50 Instructive William James Quotes

William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist. He holds the distinction of being the first professor to teach a course in psychology in America. He is regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the 19th century and the “Father of American psychology.”

James had an extraordinary mind, and he learned many different subjects. He studied physiology, although he studied it because his father wanted him to be a doctor. When James realized this was not what he wanted to do, he changed his focus to psychology and the nervous system.

James went through a period of what might now be diagnosed as major depression, and he was tormented with thoughts of suicide. However, he recovered and began seriously studying the new discipline of experimental psychology. He was a leader in the field, but he disliked labwork and soon changed his focus again. During his time as an educator at Harvard, he taught many leaders and influential people. His work remains important even in the 21st century.

The Best William James Quotes

  1. “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
  2. “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
  3. “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
  4. “There is nothing so absurd that it cannot be believed as truth if repeated often enough.”
  5. “The greatest discovery of the 20th Century is that our attitude of mind determines our quality of life, not circumstances.”
  6. “Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.”
  7. “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.”
  8. “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”
  9. “We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.”
  10. “A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.”
  11. “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
  12. “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”
  13. “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”
  14. “If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.”
  15. “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.”
  16. “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
  17. “Philosophy is an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.”
  18. “..It is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.”
  19. “A sense of humor is just common sense dancing.”
  20. “To kill time is not murder, it’s suicide.”
  21. “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
  22. “When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable.”
  23. “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”
  24. “Positive images of the future are a powerful and magnetic force… They draw us on and energize us, give us courage and will to take on important initiatives. Negative images of the future also have a magnetism. They pull the spirit downward in the path of despair.”
  25. “The good we do today becomes the happiness of tomorrow.”
  26. “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”
  27. “The theorizing mind tends always to the over-simplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.”
  28. “Formula to live your dream: 1. Be bold. 2. Begin now, 3. No exceptions.”
  29. “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 entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are all there in all their completeness . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
  30. “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
  31. “The mind is made up by what it feeds upon.”
  32. “A solemn state of mind is never crude or simple—it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution. A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to which we intimately consent.”
  33. “Actions seems to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”
  34. “It would probably astound each of us beyond measure to be let into his neighbor’s mind and to find how different the scenery was there from that of his own.”
  35. “Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part, be it objective or subjective, of the world of facts.”
  36. “We forget that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort. We postpone and postpone until those smiling possibilities are dead… By neglecting the necessary concrete labor, by sparing ourselves the little daily tax, we are positively digging the graves of our higher possibilities.”
  37. “You can alter your life by altering the state of your mind.”
  38. “In our Father’s house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation.”
  39. “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own mind.”
  40. “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly.”
  41. “Your hopes, dreams and aspirations are legitimate. They are trying to take you airborne, above the clouds, above the storms, if you only let them.”
  42. “At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?”
  43. “Do something everyday for no other reason than 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.”
  44. “There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.”
  45. “I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist, the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution.”
  46. “Man lives in only one small room of the enormous house of his consciousness.”
  47. “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.”
  48. “Circumstance does not make me, it reveals me.”
  49. “Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for a better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities.”
  50. “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.”
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William James was one of the most influential psychologists in America. His seminal work in psychology influences the field even today. More than that, James was an extraordinary educator who led the 19th-century effort in experimental psychology. While his work may be a bit difficult to read, it is enlightening and deeply meaningful because of his personal experience with depression.

We hope you can use these 50 instructive William James quotes to guide you when life is difficult. His personal knowledge of anguish led him to lead us all into modern psychology.

Image Credit: “William James” by Psychology Pictures is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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