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William James, who was an unwilling innovator in the new scientific psychology in the United States, was considered one of the most accomplished psychologists of his time. Although his work did not found the field of functional psychology, the work he did provided a sounding board for the generations of psychologists and researchers to come. Contributions, including expanding on research techniques and the subject matter of psychology, along with the incorporation of the theory of evolution, truly made him a pioneer, much to his chagrin.
In his book, The Principles of Psychology, James introduces two keywords: phenomena and conditions. Phenomena indicated that the subject matter of psychology was found in immediate experience, and the term conditions referring to the importance to the body, including the brain, within mental life. His emphasis on human nature, stating that people are “creatures of emotion and passion as well as of thought and reason” was revolutionary, as he did not consider people to be completely rational.
In his theory of the stream of consciousness, James describes five characteristics of thought. These include personal consciousness, changing thoughts, continuous thoughts, consciousness in dealing with objects outside of themselves, and selective consciousness. This flow of consciousness, which is continuous, is something that I would venture to say most of us are familiar with. This way of thinking, so to speak, has helped me throughout life, whether the task is large or small. From deciding what to prepare for supper to how to pursue my college career or raise my children, this stream has been critical to formulating those endeavors throughout my life.
Will is another integral part of William James’ theory in The Principles of Psychology, and one based on experiences within his own life. The question of free will, and whether it actually existed, was especially troublesome for James. He stated that the achievement of will, when voluntary, is very difficult to hold. I agree with James in this and, like most I presume, have had to learn to focus my attention on what matters to me. For instance, was persistent and used the power of my will, in my goal of continuing my education. This has not been easy, as I work full-time, am a county commissioner, am married, have children, help with elderly grandparents, and more. It is by sheer will that I sometimes feel that I achieve these things in life.
The introduction of the theory of emotion by James stated that it is the consequence, and not the cause, of expression, was also revolutionary. He devised that emotion caused the physical response, as well as followed it…seemingly like a circle in some aspects. Although this theory has received criticism, I tend to relate to the argument. At times, I have found myself feeling emotional about something which then led to action. For instance, I have been emotionally affected by an issue, which led to action, however, I am still affected by the issue. In my case, I have been emotionally affected by harassment as an adult. The emotional response, caused me to cease communication with that group of peers which, in turn, led to other emotions such as sadness, but also peace.
In all, I found William James’ work to be insightful. His writing seems incredibly modern, even in today’s times. Although he suffered from his own personal anguish and was “an accomplished complainer,” he still managed to bring a remarkable insight and influence the world of psychology. Regardless of his reaction of dissatisfaction to the book that took him twelve long years to complete, it is still instrumental and perceptive, even today.
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