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William James (1842 – 1910) was the creator of American Pragmatism and functional psychology. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

William James

William James, philosopher

Quotations from William James sourced from, WikiQuotes, GoodReads, BrainyQuote,

The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.

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!”

Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.

Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.

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

This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view.


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

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.

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.

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.

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.

Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.

There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

Earnestness means willingness to live with energy, though energy bring pain. The pain may be pain to other people or pain to one’s self — it makes little difference; for when the strenuous mood is on one, the aim is to break something, no matter whose or what. Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistibly as anger does it; for, as Moltke says of war, destruction pure and simple is its essence. This is what makes it so invaluable an ally of every other passion. The sweetest delights are trampled on with a ferocious pleasure the moment they offer themselves as checks to a cause by which our higher indignations are elicited. It costs then nothing to drop friendships, to renounce long-rooted privileges and possessions, to break with social ties. Rather do we take a stern joy in the astringency and desolation; and what is called weakness of character seems in most cases to consist of the inaptitude for these sacrificial moods, of which one’s own inferior self and its pet softnesses must often be the targets and the victims.”

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.

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.

Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria. Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below.

Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities — his preeminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.

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.

The difference between the first- and second-best things in art absolutely seems to escape verbal definition — it is a matter of a hair, a shade, an inward quiver of some kind — yet what miles away in the point of preciousness!

Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs about us.

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.

Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.

One mode of emotional excitability is exceedingly important in the composition of the energetic character, from its peculiarly destructive power over inhibitions. I mean what in its lower form is mere irascibility, susceptibility to wrath, the fighting temper; and what in subtler ways manifests itself as impatience, grimness, earnestness, severity of character. Earnestness means willingness to live with energy, though energy bring pain. The pain may be pain to other people or pain to one’s self — it makes little difference; for when the strenuous mood is on one, the aim is to break something, no matter whose or what. Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistibly as anger does it; for, as Moltke says of war, destruction pure and simple is its essence.

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.

Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.

When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.

Who does not see that we are likely to ascertain the distinctive significance of religious melancholy and happiness, or of religious trances, far better by comparing them as conscientiously as we can with other varieties of melancholy, happiness, and trance, than by refusing to consider their place in any more general series, and treating them as if they were outside of nature’s order altogether?

But such a straight identification of religion with any and every form of happiness leaves the essential peculiarity of religious happiness out. The more commonplace happinesses which we get are ‘reliefs,’ occasioned by our momentary escapes from evils either experienced or threatened. But in its most characteristic embodiments, religious happiness is no mere feeling of escape. It cares no longer to escape. It consents to the evil outwardly as a form of sacrifice — inwardly it knows it to be permanently overcome. … In the Louvre there is a picture, by Guido Reni, of St. Michael with his foot on Satan’s neck. The richness of the picture is in large part due to the fiend’s figure being there. The richness of its allegorical meaning also is due to his being there — that is, the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.

Now in all of us, however constituted, but to a degree the greater in proportion as we are intense and sensitive and subject to diversified temptations, and to the greatest possible degree if we are decidedly psychopathic, does the normal evolution of character chiefly consist in the straightening out and unifying of the inner self. The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos within us — they must end by forming a stable system of functions in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle.

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

The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. We don’t laugh because we’re happy – we’re happy because we laugh.  Procrastination is attitude’s natural assassin. There’s nothing so fatiguing as an uncompleted task [Slack, is the getting well ahead of the personal demands, and if slack is the opposite of procrastination it will give energy and zest to life.]

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.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.

Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.

Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.

If you can change your mind, you can change your life.

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

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

Belief creates the actual fact.

The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.

Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.

The sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself so strongly to our object of belief that our whole life is polarized through and through, so to speak, by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in, and yet that thing, for the purpose of definite description, can hardly be said to be present to our mind at all.

The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another. What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common sense, to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity . … It is but the elimination of the humanly unfit, and the survival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs; and if we look at history candidly and without prejudice, we have to admit that no religion has ever in the long run established or proved itself in any other way. Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.

The central one is the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same.
The second feature is the sense of perceiving truths not known before.
A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. ‘This sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without one is one of the commonest entries in conversion records.

I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. 

I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.

Success or failure depends more upon attitude than upon capacity successful men act as though they have accomplished or are enjoying something. Soon it becomes a reality. Act, look, feel successful, conduct yourself accordingly, and you will be amazed at the positive results.

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.

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

Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

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

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

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

The aim of a college education is to teach you to know a good man when you see one.

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

To spend life for something which outlasts it.

The sovereign cure for worry is prayer.

Those thoughts are truth which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not.


The core of William James appears to be his development of the idea of self-control of one’s future habits by developing the practice of acting.

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.

If you can change your mind, you can change your life.

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

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

Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.

Belief creates the actual fact.

This last statement is obviously absurd, and yet it is the core of James’ belief system. If there was the tiniest fragment of testable proof of some part of a belief, then that would instantly fall into the known and would not require it to be labeled “belief.” Thus it is that all belief is untested, and most of it is un-testable and therefore might fairly be labeled with the indelicate term – bunk.

It is obvious that All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits, and we were physically present in the past, when our habits were formed; assuming the same processes are now available to us, we can to some extent modify those habits, or at least overlay them, with new habits of our conscious choosing. If you have sufficient self-control, which is modest at best, he is right. If you can change your mind, you can change your life; but of course for nearly everyone this is beyond their capacity, and they simply live from moment to moment with the habits they acquired unconsciously.

If you are in an environment where you can practice your chosen new role as your new self you can have some success at modifying your habits. If you want a quality, act as if you already had it. The key word is “act”. That is to pretend that you have the quality. If you are able to convince the other actors in practice or ordinary people around you that you have this quality it becomes easier to advance with the desired new habits. This technique generally isn’t available except in acting studios, or to some extent in personally practicing out loud mental simulations.

Where James falls off the bridge to a better life, for me, is when he moves on to religion. There he makes what were plausible claims when relating to daily affairs,  Belief creates the actual fact, into nonsensical claims about the unknowable. He acknowledges that there isn’t any proof of the validity of his religious points, other than that past civilizations at some time move on to better systems of generating belief, and then he claims through an evolution of religions to come to the present ones, which by his mode of thinking are therefore the most fit to exist in this world. The present religions are now here because they survived all the previous ones, and are therefore better.

It all gets weak for me and I find myself preferring the Roman Stoics, whose secular “religion” was intentionally killed by Christianity; see the post on Hypatia. That brought on the dark ages for Europe which lasted for a thousand years, and in retrospect few people would consider that a positive social evolutionary growth.

James says, It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence; I heartily agree with that statement, however he then spends much of his energy speculating well over into the realm of Belief creates the actual fact, which by most rational observers would claim to be faulty well over into the realm of insanity.