Quotations by James, William


Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
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If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
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The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, 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 or empty quacks.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“Robert Gould Shaw: Oration upon the Unveiling of the Shaw Monument” (31 May 1897)
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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884)
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The details vanish in the bird’s-eye view; but so does the bird’s-eye view vanish in the details.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Importance of Individuals,” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
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An unlearned carpenter of my acquaintance once said in my hearing: “There is very little difference between one man and another, but what little there is is very important.” This distinction seems to me to go to the root of the matter. It is not only the size of the difference which concerns the philosopher, but also its place and its kind.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Importance of Individuals,” The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
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There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions once for all are such, and we can stand it. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this campaigning life at all, — this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. It may end by seeming shameful to all of us that some of us have nothing but campaigning, and others nothing but unmanly ease.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906)
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At the present day, civilized opinion is a curious mental mixture. The military instincts and ideals are as strong as ever, but they are confronted by reflective criticisms which sorely curb their ancient freedom. Innumerable writers are showing up the bestial side of military service. Pure loot and mastery seem no longer morally allowable motives, and pretexts must be found for attributing them solely to the enemy.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906)
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Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906)
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History is a bath of blood.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906)
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If you ask what these experiences are, they are conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Pragmatic Method”, Address, Philosophical Unon of the University of California (26 Aug 1898)

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Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions. Intellect, will, taste, and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs; and lucky it is if the passion be not something as petty as a love of personal conquest over the philosopher across the way.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1882)
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To preach skepticism to us as a duty until “sufficient evidence” for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Will to Believe” (1896)
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Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“The Will to Believe” (1896)
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The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours.

James - non-interference - wist_info quote

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“What Makes a Life Significant,” Lecture, Harvard (1899)

Reprinted in Talks to Teachers on Psychology, Part 2, Lecture 3.
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Every Jack sees in his own particular Jill charms and perfections to the enchantment of which we stolid onlookers are stone-cold. And which has the superior view of the absolute truth, he or we? Which has the more vital insight into the nature of Jill’s existence, as a fact? Is he in excess, being in this matter a maniac? or are we in defect, being victims of a pathological anesthesia as regards Jill’s magical importance? Surely the latter; surely to Jack are the profounder truths revealed; surely poor Jill’s palpitating little life-throbs are among the wonders of creation, are worthy of this sympathetic interest; and it is to our shame that the rest of us cannot feel like Jack. For Jack realizes Jill concretely, and we do not. He struggles toward a union with her inner life, divining her feelings, anticipating her desires, understanding her limits as manfully as he can, and yet inadequately, too; for he also is afflicted with some blindness, even here. Whilst we, dead clods that we are, do not even seek after these things, but are contented that that portion of eternal fact named Jill should be for us as if it were not. Jill, who knows her inner life, knows that Jack’s way of taking it — so importantly — is the true and serious way; and she responds to the truth in him by taking him truly and seriously, too. May the ancient blindness never wrap its clouds about either of them again! Where would any of us be, were there no one willing to know us as we really are or ready to repay us for our insight by making recognizant return? We ought, all of us, to realize each other in this intense, pathetic, and important way.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
“What Makes a Life Significant?” Lecture, Harvard (1900)
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The best use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts life.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)
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Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)
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A great many people think they are thinking, when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)
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Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)
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To change one’s life: Start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions, no excuses.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)

Not found with any citation other than being later in his life. The quotation is found with a variety of punctuation.
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When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.

james-itself-a-choice-wist_info-quote

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed)
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Be willing to have it so; acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed) (1879?)
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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
(Attributed) (1890?)
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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
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Her only test of probably truth is what works best inthe wya of leading us, what fits every part of life best and comines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture 2, “What Pragmatism Means” (1907)

Full text."Her" is "Pragmatism." Often paraphrased as "Truth is what works."
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I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture 3 “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered” (1907)

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Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 19 (1890)
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The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 22 (1890)
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There is no more miserable human being that one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 4 (1890)

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The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 4 (1890)

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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, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 4 (1890)
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An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be chosen out of several all equally possible.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Principles of Psychology, ch. 9 (1890)
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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. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, “Habit” (1890)
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There is no more contemptible type of human character that that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, ch. 4 “Habit” (1890)
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This chapter originally published in Popular Science Monthly (Feb 1887).
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Romeo wants Juliet as the filings want the magnet; and if no obstacles intervene he moves towards her by as straight a line as they. But Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against its opposite sides like the magnet and the filings with the card. Romeo soon finds a circuitous way, by scaling the wall or otherwise, of touching Juliet’s lips directly. With the filings the path is fixed; whether it reaches the end depends on accidents. With the lover it is the end which is fixed, the path may be modified indefinitely.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Principles of Psychology, ch. 1 “The Scope of Psychology” (1890)

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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Principles of Psychology, ch. 4 (1890)
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The saints, existing in this way, may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, 14 and 15 (1902)
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If things are ever to move upward, someone must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try nonresistance as the saint is always willing can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldy prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But nonresistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
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We never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, 14 and 15 (1902)
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There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience … that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings ….

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1 “Religion and Neurology” (1902)
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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 3 “The Reality of the Unseen” (1902)
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We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. … You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14 & 15 “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14 and 15 “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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A genuine first-hand religious experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14 and 15, “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. 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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14-15 “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system. The ecclesiastical spirit in general is the sum of these two spirits of dominion.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14-15 “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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The religious experience which we are studying is that which lives itself out within the private breast. First-hand individual experience of this kind has always appeared as a heretical sort of innovation to those who witnessed its birth. Naked comes it into the world and lonely; and it has always, for a time at least, driven him who had it into the wilderness …

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 14-15 “The Value of Saintliness” (1902)
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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. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 6-7 “The Sick Soul” (1902)
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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!”

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to Alice Gibbons James (1878)
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Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging of an uncompleted task.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to Carl Stumpf (1 Jan 1886)
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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.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to E.L. Godkin (24 Dec 1895)

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The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to H.G. Wells (11 Sep 1906)
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I now perceive one immense omission in my Psychology,– the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated, and I left it out altogether from the book, because I had never had it gratified till now.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to his class at Radcliffe College (6 Apr 1896)

The class had sent a potted azalea at Easter.
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I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in a little hotel where I slept in the dusty fields. The young man of the house shot a little wolf called coyote in the early morning. The little heroic animal lay on the ground, with his big furry ears, and his clean white teeth, and his little cheerful body, but his little brave life was gone. It made me think how brave all living things are. Here little coyote was, without any clothes or house or books or anything, with nothing to pay his way with, and risking his life so cheerfully — and losing it — just to see if he could pick up a meal near the hotel. He was doing his coyote-business like a hero, and you must do your boy-business, and I my man-business bravely, too, or else we won’t be worth as much as a little coyote.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to his son from the Yosemite Valley (28 Aug 1889)

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Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger. Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to W. Lutoslawski (6 May 1906)
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Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
Letter to W. Lutoslawski (6 May 1906)
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