William James (1842-1910), one of the most influential American philosophers and psychologists, is best known for his contributions to the philosophy of pragmatism, philosophy of religion, and psychology. From 1873 until to his retirement in 1907, James taught at Harvard University, where many of the students he mentored later became prominent thinkers and writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois.
Describing himself as “a devoted follower of James at the time he was developing his pragmatic philosophy,” Du Bois studied under William James during his time at Harvard from 1888-1890. Du Bois recalls repeatedly dining with James at his home and sharing with him his own aspirations for pursuing an academic career in philosophy. James dissuaded him from doing so, however, warning Du Bois that there is “not much chance for anyone earning a living as a philosopher.”
Du Bois’s connection with James did not end after he graduated from Harvard, indeed James continued to keep in touch with Du Bois and watched the progression of his career. In 1907 James wrote to Du Bois: “I have just looked through the last installment of your studies on the American Negro. I wish the portraits might have been better printed. But it is splendid scientific work.” Just two years later in 1909, Du Bois asked James to serve on the board of an Encyclopedia Africana, and James agreed. The following year William James died. Decades later when Du Bois wrote his Autobiography, he remembered James as one of his most influential professors at Harvard, and consequently as an important influence on his early career.