William James was born on January 11, 1842, at the Astor House in New York City as well as into an independently wealthy and noted family. His father, Henry James, Sr., was a Swendenborgian theologian who was “well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.
James received his education on both sides of the Atlantic and became fluent in both German and French. While he was a child, his family traveled Europe twice, and he eventually made thirteen trips to Europe. His artistic talents were evident very early in his life; he became an apprentice in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. Even with his abilities in the arts, he became more interested in science and enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University.
Suffering from eye, back, stomach and skin ailments as a young adult, James was also tone deaf and suffered periods of depression. Three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice James) all suffered from bouts of invalidism, but two younger brothers (Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob) were healthy enough to fight in the Civil War. Henry James became a prominent novelist, and Alice James became a diarist.
According to his brother Henry James, William studied medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1864. He accompanied Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River in the spring of 1865 but became ill with severe seasickness and mild smallpox, causing his trip to end. In April 1967 he was so ill once again to interrupt his studies. In November 1868 when he was 26 years old, William went to Germany in search of a cure. While there, he began to publish some of his literary works.
In spite of all the interruptions, James received his Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree in June 1869; even though he had the degree, he never practiced medicine. He had what he called “soul-sickness” and went through “an extended period of philosophical searching” in 1872 and felt healed. In 1878 he married Alice Gibbens. He eventually turned to philosophy and psychology, writing in 1902: “I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”
“James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the `Father of American psychology. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, he is considered to be one of the major figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. He also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. James’ work has influenced intellectuals such as Emile Durkheim, W.E.B. Du Bois, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Witttgenstein, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty.”
Williams James died on August 26, 1910, in Tamworth, New Hampshire, at the age of 68.