Overcomer of Inner and Outer Demons
INTRO: According to a 2006 biographer, James was "alarmingly open to new experiences," In a characteristically candid self-portrait, William James confessed that he raced around too much in a state of inner tension, preparing to engage and resist external stimuli: "left the present act inattentively done because I was pre-occupied with the next act, failed to listen etc. because I was too eager to speak, kept up when I ought to have kept down, been jerky, angular, rapid, precipitate, let my mind run ahead of my body etc. etc." Despite -- or because of -- this "buzzing blooming confusion," James, that "adorable genius," made dazzling contributions to psychology, philosophy, and the study of religion.
Various William Jameses, the biographer - Richardson - suggests, lived inside the man: As he willed himself into optimism, he was often sad, irritable, and depressed. But the "central" or "essential" James was an apostle of activity, spontaneity, doubt, chance, and chaos...
'Richardson stresses James's "uncanny ability to pick up redemptive ideas from his reading ." In 1870, when James's vocational plans were still unsettled, his first cousin, with whom he had fallen in love, died. James descended into a morbid depression. An essay on free will...he claimed, helped resolve the greatest crisis of his life: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."..."by reading books favorable to it."
Notice how after years as part of an academic establishment, he became an active member of the Anti-Imperialist League - one historian called him "leader of the anti-imperialist league" - opposing U. S. policy in Philippines! The league stated that: "We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their Government in times of grave National peril applies to the present situation. If an Administration may with impunity ignore the issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition of war anywhere on the face of the globe, debauch the civil service for spoils to promote the adventure, organize a truth-suppressing censorship and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgment and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the fighting, representative government itself is imperiled…." from the platform of the Anti-Imperialist League, Boston, 1899
At the core, as pointed out in Robert L. Beisner's Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists 1898-1900, they believed "that it was wrong for the United States to forcibly impose its will on other peoples. No economic or diplomatic reasoning could justify slaughtering Filipinos who wanted their independence."
To many, James remains a patron saint of anti-imperialism... He spoke of a movement toward a more "inclusive whole”. Achieving this goal, he said, proceeds by a series of experiments, by means of which we have learned to live (for the most part) without “polygamy and slavery, PRIVATE WARFARE and liberty to kill, JUDICIAL TORTURE and arbitrary royal power.” This one aspect of his life alone is worthy of relevant study.
James' quotes and writings are still pithy, often pungent and as a whole panoramic:
***A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
***Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.
***Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.
***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.
(More William James quotes at the bottom of post)
For those in need of little reminders of what can be accomplished despite off and on mental strain and challenges: besides his early loss of his love, James went through several more bouts of extreme depression at least one suicidal and was known to also have suffered panic attacks.
Notice how quickly his penchant for innovation early in his teaching career leads to the first psychological lab. How horrified he would be to know what has gone on in many of them since then.
So here is just a teaser in case you may also find something comforting or challenging in the circumference of William James life and studies - even in such a small sample.
First skim this small sketch of the chronology - the wild yet highly-educational ride of an early life:
1. Chronology of James's Life
* 1842. Born in New York City, first child of Henry James and Mary Walsh. James. Educated by tutors and at private schools in New York.
* 1855–8. Family moves to Europe. William attends school in Geneva, Paris, and Boulogne-sur-Mer; develops interests in painting and science.
* 1858. Family settles in Newport, Rhode Island, where James studies painting with William Hunt.
* 1859–60. Family settles in Geneva, where William studies science at Geneva Academy; then returns to Newport when William decides he wishes to resume his study of painting.
* 1861. William abandons painting and enters Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard.
* 1864. Enters Harvard School of Medicine.
* 1865. Joins Amazon expedition of his teacher Louis Agassiz, contracts a mild form of smallpox, recovers and travels up the Amazon, collecting specimens for Agassiz's zoological museum at Harvard.
* 1866. Returns to medical school. Suffers eye strain, back problems, and suicidal depression in the fall.
* 1867–8. Travels to Europe for health and education: Dresden, Bad Teplitz, Berlin, Geneva, Paris. Studies physiology at Berlin University, reads philosophy, psychology and physiology (Wundt, Kant, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Renan, Renouvier).
* 1869. Receives M. D. degree, but never practices. Severe depression in autumn.
* 1870–1. Depression and poor health continue.
* 1872. Accepts offer from President Eliot of Harvard to teach physiology.
* 1873. Accepts an appointment to teach full year of anatomy and physiology, but postpones teaching for a year to travel in Europe.
* 1874–5. Begins teaching psychology; ESTABLISHES FIRST AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGY LAB.
* 1878. Marries Alice Howe Gibbens. Publishes
* 1879. Publishes “The Sentiment of Rationality” in Mind.
* 1880. Appointed Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.
* 1882. Travels to Europe. Meets with Ewald Hering, Carl Stumpf, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Wundt, Joseph Delboeuf, Jean Charcot, George Croom Robertson, Shadworth Hodgson, Leslie Stephen.
* 1884. Lectures on “The Dilemma of Determinism” and publishes on Introspection.
* 1885–92. Teaches psychology, philosophy, logic and ethics at Harvard.
* 1890. Publishes The Principles of Psychology with Henry Holt of Boston.
* 1897. Publishes The Will to Believe --Lectures on “Human Immortality”.
* 1898. Identifies himself as a pragmatist.
* 1899. Publishes Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (including “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Worth Living?”). Becomes active member of the Anti-Imperialist League, opposing U. S. policy in Philippines.
* 1901–2. Delivers Gifford lectures on “The Varieties of Religious Experience”.
* 1904–5 Publishes many essays such as “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” “A World of Pure Experience,” “How Two Minds Can Know the Same Thing,”
* 1907. Resigns Harvard professorship. Publishes Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, based on lectures given in Boston and at Columbia.
* 1909. Publishes A Pluralistic Universe.
* 1910. Publishes “A Pluralistic Mystic” in Hibbert Journal. Abandons attempt to complete a “system” of philosophy. (His partially completed manuscript published posthumously as Some Problems of Philosophy). Dies of heart failure at summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire.
William James was an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology, psychology and philosophy. His twelve-hundred page masterwork, The Principles of Psychology (1890), is a rich blend that has given us such ideas as “the stream of thought” and contains seeds of pragmatism and phenomenology.
James made some of his most important philosophical contributions in the last decade of his life. In a burst of writing in 1904–5 - collected in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)) he set out the metaphysical view most commonly known as “neutral monism,” according to which there is one fundamental “stuff” that is neither material nor mental. In “A Pluralistic Universe” he defends the mystical and anti-pragmatic view that concepts distort rather than reveal reality, and in his influential Pragmatism (1907), he presents systematically a set of views about truth, knowledge, reality, religion, and philosophy that permeate his writings from the late 1870s onwards.
So was he a mystic or a pragmatist? How could he have carried the seeds of both so systematically?
The ideal philosopher, James holds, also blends two passions of rationality. He held that some great philosophers go too far in one direction or another: Spinoza's unity of all things in one substance is “barren,” as is Hume's “‘looseness and separateness’ of everything…”. Idealism, he holds, “will be chosen by a man of one emotional constitution, materialism by another.” Idealism offers a sense of intimacy with the universe, the feeling that ultimately I “am all.” But materialists prefer to conceive of an uncertain, dangerous and wild universe that has “no respect for our ego.” Let “the tides flow even though they flow over us”. James is sympathetic both to the idea that the universe is something we can be intimate with and to the idea that it is wild and unpredictable. If he criticizes idealism for its “sick-room air,” he criticizes reductive forms of materialism for denying to “our most intimate powers…all relevancy in universal affairs”.
James finds consciousness to be a stream rather than a succession of “ideas.” Its waters blend, and our individual consciousness — or, as he prefers to call it sometimes, our “sciousness” — is “steeped and dyed” in the waters of sciousness or thought that surround it. Our psychic life has rhythm: it is a series of transitions and resting-places, of “flights and perchings” (PP 236). We rest when we remember the name we have been searching for; and we are off again when we hear a noise that might be the baby waking from her nap.
Two noteworthy chapters late in The Principles are “The Emotions” and “Will.” The first sets out the theory — also enunciated by the Danish physiologist Carl Lange — that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression: “Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect…that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble…” The significance of this view, according to James, is that our emotions are tied in with our bodily expressions - a “purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity."
The Will to Believe contains James's most developed account of morality, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Morality for James rests on sentience — without it there are no moral claims and no moral obligations. But once sentience exists (which for James is evidently more profound than simply a random emotion or perspective involving feeling), a claim is made, and morality gets “a foothold in the universe”.
Although James insists that there is no common essence to morality, he does find a guiding principle for ethical philosophy in the principle that we “satisfy at all times as many demands as we can”. This satisfaction is to be achieved by working towards a “richer universe…the good which seems most organizable, most fit to enter into complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole”.
James's essay “On a Certain Blindness n Human Beings,” published in his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals in 1899, illustrates another important element of James's moral outlook. The blindness to which James draws attention is that of one human being to another, a blindness he illustrates with a story from his own life. Riding in the mountains of North Carolina he comes upon a devastated landscape, with no trees, scars in the earth, here and there a patch of corn growing in the sunlight. But after talking to the settlers who had cleared the forest to make room for their farm, James comes to see it their way (at least temporarily): not as devastation but as a manifestation of “duty, struggle, and success.” James concludes: “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.” James portrays a plurality of outlooks in the essay to which he attaches both a metaphysical/epistemological and an ethical import. (Perhaps in our era's concerns for the ripping up of land everywhere, James might have had a different approach yet still he would certainly see that we would get nowhere with climate change, for example, if we remain blind to the "other's" conditions and requirements for survival.)
This plurality, he writes: commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations.
Although “On a Certain Blindness” is about toleration and the appreciation of different points of view, James sets out his own romantic point of view in his choice of heroes in the essay: Wordsworth and Shelley, Emerson, and W. H. Hudson, all of whom are said to have a sense of the “limitless significance in natural things.”
Even in the city, there is “unfathomable significance and importance” in the daily events of the streets, the river, and the crowds of people. James praises Walt Whitman, “a hoary loafer,” for knowing how to profit by life's common opportunities: after a morning of writing and a bath, Whitman rides the omnibus down Broadway from 23rd street to Bowling Green and back, just for the pleasure and the spectacle of it. “[W]ho knows the more of truth,” James asks, “Whitman on his omniubus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?” James's interest in the inner lives of others, and in writers like Tolstoy who share his understanding of their “mysterious ebbs and flows” (TT 255), leads him to the prolonged study of human religious experience that he presented as the Gifford Lectures in 1901–2, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902.
James interest is not in religious institutions, ritual, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, but in “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (V, 31). James sets out a central distinction of the book in early chapters on “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” and “The Sick Soul.” The healthy-minded religious person — Walt Whitman is one of James's main examples — has a deep sense of “the goodness of life,” (V, 79) and a soul of “sky-blue tint” (V, 80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary, just natural to someone, but often comes in more willful forms. Liberal Christianity, for example, represents the triumph of a resolute devotion to healthy-mindedness over a morbid “old hell-fire theology” (V, 91).
Finally, James reconciled for himself at least the truth and need for both anti-imperialist work with the more contemplative - apparently a rather rare phenomenon among scholars and leaders for pragmatic change. His Varieties' gives a classic chapter on “Mysticism” offering “four marks" which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical…” (V, 380). The first is ineffability: “it defies expression…its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second is a “noetic quality”: mystical states present themselves as states of knowledge. Thirdly, mystical states are transient; and, fourth, subjects are passive with respect to them: they cannot control their coming and going. Are these states, James ends the chapter by asking, “windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.” Perhaps a proper ending to help carry William James' impact into our time is to reflect on the following James quote in relationship to this panoramic view of a better more inclusive world: "A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain."
A few more William James quotes speaking to personal actions:
Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.
Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.
An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be chosen out of several all equally possible.
Do something everyday for no other reason than you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test and begin to be now what you will be hereafter.
FINALLY in the realm of the mystical James says:
Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
(Somehow, I felt a nudge to explore this explorer of the Inner and Outer Cosmos as a gift to the visitor as well as self who may see something here of his or her own challenges and goals - with the hope there are a few keys for integrated actualization. May you be as glad you stopped by as I am to have visited James myself.)
(ca. 1895, in The Letters of William James, ed. by Henry James, Boston, 1920)
Much of the summary above was taken from this site Emory dot edu here and a variety of sites which describe the anti-imerialistic league.