Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

William James

American Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician and Teacher

"If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more."

"If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight."

"If we knew thoroughly the nervous system of Shakespeare . . . we should be able to show why . . . his hand came to trace on certain sheets of paper those crabbed little black marks which we . . . call the manuscript of Hamlet. We should understand the rationale of every erasure and alteration therein . . . without in the slightest degree acknowledging the existence of the thoughts in Shakespeare’s mind. The words and sentences would be taken, not as signs of anything beyond themselves, but as little outward facts, pure and simple."

"If we take the universe of fitting, countless coats fit backs, and countless boots fit feet, on which they are not practically fitted; countless stones fit gaps in walls into which no one seeks to fit them actually. In the same way countless opinions fit realities, and countless truths are valid, tho' no thinker ever thinks them."

"If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system."

"If you can change your mind, you can change your life."

"If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it."

"If you say that this is absurd, that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other people's lives; and that such person know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big. The vice of ordinary Jack and Jill affection is not its intensity, but its exclusions and its jealousies. Leave those out, and you see that the ideal I am holding up before you, however impracticable to-day, yet contains nothing intrinsically absurd."

"If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white."

"Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria. Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below."

"Impulse without reason is not enough, and reason without impulse is a poor makeshift."

"In business for yourself, not by yourself."

"In every concrete individual, there is a uniqueness that defies formulation. We can feel the touch of it and recognize its taste, so to speak, relishing or disliking, as the case may be, but we can give no ultimate account of it, and we have in the end simply to admire the Creator."

"In its broadest term, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it."

"In its widest possible sense, however, a man's Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down."

"In modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible. It was not thus in ancient times. The earlier men were hunting men, and to hunt a neighboring tribe, kill the males, loot the village and possess the females, was the most profitable, as well as the most exciting, way of living. Thus were the more martial tribes selected, and in chiefs and peoples a pure pugnacity and love of glory came to mingle with the more fundamental appetite for plunder. Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us."

"In my individual heart I fully believe my faith is as robust as yours. The trouble with your robust and full bodied faiths, however, is, that they begin to cut eachothers’ throats too soon, and for getting on in the world and establishing amodus vivendi these pestilential refinements and reasonablenesses and moderations have to creep in."

"In order to disprove the assertion that all crows are black, one white crow is sufficient."

"In the deepest heart of all of us there is a corner in which the ultimate mystery of things works sadly."

"In the dim background of mind we know what we ought to be doing but somehow we cannot start."

"In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those in 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 note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to a contentless unit, and the years grow hollow and collapse."

"Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done."

"Inferiority is always with us, and merciless scorn of it is the keynote of the military temper."

"Intellectualism is the belief that our mind comes upon a world complete in itself, and has the duty of ascertaining its contents; but has no power of re-determining its character, for that is already given."

"Invention, using the term most broadly, and imitation, are the two legs, so to call them, on which the human race historically has walked."

"Is dogmatic or scholastic theology less doubted in point of fact for claiming, as it does, to be in point of right undoubtable? And if not, what command over truth would this kind of theology really lose if, instead of absolute certainty, she only claimed reasonable probability for her conclusions? If we claim only reasonable probability, it will be as much as men who love the truth can ever at any given moment hope to have within their grasp. Pretty surely it will be more than we could have had, if we were unconscious of our liability to err."

"Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver."

"It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all."

"It is a fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science."

"It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call something there, more deep and more general than any of the special and particular senses by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed."

"It is as important to cultivate your silence power as your word power."

"It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true."

"It is true that so far as wealth gives time for ideal ends and exercise to ideal energies, wealth is better than poverty and ought to be chosen. But wealth does this in only a portion of the actual cases. Elsewhere the desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. There must be thousands of conjunctures in which a wealth-bound man must be a slave, whilst a man for whom poverty has no terrors becomes a freeman."

"It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has been set like plaster, and will never soften again."

"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

"It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accepts the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints."

"It would probably astound each of us beyond measure to be let into his neighbors mind and to find how different the scenery was there from that of his own."

"It would seem that common sense and reason ought to find a way to reach agreement in every conflict of honest interests. I myself think it our bounden duty to believe in such international rationality as possible. But, as things stand, I see how desperately hard it is to bring the peace-party and the war-party together, and I believe that the difficulty is due to certain deficiencies in the program of pacifism which set the military imagination strongly, and to a certain extent justifiably, against it. In the whole discussion both sides are on imaginative and sentimental ground. It is but one utopia against another, and everything one says must be abstract and hypothetical."

"Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two things I don't want to do."

"Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast."

"Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another."

"Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming."

"Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation. . . is. The rush of the thought is always so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. [Introspective analysis] is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."

"Let everything you do be done as if it makes a difference."

"Let me repeat once more that a man's vision is the great fact about him."

"Let no youth have nay anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out."

"Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet."

"Life defies our phrases, it is infinitely continuous and subtle and shaded, whilst our verbal terms are discrete, rude and few."

"Life is one long struggle between conclusions based on abstract ways of conceiving cases, and opposite conclusions prompted by our instinctive perception of them."

"Man can alter his life by altering his thinking."