William James Psychologist

Harvard University


A psychologist, philosopher, and physician, William James was a powerful contributor and natural ally to the ideas presented at BeingHuman.org. Known as “the father of American psychology,” his book Principles of Psychology (1890) was a seminal text that helped to redefine the understanding of the brain in the light of evolution. James also developed the philosophy of pragmatism, which says that the brain is used for prediction, and he also was a titanic influence on many of the most important thinkers of the last century.

One of James’s fundamental insights was that the conscious experience of emotions doesn’t occur in thought, but rather in the bodily sensations associated with the emotion. For example, we don’t consciously think, “I’m afraid,” and then begin to sweat, shake, and run away, but rather we find ourselves sweating, shaking, and running and realize that we are afraid. As he put it, somewhat poetically, “We don't laugh because we're happy — we're happy because we laugh.” Known as the James-Lange theory of emotion (Lange had similar ideas), this embodied model helps us to accurately understand emotions as the product of evolution in animals, rather than something uniquely human.

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