William James is by all accounts a truly outstanding and original philosopher. He was, along with Schelling and Pierce, one of the founders of the pragmatist movement. According to James, truth was a matter of what works, but he left room in his pragmatism for substantial metaphysical inquiries. For example, neutral monism, which Bertrand Russell adopted enthusiastically across the pond.
Born in 1856 to a wealthy American family, William James was always in the shadow of his more talented brother Henry, who went on to become a novelist and short story writer of great note. At this time he started reflecting on the problems of philosophy, and no doubt was kindled some intimation of how these could be solved with pragmatic reflections. Kant and Aristotle had some good ideas but were arguably too rigid and abstract, and James's insight was to take those philosophers and rework them into a new set of ideas more in keeping with the emerging modern world.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that the pragmatic idea of truth dawned on James's mind. In a series of articles, he revolutionised the debate with his new idea. Pierce was also thinking of similar ideas but from a more formal mathematical perspective, and the two soon became fast friends. To this day people like to read both philosophers at the same time. John Dewey also made numerous appearances in James's life, even dropping in on social calls. Dewey went on to use pragmatism to invent a new system of catalogues for use in libraries, which many universities have retained down to the present day, and also experimented with children. Pragmatism truly was vital philosophy.
Later on, dissatisfied with his ideas about truth, William James became a notable scholar of religion and psychology, and produced such telling works as The Varieties of Religious Experience, which the European Wittgenstein carried with him during the war and told Russell (already mentioned) to read carefully. As far as we can tell, he never did.
I wanted to say something here about my own experience of this beautiful philosopher and his ideas. In grad school, I needed a topic for a paper and my supervisor said, as nothing more than an offhand remark, 'You seem to be interested in the concept of truth from a pragmatist perspective. You should have a read of William James's papers and books. Here's one to start off with.'
Whole new vistas of thought opened up before me that night. I thought 'Yes! If I prefer this idea and it works wonders for me, then what more do you want from philosophy! I should try to get this perspective into a fruitful collaboration with such more conservative hard-headed thinkers in the analytic tradition, such as Moore (defender of common sense) and Quine (who became a pragmatist shortly before he died).
I am still working to unravel the full implications of pragmatist thought. I have created an environment in my home town where scholars can come and borrow books, publish articles about James's rich legacy, and meet for discussion of his fascinating idea. Sometimes the truth really is what you make it!