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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