WILLIAM JAMES, son of the theologian Henry James (1811-1882) and brother of the famed novelist Henry James (1843-1916), was born in New York City on Jan-uary 11,1842. Under his father's guidance, William was educated by tutors and at private schools in the United States and in Europe. He was drawn to careers both in art and in medicine, first studying art in Paris and later in Providence, Rhode Island, under the direction of William Morris Hunt. But ultimately James chose medicine; after receiving his medical degree in 1872, he accepted a post in physiology at Harvard University the following year. In 1876 he began to teach in the relatively new field of psychology and in that same year James established the first psychological laboratory in America. Among his more illustrious students was the novelist Gertrude Stein.
In 1890, James published his two-volume work, The Principles of Psychology, which summarized nearly the entire range of nineteenth-century psychology. An immediate success because of its thoroughness, accu-racy, and lively style, the book was translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian, and remained the leading text in psychology for many years.
From childhood James had been passionately inter-ested in philosophy and had joined enthusiastically with his friends in informal discussions and "metaphysical questions." The view for which James was later to become famous was formed in one such discussion group, dominated by the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). But James did not turn his professional interest toward philosophy until 1897.
James published Pragmatism in 1907. He did not claim any originality for the doctrine, having borrowed even the term "pragmatism" from Peirce. But whereas Peirce had proposed only a method for avoiding ambi-guity and imprecision, James proceeded to elaborate a theory of truth. James denied absolute truth in an ever-changing universe, and regarded it as provisional rather than in accordance with absolute standards. The same analysis James had given to truth he also applied to the discussion of morality itself, arguing that absolute moral standards must give way to values that take into con-sideration the circumstances of human experience.
During James's last years. his reputation grew widely; in 1902 he published his Varieties of Religious Experience, and in 1909 A Pluralistic Universe. But it was after the publication of Pragmatism that James became generally recognized as the foremost American philosopher of his time. William James died on August 26, 1910, in Chocurua, New Hampshire.