and helpless sort of mind that is reminded by everything of some quotation, case, or anecdote, which it cannot now exactly recollect" (1899, pp. 131–132). The description seems to fit the student mind that does best at "objective" examinations, where the case or quotation is helpfully supplied. To summon it up unaided requires a more athletic type of mind, developed by training in verbal memory.

It is clear that James's standard of performance, for both teacher and pupil, was quite simply the bestmind. He was in that sense a thorough educational democrat, unwilling to classify and mark down intelligences ahead of time, on the basis of their background or their probable future. Everybody had a chance to rival the greatest; education was the means of finding out who could succeed, while helping all equally in the effort. This assumption and the attitude it dictates is the opposite of competing with oneself alone, setting one's own standards, and pursuing only one's own "needs"–which boil down to one's own momentary wants.

All these limiting, hierarchical ideas were in the air when James wrote and lectured, and he put his finger on their unfortunate cause: "Our modern reformers…write too exclusively of the earliest years of the pupil. These lend themselves better to explicit treatment;…Yet away back in childhood we find the beginnings of purely intellectual curiosity, and the intelligence of abstract terms" (1899, p.151). The implication here–and experience justifies it–is that the pupils are often brighter than their teachers: "Too many school children 'see'…'through' the namby-pamby attempts of the softer pedagogy to lubricate things for them." The absurdity of believing that geography begins and ends with "the school-yard and neighboring hill" is a case in point. The child soon comes to think of all schooling as contemptible make-believe–and James with prophetic vision denounces the Dick-and-Jane reading books as yet unheard of: "School children can enjoy abstractions, provided they be of the proper order; and it is a poor compliment to their rational appetite to think that anecdotes about little Tommies and little Jennies are the only kind of things their minds can digest" (1899, pp. 151–152).

A principal cause of James's impatience with spoon-feeding methods, with educational research and statistics ("those unreal experimental tests, those pedantic elementary measurements"), with theoretical advice, including his own ("a perceptive teacher…will be of much more value"), is his awareness of the deadly grip of habit (1899, p. 136). "Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state" (1899, p. 77).

If this is true, how much more to blame are the teachers whose "method" in instruction becomes the mold of a habit imposed on the young mind. For James, a right education is precisely the power to sidestep ruts, to link ideas freely over a wide range, to exert voluntary attention, to be rich in suggestion and invention, and to be prompt in receptivity. He repeatedly contrasts the dry, prosaic mind with the witty and imaginative. And since knowledge and experience alike tell him that this balance of freedom and control which he disiderates depends on a well-furnished and strenuously trained mind, he wants teachers capable of arousing passion in their charges–the "whole mind working together." Native deficiencies in this or that faculty can be over-come or ignored: "In almost any subject your passion for the subject will save you." And at the same time he shows a warm understanding of the non-academic type. The student who cuts a poor figure in examinations may in the end do better than "the glib and ready reproducer," just because of deeper passions and of "combining power less commonplace" (1899, pp. 137, 143).

It comes as no surprise, then, that James ends by defining education not in intellectual terms–though his whole impetus is toward intellect–but in terms that unite emotion and action: education is "the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior…. To think is the moral act:" it "is the secret of will,…it is the secret of memory…. Thus are your pupils to besaved: first, by the stock of ideas with which you furnish them; second, by the amount of voluntary attention that they can exert in holding to the right ones…. ; and, third, by the several habits of acting definitely on these latter to which they have been successfully trained" (1899, pp. 29, 186–188).

The "saving" is of course from the blind compulsion of determinism reinforced by bad habit. James's pronouncements about education rest upon a mass of physiological and psychological facts and are abundantly illustrated by reference to them. The reflex arc is as much a condition of learning as the stream of thought; the individual type of memory (visual, auditory, muscular) as determinative as the hereditary constitution of the neural synapses. But James is not a materialist, for he can find no evidence that these factors which limit or condition thought also produce it. And at the same time he finds in man's power of fixing the mind upon an idea–the power of thinking–a range of freedom to be exploited.

These considerations and conclusions bring us back to the starting point. If the nascent mind to be taught in the schoolroom is not a machine, if it is continuous and unified in kind, but diversified in quality and degree, if its operations are not exclusively analytic and directed at problem-solving, what sort of mind is it, in a single word? And what sort of educational theory will suit its needs? To answer the second question first, psychology can and ought to give the teacher help, but it is a great mistake to think that "the science of the mind's laws" can serve to define "programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality" (1899, pp. 7–8).

In short, no matter which way we turn, we cannot in education get away from the work of the mind or substitute for it an ingenious abstraction. How then does the mind work? The scientific way, we saw, was but a special form of its activity; what is the inclusive mode, or as we just asked, what sort of mind? It is, so to put it, an artistic mind: it is by a kind of artistry that we perceive reality, which is the mind's most inclusive task. True, sensations hold a controlling position commanding our belief in what is real, but not all sensations are "deemed equally real. The more practically important ones, the more permanent ones, and the more aesthetically apprehensible ones are selected from the mass, to be believed in most of all; the others are degraded to the position of mere signs and suggestions of these" (1890, p. 305). This description of the mind's seizing upon reality fairly parallels the operations of the artist upon his materials for the creation of another kind of reality: it is the pragmatic method, which only means human impulse seeking convenience and delight, seeking the permanent and the recognizable, the orderly and the satisfying. All education therefore aims at preparing the mind to fulfill its native tendencies and thereby to grasp and enjoy an enlarged order of multifarious reality.


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BAKEWELL, CHARLES M., ed. 1917. Selected Papers on Philosophy by William James. Everyman's Library. New York: Dutton.

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BLANSHARD, BRAND, and SCHNEIDER, HERBERT W., eds. 1942. In Commemoration of William James, 1842–1942. New York: Columbia University Press.

CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1961. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957. New York: Knopf.

DEWEY, JOHN. 1910. How We Think. New York: Heath.

HECHINGER, GRACE, and HECHINGER, FRED M. 1963. Teenage Tyranny. New York: Morrow.

JAMES, WILLIAM. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. American Science Series. Advanced Course. 2 Vols. New York: Holt.

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JAMES, WILLIAM. 1916. Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899). New York: Holt.

KALLEN, HORACE M., ed. 1953. The Philosophy of William James. Selected from his chief works. With an introduction by Horace M. Kallen. New York: Modern Library.

KEY, ELLEN K. 1909. The Century of the Child. New York and London: Putnam.

PERRY, RALPH BARTON. 1948. The Thought and Character of William James. Briefer Version. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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