Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

William James

American Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician and Teacher

"A tremendous muchness is suddenly revealed."

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

"All new doctrine goes through three stages. It is attacked and declared absurd; then it is admitted as true and obvious but insignificant. Finally, its true importance is recognized and its adversaries claim the honor of having discovered it."

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

"For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have begun; he has exteriorized rottenness... he lives at least on a basis of veracity."

"A human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind."

"Free Will does not say that everything that is physically conceivable is also morally possible. It merely says that of alternatives that really tempt our will more than one is really possible."

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

"Get but that “peace of God which passeth understanding,” and the questions of the understanding will cease from puzzling and pedantic scruples be at rest."

"Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed."

"Habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue."

"I will act as if I do make a difference."

"If things are ever to move upward, someone must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try nonresistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldly prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But nonresistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects."

"Immortality is but a way of saying that the determination of expectancy is the essential factor of rationality."

"In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself."

"It is only in the lonely emergencies of life that our creed is tested: then routine maxims fail, and we fall back on our gods."

"Mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect."

"Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up, a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallible right."

"Philosophy is only a matter of passionate vision rather than of logic - logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards."

"Religion, occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping this in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history."

"Religion… shall mean for us, the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."

"Sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy."

"Social evolution is a resultant of the interaction of two wholly distinct factors: the individual… bearing all the power of initiative and origination in his hands; and, second, the social environment, with its power of adopting or rejecting both him and his gifts. Both factors are essential to change. The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community."

"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."

"The belief in free-will is not in the least incompatible with the belief in Providence, provided you do not restrict the Providence to fulminating nothing but fatal decrees."

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

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

"The greatest discover of my lifetime was that a person can change the circumstances of his life by changing his thoughts and attitudes."

"The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil."

"The most characteristic of all the elements of conversion crisis… is the ecstasy of happiness produced."

"The part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself."

"The smallest details of this world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order."

"The truth of God has to run the gauntlet of all other truths. It is on trial by them and they on trial by it. Our final opinion about God can be settled only after all the truths have straightened themselves out together."

"There exists a continuum of consciousness uniting individual minds that could be directly experienced if the psychophysical threshold of perception were sufficiently lowered through refinement in the functioning nervous system."

"There is not more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision."

"There is the positive side and the negative side and at every moment I decide."

"This incommunicableness of the transport is the keynote of all mysticism. Mystical truth exists for the individual who has the transport, but for no one else."

"This 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."

"To be fertile in hypotheses is the first requisite [of creativity], and to be willing to throw them away the moment experience contradicts them is the next."

"To make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy… we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague."

"Truth is essentially a relation between two things, an idea, on the one hand, and a reality outside the idea, on the other."

"We don’t laugh because we are happy. We are happy because we laugh."

"We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise anyone who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul."

"We hear in these days of scientific enlightenment a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of Prayer. Many reasons are given why we should not pray. Others give reasons why we should pray. Very little is said of the reason why we do pray. The reason is simple: We pray because we cannot help praying."

"We pass into mystical states from out of ordinary consciousness as from a less into a more, as from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time as from an unrest to a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states. They appeal to the yes-function more than to the no-function in us. In them the unlimited absorbs the limits and peacefully closes the account."

"Were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor."

"What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible."

"Whatever you are it is your own friends who make your world."

"When the fruit is ripe, a touch will make it fall."

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