ISBN: 1-891340-81-6

William James: The Psychology of Possibility With John J. McDermott, Ph.D.

Institutional DVD price: $ 250.00


William James, more than anyone else, was responsible for introducing the wide range of topics that now comprise the broad field of psychology. In his magnificent text, The Principles of Psychology, he explored and expanded what was then known about neuroscience, cognition, emotion, perception, and behavior and left a legacy of inquiry into the workings of human experience that still fuels this social science.

This film presents some of James’s most important formulations, including his discussions of habit, consciousness, will, and religious experience with current live-action illustrations. Dr. McDermott's commentary reminds viewers that James's work also prods us to lead our own individual lives with courage, openess to possibilities and awareness to what James referred to as the "fringe" of experience. This fringe includes the hunches, un-expressible feelings, and haunting memories that influence our thoughts and actions.

An interview with a young recovering alcoholic and an account of James’s own struggle with suicidal depression make this film an emotionally moving experience as well as an instructional one for students.






Review 1

"The DVD William James: The Psychology of Possibility explores the psychology of American thinker William James and its originary importance for the study of psychology in the United States. The central theme of the film is that James, from the beginning, incorporated both hard-core empirical investigation and humanistic study of human experience, attempting to show the interrelatedness of brain activity and the construction of our everyday lives. The implicit suggestion of the project is that a return to James’s holistic approach might be useful for the study of psychology in the 21st century.

"The narrative of the DVD was written and is presented by John J. McDermott of Texas A&M University, leading scholar of the history of American philosophy and of the work of William James. The narrative is clearly written and engagingly presented, and it provides an excellent introduction both to James’s life and to James’s study of psychology. Throughout the film, McDermott is attentive to James’s balancing of psychology’s ability to provide a theoretical account of the human animal’s basic workings and its ability to provide practical possibilities for the construction of our own personal and social lives."

- Douglas R. Anderson, Ph.D.
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Former Editer of The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society and Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Review 2

“William James: The Psychology of Possibility” packs substantive considerations of the great thinker’s work in psychology and his focus on experience. John J. McDermott, the preeminent James scholar of our time, leads the viewer not only through important concepts but also through the context in which those concepts arose within James himself. If this were not enough to make for edifying material, the film goes further, in true Jamesian fashion, to discuss and demonstrate the practical usefulness of those concepts—how they affect experience, attitudes, and behaviors.

His work in psychology permeates the many other disciplines in which James partook—philosophy, religious philosophy, even proto-sociology. But this film, goes further, rightly placing his psychology front-and-center, not only in the relation to his own work but to the history of psychology itself.

We should all look forward to the next natural step: a film focused up James’s philosophy of radical empiricism and pragmatism."

--D. Micah Hester, PhD
President (2011-12), William James Society
Co-author (with Rob Talisse) of On James: Philosophy as Vision (2004)
Author of End-of-life Care and Pragmatic Decision Making: A Bioethical Perspective (2010)

Review 3

John J. McDermott's presentation of William James in this film is masterful. Drawing on a long and distinguished career during which he has taught American philosophy and served as a principal editor of James's published works and correspondence, McDermott serves up what is unquestionably the best introduction to James's psychology currently available. This film is ideally suited for classroom use, as well as for presentations to the general public.

"William James: The Psychology of Possibility" draws on the best current scholarship regarding James's early emotional crises, his complex family and professional relationships, and his long and productive career. We learn how James's contributions to the field of psychology, revolutionary in his own time, have continuing relevance to some of our most pressing contemporary problems, such as addictive behavior.

The key concepts of James's psychology – habit, the stream of consciousness, and freedom of will – are explained in terms that are both readily accessible and illustrated with the type of imaginative and aesthetically rich visual material that we have come to expect from Davidson's award winning films. I know of no clearer and more evocative introduction to the psychology of William James."

-Larry A. Hickman, Ph.D.
The Center for Dewey Studies
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Review 4

"It's a very impressive job, wonderful commentary by Dr. John J. McDermott and fine production values. I enjoyed it a lot and thought it very intelligently selective."

- Robert D. Richardson, Ph.D.
Author of William James: In the Maestrom of American Modernism (2007) and editor of The Heart of William James (2010)

Review 5

"William James: The Psychology of Possibility is an artful film, an ideal introduction to the American psychologist and philosopher for students and the general public alike. It is comprehensive, providing summaries of his family and upbringing, and of his theories, especially in psychology. And it is a modern model of public intellectual work about an inspirational public intellectual, integrating clear images with the recounting of substantial ideas. This rich combination includes James’s own drawings and diary entries during his own struggles to overcome his youthful troubles with assertion of will. The film then seamlessly flows to his psychology texts about the role of the will and habit in human experiences, and then to illustration of these theories with people enacting these ideas, with an example of a potter at work to illustrate the creative quest for meaning, an alcoholic to describe phases of the “sick soul,” and even shoe tying and other ordinary slices of contemporary multitasking life to display the power of habit.

James would be proud of the smooth pedagogical delivery with, for example, quotations about consciousness read while the camera focuses on flowing water: thoughts are not leaves on the brook, but like the water flowing. Professor John McDermott, a master of both the works of James and the art of teaching, hosts the film, and he summarizes its message—and James’s—beautifully by referring to the pioneering psychologist’s close attention to experience, neurologically driven but open to willful action, reflecting both the commonalities and the individual differences in human nature. Patterns endure, but novelties pierce through, and thus so do possibilities. This film has the chance to excite students about the power of psychology to assess human behavior, and like James, come to better understanding of themselves."

-Paul J. Croce
Professor of American Studies and History,
Director of the Stetson Student Research in Science and Religion (2SR) Program,
Director of Stetson American Studies International (SASI),
President of the William James Society 2009-2010,, and organizer of the Society Symposium, In the Footsteps of William James, August 13-16, 2010, cosponsored with the Chocorua (NH) Community Association and Harvard’s Houghton library in conjunction with its James Centennial Exhibition, “Life is in the Transitions.”

For virtual visits, go to for photos of the event for more information for the Harvard exhibition

Review 6

"I highly recommend this filmed overview of the work of William James, one of American’s most original, influential, wide-ranging geniuses. Professor John McDermott is the perfect writer and narrator; he has been a devoted, meticulous James scholar for fifty years and not only understands the wealth and breadth of the published materials, he is uniquely qualified to put the work into historical perspective and to show how James’ profound insights into the human psyche still illuminate and stimulate the fields of philosophy and psychology. James showed clearly how we undergo life’s actualities at the same time that we experience life’s possibilities; for this and other related observations he is said to be both the father of American pragmatism and the father of American existentialism. This visually beautiful, intellectually provocative film will provide professional scholars as well as generally curious viewers with an introduction to James’ thought, with some preliminary problem-solving data, and quite likely with some personal inspiration."

-Bruce Wilshire, Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus), Rutgers University;
Author of William James and Phenomenology:
A Study of James’ ‘Principles of Psychology’

Review 7

Thank you and Professor McDermott for this wonderful gift of William James: The Psychology of Possibility. Over the past month, I have watched this film again and again as one does any excellent piece, gleaning more and more with each viewing.

Professor McDermott's scholarship and authority prove so easy and accessible from his armchair perch; yet he holds one's attention throughout on the three essential points of Jamesian psychology which he deems of fundamental importance: Habit and Consequences, Stream of Consciousness, and the role of Will (Volition). His Introduction to William James explores the influence of his familial background, multiple travels and his broad education as well as James' physical and mental health challenges as he stumbled into adulthood. Born of native genius and constant study, a restless mind disciplined by his training as a physician, James scrutinized the brain first neurologically. His keen observation led him from the laboratory to study human behavior in everyday life, while his deep humanity prompted his philosophical ruminations on Man's spiritual dimensions within this world-- and beyond. In his summary, McDermott reminds us that James crossed categories to forge his illuminating theories transcending both Psychology and Philosophy, his legacy coming down to us a century later still as vibrant and compelling as when first articulated in the Principles of Psychology (1890).

One has to applaud the successful and seamless collaboration of Professor McDermott's and Davidson Films to produce this most informative study. McDermott's clear narrative and outline are reinforced throughout by diverse photographic and epistolary reproductions; together with strong graphics keep the viewer engaged. Very helpful too are the pronounced labels bannered to introduce terms, demonstrations of Jamesian points in addition to individual interviews and re-enactments. McDermott's stress on fundamental concepts makes this video a valuable educational tool for any student of Psychology as well as for one focusing on William James in particular.

-Roberta A. Sheehan, Ph.D.
"Scholar of the work and life of William James"




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