From beginner-friendly introductions to classic works by William James, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on James. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or read James for yourself.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by William James in no particular order.
The Philosophy of William James: An Introduction – Richard M. Gale
Publisher description: This accessible introduction to the philosophy of William James reveals a significant division between a Promethean type of pragmatism and passive mysticism which Richard Gale integrates. While James’ “pragmatist” persona conceives of truth and meaning as a means to control nature and make it do our bidding, his “mystic” persona eschews the use of concepts to penetrate the inner conscious core of all being, including nature at large.
William James: His Life and Thought – Gerald E Myers
Publisher description: This book is the first comprehensive interpretative and critical study of one of America’s foremost philosophers and psychologists. Gerald Myers traces James’s life and career and then uses this fresh biographical information to illuminate his writings and ideas.
Becoming William James – Howard M. Feinstein
Publisher description: For William James, work was the problem. Ultimately, going to work was the resolution, and James’s quest for meaningful work remains as relevant at the end of the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth. Weaving letters, diaries, drawings, and published texts, Becoming William James provides a convincing biographical analysis rich in detail and tone. In his new introduction, Howard M. Feinstein adds biological psychiatry to psychoanalytic and family systems theories to inform our understanding of a complex man. In addition, he discusses whether James’s mental illness might have been treated with drugs.
The Cambridge Companion to William James – Ruth Anna Putnam
Publisher description: William James (1842-1910) was both a philosopher and a psychologist, nowadays most closely associated with the pragmatic theory of truth. The essays in this Companion deal with the full range of his thought, including technical philosophical issues, religious speculation, moral philosophy and political controversies of his time. New readers and nonspecialists will find this the most convenient and accessible guide to James currently available. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of James.
The Essential William James – William James
Publisher description: William James (1842-1910) was one of the most original and influential American thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a professor at Harvard University he published many works that had a wide-ranging impact on both psychology and philosophy. His Principles of Psychology was the most important English-language work on the mind since Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. His Varieties of Religious Experience practically inaugurated the field of psychology of religion, and it also remains a major inspiration for philosophy of religion. Perhaps most importantly, James publicized the movement of pragmatism and supplied much of its powerful momentum….
Pragmatism – William James
Publisher description: A profoundly influential figure in American psychology, William James (1842–1910) was also a philosopher of note, who used Charles S. Peirce’s theories of pragmatism as a basis for his own conception of that influential philosophy. For James, this meant an emphasis on “radical empiricism” and the concept that the meaning of any idea — philosophical, political, social, or otherwise — has validity only in terms of its experiential and practical consequences.
James propounded his theories of pragmatism in this book, one of the most important in American philosophy. In a sense, he wished to test competing systems of thought in the “marketplace of actual experience” to determine their validity, i.e. whether adopting a particular philosophical theory or way of looking at the world makes an actual difference in individual conduct or in how we perceive and react to the varieties of experience. In these pages, James not only makes a strong case for his own ideas, but mounts a powerful attack against the transcendental and rationalist tradition….
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
Publisher description: Standing at the crossroads of psychology and religion, this catalyzing work applied the scientific method to a field abounding in abstract theory. William James believed that individual religious experiences, rather than the precepts of organized religions, were the backbone of the world’s religious life. His discussions of conversion, repentance, mysticism and saintliness, and his observations on actual, personal religious experiences – all support this thesis. In his introduction, Martin E. Marty discusses how James’s pluralistic view of religion led to his remarkable tolerance of extreme forms of religious behaviour, his challenging, highly original theories, and his welcome lack of pretension in all of his observations on the individual and the divine.
The Will to Believe – William James
Publisher description: This volume contains the complete texts of two books by America’s most important psychologist and philosopher. Easy to understand, yet brilliant and penetrating, the books were written specifically for laymen and they are still stimulating reading for readers concerned with important questions of belief in an age of science.
In the essays, under the heading The Will to Believe, James discusses, first, the interrelationships of belief, will, and intellect, examining such questions as: How does man believe? How do intellectual considerations color belief? How much of a role do irrational elements play even in rigorously logical thought? Chance versus determinism, free will versus fate, pluralism versus monism are discussed in succeeding sections. James also covers psychical research, Hegelianism, and Spencer’s philosophy….
The Principles of Psychology – William James
Publisher description: This is the first inexpensive edition of the complete Long Course in Principles of Psychology, one of the great classics of modern Western literature and science and the source of the ripest thoughts of America’s most important philosopher. As such, it should not be confused with the many abridgements that omit key sections.
The book presents lucid descriptions of human mental activity, with detailed considerations of the stream of thought, consciousness, time perception, memory, imagination, emotions, reason, abnormal phenomena, and similar topics. In its course it takes into account the work of Berkeley, Binet, Bradley, Darwin, Descartes, Fechner, Galton, Green, Helmholtz, Herbart, Hume, Janet, Kant, Lange, Lotze, Locke, Mill, Royce, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, Wundt, and scores of others. It examines contrasting interpretations of mental phenomena, treating introspective analysis, philosophical interpretations, and experimental research. It remains unsurpassed today as a brilliantly written survey of William James’ timeless view of psychology.
The following sources were used to build this list:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on William James
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on William James
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the History of Philosophy
- The Best Books on Pragmatism
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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