William James

William James (1842-1910) is considered the most important direct precursor of functional psychology in the United States and one of the most eminent psychologists ever to have lived. James earned his M.D. from Harvard University in 1869 and subsequently became keenly interested in psychology. Despite his severe bouts with depression and other ailments, he accepted a post at Harvard in 1872 to teach physiology. Shortly thereafter, in 1875, James taught the first psychology course offered in the United States, "The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology," and initiated a classroom demonstration laboratory.

James published the two-volume The Principles of Psychology in 1890. This work was immediately a great success and is now widely regarded as the most important text in the history of modern psychology. Given the expansive-ness of Principles—more than thirteen hundred pages arranged in twenty-eight chapters—it is impossible to summarize fully, but it includes such topics as the scope of psychology, functions of the brain, habit, methods of psychology, memory, the consciousness of self, sensation, perception, reasoning, instinct, emotions, will, and hypnotism. In this text James presented ideas that became central to functionalism. For example, in the chapter "The Stream of Consciousness," he criticized the postulate of structural psychology that sensations constitute the simplest mental elements and must therefore be the major focus of psychological inquiry. In contrast, James ar gued that conscious thought is experienced as a flowing and continuous stream, not as a collection of frozen elements. In critiquing introspection, the methodology championed by the structuralists, James asserted,

The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. . . . The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how darkness looks.

With this new, expansive conceptualization of consciousness, James helped pave the way for psychologists interested in broadening the scope and methods of psychology. What was to emerge was the school of functionalism, with prominent camps at the University of Chicago and Columbia University.

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