William James: Vital modern thinker

I enjoy and admire William James very much, though of his books I have only read Pragmatism more or less properly, and that several years ago. Recently, I came across WJ’s essay, “Why is life worth living?” and found it firmly concerned with the issue dearest to me: what ought and can an individual contribute to human consciousness? Reading WJ more widely (if secondhand), it is thrilling to find that he beautifully bridges the 19th, 20th and 21 centuries.

I have now devoured Robert D Richardson’s intellectual biography: William James: In the maelstrom of American modernism (2006) which first pointed me to the essay. The book is enthusiastic but not a hagiography and from an author steeped in the Transcendental movement of Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson, itself a sort of extended family of progenitors for William James. Appropriately for an account of a neurotic, energetic, introspective extrovert, we learn as much about WJ’s medical and psychological travails and triumphs as we do about his thought and writing. But the last of those is properly explored and the Kindle version stands, I think, as a sort of concordance to WJ’s thought.

WJ was not the towering bossy sort of thinker and writer. Rather he and his works are usefully tentative. James seems always to hope to be prescriptive: he wants to lay down the law. But at every turn he shows himself to be living out for us the multiple fissures in his experience, thinking and feelings. I don’t think he is ever dogmatic. But he is also determined to be a readable author: he knows we want to know what he thinks and too much indecision or prevarication – too much conceding his opponents’ point of view – won’t help us.

Besides, WJ has a heartfelt wish. That is that there be some meaning to the transcendental. And that is closely allied to and conflicted by his belief that science shows that we experience the world through our bodily senses. What is left for the spirit in the Gradgrind world of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer? And above all: WJ seems to see that there is no evidence for a transcendental universal “other” with which we might commune.

The titles of his books tell much of his story. Richardson treats them in the order in which they appeared, but rightly says that the ideas behind them were at least sketched early in his authorial life. They can handily be seen as a progression beyond his early training as an American physiologist (concerned with the human body, including the brain). So the books cover “psychology” (a concern with the mind as a function of the physical brain in a physical body) and on to philosophy (how to verify the mind’s ideas). Perhaps only the first, The Principles of Psychology (1890), is a recognisable textbook but it lays the groundwork for WJ’s technical understanding. It impressed Husserl and is thought to have contributed to Continental Phenomenology’s formulation of the human experiential apparatus. WJ’s thoroughly speculative (or philosophical) books kick off with The Will to Believe (1894), followed byThe Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907) and A Pluralist Universe (1909). The psychology book had to come first: it is about some underpinning scientific facts as best they could be discerned at that time. The remaining four could be taken in any sequence and are full of the primacy of the human experience, its individuality; its stubborn devotion to varieties of faith; the need for thinking to be practical as well as pure.

James was not a controversialist in the modern manner of a guru author trying to get a followership or marketing traction. He did not hide from his readers the great arguments within himself, or the power of the authors who resonated with him and whom he loved to challenge.

WJ had a deep longing to believe that human life is an honourable, intelligent, active art of something big. The “will to believe” title is a pun.  It says both that people are driven to find a narrative which explains or justifies their lives and that our will-power can make something of our beliefs. WJ had a “will to believe” in spades: his whole thinking is wishful, as in replete in wishing. It was a great tonic to him that he thought, a little against the odds at times, that what we believe, we can enact. In discussing religious experience he leaves aside conventional accounts of conventional religions. He is interested in the “varieties of religious experience” as the simulacra for religion. In short, he is discussing how people experience their spiritual being in an age when traditional religion can seem formulaic or redundant. Where do they park or direct the ancient urge to partake in something beyond and bigger than the mortal coil of human life?

Pragmatism discusses what truth-seeking can live alongside both the dull expertise of strict scientists and the nihilistic logical positivism of philosophers. WJ dislikes science and philosophy for denying that the metaphysical has any meaning at all. Fighting back, William proffers the commonsensical view that if a proposition works – if it effectively describes some aspect of reality – we can call it true. Scientists will sneer that truth needs better proof than that and philosophers assert that many important matters can’t be formulated in discussable terms. WJ’s Pragmatism seeks to address both these concerns by saying scientists and philosophers seek a perfection that can miss the point that in our real lives and minds we have to work with less than perfect – but often, good-enough – data. Otherwise, we are paralysed. Doubt leading to inertia: one senses that this is what WJ most dreads. It is vital to remember that WJ did not have patients: he had not become a physician or a psychologist. But of his siblings all but one suffered extremely and William longed to offer them hope and relief, whilst hugely admiring his sister Alice’s positively classical stoicism.

WJ was interested in GM Beard’s American Nervousness (1881), an account of America as having the privilege of being advanced and therefore also of being neurasthenic, or neurotic. Beard’s. WJ believed that his whole family were thus afflicted, as indeed were any talented people.  Indeed, for centuries thinking people had unhitched themselves from this or that old certainty in the pursuit of rationality and perhaps for individuality too. WJ seems to have been very struck by the way that being profoundly unsettled was a prerequisite to intellectual or creative originality. Thinking so made him more comfortable with this family’s mental troubles.

The Transcendentalism of his father’s generation powerfully formed WJ from boyhood. As an adult the mental sufferings of his own siblings, his own troubles, and his wide reading of the new awareness of mental health as a medical issue were always in his mind. As much as he believed people could often influence their own being and outside events, he was also aware that learning to live with one’s ineffectiveness could be very fine and informative. His sister Alice, an important diarist, had every reason to long for easeful death, and seemed to William to give up on an obligation to life in a timely and brave fashion. WJ tells us a great deal about the workings of his mind, but so does Alice. They were both figures whose self-reporting on consciousness enlarge us, I think.     

All WJ’s books offer answers to real, pressing and serious concerns. They are all accessible to ordinary readers. The four speculative titles beg questions which matter almost as much as the answers they give. They do not fully answer some important doubts. Yes, WJ is right to say there is a will to believe and, yes, people can be empowered to achieve. But he is not good on the problem that bad people exercise these capacities as much as do good ones. Yes, he is right to say that perhaps workable truths are good enough for working purposes. But he does face up to the difficulty that without rigour dangerous half-truths will be elevated to bad purposes by manipulative bad people.

William James was not an original thinker, and only latterly and rather hopelessly hoped (with his radical pragmatism) to be the author of a full service bells and whistles comprehensive philosophy. Rather, he was a great and generous absorber – and disputer – of other men’s ideas.

James was not merely a cherry-picker and purloiner. He was from Family James, a little the way Boris Johnson has his own inheritance from his parents and his siblings. William James seems to have had one huge job to do: to reconcile the religious sense he inherited from his extraordinary father (Henry Snr) with what he had learnt as one of a younger generation of medical scientists who were discovering and discussing the connection between body, brain and mind.

 However, it seems to have taken young William much of his life to feel the full force of what he had learned from his father. As much as William responded warmly to the impression other people made on him, and acknowledged it, he was always caught in crosswinds. His father’s deep and eccentric take on human spirituality was never far from WJ’s mind and prejudices, but WJ seems to have taken comfort from the way in later life he was able more simply to feel what he owed his father. His version of progress was not to grow away from or beyond his father, but to more happily park his thinking alongside but separately from his father’s.

He became an experimental physiologist (dissecting anatomies) but always felt that science was narrow-minded and deluded when it claimed that what it didn’t yet know, it soon might and what it might never know wasn’t worth knowing. He became a psychologist at a time when that nascent study was trying to work out what could be shown about the mind’s relationship to the physiological. James thought that was vital work, but always insisted that the mind seemed to have secrets which no amount of biology would uncover. The mind might yet be found to be mystical or spiritual or connected to some universal mind or spirit.

One of the great illuminating oddities in James’s life and work was his constant preparedness to sympathetically explore spiritualism (as in, communication with the dead). He devoted vast amounts of time and energy to attending and analysing seances and so forth. This was not so much a matter of his wanting spiritualism to be genuine but rather of his conviction that human consciousness was a wonder and that it ill-behoved us to rule anything out. But nothing ever quite persuaded him about spiritualism: it always seemed to fail to get enough evidential eggs in its basket. Similarly, around the edges of his pragmatic “whatever works” approach to truth-seeking, he allows that experimental and intellectual validation is important to the enterprise of according validation to a proposition.

We need to address what James believed philosophically. Firstly he set great store in the notion that we only know the outside world from the evidence of our experience of it. He went on, as many other thinkers did then, to propose that reality might finally only consist in what we perceive of it. Mind and matter were not different from one another.

This sort of view made William James some sort of Phenomenologist (though that is a creed with many interpretations). It also made him a proto-postmodernist. Phenomenolgy held that we experience the world through our senses. It was necessarily unclear (we might reasonably add) about how we validate (or “know”) truths arising from these experiences. It happens that several leading phenomenologists and their followers were part of late 19th Century interest in religion. They seem to drift toward thinking that the universe was importantly spiritual and that even if our experience of it was primarily sensory, and perhaps because of it, we are as closely bound to the universe in its spirit as in its materiality. WJ was – or would have liked to be – firmly in that camp. It is at least possible that he could not bring himself quite to believe this end–to-end spirituality in the universe and its creature, man. Richardson seems sure that  WJ’s longing for it to be true was real, and that he clung strongly to the view that it might be. But WJ found no convenient, testable evidence of it.

For us now in the 21st Century the big problem about WJ’s thinking and longings are that the century since his death has shown us a very mixed bag of consequences of the realities and longings and thinking that he epitomised.

WJ, like Hegel and Nietzsche, and, later, Husserl and Heidegger, held a view which endorsed and even licensed a counter-revolution against the Enlightenment’s headline thought. The Enlightenment held that reasonable, rational humans, singly or severally, can usefully contribute to increasing the stock of knowledge about objective reality. That had been an intellectual tradition since at least the Renaissance but with growing force in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It was a tradition with enemies from the start, some of them religious. Indeed the very individualism of the 18th Century Enlightenment spawned another enemy of rationality, the Romantic movement, in which an individual’s sensibility was also significant. An individual endorsed truths with an active intelligence. But the increasing salience of the person applied as much to their feelings as their thoughts: the Romantics felt one must follow one’s heart as well as one’s mind, though both might be inconvenient to oneself or society.

It is a peculiarity that science should have produced the effect of providing its enemies with excellent ammunition for their assault. It was after all physiology and psychology which seemed to show that each of us builds the real world out of our perceptual apparatus. William James was a devout pluralist: he believed that one person’s experiences was as good as the next. He set his heart and his explanatory power against the idea that the real world was such that what was known about it could be codified by experts and that the rest of us should just do our best to equip ourselves to understand and therefore share their opinions, which they called proofs. He loved such proofs and searched for them. But he was almost as deeply suspicious of the spurious or narrow certainties which blinkered proof-seekers.

Nowadays we are familiar with the power of irrational beliefs, of echo-chamber thinking, of the imperative of “point of view”. We have all absorbed Derrida and Foucault. We all know well enough the history of ideological and demagogic tyrannies and may have thought their time had passed.  So what surprises us is that populism (nowadays often more devious than violent) seems quite able still to threaten representative democracy. And yet 1960s relativism grew neatly out of Phenomenolgy. A person can’t be told what his experiences are like and people have grown tired of what being told what to think. What’s more, people are being encouraged (not least by William James) that what they can imagine, they can will.

William James did not live long enough to see where his sort of willful, arbitrary individualism would take us. But in any case I don’t think it is right to say that he has simply turned out to be wrong. I think he was always often wrong. It should have been blindingly obvious to him that all the new freedoms of individualism – our freedom to believe, to validate our own “truths”, to make a personal impact – were promiscuous. There was no quality control over them. The Enlightenment had proposed a politics and culture in which these tendencies were both acknowledged and mediated. They were disciplined. It was Isaiah Berlin’s great insight to show how the Enlightenment’s kindly and intelligent reformism pivoted 180-degrees into revolutionism as the 18th spun into the 19 century. I don’t think there has been a similarly powerful single voice for the case that the Enlightenment’s individualism turned into a machine for demagoguery as the 20th morphed into the 21st. Similarly, whilst I do think William James was politically and culturally naive, I do see that he can hardly be blamed for not seeing what would happen to 1960s postmodernism when it was revved up by the new digital world.

In his own time and knowing its intellectual and scientific currents as well as he did, and granted his mission to a spiritual reading of Phenomenonolgy, William James pressed his optimistic case as far as he could and further than could be supported by academic philosophy – or by perhaps any philosophy worth the name. It is importantly typical of him that his very creed of pluralism saved him from himself. It also saved the Harvard philosophy department which he headed. His bete noir, protege, opponent, rival and close colleague there was Josiah Royce. At a crucial time late in William’s life, Royce was firmly arguing that the universe had some greater intelligence and being that constituted the Absolute. To have had the chance to hear and see William James lecture to the contrary, that human Pluralism was all we knew, would have been an immense privilege. WJ’s talks seem to have been at once theatrical and challenging, with their conversational tone and playful seriousness. If there was any doubt that WJ’s thinking held its own internal means of self-correction, the James-Royce double act made sure there was balance. And that was just fine by William James.


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Publication date

04 September 2022


Mind & body; On books