William James was the brother of the famous novelist Henry James. The boys came from an upper-class East Coast family. Both he and his brother received an education in Europe as well as the United States, which influenced their writings and added to their cosmopolitan and liberal appeal..

William James is well known by theologians and in cultural studies departments for his early work in comparitive religion (The Varieties of Religious Experience). He is best known by psychologists for his early work presented in his two-volume The Principles of Psychology. He is best known to philosophers for his integral role in the early development of philosophical pragmatism.

From the Greek 'pragma' meaning 'action', William James built on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and developed a philosophical methodology that Peirce would later reject. In his seminal 1906 Pragmatism, James defines pragmatism as the doctrine that the meaning of a belief is to be determined by the practical differences it makes in our lives. If you want to know what the meaning of "God exists" is, you have to examine what the result of this belief is, how it changes your life, how it shapes the world. If you want to know what the meaning of the sentence "The cat is on the mat" you need to examine the practical effects that sentence has in our lives, in our practices, and in our discourses.

From this methodology, which James defined as the only real characterization of his pragmatic philosophy, James also developed a theory of truth, which is not always easy to understand. In brief, James held that a belief is true as it tends to satisfy our experiences, as it tends to come to succesful fruition in our lives, and as it tends to be historically upheld in our pracitces and discourses. That the sentence "The earth revolves around the sun" is true for James is not a function of our scientific apprehension of a real world independent of human action, but rather the truth of this sentence is a function of the practical horizon of human activity: our interaction with the world in the many myriad ways in which that interaction takes place, changes, and solidifies.

James's pragmatism was later adopted by the famous philosopher John Dewey. Other pragmatists of the twentieth century include George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Joseph Ratner, and supreme court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes. More recently the neopragmatist Richard Rorty has espoused views much like James's (though his texts tend to focus more on Dewey).

In a decision characteristic of his desire to believe, James called his brother Henry back to Cambridge in his final days. He asked Henry to remain in Cambridge for six weeks after his death: he was going to try to communicate with him from the other side. Henry never received the messages.

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