About William James

William.James (1842 – 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labeled him the “Father of American psychology”.  Wikipedia

References:   Encyclopaedia Britannica   |    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


William James (quotes)

Principles for living



  • “Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.”
  • “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.”
  • “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 don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.”

Embracing life

  • “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
  • “This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it.”
  • “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.”
  • “To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life.”
  • “Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.”

Making a start

  • “In the dim background of mind we know what we ought to be doing but somehow we cannot start.”
  • “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. Make a start, just a little one.”


  • “Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.”
  • “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action 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.”
  • “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.”
  • “Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”
  • “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
  • “No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.”


  • “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”
  • “Man can change his life simply by changing his attitude.”
  • “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.”
  • “Success or failure depends more upon attitude than upon capacity successful men act as though they have accomplished or are enjoying something. Soon it becomes a reality. Act, look, feel successful, conduct yourself accordingly, and you will be amazed at the positive results.”
  • “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.”
  • “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”


  • “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”


  • “The path to cheerfulness is to sit cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”


  • “Be willing to have it so; acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”
  • “At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.”
  • “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.”


  • “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.”


  • “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
  • “Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
  • “Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought.”
  • “Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.”
  • “Why should we think upon things that are lovely? Because thinking determines life. It is a common habit to blame life upon the environment. Environment modifies life but does not govern life. The soul is stronger than its surroundings.”


  • “A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”
  • “An idea, to be suggestive, must come to the individual with the force of revelation.”
  • “First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”
  • “The ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives.”
  • “All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience.”


  • “’Pure experience’ is the name I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.”
  • “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

Making a difference

  • “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
  • “If things are ever to move upward, some one must take the first step, and assume the risk of it.”


  • “Those thoughts are truth which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not.”
  • “Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs pass, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.”
  • “We never fully grasp the import of any true statement until we have a clear notion of what the opposite untrue statement would be.”
  • “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.”
  • “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”
  • “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.”
  • “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 art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”


  • “Wherever you are it is your own friends who make your world.”
  • “Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendships and intimacies. . . 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.”


  • “All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish.”

Living in the present

  • “Let any one 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 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.”

Creating a legacy

  • “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”


  • “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.”


  • “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”


  • “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.”
  • “The squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”


  • “To be conscious means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one’s being added to that being.”


  • “The aim of a college education is to teach you to know a good man when you see one.”

Unity and connection

  • “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
  • “Our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest, which co-mingle their roots in the darkness underground.”


  • “Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.”

Rest and leisure

  • “Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not.”


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


  • “Most of us can learn to live in perfect comfort on higher levels of power. Everyone knows that on any given day there are energies slumbering in him or her which the incitements of that day do not call forth.  Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, deeper and deeper strata of explosible material, ready for use by anyone who probes so deep.  The human individual usually lives far within his or her limits. ”
  • “Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make very small use of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a person who, out of his or her whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his or her little finger.”
  • “If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.”
  • “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”


  • “Most people never run far enough on their first wind, to find out if they’ve got a second. Give your dreams all you’ve got, and you’ll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.”

Humor and laughter

  • “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing. ”
  • “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.”
  • “One hearty laugh together will bring enemies into a closer communion of heart than hours spent on both sides in inward wrestling with the mental demon of uncharitable feeling.”


  • “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual; the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”


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


  • “When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome.”
  • “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”
  • “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”

Know what you want

  • “If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it.”


  • “It is an odd circumstance that neither the old nor the new, by itself, is interesting; the absolutely old is insipid; the absolutely new makes no appeal at all. The old in the new is what claims the attention,—the old with a slightly new turn.”


  • “Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”


  • “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can…in the acquisition of a new habit, we must take car to launch ourselves with as strong and decided initiative as possible. Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life.”


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


  • “Belief creates the actual fact.”
  • “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
  • “Our belief at the beginning of a doubtful undertaking is the one thing that ensures the successful outcome of the venture.”
  • “The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”
  • “What the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise.”
  • “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”


  • “There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.”


  • “A paradise of inward tranquility seems to be faith’s usual result.”
  • “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”
  • “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.”
  • “Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.”
  • “The most any one can do is to confess as candidly as he can the grounds for the faith that is in him, and leave his example to work on others as it may.”
  • “To leap across an abyss, one is better served by faith than doubt.”


  • “Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge.”


  • “Freedom is only necessity understood.”


  • “Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “What concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

Human challenges and shortcomings



  • “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”


  • “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.”
  • “The sovereign cure for worry is prayer.”


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


  • “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”


  • “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.”


  • “Nothing is as fatiguing as the eternal, hanging on of an uncompleted task.”


  • “The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.”

Illusion and falsehood

  • “There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”
  • “There is nothing so absurd that it cannot be believed as truth if repeated often enough.”

The need for certainty

  • “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”


  • “Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.”


  • “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. ”

Thoughts on …



  • “At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.”
  • “Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man. The churches have constituted themselves the official guardians of the need, with the result that some of them actually pretend to accord or to withhold it from the individual by their conventional sacraments.”
  • “Religion is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.”
  • “Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”
  • “Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”
  • “Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge.”
  • “Prayer is the very soul and essence of religion.”

Spirituality and mysticism

  • “Spiritual energy flows in and produces effects in the phenomenal world.”
  • “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.  This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed.”
  • “To be conscious means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one’s being added to that being.”
  • “I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”
  • “The second feature is the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid, as Professor Leuba says; and often, nay usually, the solution is more or less unutterable in words. But these more intellectual phenomena may be postponed until we treat of mysticism.”
  • “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.”


  • “Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits.”
  • “Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices.”
  • “There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.”
  • “To be a real philosopher all that is necessary is to hate some one else’s type of thinking.”
  • “What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise although the philosophers generally call it recognition!”
  • “For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”


  • “Our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. Our scientific temper is devout.”
  • “Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.”
  • “All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods.”
  • “Man lives for science as well as bread.”


  • “History is a bath of blood.”


  • “The difference between the first and second-best things in art absolutely seems to escape verbal definition — it is a matter of a hair, a shade, an inward quiver of some kind — yet what miles away in the point of preciousness!”


  • “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
  • “The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in.”


  • “I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences.”
  • “If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door.”
  • “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.”


  • “I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.”
  • “Inferiority is always with us, and merciless scorn of it is the keynote of the military temper.”


  • “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.”


  • “Democracy is still upon its trial. The civic genius of our people is its only bulwark.”

Final thoughts

  • “A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.”
  • “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.”
  • “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”
  • “If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.”
  • “Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.”
  • “Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him.”
  • “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
  • “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”
  • “There is an organic affinity between joyousness and tenderness, and their companionship in the saintly life need in no way occasion surprise.”
  • “We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause.”
  • “We are doomed to cling to a life even while we find it unendurable.”
  • “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, never to be undone.”
  • “Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use. No faith in anything of that cheap kind!”
  • “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.”
  • “With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do.”
  • “Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.”