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William James: Philosophical insights

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"Lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or being."


William James

Writings, 1902-1910

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Asceticism may be a mere expression of organic hardihood, disgusted with too much ease.


William James

Writings, 1902-1910

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Our intelligence cannot wall itself up alive, like a pupa in a chrysalis. It must at any cost keep on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it.



William James

A pluralistic universe


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Metaphysics means nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly.

William James

The Principles of Psychology


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The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man.


William James

Collected Essays and Reviews


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Life feels like a real fight - as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.

William James

Essays on Faith and Morals


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Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.

William James

Selected Papers on Philosophy


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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.

William James

The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification






Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody.... And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them.


William James

Writings, 1902-1910

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How many of us persist in a precipitate course which, but for a moment of heedlessness we might never have entered upon, simply because we hate to change our minds.

William James

The Principles of Psychology


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Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a 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 W. Lutoslawski (6 May 1906))


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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. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.

William James

The Principles of Psychology

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The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.

William James

The Laws of Habit



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When happiness is actually in possession, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules. To the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and there be believed in.

William James

Writings, 1902-1910




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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.

William James

Writings, 1902-1910