Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

William James

American Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician and Teacher

"Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing."

"Give your dreams all you've got and you'll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you."

"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."

"Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein."

"Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed. which give happiness. Thomas Jefferson We never enjoy perfect happiness; our most fortunate successes are mingled with sadness; some anxieties always perplex the reality of our satisfaction."

"Happiness, like every other emotional state, has blindness and insensibility to opposing facts given it as its instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance. 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. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and hush it up."

"Hardly ever can a youth transferred to the society of his betters unlearn the nasality and other vices of speech bred in him by the associations of his growing years. Hardly ever, indeed, no matter how much money there be in his pocket, can he ever learn to dress like a gentleman-born. The merchants offer their wares as eagerly to him as to the veriest swell, but he simply cannot buy the right things."

"History is a bath of blood."

"Honestly, I'm bored. I haven't even seen any fights tonight. Most people don't even seem to know the time change is tonight."

"How can the moribund old man reason back to himself the romance, the mystery, the imminence of great things with which our old earth tingled for him in the days when he was young and well?"

"How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young, -- or slender!"

"How soon, indeed, are human things forgotten! As we meet here this morning, the Southern sun is shining on their place of burial, and the waves sparkling and the sea-gulls circling around Fort Wagner's ancient site. But the great earthworks and their thundering cannon, the commanders and their followers, the wild assault and repulse that for a brief space made night hideous on that far-off evening, have all sunk into the blue gulf of the past, and for the majority of this generation are hardly more than an abstract name, a picture, a tale that is told. Only when some yellow-bleached photograph of a soldier of the 'sixties comes into our hands, with that odd and vivid look of individuality due to the moment when it was taken, do we realize the concreteness of that by-gone history, and feel how interminable to the actors in them were those leaden-footed hours and years."

"However inadequate our ideas of causal efficacy may be, we are less wide of the mark when we say that our ideas and feelings have it, than the Automatists are when they say they haven’t it. As in the night all cats are gray, so in the darkness of metaphysical criticism all causes are obscure. But one has no right to pull the pall over the psychic half of the subject only . . . whilst in the same breath one dogmatizes about material causation as if Hume, Kant, and Lotze had never been born."

"Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendship and intimacies, and soon their places will know them no more, and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will… and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to "keep" by force of mere inertia."

"Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind."

"Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives."

"Humanism . . . is not a single hypothesis or theorem, and it dwells on no new facts. It is rather a slow shifting in the philosophic perspective, making things appear as from a new center of interest or point of sight."

"I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of mans pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top. You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself."

"I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride."

"I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather I fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it already wholly."

"I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not. If I could, be... a great athlete and make a million a year, be a wit, a born -- vivant and a lady killer, as well as a philosopher, a philanthropist ... and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's work would run counter to the saint s; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably, at the outset of life. Be alike possible for a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more of less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully and pick out on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failure are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs carrying shame and gladness with them."

"I am tired of the position of the dried-up critic and doubter. The believer is the true full man."

"I am well aware of how anarchic much of what I say may sound. Expressing myself thus abstractly and briefly, I may seem to despair of the very notion of truth. But I beseech you to reserve your judgment until we see it applied to the details which lie before us. I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather do I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly."

"I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomena are impossible."

"I cannot understand the willingness to act, no matter how we feel, without the belief that acts are really good and bad."

"I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them."

"I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather do I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly."

"I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are should have exactly the same functions nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner."

"I don't see how an epigram, being a bolt from the blue, with no introduction or cue, ever gets itself writ."

"I don't sing because I am happy; I'm happy because I sing."

"I fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it already wholly."

"I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: "This is the real me!""

"I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds."

"I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples. All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party. But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings."

"I now perceive one immense omission in my psychology -- the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated."

"I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave."

"I personally gave up the Absolute . . . I fully believe in taking moral holidays."

"I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in a little hotel where I slept in the dusty fields. The young man of the house shot a little wolf called coyote in the early morning. The little heroic animal lay on the ground, with his big furry ears, and his clean white teeth, and his little cheerful body, but his little brave life was gone. It made me think how brave all living things are. Here little coyote was, without any clothes or house or books or anything, with nothing to pay his way with, and risking his life so cheerfully — and losing it — just to see if he could pick up a meal near the hotel. He was doing his coyote-business like a hero, and you must do your boy-business, and I my man-business bravely, too, or else we won't be worth as much as a little coyote."

"I think you will practically recognize the two types of mental make-up that I mean if I head the columns by the titles `tender-minded' and `tough-minded' respectively."

"I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them."

"I wished by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her become one."

"If a man's good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy."

"If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick."

"If evolution and the survival of the fittest be true at all, the destruction of prey and of human rivals must have been among the most important. . . . It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially when a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun."

"If merely "feeling good" could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."

"If the generations of mankind suffered and laid down their lives; if martyrs sang in the fire... for no other end than that a race of creatures of such unexampled insipidity should succeed, and protract... their contented and inoffensive lives, why, at such a rate... better ring down the curtain before the last act of the play, so that a business that began so importantly may be saved from so singularly flat a winding up."

"If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door."

"If the 'searching of our heart and reins' be the purpose of this human drama, then what is sought seems to be what effort we can make. He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero."

"If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. How much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged."

"If there is anything I hate, it is collecting."