Called the “father of American psychology”, William James was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. His influence spanned generations through many of his students at Harvard University, where he spent the majority of his academic career.
Feminist Gertrude Stein, author W.E.B Du Bois, philosopher George Santayana and President Theodore Roosevelt were among some of his students who later became equally influential. Educated abroad and fluent in German and French, he was also the godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He taught a variety of subjects including physiology, anatomy, and psychology. Perhaps the first pragmatist, and a founder of functional psychology, he developed the philosophical perspective of radical empiricism. His pragmatism was exemplified by his assertion that true beliefs are those that are most useful to those that believe them.
James’ form of empiricism was based on the reality that entirely objective analysis is not possible because life never stops. Rather, life perpetually provides more data to be incorporated, thereby constantly transforming our belief systems, making learning a never-ending process.
Principles of An Educational Psychologist
His writing, captured in the book “Writings 1902-1910” continue to inform those studying human behavior today. Chapter 24 of his classic book The Principles of Psychology is devoted to his theory of instincts.
“Every instinct is an impulse … sensation-impulses, perception-impulses, and idea-impulses… It is obvious that every act, in an animal with memory, must cease to be ‘blind’ after being once repeated , and must be accompanied with foresight of its ‘end’ just so far as that end may have fallen under the animal’s cognizance.”
For James, human emotion is tempered by prior experience and reason. He also classified emotions such as love and jealousy as instincts. Further, he believed that the following two principles could be applied to all human instincts.
- The principle of “the inhibition of instincts by habits”. He gives the following example of this principle at work:
“when objects of a certain class elicit from an animal a certain sort of reaction, it often happens that the animal becomes partial to the first specimen of the class on which it has reacted, and will not afterward react on any other specimen”.
- The principle of “transitoriness” in which they are
“implanted for the sake of giving rise to habits, and that, this purpose once accomplished, the instincts themselves, as such, have no raison d’être in the psychical economy, and consequently fade away”.
Influences and Opinions
Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories, the educational psychologist believed that societies mutated over generations through acts of genius that successfully adapted to societal realities or that genius accidentally obtained positions of authority that enabled them to set examples or set behavioral social precedents. These acts might include the destruction of others who would potentially have set different precedents that would lead society in a different direction.
More respectful of genius than brute force, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 to oppose U.S. foreign policy in the Philippines. His emphasis on the importance of diversity over duality strongly influenced American culture, and global art and literature as well. Author James Joyce became famous for incorporating “stream of consciousness” into his writing.
James and child development
James’ opinions as a educational psychologist, regarding child development remain relevant today in that James had a great deal of respect for the intellect of children.
“School children can enjoy abstractions, provided they be of the proper order; and it is a poor compliment to their rational appetite to think that anecdotes about little Tommies and little Jennies are the only kind of things their minds can digest.”
He believed that
“the native interests of children lie altogether in the sphere of sensation”
and recommended that children be taught kinesthetically, through objects and movement. According to him, the link between instincts, or emotions, and actions provided the best foundation for instruction.
Many of his theories were ahead of their time, in that many experts and educational psychologists today are in agreement with his opinion that optimum learning consists of doing rather than merely absorbing a rigid pre-determined collection of facts. His views on instincts were important here as well. He believed that teaching should entail helping children develop the power to control their “stream of consciousness”, and learn to sort, classify, observe and make meaningful associations while prioritizing conflicting emotions and information.
Perhaps as a result of rigid gender roles assigned by the division of labor, he believed that women had stronger parental emotions.
“Parental Love is an instinct stronger in woman than in man, at least in the early childhood of its object”.
However, rather than devaluing the role of motherhood, he spoke of a mother’s love as the height of nobility.
“…. the passionate devotion of a mother — in herself, perhaps — to a sick or dying child is perhaps the most simply beautiful moral spectacle that human life affords. Contemning every danger, triumphing over every difficulty, outlasting all fatigue, woman’s love is here invincibly superior to anything that man can show”.
In 1915 or 2015, learning to transform emotions into constructive habits remains one of the most important skills parents can model for their children.