William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course” Part 1 (Read like a Student)

This week, I am striving to gain at least a superficial understanding of William James’ work and ideas.  The writings collected in William James: Writings 1878–1899 include his abridgement of his Principles of Psychology (called Psychology: A Briefer Course), The Will to Believe, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, and some of his philosophical essays.  After getting into this, I again wonder why we should require young people to get college degrees.  For the price of lunch, I got William James’ Psychology and I did not need to sit through any boring lectures.   Because it was at the beginning, I will start with Psychology.


This textbook seems to me to be arguing against strict materialism and at the same time arguing against a belief in the soul.  The dust jacket says that James described consciousness as a “wonderful stream” (I myself missed that description in the text).  This is somewhere between the material brain and a mind run by spirits.  Ah, I almost forgot.  This blog is about anarchist perspectives on American writers.  Psychology does not seem to be supportive of liberty, particularly in this day of medicated conformity and the domination of therapy.

Like a good student (this is a textbook), I tried to get what I could out of the introduction.  Psychology must be studied as a natural science.  Fine.  “The human mind is all that can be touched upon in this book.” How modest of you, James.  “Mental facts cannot be properly studied apart from the physical environment of which they take cognizance.”  Indeed.  This is the problem.  “Mental life is primarily teleological.” An evolutionary conception of the mind.  “All mental states . . . are followed by bodily activity of some sort.”  Ah, if only all thoughts led to action.  But, I suspect we should carry this rule around more.  Enough though and debate.  More action.  “The immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres.”  Of course, unless we are run by spooks.


Okay, onto the text.  James starts with the physical context of the mind.  The senses and the brain.  This may be of interest to people looking to understand how scientists in 1890 understood these things.  What I got out of my skimming of this was there is ultimately a physical nature to consciousness and our interactions with the world.  Wait…it says here he wants me to dissect a sheep brain.  Sounds like an extra lab session.

It took him till page 106 to talk about sex.  Thanks James!  Chasity is evidence that we are capable of forestalling happiness for “aesthetic and moral fitness.”  Fair enough.   I like this, maybe I can use it for my paper. “The tramp who lives from hour to hour; the bohemian whose engagements are from day to day; the bachelor who builds but for a single life; the father who acts for another generation; the patriot who thinks of a whole community and many generations; and, finally, the philosopher and saint whose cares are for humanity and for eternity, — these range themselves in an unbroken hierarchy, wherein each successive grade results from an increased manifestation of the special forms of action by which the cerebral centres are distinguished from all below them.” (107)  This seems to challenge strict mechanism, which would suggest a reflex dominating every aspects of life.  Over drinks, I heard someone argue against animal rights because most animals would be incapable of this conception of time, living only in direct reflex.  Maybe. . . I am not taking chances.

Page 138 and he finally is done with the physiological aspects of the mind.  “Habit”  — that is relevant to my life.  I never could stop biting my fingernails.  James gives some hints toward cultivating good habits.  I am certain the same methods can be used to cultivate bad ones, but he does not promote that.  Habits also keep society running, the good and the bad.  Mostly bad.  “Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.  It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.  It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein.  It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm throughout all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and frozen snow.” (145)

James again reminds us of the importance of action.  Habits cannot be made or unmade by thought alone.  It requires action.  Good man, James.  I agree entirely.

His next chapter looks at the “stream of consciousness.”  Having mastered Ulysses and braved Finnegan’s Wake, I am enjoying this part.  He does much here defining what actually goes on in our mind as we create a narrative for our daily life.  Novelty is important.  When we see something new, it has a stronger influence on my consciousness than the everyday.  We know this from our permanent memory of one night stands contrasted with the “weekend routine” (term from George Costanza) with our regular lovers.  He also speaks of the individualism inherent in the stream of consciousness.  It is mine. Everyone experiences the world differently and those experiences are untouchable for our mind.  True and often forgotten.

What I see James building up to, from a foundation in the material commonality of all people (the brain and the senses) is a theory of individualism.  And thus we get to chapter 12 “The Self” (thankfully the end of the reading for today).  The “self” is made up of a “hierarchy of Mes”: material (appetites, instincts, clothing, shelter), social (honor, envy, family pride), and spiritual (intellectual, religious).  Thankfully, James provided a conclusion to this chapter.  He thinks “Me” is the aggregate of what can be know, while the “I” is “thought, at each moment different form that of the last moment.”  (208)

Ah.  While I admit I do not understand all of this, I do see a clear path from material commonality to psychological individualism.  We can be materialist in our conception of the mind, but this does not preclude individual experiences, consciousness, and values (all of those things that make strife so easy and community so difficult).  Indeed, our material commonality predicts an autonomous and individual experience.

Is it too late to start drinking?

One response to “William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course” Part 1 (Read like a Student)

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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