American Philosophy

William James

What are some interesting facts about William James’ life?

James was the oldest of five children. His brother Henry was the famous novelist, and his sister Alice became well known for her posthumous diaries. James’ father, Henry James Sr., was both wealthy and eccentric. The James children were educated in the United States, England, and Europe, and William grew up with a cosmopolitan perspective. James was at first interested in studying art, but then turned to science. In youth he suffered from eye, back, stomach, and skin problems and was diagnosed as “neurasthenic.” He experienced depression and, at times, prolonged suicidal thoughts. While some of his ailments might be considered “psychosomatic” today, he did eventually die of heart failure.

James began medical studies at Harvard in 1864 and took time off to travel on expeditions to the Amazon and to Germany for cures of various physical complaints. He was awarded his M.D. in 1869. It was his only academic degree, although he never practiced medicine. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878 and spent the remainder of his life teaching at Harvard, in both psychology and, after the early 1880s, philosophy. James’ students included such luminaries as President Theodore Roosevelt, author and philosopher George Santayana, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, author Gertrude Stein, philosopher and legal scholar Morris Raphael Cohen, Alain Locke (sometimes called the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”), logician and pragmatist C.I. Lewis, and psychologist and philosopher Mary Calkins.


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