William James: Son, Brother, Hero

The quick-silver mind of William James — “incandescent, tormented, mercurial” were his wife’s words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience — leaps off the page of Robert Richardson’s new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson; to be with him is to feel the glow of his “minds on fire.” In William James’s case it’s the reckless, ever-experimental energy, what novelist Henry James remembered from boyhood as “my brother’s signal vivacity and cordiality, his endless spontaneity of mind.”

Just to remind you, James was first among the Harvard faculty giants a century ago, a man who’d tutored Teddy Roosevelt, W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein, a famous international lecturer who also dabbled in drugs and mind-bending gases and who, on his death-bed asked his brother Henry to linger in Cambridge for 6 weeks post-mortem, to receive if possible William’s messages from the next world.

Beyond his imprint on canonical learning and common understanding of psychology, philosophy and the study of religion, Robert Richardson writes: “James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and Emerson.”

Robert Richardson says there will always be three reasons to reacquaint ourselves with William James. I would add two more. Please add your own below.

1. James fathered the study of “consciousness,” about the same time Freud (a passing acquaintance) was developing the unconscious. James conceived of mind as a living stream of activity. His emphasis was on the action in consciousness, inseparable from the physiology and chemistry of the individual brain. The elementary fact of mental life “is not thought, or this thought or that thought, but my thought.” James is the source point of the cognitive sciences and the widespread study today of “how the mind works.”

2. William James was the philosopher of “Pragmatism,” i.e. the now old-fashioned American argument that the truth is something that happens to an idea; that the truth of something is the sum of its actual results. As in his psychology (where he argued: the child is not crying because she’s unhappy; she’s unhappy because she is crying), Pragmatism put the focus on the “fruits, not the roots” of ideas and feelings. President McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines, for example, demonstrated American Imperialism to be a Bad Idea:

… during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked… The most sanguine expect no real assimilation of our prey to us or of us to our prey for fifty years to come, and no one who knows history expects that it can genuinely come at all.

William James, Address on the Phillipine Question, December,1903

3. James was the re-inventor of religion, most especially for the multitudes (then and now) itching to loosen the authority of church and dogma. James created the modern universe of religious studies by shifting the focus from saints, scriptures and creeds toward the actual experiences of individuals — both common and peculiar.

4. As the son and brother of two remarkable Henry Jameses (Sr. and Jr.), William is a human study of endless interest. Growing up in the “gleeful anarchy and high-toned hilarity” of a rich, over-gifted family, eldest-son William felt pressure from his noisy, peripatetic father to be a scientist, and from himself to be an artist. He wrote in a letter from Germany at 16: “I will be prepared for everything.” Will we ever grasp how these James boys (the Good James Boys, as opposed to Frank and Jesse, their contemporary Bad James Boys) came to their enthusiastic mastery of multi-lingual reading, non-stop writing, distillation, argument and style? Richardson is brilliant on another personal secret: the process by which William, near suicide in his mid-twenties, “turned trouble into insight and self-loathing into energy.” James himself wrote later: “Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up.”

5. As a prose stylist, William today is arresting, fresh, original and quotable as he ever was — quite as perfect for his own purposes as was Henry, the beloved brother that William never stopped needling for his wordy abstractions in fiction. William James’s sentences have the sound of a man’s voice teaching — and of family-friend Emerson’s rockets going off. As, for example, in the line drawn against Platonism in his essay, “The Stream of Consciousness”:

…A permanently existing ‘Idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.

William James, The Stream of Consciousness, 1892

When Jimmy Carter in the oil shortage of the 1970s called for “the moral equivalent of war” against a ruinous energy addiction, he was of course drawing on one of William James’s most eloquent, uttlerly ageless essays, a sweeping denunciation of war and at the same time, a paean to military values:

…History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizens being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

…All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party. But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built — unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths, fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a centre of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, 1910

I think of William James as he thought of John Stuart Mill, “whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.” Or, as the philosopher George Santayana thought of his colleague. William James, Santayana said,

…kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, wizards, cranks, quacks and imposters… He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him…. Thus, William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full.

George Santayna, Winds of Doctrine, quoted in Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 160.

I think of William James, in short, as our mightiest, most inclusive American mind, still amongst us with an almost neighborly familiarity. Where shall the conversation begin?

Robert Richardson

Author, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Extra Credit Reading
Matt Asay, Open source: pragmatism buys in, InfoWorld, January 28, 2007: “I know I find open source in everything, but it seems to me to be a perfect rendering of James’ pragmatism. It’s not about the theory behind open source that matters. The only thing that matters is the output. That output makes me think that open source is “true” in the Jamesian sense.”Paul Vitols, searching for beliefs, Genesis of a Historical Novel, March 30, 2007: “Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I’m writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James’s view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I’m aware of them or not.”

William F. Valicella, Suggestions for Writing Well Part One: The Example of William James, Maverick Philosopher, January 16, 2007: “To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books. If you carefully read, say, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, you will learn something of the expository potential of the English language from a master of thought and expression.”

Gabriel, Gabriel’s LiveJournal, The Older, Cooler Brother, March 3, 2007:

“I’ll just leave you with these facts to explain why William James is so awesome:

* The Principles of Psychology are really just the notes William James made when he invented the brain.

* William James’s stare is ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’

* William James doesn’t write books, he stares down his brother Henry until Henry takes dictation.

* Anytime you experience anything, William James experiences it, too.

* William James’s fists cure stupidity, too bad he’s a pacifist.”

Jonah Lehrer, A Console to Make You Wiip, Seed Magazine, November 16, 2006: “To understand how the Wii turns Zelda into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by the great American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body.”

Diego Saa, Out of Self: Day 247., Teachable alcoholic, January 17, 2007: “Anyway, it has been an exceptional week so far, and for that I’m grateful to God. We’ve got a book reading club going with my homegroup and some of us are currently reading William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s proving to be quite a reaffirming experience to me; in that my personal belief of a Higher Power is predicated upon tangible phenomena.”

Mike Lynch, The Varieties of Religious Experience, PrawnWarp’s LiveJournal, November 29, 2006: “James, as an old-fashioned psychologist, is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of religion by its adherents. It’s his patience with the effusions of the revival-tent Methodist, the Mind-Cure movement and various mystics which I think would drive Dawkins to distraction. It tries my patience, and James is continually apologising for the imposition on his auditors of yet another excerpt from a tract or pamphlet; but the source documents are fascinating, and often hilarious.”

Maureen Ryan, A graduate seminar on Milch-ology: The creator of ‘Deadwood’ speaks, The Watcher, January 13, 2007: “Here’s what Milch said in response to a question about where he drew his inspiration from: ‘William James — and several of the actors have attempted to take their lives in the aftermath of my protracted speaking about William James.'”

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  • hurley

    Chris says: 5. As a prose stylist, William today is arresting, fresh, original and quotable as he ever was — quite as perfect for his own purposes as was Henry, the beloved brother that William never stopped needling for his wordy abstractions in fiction.

    William on brother Henry (approximately): “He can do everything to a story but tell it.”

    I look forward to the show.

  • nother

    “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.”

    Great quote by James

  • nother

    Reading James write about “streams of consciousness” I keep thinking about the description of John Coltrane’s music as “sheets of sound.” The melodies are the perches or “substantive” and in between we experience the “transitive” He describes them: “The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest.” If that’s not the Trane, I don’t know what is.

    James tells us that we tend to focus too much on the substantive or I would say melody and not enough on the places in-between.

  • mynocturama

    I recall something James said, something along the lines of, You have as many social selves as there are people you meet.

    Actually, the exact quote goes:

    A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.

  • ‘Trane n’ James? Now that’s a sweet and unexpected spot.

    I wanted to say something but now see that I’ll just have to think on it some more, go into the Trane listening booth and the James reading carrel for a little while longer…

  • A recent book centered on James is Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum. It’s fascinating although remote from how James is remembered today.

  • BB

    How strange — I just heard about William James in a class last week (really, someone just quoted him, it wasn’t about him) so I looked him up on the web. Odd that I would come across this show, having just learned about him for the first time. Synchronicity …

    Here’s a quote that caught my eye:

    You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your

    dominate aspiration. —William James

  • jonallen

    BB, What a great James quote to land on. You have a discriminating eye.

    How about this James quote: simple but poignant.

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

  • jonallen

    Chris & Company,

    Another Fascinating author to discuss in Warming Up would be Olaf Stapledon.

    A friend of H. G. Wells, he was a brilliant Science Fiction author himself, having penned “First and Last Men”, “Starmaker”, “Odd John” and “Sirius”. He was gregarious with a great many scientists of his day, and it shows in his amazingly savvy fictions about mankind, evolution, earth and our universe. Most of our best Science Fiction writers since his time have been greatly inspired by his imaginative and well researched writings. My wife and I just recently re-read all four of his novels, and they are just as stunning the 2nd time around.

    By the way- thanks for airing part of my blog entry on coral reefs. As a board member of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, I am acutely aware of the level of devestation, which restoration techniques actually help, and how little global will there is to do anything about it. If you want to know more, visit:


  • jazzman

    William James, one of my favorite philosophers, and personal influences, considered himself above all an “American” scientist and philosopher. He was by his own account often subject to bouts of depression (he called it melancholia) but despite its effect was one of the great avant-garde minds of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    He was particularly interested in the nature of democracy and the individual vis a vis the assault of Freudianism and Darwinism on Protestantism which he considered part and parcel with the American democratic zeitgeist. Those theories came to the fore during his later years and he was concerned by the conjoining of Freud’s deterministic views of the human psyche which were informed and justified by Darwin’s theory to survive at all costs. Freud’s thesis was that man is basically amoral, primitive and self-serving and these characteristics according to Darwin ensure a species’ survival by the exploitation of others in the endless battle for life.

    James worried that democracy which depended on cooperation for its survival, would use these theories to justify an “every man for himself” ruthless competition which would then necessitate a sort of government enforced morality to protect its citizens from their Freudian/Darwinian animal nature. This was the antithesis of the principles of Protestantism and Democracy.

    He wondered given the premise that “All men (and women) are created equal” how to reconcile the “natural” Freudian/Darwinian (which he rejected) animalistic tooth & claw survival struggle by which all creatures blindly attempt to achieve their evolutionary goals. Some would succeed by strength (violence) and cunning while others would fail. How then could equality exist among the disparate fitness of individuals and ensure the rights of the less fit aren’t trampled by those who are merely fulfilling their evolutionary “manifest destiny.”

    James concluded the answer was to believe in the unique identity or consciousness in every person that was analogous in religious terms to the “spirit or soul” or what his contemporary F.W.H. Myers termed the “Subliminal Self.” He visualized this inner self not as Freud’s id, but an always well intended force, never evil or neutral, which was equal to all other subliminal selves regardless of the persons’ actions in the world.

    It was this inner consciousness which he sought to study (despite his contemporaries’ mixed opinions) and prove its existence (becoming along with Myers and Emerson one of the first modern students of consciousness.) This attempt to unify the disparate beliefs of science, psychology, religion and democracy was among the reasons he delved into parapsychology, psychic phenomena and ghost hunting. He believed by applying pragmatic techniques to these phenomena he would relegate Freudian analysis (he viewed him as a religious fanatic in lay clothing) and Darwin’s competition among species theory which he considered a misapplication of the observed facts to the dustbin of history.

  • Oh, I love William James. I’m a historian of science, and the starting point for my dissertation research was the disconnect between the American psychology community’s reverence for James as their founding father and the absence of any real Jamesian psychology in the American tradition. I didn’t end up following that line too closely, but James still runs all through the background of my research.

    In addition to all the academic or intellectual reasons to be interested in James (many of which have already been very nicely articulated by other people in this comments thread), he’s fascinating on a more personal level as well–his long early years of being adrift between careers, his lifelong battle with depression, the incredible range of his curiosity. And it was always a joy to come across letters from James while doing archival work in other scholars’ papers, since his correspondence was always so full of life and personality.

  • David Weinstein

    I recently reread The Poetry Wreck by Karl Shapiro. The ambitions of that book are Jamesian in passionately grappling with big ideas that span poetry, art, politics, sociology and something like the state of the American psyche.

    Shapiro, who came of age in World War Two, was one of the last of the public intellectuls in America. Norman Mailer is another. Henry Miller, who Shapiro lauds is another (note his brilliant essays) But this breed of thinker is dying out.

    Is it because we post-moderns no longer believe that ideas, the pursuit of deep truths, have any bearing on life as we live it. Or that pursuit has any validity in of itself. Is there a silent desperation here that social forces are too great to be challenged by the inquiring mind? Or is it the carnage that competing ideologies of the last centuries wrought that has made us despair of the human ability to understand and create a betrer world or even a richer, more interesting one? Or is corporate culture so dominate today in our consumer/advertising driven society that deep thinking about who and what we are and can be has been overwhelmed by the medium cool of TV and the information overload of the cyber age?

    That is why I believe it is so reviving to ther spirit and the mind to revisit James, Thoreau and Emerson and these ‘public intellectuals’ who no one seems to take seriously anymore.

  • VeritasRox

    Pragmatism old fashioned?! What heresy! James’ philosophy lives on in the

    institutions he founded and inspired, and in the writings of his pupils and

    their followers. Through Dewey, we can connect James to the movement for

    progressive education. Through Du Bois, we can connect James to

    social reform and the ongoing American struggle for Civil Rights. Through Gertrude Stein, we can connect James to literary and artistic modernism. He’s everywhere!

    The truth is that William James is an inspiring intellectual. Professors who study his work,

    like Jim Kloppenberg at Harvard, often use his wisdom and experiences to

    guide their own pedagogical techniques. Demand for evidence, disdain for

    dogma, and a powerful belief in the life-giving value of inquiry are the Jamesian legacy, and that’s why he remains relevant and exciting to students and professionals of all sorts today.

  • paddy mckeag

    i wanted to add that there is a book by Jane Roberts(1929-1984) : “The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher : The World View of William James”. Prentice-Hall 1978 that might be of interest. His brother may not have made an “other world” connection at the time of his death – but Jane seems to have some years later.

  • davidgura

    Do this show already!

  • Richardson does a good job of being thorough yet engaging. If you think that William James’ prestige was partly derived from his attending Harvard Medical School, think again. Richardson shares with us the fact that Harvard Medical School in 1863 was openly and intentionally ostile to science. There were no grades and no written exams. Half the students can barely write! For the oral exam at the end of the year course, a student had only to pass 5 of 9 subjects. Richardson helps the reader fully understand the process of a pearl being formed from a grain of sand. Great book, so far– I’m barely halfway through it.

  • davidgura

    Harvard Medical School stil doesn’t grade students, steve02130.

  • LN

    Had coffee last week with one of WJ’s GenX offspring. Lovely guy. More phosphorescent than incandescent, but maybe that’s a fine point. Makes a graceful sport of chain-smoking, and (I’d say) pretty well ‘waked up’.

  • I’m really looking forward to this show–and keep up the great work ROS!

  • katemcshane

    At first, I wasn’t all that interested in William James, but I’ve read part of the Richardson book and I was surprised that I liked James very much. I have to admit, I have trouble with his writing style. Too many words. I love his passionate approach to everything, his vulnerability, his intelligence — I identified with him, actually, and I never expected to. I’ve taken it out of the library so much that I’ll probably buy the book. I hope you do the show soon, because I would like to hear Chris and Bob Richardson talk about this fascinating person.

    You know, there are so many people I would not pay much attention to if you didn’t bring them up. It’s great!

  • enhabit

    “The Moral Equivalent of War” rang an old bell, had to dig but found it. it has a familiar tone:

    “Thanks to the realistic ideas handed down by culture, mankind has survived and, in certain fields, progresses. But thanks to the pernicious nonsense drummed into every individual in the course of his acculturation, mankind, though surviving and progressing, has always been in trouble. History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity. And the hideous game goes on.

    What can, and what should, the individual do to improve his ironically equivocal relationship with the culture in which he finds himself embedded? How can he continue to enjoy the benefits of culture without, at the same time, being stupefied or frenziedly intoxicated by its poisons? How can he become discriminatingly acculturated, rejecting what is silly or downright evil in his conditioning, and holding fast to that which makes for humane and intelligent behavior?

    A culture cannot be discriminatingly accepted, much less be modified, except by persons who have seen through it—by persons who have cut holes in the confining stockade of verbalized symbols and so are able to look at the world and, by reflection, at themselves in a new and relatively unprejudiced way. Such persons are not merely born; they must also be made. But how?

    In the field of formal education, what the would-be hole cutter needs is knowledge. Knowledge of the past and present history of cultures in all their fantastic variety, and knowledge about the nature and limitations, the uses and abuses, of language. A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument. As a preparation for hole cutting, this kind of intellectual education is certainly valuable, but no less certainly insufficient. Training on the verbal level needs to be supplemented by training in wordless experiencing. We must learn how to be mentally silent, must cultivate the art of pure receptivity.

    Aldous Huxley

  • jdietz

    William James was the closest thing to a genius this country has produced.

  • davidgura

    Now that Richardson won the Bancroft, can you do the show?!

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  • Now that you’ve appraised Jamesian novel The Master , I may slip a toe into those cloudy waters. Reviews gave me the impression the book was drowning in somebody else’s tears.

    But I’d prefer Michael Chambon in the movie.