Pragmatism, Functionalism, And William James's Psychology

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychology as a study has been officially recognized for about 100 to 150 years. However, a few areas led the way to the development of psychology as a field of study, including philosophy, cognitive studies, and medical science. One philosopher who contributed to the birth of psychology was William James. Understanding the theories William James contributed may allow you to further understand modern practices. 

Explore William James and his work in psychology symptoms

Who was William James? 

William James was an American psychologist and philosopher, now sometimes referred to as the "Father of American psychology." James wrote and published extensively and was the first to offer a course in psychology in the United States. As a leading thinker during the latter half of the 19th century, he developed influential theories in psychology and philosophy.

Early life and Harvard Medical School

William James was born in New York City in 1842. Growing up in a family of high achievers—his brother, Henry James, and sister, Alice James were both notable literary figures—James was able to indulge his intellectual curiosity at an early age. The James children were exposed to a variety of cultural and educational experiences, frequently traveling between the United States and Europe. Early in life, James developed an interest in painting; and in 1858 he started training to be an artist, working under William Morris Hunt, in Newport, Rhode Island. However, his father—Henry James Sr.—felt that he should study medicine. So, in 1861, he enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, after briefly serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War. 

In 1864, James entered Harvard Medical School, where he experienced several mental and physical health challenges. During an extended leave from medical school, James focused on studying various psychological and philosophical subjects. Upon returning from his leave, James graduated from the Harvard School of Medicine. He joined the faculty of Harvard in 1872, teaching undergraduate courses in physiology.

Development of psychological and philosophical beliefs

In 1874, James began teaching a psychology course at Harvard. Shortly thereafter, he set up the first psychology laboratory in the United States. As he taught, James continued to flesh out his ideas on philosophy and psychology. 

James's intellectual pursuits were diverse, and he relied heavily on his personal experiences when developing his theories. With an approach to psychology based on his pragmatic philosophy, he produced a body of work that may still be viable to many. James culled his information from many sources and schools of thought, carefully choosing only information he believed to be helpful.

Pragmatism and functionalism are two philosophies William James used to further his understanding of the world around him. James posited the pragmatic theory of truth and used this philosophy to define and redefine ideas, filtering answers to his questions about the mind. Most of his findings, theories, and inquiries were viewed according to his pragmatic theory of truth.

William James ventured into various philosophical and psychological areas during his prolific career. Although he was trained and certified as a medical doctor, James found that his genuine interest was in the workings of the mind. He began his professional life with a doctorate in physical medicine, after which he studied psychology and philosophy with the best and brightest minds of his day.

To James, the truth was subjective, and he delved into all mental pursuits with an open mind. He was a part of the Theosophical Society and one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research. From spiritualism to pragmatic philosophy and the functionalist school of psychology, William James contributed prolifically to the field of psychology; he was eventually named the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

William James' psychology principles

In 1890, James published a book called The Principles of Psychology. This work took 12 years to write, and the resulting text consisted of two volumes. During the last half of the 19th century, psychology began gaining moral ground in the United States, and William's book helped strengthen its hold.

Four main concepts were put forth by James in this book, including stream of consciousness, emotion, habit, and will. Along with these four main concepts, James discussed various theories and hypotheses about centers in the brain receiving specific input from the physical senses. The concept of instinct was also covered comparatively, and the evolution of brain function, particularly the cerebrum, was analyzed. 

In The Principles of Psychology, James covered his experience with illusions, both visual and auditory. The illusion is explained as a physiological response. According to James, pathways in the brain are formed through repeated behaviors and use, which leads to illusion when similar stimuli occur and are guided through the same pathways. James believed that the mind could become accustomed to recognizing repeated stimuli, allowing it to make an assumption, which was a form of illusion.

The four main concepts—habit, stream of consciousness, emotion, and will—comprise the bulk of the work. 

Each of these concepts is complete with explanations and, in some cases, empirical knowledge from James himself. These four concepts may not be used in modern psychology but provide a basis for further research. They include the following. 

Stream of consciousness 

The metaphor "stream of consciousness" was coined by James to provide a shift in how psychologists of the time saw the mind. To him, there was no "chain" of consciousness strung together like the links of a chain. Instead, James explains that consciousness is more like a "stream," flowing and moving forward. The stream of consciousness, he believed, helps the pure ego (the conscious part of the self) maintain a stable identity over time. Consciousness, James believed, was continuous, and humans couldn't experience the same idea or thought more than once.



William James founded a new theory of emotion called the James-Lange theory. Until this theory was developed, the prevailing theory stated that emotion would incite a physical response. For example, psychologists believed that crying was a physical response to an emotion. William's theory stated that emotion could also be the reaction and result of bodily experience, not a reaction to stimuli that incite the bodily experience. According to James, when a stimulus incites a physical response, the physical response incites an emotion. Many people disagree with this theory. 


At the time that William studied, it was believed that habits were formed in response to a desire, a want, or a need. Habits focus the mind on achieving the desire, want, or need. James observed and added that habits are not necessarily unhealthy. He found that certain habits could be healthy and allow people to harness the power of their minds to focus and achieve goals. 


The argument for the validity of free will is still debatable today. In the past, many psychologists believed that free will did not exist as social, political, and religious societal structures were in place to control it. James relied on his personal experiences to express his understanding of free will. To him, free will was the ability to "attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind." His answer to the existence of free will was the ability to hold on to principles in the face of opposition and lack of support.

The Principles of Psychology was a comprehensive work covering the entire field of psychology as it was understood up until publication. Many individuals working in psychology today still find many concepts and theories in William's book informative and interesting. Modern psychology has had many developments since 1890, but James's contributions are often respected and discussed in current practice. 

Pragmatism and functionalism

To William James, pragmatism was a philosophy of truth. James was a pragmatist who tried to understand what "truth" meant through that lens. Pragmatism is concerned with the practical. William James believed that only practical aspects of life that are beneficial and healthy are worthwhile. Pragmatism, as a philosophy of truth, was something James believed in strongly. To him, the truth was arbitrary and depended on belief.

Pragmatism was the approach James took whenever he was validating a theory, whether his own or somebody else's. As a philosophical movement, the pragmatist movement was one James fell in with early in his career. He was a pragmatist at heart and tended to scrutinize all the experience and information he accumulated, searching for logical answers to his inquiries.

William James also founded the school of functionalism. This school of thought in psychology was developed in direct response to the school of structuralism and the work of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt criticized functionalism as nothing more than literature, and James criticized structuralism as "all school and no thought." When the criticisms faded, functionalism influenced the major schools of thought still in use today, such as cognitive and behavioral theories. 

James was influenced by his early physiology education and the work of Charles Darwin. Functionalism focused on the human propensity for individualism, which heavily influenced how education was structured. Functionalism was built around a more systematic approach to understanding mental processes and involved a search for consciousness and behavior.

William James' contributions to psychology

William James made several significant contributions to psychology. As the first person to offer a course in psychology in the United States, he was one of the psychologists to validate the science of psychology alongside physical sciences. His work moved between philosophy and psychology, and he left his mark on both. As a philosopher, he had a firm belief in pragmatism that helped him forge his path in psychology, and as a psychologist, he founded the school of functionalism.

Although different from his time, modern psychology has allowed psychologists and philosophers to publish theories online. With all the technological advancements, historical figures like William James are often viable sources of insight and information. His contributions to psychology helped lay the foundations on which psychology stands in the 21st century and may continue to for years. 

Published work and correspondence with Henry James

During his long career, James published essays in addition to his compendium on psychology, The Principles of Psychology. His essays on theory in philosophy and psychology forged a spot for the science of psychology in the United States. The book provided more than a compendium of scholarly knowledge for intellectuals; it provided a text for teaching and learning. 

James’ book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Hackett Publishing, 1907) outlined his beliefs regarding the need to consider practical consequences when answering philosophical questions. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he also attempts to assimilate conflicting philosophical views: “James classifies philosophers according to their temperaments: in this case ‘tough-minded’ or ‘tender-minded’. The pragmatist is the mediator between these extremes”. 

James authored several other books, including A Pluralistic Universe (1909) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green & Co, 1902). In the former, James concludes that spirituality is more complex than monistic views on religion and human life would suggest. In the latter, he discusses the notion that there is “something there” beyond the natural world that we can sense. James has also had numerous books and articles written about his life and work, including The Cambridge Companion to William James (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1990). 

James also wrote numerous letters to his brother, author Henry James. Their correspondence is published in a book called William and Henry James: Selected Letters (University of Virginia Press, 1997). Spanning several decades, these letters provide insights into the brothers’ views on human nature, politics, and philosophy.  

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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Counseling options 

In the 21st century, many people can read William James's works online. In addition, other forms of psychology can be researched online, such as online therapy or telehealth appointments. A growing body of research points to the effectiveness of internet-based therapy compared to traditional face-to-face therapy. 

One study examined the benefits of online therapy when treating symptoms of various mental health conditions, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and depression. The researchers outlined the diverse ways treatment can be administered through online therapy platforms, including therapist guidance over email, lesson plans, interactive exercises, informational articles, and audio or video calls. The study concluded that internet-based therapy is efficient and cost-effective and may remain a viable alternative to traditional counseling.

If you're interested in seeing how modern psychological theories function in practice, you might consider signing up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, which houses to a growing network of licensed providers. In addition, you can change your therapist at any time if needed, allowing you unique control over your care. 


You might consider therapy if you have questions about William James's theories about emotion or any mental health concerns. Therapy is a learning process and a form of treatment, and over 41.7 million US adults see a counselor each year. Connecting with a therapist can allow you to learn unique facts about your brain and body while improving your functioning in daily life. Take the first step by contacting a therapist for further guidance.
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