William James was born in New York city in 1842 to a priviledged family. His early schooling took place in New York City. Early on, however, he attended schools in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. He was also taught by private tutors. By 1860 he was fluent in 5 languages and could count among his acquaintances family friends like Thoreau, Emerson, Greeley and Mill.
In 1861 James entered Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University. Soon after he transfered to Harvard's Medical School to hedge against his family's dwindling fortune. He found medicine boring and after a trip to the Amazon in 1865-6 he left America for the therapeutic baths of France and Germany for nearly two years, where he studied under Helmholtz and other leading physiologists, and became thoroughly conversant with the New Psychology.
In 1869 he received his MD from Harvard medical school. James' health was not good, and he spent no time practicing medicine. Instead he focused on psychology. In 1872, nearing thirty, he was still financially dependent on his father and had no plans for his future when Harvard's president, Charles Eliot, a neighborthe James family had been living in Cambridge for some timeinvited him to teach psychology at Harvard. He accepted, and remained there for the next thirty-five years.
There were no professors of psychology in American universities before James began teaching the subject in 1875. The only forms of psychology then taught in the United States were phrenology and Scottish mental philosophy, an offshoot of associationism used chiefly as a defense of revealed religion. James himself had never taken a course in the New Psychology because none was available; as he once jested, 'The first lecture in psychology that I ever heard was the first I ever gave.'
In 1878 he began one of his more important works, Principles of Psychology. He also married, in 1878, Alice H. Gibbens of Cambridge, Mass.
James began, in 1883, to develop a view and practice of psychology and its clinical procedures. He drew upon all his reading in both philosophical and physiological psychology; spent half a year in Europe in 1882-1883 visiting universities, attending laboratory sessions and lectures, and meeting and talking to dozens of leading psychologists and other scientists; corresponded regularly with many of them; and gathered reports and clinical studies of abnormal minds, and of normal ones under hypnosis, drugs, or stress. He grew to dislike psychology and its study, and shifted his focus towards the study of religion and philosophy around the mid 1880s. By 1885 he was a professor of philosophy.
He changed his studies' focus to the nature and existence of God, the immortality of the soul, free will and determinism, the values of life. He thought these topics were empirical, not dialectical; James went directly to religious experience for the nature of God, to psychical research for survival after death, to fields of belief and action for free will and determinism.
In 1902 he published his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he found that the varieties of religious experience point to the existence of specific and various reservoirs of consciousness-like energies with which we can make specific contact in times of trouble. This work touched something fundamental in the minds of religionists and at least provided them with apologetic material not in conflict with science and scientific method. The book was the culmination of James's interest in the psychology of religion.