William James Quotes

William James, 1842 – 1910

Born: 11 January 1842, New York City
Died: 26 August 1910, Chocorua, New Hampshire

The home of Henry James, Sr, a Swedenborgian theologian, was noted for its intellectual activity. A host of literary figures visited, Ralph Waldo Emerson was William’ godfather. Henry Junior, who would become a well-known novelist, was born the following year and the two boys were largely educated together. Henry Senior seemed to be regularly unhappy with their education, rarely leaving them in one school for more than a year, much of their education was in Europe. William trained as an artist but entered Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1861, then switched to medicine in 1864. Between illness and European travel, he didn’t earn his M.D. degree until 1869, never practiced, and at thirty was still living at home. The president of Harvard, a family friend, secured him a position as an instructor in physiology (1872) and the classroom finally fired some interest for him. He was named assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, full professor in 1886, back to psychology with an endowed chair in 1889, then back to philosophy again in 1897. He was frequently ill with various physical complaints and neurasthenia, so his actual teaching was interrupted numerous times, including great depressions resulting from criticism of each of his books. By all accounts his classes were highly regarded and his students included a long list of notables, including Theodore Roosevelt and George Santayana. After retiring from Harvard in 1907 (his final class was standing room only), he developed heart problems, went one more time to Europe in hope of finding a cure, and returned to his New Hampshire home where he died. The autopsy revealed an enlarged heart.

William James quotes:

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.
    William James

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
    William James

A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.
    William James

A paradise of inward tranquility seems to be faith’s usual result.
    William James – Lectures XI, XII, and XIII, “Saintliness”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

A thing is important if anyone think it important.
    William James – Principles of Psychology (1890)

Acceptance of what happened is the first step to overcoming the consequence of any misfortune.
    William James

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
    William James

Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.
    William James

Alexander’s career was piracy pure and simple, nothing but an orgy of power and plunder, made romantic by the character of the hero. There was no rational purpose in it, and the moment he died his generals and governors attacked one another.
    William James – The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)

All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish.
    William James

All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods.
    William James – “The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884)

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience.
    William James – “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)

An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be chosen out of several all equally possible.
    William James – Principles of Psychology (1890)

An idea, to be suggestive, must come to the individual with the force of revelation.
    William James

An unlearned carpenter of my acquaintance once said in my hearing: “There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important.” This distinction seems to me to go to the root of the matter.
    William James – “The Importance of Individuals”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)

As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.

William James

“The Will to Believe”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
As we take, in fact, a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is this different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life, it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)
Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

William James

“Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.

William James
Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or by thought.

William James

Lecture XX, “Conclusions”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Circumstance does not make me, it reveals me.

William James
Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our mental and physical resources.

William James
Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

William James
Each of us is in fact what he is almost exclusively by virtue of his imitativeness.

William James
Each of us is in fact what he is almost exclusively by virtue of his imitativeness. We become conscious of what we ourselves are by imitating others.

William James
Earnestness means willingness to live with energy, though energy bring pain.

William James

Lectures XI, XII, and XIII, “Saintliness”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not.

William James
Every way of classifying a thing is but a way of handling it for some particular purpose.

William James

The Sentiment of Rationality (1882)
First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.

William James

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)

Give your dreams all you’ve got and you’ll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.

William James
Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.

William James

letter to Wincenty Lutoslawski (6 May 1906)
Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.

William James

Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890)
He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had failed.

William James
History is a bath of blood.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.

William James
Human beings, by changing the inner attitude of their minds, can change the outer aspect of their lives.

William James
I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.

William James
I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.

William James
I have no doubt whatever that most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger. Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.

William James

letter to Wincenty Lutoslawski (6 May 1906)
I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: “This is the real me!”

William James

letter to future wife Alice Howe Gibbens (7 June 1877)
I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences.

William James

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.

William James
I will act as if what I do makes a difference.

William James
If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.

William James

If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.

William James
If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. How much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.

William James
If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.

William James
If things are ever to move upward, some one must take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try non-resistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed.

William James

Lectures XIV and XV, “The Value of Saintliness”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

William James
If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it.

William James
If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.

William James
If you want a quality, act as if you already had it. Try the as if technique.

William James
Impulse without reason is not enough, and reason without impulse is a poor makeshift.

William James
In modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
In the deepest heart of all of us there is a corner in which the ultimate mystery of things works sadly.

William James

“Is Life Worth Living?”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
In the dim background of mind we know what we ought to be doing but somehow we cannot start.

William James
It is a fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science.

William James
It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.

William James
It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome

William James

It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

William James

The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890)
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

William James
It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accepts the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints.

William James

Lecture II, “Circumscription of the Topic”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)
Let everything you do be done as if it makes a difference.

William James
Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.

William James
Man, biologically considered … is simply the most formidable of all the beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.

William James

Atlantic Monthly (December 1904)
Many persons nowadays seem to think that any conclusion must be very scientific if the arguments in favor of it are derived from twitching of frogs’ legs (especially if the frogs are decapitated) and that, on the other hand, any doctrine chiefly vouched for by the feelings of human beings (with heads on their shoulders) must be benighted and superstitious.

William James
Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
Metaphysics means nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly.

William James
Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make very small use of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.

William James
Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.

William James
My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

William James
My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)

Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon’s glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come.

William James

“Is Life Worth Living?”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.

William James
Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.

William James
Of all the beautiful truths pertaining to the soul None is more gladdening or fruitful than to know You can regenerate and make yourself what you will.

William James
One hearty laugh together will bring enemies into a closer communion of heart than hours spent on both sides in inward wrestling with the mental demon of uncharitable feeling.

William James
Only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.

William James
Our belief at the beginning of a doubtful undertaking is the one thing that assures the successful outcome of any venture.

William James
Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.

William James

Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. Our scientific temper is devout.

William James
Our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, … but the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom.

William James
Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.

William James
Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits.

William James
Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions. Intellect, will, taste, and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs; and lucky it is if the passion be not something as petty as a love of personal conquest over the philosopher across the way.

William James

The Sentiment of Rationality (1882)
Religion is the monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.

William James

Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Religion must be considered vindicated in a certain way from the attacks of her critics.

William James

Lecture XX, “Conclusions”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.

William James

Lecture II, “Circumscription of the Topic”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
The aim of a college education is to teach you to know a good man when you see one.

William James
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

William James

The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890)
The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.

William James

The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890)
The best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: ‘This is the real me!’

William James
The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

William James
The deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated.

William James

thank you note to his students (Easter 1896)
The first lecture in psychology that I ever heard was the first I ever gave.

William James
The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals.

William James

Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.

William James
The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.

William James
The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.

William James
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

William James
The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.

William James

Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899)
The ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives.

William James

The impulse to take life strivingly is indestructible in the race.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)
The man whose acquisitions stick is the man who is always achieving and advancing whilst his neighbors, spending most of their time in relearning what they once knew but have forgotten, simply hold their own.

William James
The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as the sculptor works on his block of stone.

William James

The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890)
The minute a man ceases to grow, no matter what his years, that minute he begins to be old.

William James
The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.

William James

letter to H. G. Wells (11 September 1906), in The Letters of William James, Vol. 2, Henry James, ed. (1920)
The most any one can do is to confess as candidly as he can the grounds for the faith that is in him, and leave his example to work on others as it may.

William James

“The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884)
The most immutable barrier in nature is between one man’s thoughts and another’s.

William James
The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.

William James
The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.

William James

Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man.

William James

Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite assignable reasons.

William James
The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.

William James

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal.

William James
The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.

William James

There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.

William James
There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see.

William James

“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.

William James

Principles of Psychology (1890)
There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.

William James

Lectures XIV and XV, “The Value of Saintliness”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.

William James
This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it.

William James
To be a real philosopher all that is necessary is to hate some one else’s type of thinking.

William James
To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced.

William James
To change one’s life: 1. Start immediately, 2. Do it flamboyantly, 3. No exceptions.

William James
To study the abnormal is the best way of understanding the normal.

William James
Truth in our ideas means their power to work.

William James

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause.

William James
We are proud of a human nature that could be so passionately extreme, but we shrink from advising others to follow the example.

William James

Lectures XIV and XV, “The Value of Saintliness”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our moral life.

William James

Lecture III, “The Reality of the Unseen”, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
We don’t laugh because we’re happy – we’re happy because we laugh.

William James

We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.

William James
We never fully grasp the import of any true statement until we have a clear notion of what the opposite untrue statement would be.

William James
What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise although the philosophers generally call it recognition!

William James

letter to Henri Bergson (13 June 1907)
What interest, zest, or excitement can there be in achieving the right way, unless we are enabled to feel that the wrong way is also a possible and a natural way, nay, more, a menacing and an imminent way? And what sense can there be in condemning ourselves for taking the wrong way, unless we need have done nothing of the sort, unless the right way was open to us as well? I cannot understand the willingness to act, no matter how we feel, without the belief that acts are really good and bad.

William James

“The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884)
What the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise. The war-function has grasped us so far; but the constructive interests may some day seem no less imperative, and impose on the individual a hardly lighter burden.

William James

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)
When a thing is new, people say: ‘It is not true.’ Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: ‘It is not important.’ Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say: ‘Anyway, it is not new.’

William James
When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.

William James
Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.

William James
Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.

William James

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