Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

William James

American Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician and Teacher

"We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue leaves its ever-so-little scar."

"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."

"We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient realization of poverty could have meant; the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paving our way by what we are and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly, - the more athletic trim, in short, the fighting shape."

"We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply rejecting certain portion of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos! My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them."

"What may be called “club-opinion” is one of the very strongest forces in life. The thief must not steal from other thieves; the gambler must pay his gambling-debts, though he pay no other debts in the world. The code of honor of fashionable society has throughout history been full of permissions as well as of vetoes, the only reason for following either of which is that so we best serve one of our social selves."

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

"‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily."

"Belief at the beginning of a doubtful undertaking is the one thing that will guarantee the success of any venture."

"Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help you create the fact."

"Fear of life in one form or another is the great thing to exercise."

"Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way."

"He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed."

"How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure."

"I have no doubt whatever that 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 souls’ 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... We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon, of which we do not dream."

"I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences."

"Man is simply the most formidable of all the beasts of prey, and, indeed the only one that preys systematically on its own species."

"Man's chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities. Prune his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him."

"Man... is simply the most formidable of all the beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on his own species."

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

"Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which to feel a sympathy"

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

"Our minds grow in spots; and like grease-spots, the spots spread. But we let them spread as little as possible: we keep unaltered as much of our old knowledge, as many of our old prejudices and beliefs, as we can. We patch and tinker more than we renew."

"Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness quite disregarded... They forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."

"Overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness."

"Real culture lives by sympathies and admirations, not by dislikes and disdains - under all misleading wrappings it pounces unerringly upon the human core."

"Religion is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism."

"Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism."

"Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life."

"Scenery seems to wear in one's consciousness better than any other element in life."

"That which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal."

"The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals."

"The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it."

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

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

"The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older - that is, the days, the months, and the years do so; whether the hours do so is doubtful, and the minutes and seconds to all appearance remain about the same... In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollection of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous, and long-drawn-out. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly notice at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse."

"The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation."

"The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal."

"The whole defense of religious faith hinges upon action."

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world formula or that world formula be the true one."

"The world of our consciousness consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous - the cosmic times and spaces, for example - whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of the mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one."

"There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir... fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing otherwise unverifiable common connection."

"There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it."

"To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life."

"We and God have business with each other and in that business our highest destiny is fulfilled."

"We never fully grasp the import of any true statement until we have a clear notion of what the opposite untrue statement would be."

"We wish to preserve the fire of the past, not the ashes."

"[Prayer] The very moment itself of the soul, putting itself into a personal relation of contact with the mysterious power - of which it feels the presence."

"“Were once asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”"

"A free person is as jealous of their responsibilities as they are of their liberties."

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."