Do We Run From Fear, or Does Running Make Us Afraid?

Remembering William James, America's father of psychology

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Thursday marked the hundredth anniversary of William James's death. Perhaps best known for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, James was a pioneering American psychologist and gifted writer whose deep yet pragmatic view of the human mind continues to wield influence. He was also, famously, the older brother of novelist Henry James, and a member of one of 19th-century America's most outstandingly talented families. His centennial prompted sensitive reflections from thinkers and scholars.

  • Showed That Rationality Is Just a Feeling Robert Richardson, an independent scholar writing at the Daily Beast, credits James with telling his reads ideas "that we still in 2010 don't hear." Richardson explains: "In psychology, he taught that what we are pleased to call rationality is in fact a feeling, a feeling of fitness or rightness. He also taught that many of our emotions are the result, not the cause, of physical reactions (we are afraid because we run, not the other way round) and that mimicking, say, a smile or a friendly handshake will often produce a feeling of friendliness."
  • His Rich, Complicated Life Infused His Ideas Paula Marantz Cohen, a professor at Drexel University, cites James's life as "a case study in self-improvement and self-realization." Born into a wealthy family, he studied medicine, art, science and philosophy before settling into the "emerging field of psychology." This "confused career path" and James's "struggles with depression can be felt in the uniquely personal and empathetic quality of his writing." Cohen concludes that "Reading him, one feels the presence of a human mind in all its variety and contradiction."
  • Put Focus on Solving Practical Problems of the Mind John J. Rooney, an emeritus professer at La Salle University writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, says James was a disciple of science, but resisted the idea that determinism ruled in matters of life: "Life, he decided, is better when people believe they can think and accomplish what they will." This view was borne out in his psychological approach, eventually called functionalism, which studied mental processes by observing what they accomplished." Instead of trying to categorize mental processes, functionalism "welcomed a variety of ideas, particularly those that helped solve practical problems."
  • Differed From Freud, Yet Embraced Him writes Levi Asher, a writer and Web developer contributing at The Second Pass--a site which devoted its entire week to coverage of William James. Asher compares James to another pioneer in the field of psychology, Sigmund Freud. The two men met at a conference in the U.S., but didn't have a chance to speak at length. Both men "believed entirely in the essential, irreducible willfulness of human nature...Yet the two could be described as ideological opposites as well." Asher explains that "James had great intellectual passion for religion, and Freud was a passionate atheist... James was also decidedly a pluralist, whereas Freudian psychology located sexuality as the singular emotional core (and core trauma) of human existence." Asher concludes by noting James's admiration for Freud's clinical success, saying James's generosity toward the younger man showed him as a "pluralist, a pragmatist, and, above all, a man with love to spare for his embattled fellow thinkers."
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