July 10, 2021

1. William James

When I read a memoir by an Auschwitz survivor, I came across the following: “In Auschwitz, everybody wanted to live. Suicides were very rare.”1 I thought of this as I read an essay by William James called “Is Life Worth Living?” James writes,

It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon’s glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come.

William James at 27

James was born in 1842, so he was the perfect age for being a soldier in the Civil War. But instead of becoming a soldier, he attended Harvard, beginning in the fall of 1861. Perhaps he didn’t become a soldier because his father opposed it; or perhaps the government changed the enlistment period from 3 months to 3 years, and James wasn’t willing to make a long-term commitment; or perhaps James had various mental and physical ailments (as I said in my essay on genius, “the genius often has an unhealthy mind in an unhealthy body”). Whatever the reason, James became a college student instead of a soldier. But he often seems to view life in military terms, to view life as “the moral equivalent of war.”

One of the most famous quotations from Nietzsche is:

From the military school of life  What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

James could relate to this, James attended “the military school of life.” James doesn’t advise the reader to “turn the other cheek,” “resist not evil.” He says that life is worth living partly in order to fight:

Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat. To the suicide, then... you can appeal — and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there — to wait and see his part of the battle out.

Like an officer addressing his troops, James tells his readers, Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid of poverty, don’t be afraid of life: “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” In the after-life, those who fight can remonstrate with those who commit suicide:

The faithful fighters of this hour... may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained.... “We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”

In an earlier issue, I wrote,

We should assert the value of life each moment, by our attitudes, choices, actions. We should keep the ball in the air. Perhaps our chief moral obligation is to believe in life, to view the glass as half full rather than half empty. Life needs us, life depends on us.

James makes a similar argument:

Optimism and pessimism are definitions of the world, [and] our own reactions on the world, small as they are in bulk, are integral parts of the whole thing, and necessarily help to determine the definition. They may even be the decisive elements in determining the definition.... This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it [and] we are determined to make it... a success.

But James adds a wrinkle to his argument that makes it different from my argument. James seems to want to clear a space for some sort of belief in God, some sort of religion. He says that our faith that life is worth living is based on “our faith in the unseen world.” And he says that “the very existence of an invisible world” depends on our faith in it. “God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.” Since our knowledge is imperfect, we can’t rule out the possibility that God exists, and “the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists.”2 James’ argument reminds me of Kant’s argument that we can’t know the thing-in-itself, so we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, and therefore we’re free to believe that God does exist.

This strikes me as a weak argument, whether in Kant’s form or James’ form. In my view, the idea of a SuperBeing is inherently improbable, even preposterous; neither evidence nor probability point to a SuperBeing. Better to take the world as it is, and justify it as it is, rather than postulate SuperBeings. There is indeed an unseen world, an occult world. The world is mysterious and endlessly interesting. Why do we need to drag in a SuperBeing about whom we know nothing?

James thinks that we have a spiritual need, a metaphysical hunger, that goes beyond the visible world, and suggests the existence of an invisible world. “If needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there?” But I question his premise, I don’t think we have a spiritual need that goes beyond “this world.” It seems to me that this world is full of energy and mystery, and that man is connected to everything, related to everything. If we appreciate all that this world has to offer, why would we want more?

For James, religious belief isn’t a matter of dogmas and churches, it’s a feeling, a feeling that helps us to live.

Our faculties of belief were not primarily given us to make orthodoxies and heresies withal; they were given us to live by. And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. It is a fact of human nature, that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition.

James admits that the invisible world, the religious dimension, is a “maybe,” not a certainty. But he insists that life is full of “maybes,” the voyage of Columbus was a maybe, every “deed of faithfulness or courage” is a maybe. “And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” Therefore, “the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled.” There’s a power in positive thinking, there’s a power in mind to shape matter, there’s a power in will to mold reality. What if everyone in a society, or everyone in the world, engaged in positive thinking?

One of the basic principles of the occult is mind over matter, the power of mind to influence “things.” James is receptive to the occult, and understands the power of mind. And he applies mind-power to the religious sphere. So his thinking on the occult overlaps with his thinking on religion.

James urges us to use the power of mind, and the power of character, to meet whatever challenges life throws at us. “However thickly evils crowd upon you” meet them with “your unconquerable subjectivity.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness teacher, says “Wherever you go, there you are.” Henley expressed this idea in his poem “Invictus”:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The author of the above lines, William Ernest Henley, had his leg amputated when he was 20, and this inspired “Invictus,” this inspired phrases like “the bludgeonings of chance.” “Invictus” has a personal source and a universal significance.

Henley was a prominent figure in the London literary world. Among his acquaintances was Robert Louis Stevenson, who used Henley as the model for Long John Silver, the one-legged character in Treasure Island. An acquaintance described Henley as “a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.” Perhaps Henley had experienced so much pain that he feared nothing (including death), and lived life to the full.

William James’ father (Henry James Sr.) also had his leg amputated at a young age, and also had a large personality. James Russell Lowell called him the “best talker in America.” Robert Richardson said, “He could be vivacious, colorful, and irreverent.”3

Richardson dismisses the writings of Henry James Sr.; Richardson says that he was “the author of a long procession of unwanted and unread books, published at his own expense.”4 Many of his books dealt with theology; he sometimes castigated particular churches with a torrent of invective. Not everyone dismissed his writings; Charles Sanders Peirce said that Henry James Sr. was one of New England’s “‘philosophers of genius,’ along with Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson.”5 Like many of his contemporaries, Henry James Sr. was drawn to socialism (sometimes called Fourierism or Associationism). Fourier had criticized the institution of marriage; Henry James Sr. also criticized the institution of marriage, though he seemed to lead a monogamous life.

In my essay on genius, I mentioned William James as an example of a genius whose family had been successful in business. His father’s father, also named William James, was “one of the wealthiest men in America,” an investor in real estate and the Erie Canal.

William James (the philosopher) grew up partly in Europe, and partly in Newport, Rhode Island. The family moved frequently and often lived in hotels. William spent a year studying painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport; William was said to have considerable artistic talent, but he lost interest in art, perhaps because of the outbreak of the Civil War. William’s younger brother, the novelist Henry James, wrote about William and other family members in A Small Boy and Others.

William James, right, with his younger brother Henry

Besides William and Henry, there were three younger children: Garth (known as “Wilkie”), Robertson (known as “Bob”), and Alice. The dinner table was a lively place. When Emerson’s daughters, Ellen and Edith, visited the James family, Ellen reported, “The funniest thing in the world is to see this delectable family together all talking at once. Edith and I spend all dinner in convulsions.”

William and Alice were close, and Alice was upset by William’s marriage. Alice has become well-known for her diary, which was edited by Leon Edel and published in 1964. “In 1888... [Alice] wrote in her diary that she was both suicidal and homicidal. She was struggling with the urge to kill her father, though this diary entry does not state the reason why she was patricidal.”6 Alice died of breast cancer in 1892 at the age of 43. Jean Strouse published a biography of Alice in 1980.

Leon Edel said that William and Henry James were like a see-saw — when one was up, the other was down. Richardson writes, “Leon Edel’s idea that Henry and William had a long, antagonistic, Jacob-and-Esau relationship is based in part on Edel’s observation that Henry generally flourished when William was away, and got sick when he was near.” I’m reminded of what Edinger said of the Melville brothers:

The relationship between Gansevoort and Herman was, Edinger writes, “molded by the archetype of the hostile brothers.... Gansevoort’s life followed a course strangely reciprocal to Herman’s.” Gansevoort flourished while Herman floundered, but when Herman found success with Typee, Gansevoort “died of an obscure illness at the age of thirty.” Edinger says of hostile brothers, “as one waxes, the other must wane.” The success of Typee killed Gansevoort?! A strange idea certainly, and not completely convincing, but interesting, and worthy of further consideration.

Richardson is skeptical of Edel’s see-saw theory. Judging by their correspondence, William and Henry seem quite close. When William made some criticisms of Henry’s stories, he concluded by saying, “I hope it did not hurt you in any way or mislead you as to the opinion I have of you as a whole, for I feel as if you were one of the 2 or 3 sole intellectual and moral companions I have.”

In the late 1860’s, when William was struggling to find a niche, and publishing little, Henry was publishing both stories and reviews. William’s criticisms of Henry’s stories are not unlike my own criticisms. “The material of your stories,” William wrote to Henry, “has been thin,” and the treatment “rather dainty and disdainful”; the stories had a “want of blood.” Later he criticized Henry’s writing for “over-refinement, and elaboration.... A broader treatment hits a broader mark.”7

In an earlier issue, I said that Henry James “seems detached from life, and this may explain his preoccupation with language-for-its-own-sake.” One might say of Henry what Hemingway said of T.S. Eliot: “He never hit the ball out of the infield in his life.” As I said elsewhere, Henry James and T.S. Eliot were kindred spirits; Eliot called Henry “the most intelligent man of his generation.”

* * * * *

Age 20 to 25 seems to be the age of conversation. When James Joyce was this age, he had long conversations with a friend named John Byrne, who was turned into “Cranly” in Portrait of the Artist; Joyce himself was turned into “Stephen Dedalus.” Joyce says that Stephen told Cranly “of all the tumults and unrest and longings in his soul, day after day and night by night.”

For the young William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. played the role of Cranly; James and Holmes met for long conversations. When James was 24, he wrote to a friend, “The only fellow here I care anything about is Holmes, who is on the whole a first rate article, and one which improves by wear.” Richardson writes,

They were a somewhat unlikely pair, the robust, romantic war hero and the thin, sickly medical student. Holmes’s personality was cool, detached, and self-contained. James’s was warm, impulsive, and outgoing. He was a giver; Holmes was not. But they shared a consuming interest in ideas. Holmes knew almost nothing about biology or chemistry, but he had read Darwin and was sympathetic to positive science. He liked drawing and had read a lot of Ruskin. He was vaguely interested in medicine but enormously interested in philosophy.

James was living in Cambridge, Holmes in Boston. “In a note to Holmes just before a pending trip, James wrote... ‘I will go in [to Boston] tomorrow night and we will evolve cosmos out of chaos for positively the last time.’”

As the years passed, James and Holmes drifted apart. But when Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court, James sent him a letter of congratulations, and enclosed a copy of his latest book, Varieties of Religious Experience. Holmes responded, “Someday we shall talk together again with that intimacy of understanding and mutual stimulus which we have known and which I never forget.”

* * * * *

As a Harvard undergrad, William studied chemistry and anatomy, he didn’t study the subjects in which he later made his name, philosophy and psychology. One might say he was self-educated. Richardson:

What James did not get from his spotty formal schooling he was obliged to get for himself. John Dewey would later remark that James’ lack of formal education was one of his greatest assets, “since it protected his mind against academic deadening.”8

Though he had a strong interest in science, William wasn’t sure how that interest could be translated into a paying job. He felt he was unsuited for field work and lab work. He decided to go to Harvard’s medical school, as insurance against poverty. Like Jung, he was drawn to psychology while he was a medical student. But when William was in medical school, psychology scarcely existed, and physiology was in its infancy.

William interrupted his medical studies to join an expedition to South America. The leader of the expedition, Louis Agassiz, was trying to gather data that would help him refute Darwin’s theory. On the voyage to Brazil, William became ill, and pined for home. But he gradually settled into his new routine, and became an admirer of Agassiz. Richardson writes,

Agassiz could barely contain his excitement as the number of new species rapidly grew. The whole expedition moved swiftly up the upper Amazon to Tabatinga, on the Peruvian border. James recalled, thirty years later, one particular night on the river.... “I well remember,” he said, “at night, as we all swung in our hammocks... on the deck of the steamer that throbbed its way up the Amazon how [Agassiz] turned and whispered, ‘James, are you awake?’ and continued, ‘I cannot sleep; I am too happy; I keep thinking of these glorious plans.’”

William’s first publications dealt with Darwin’s theory. In the Darwin-Agassiz dispute, William sided with Darwin, but William wasn’t convinced that evolution was entirely the product of physical laws and random mutation. William “balks at positivism pure and simple,” he couldn’t “stifle our idea of final cause.” Perhaps, William wrote, there were “final causes on some deeper plane underlying the whole of Nature at once.”9

William always had a taste for literature. Richardson writes,

He never stopped reading literature, no matter how busy he was. He read Balzac’s Lys dans la Vallée, which he found “wonderful,” and he vowed, “I will read all Balzac.”

As James admired literary people like Balzac, so literary people admired James; for example, Somerset Maugham was a big fan of James’ Principles of Psychology.10

After William returned from Brazil, he became depressed, and set out for Europe, his medical studies still uncompleted. But his spirits sank even lower in Europe. He told his father that, “Thoughts of the pistol [and] the dagger... began to usurp an unduly large part of my attention.” And he told one of his friends that he was “on the continual verge of suicide.”

Did the urge to commit suicide strengthen James’ religious faith? Was James’ belief in God the outgrowth of personal crises? We saw earlier how James, like Kant, tried to clear a space for religious belief, for belief in the existence of God, by saying that we can’t be certain that God doesn’t exist. James said that we need religious belief, and that it’s “the part of wisdom as well as of courage” to believe what we need to believe. James would probably agree with Kierkegaard that “the postulate [of God] is a necessary act of self-preservation.”

James suffered from various depressions and terrors, and when he was feeling especially low, the thought of God seemed to save him. Richardson writes,

The early months of 1870 mark the low point of William James’s early life. His back gave out in January on his twenty-eighth birthday, bringing with it what he called a “moral collapse.” On the first of February he “about touched bottom”.... And sometime this spring... James experienced his worst crisis of all, a terrible moment of unstringing fear that became a defining moment in his life.

Here’s how James described this “terrible moment”:

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there: when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin.

Did James fear insanity? Or was he actually on the verge of insanity? He writes,

This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear.

James’ “quivering fear” did not dissipate quickly. He writes,

After this, the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.... The experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since.

James said that he was “‘unable to go out into the dark alone’ for months, that he dreaded to be left alone.”11 James said that “the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture texts like ‘the eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc. I think I should have grown really insane.” For James, as for Kierkegaard, the postulate of God was a necessary act of self-preservation.

One might describe James’ experience as a conversion experience. Richardson says that James

was becoming more and more interested in religious questions in early 1870.... James seems to have recognized genuine religious feeling in himself this spring. The above account... may well have been the hour at which religion finally struck for him, just when the clock had pointed to despair.

Kierkegaard made a similar journey from suicidal despair to religious faith. “It is my sincere conviction,” Kierkegaard wrote, “that it is a man’s true salvation to despair.”

Richardson says that James struggled with depression between 1868 and 1873. He would make a partial recovery, then fall again. Richardson speaks of a pattern of “crash, resolution, and only partial recovery, followed by another downward spiral, which is halted painfully by new resolutions followed by uncertain, easily sidetracked recovery, then down again, and so on around the whole discouraging circle.”

The psychologist Erik Erikson discusses James in his book Identity: Youth and Crisis. Erikson speaks of James’ “struggle for sanity,” and his “prolonged identity crisis.” James “came to maturity extremely slowly.” Is this true of all philosophers? Kierkegaard said, “Volatile natures have no difficulty in adjusting themselves to themselves, their self is from the very beginning current coin; so then trade begins at once. It is not so easy for the deeper natures to find themselves.” Erikson says that James’ identity crisis drove him “from art school to a ‘scientific school’ to medical school, and from Cambridge (Mass.) to the Amazon to Europe and back to Cambridge.”12

Erikson said that psychotherapy “aims at the restoration of the patient’s power of choice.” James emerged from his crisis by acquiring a power of choice. He was influenced by a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who stressed the importance of “the recognition of human freedom.” According to Renouvier, “This recognition is itself a free act.”13

Renouvier defined free will as “the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts.” James declared, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Renouvier helped James to acquire what Erikson called “the power of choice,” and this power applied to thoughts and beliefs as well as actions.

James wrote in his diary,

Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative... suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into. Now I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power.

Religious faith may have saved James from insanity, but it may not have given him an upbeat attitude. Perhaps the two things that helped James to become upbeat were his career and his marriage.

In the late 1860s, James couldn’t devote himself to a scientific career or a medical career, but he kept studying. He had a particular interest in the intersection of physiology and psychology. In Germany, he attended numerous lectures in physiology. Richardson says that the term “physiology” was often used then for what we would call “biology.”

James’ interest in physiology reminds me of Nietzsche. James was born in 1842, just two years before Nietzsche, and there are many parallels between the two thinkers, such as their interest in psychology and their interest in physiology. Nietzsche expresses scorn for his specialty, philology, and wishes he’d studied something less bookish, something closer to reality, such as physiology. Nietzsche viewed decadence and renaissance in terms of physiology: “Wherever the will to power declines in any form there is every time also a physiological regression, a decadence.”(Antichrist, #17) Both Nietzsche and James became philosophers after specializing in other fields.

One of James’ professors at Harvard, Charles William Eliot, became President of Harvard in 1869. In 1872, he offered James a post as teacher of Physiology. Later James taught Psychology and Philosophy.

James took to teaching like a duck takes to water. He called the teaching job, “a perfect godsend to me just now.” William wrote to his brother Henry, “My own spirits are very good... this external responsibility and college work agree with human nature better than lonely self-culture.” Richardson writes,

William James’s decision to teach was a major turning point in his life, marking the beginning of the end of his early troubles. James is famous for his work in psychology, philosophy, and religion, but it is clear that his real vocation was teaching. It gave him a position of authority he had never had before, and it kept him in constant contact with bright young people.

* * * * *

Before James met his wife, he had an intense relationship with his cousin, Minnie Temple. We don’t know if they were lovers, but I think everyone agrees that they were rarely alone together, so they couldn’t have been lovers more than fleetingly. Minnie died of tuberculosis in 1870, when James was 28. About four months before Minnie died, William wrote to his brother Henry about Minnie’s week-long visit to the James family:

She was delightful in all respects, and, although very thin, very cheerful.... She is more devoid of “meanness,” of anything petty in her character than anyone I know.

As William appreciated Minnie’s good qualities, so she appreciated his: “What a real person he is,” Minnie wrote about William. “He is to me, in nearly all respects, head and shoulders above other people.”

Despite this mutual admiration or love,

marriage was out of the question [Richardson writes]. William had strong feelings about first-cousin marriage; Minnie was desperately ill, and William believed that he was far too unhealthy to think of marriage, let alone children. But they were in some ways similar spirits, restless, yearning, hungry for life, ambitious, scornful of second best, sensitive, ironic, and outgoing, and there now arose between them a strange attraction, a cousinship of the spirit....

They were suddenly able to understand each other, drawn simultaneously to each other’s avidity for life, each other’s stoic, ironic acceptance, and each other’s sad, tragic side. Minnie Temple was the first woman William had ever been able to accept as a complete equal, and the first person he could talk with about his deepest religious and spiritual concerns. They came, during November and December [1869], to a difficult, exalted, doomed intimacy.

Richardson says mysteriously that, in late 1869, “Something happened... between William and Minnie.” Minnie wrote to a friend “that she had enjoyed her visit to the Jameses ‘far more than I expected.... a great deal of living was done in a short time.’” Minnie promised her correspondent, “I will tell you a proposal that has been made to me, not of matrimony, but better.”

Minnie wrote to William, “Don’t let my letter of yesterday make you feel that we are not very near to each other — friends at heart.... there is an attitude of mind... in which we are much alike.”

Richardson speaks of, “the long, moving section on Minnie Temple that ends Henry James’s Notes of a Son and Brother.... Minnie’s death, as Henry James was to say many years later, marked the end, for him and for William, of youth.”

* * * * *

When James was 34, he met 27-year-old Alice Gibbens. His father met her first:

His father had come home from a meeting of the Radical Club in Boston and announced that he had met William’s future wife, Alice Gibbens, a Boston schoolteacher and accomplished pianist. Although William dragged his feet about meeting her, once he did so the die was cast. After a prolonged courtship, Alice became his dutiful, strong wife and helpmeet, mother of his five children, amanuensis, and lifelong intellectual companion.14

Alice Gibbens at 16

Richardson says, “She and William were immediately attracted to each other. Alice told her mother the next day that she’d met the man she wanted to marry.”

A few months after meeting Alice, William visited Keene, New York, in the Adirondacks, with several friends. Later this group of friends built cabins, which became known as Putnam Camp (these cabins are probably still standing). Alice was also in Keene that summer. Richardson writes,

It was really at Keene that William and Alice found themselves swept up in what William later called their “delirious affair.” He could not sleep for thinking about Alice all during August and September, and he finally took himself off a short distance, to Lake Placid, in order to tell her in a letter what he couldn’t say to her face.

William told Alice that he was in love with her, and that he eagerly awaited her letter.

My duty is to win your hand if I can... What I beg of you now is that you should let me know categorically whether any absolute irrevocable obstacle already exist to that consummation.... I can furnish you with unheard of arguments against accepting any offer I can make.

Richardson says, “She was strongly attracted to him, and as her son and biographer [Henry James III] noted, ‘She had never encountered anything remotely resembling his incandescent, tormented, mercurial excitability.’”

William struggled to explain to Alice his psychological and physical weaknesses. As his son later wrote,

He must make my mother realize him as a soul tormented almost to desperation by questions about the cosmos and his relations with it — a troubled and therefore troublesome spirit encased in a fragile and ineffectual body.

William doubted whether he would make a good husband and father. He “conceived a morbid fear that he had no moral right to ask any woman to be his wife or to bear his children.” In an agony of ambivalence, William urged Alice to go to England, then changed his mind. Finally he said, “I am an idiot, unfit to advise you.” Alice had doubts, too. She felt that she would be “a burden and restraint upon Father if she married him, and that brought her to the conclusion that she could serve him best by sending him away.”

As the months passed, they continued discussing pros and cons, until finally they decided to marry. Alice later said, “There were great hours then for both of us.” And William spoke of, “the curious inner feeling of miracle of those succeeding days.” They married in 1878, about two years after they met. Richardson says, “The whole experience was not so much a courtship as a conversion.” It seemed to be an ideal marriage, and William flourished in it. “‘I’m strong and sound,’ he told Alice in 1888, ‘and that poor diseased boy whom you raised up from the dust no longer exists.’”

* * * * *

In a recent issue, I contrasted “cosmic optimism” with “cosmic pessimism.” I said that the optimistic view sees nature as one (monism), while the pessimistic view is dualist, it sees the physical world as largely evil, and divides the physical world from the divine/spiritual world.

In the spring of 1868, while living in Dresden, William James read Homer, and discussed Homer in a letter to his brother Henry: “The Homeric Greeks ‘accepted the universe,’ their only notion of evil was its perishability — we say the world in its very existence is evil — they say the only evil is that everything in it in turn ceases to exist.” William admired what he called the health, the freshness, the brightness of the Greeks. “To the Greek,” William wrote, “a thing was evil only transiently and accidentally and with respect to those particular unfortunates whose bad luck happened to bring them under it.” His use of the phrase “Homeric Greeks” suggests that he distinguishes Homer’s worldview from, say, Aeschylus’; Homer is sunnier than Aeschylus.

William was also reading Goethe, whom he admired for his positive spirit and his acceptance of reality. William wrote,

“The man lived at every pore of his skin, and the tranquil clearness and vividness with which everything printed itself on his sensorium, and found a cool nook in his mind without interfering with any of the other denizens thereof, must have been one of the most exquisite spectacles ever on exhibition on this planet....” Goethe’s natural gifts could not be communicated, James knew, but his enthusiasm could, and James rated that enthusiasm as “one of the important experiences of my own mind.”

A few years later, when William was 30, he began to enjoy nature more, and his spirits rose. Richardson writes, “William was experiencing a general turn toward the outer world this summer — Goethe’s advice was always that turning outward to the world was health, while turning inward was disease.” He was enjoying the nature poetry of Wordsworth, and he wished that he had kept up his painting. He did some boating near Bar Harbor in Maine: “The fresh wind, the interminable spotless twilight, the dark, heaving ocean, the solemn might of the cliffs on our left hand, the incipient northern light which later became one of the finest I have ever seen, all made a first-class night of it.”

Like Schopenhauer and Thoreau, James respects Eastern thought. And like Schopenhauer and Thoreau, he views Eastern thought as the thought of India and perhaps China, but not Japan, which was closed to the West during the first half of James’ life. Zen came to the West around 1900. As far as I know, Schopenhauer and Thoreau never mention Zen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if James never mentions it.

Perhaps James’ strength is his discussion of the moods and habits that make up our day-to-day life. Here he deals with his own experience; he himself had much experience with low moods. In an earlier issue, I discussed an essay on habit by James’ fellow-pragmatist, John Dewey. Pragmatism dwells at the intersection of belief and habit; Peirce summed up pragmatism when he said, “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit.”

When James’ brother Bob was feeling low, James wrote to him:

When the mind is morbid only the gloomy images have any vividness. We may try to realize the reverse of the picture, but it won’t bite, and even concentrated reflection will fail often to give it substantiality for us. Then the only thing is to have faith and wait, and resolve whatever happens to be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher says) that is do as if the good were the law of being, even if one can’t for the moment really believe it. The belief will come in its time.

When the belief comes, you feel centered and fully alive. As William wrote to Alice Gibbens,

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.”

His teaching job and his marriage to Alice both helped him to overcome his depressive moods and feel “intensely active and alive.” But his low moods returned from time to time. In 1900, at age 58, James was in poor health, and went to a German spa called Bad Nauheim. He said he had “no strength at all. I have rarely felt more weak and depressed.”

James liked books that stayed close to life, such as Mill’s Autobiography, in which Mill writes about his struggles with depression. James said, “Autobiographies are the first department of literature for me.” Richardson speaks of “James’ partiality for biography and memoir.”

When James taught Logic at Harvard, he used Mill’s System of Logic as a course text. And when James wrote his Principles of Psychology, he mentioned Mill and his father as important figures in the history of psychology. Richardson says that Mill’s utilitarianism was “stepfather to pragmatism and to its concern with results, with ‘fruits not roots.’” So Mill was important to James in various ways.

James was also a fan of Mill’s contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. He particularly liked Carlyle’s fictionalized autobiography, Sartor Resartus, calling it “immortal.” One chapter of Sartor is called “Natural Supernaturalism,” i.e., “the supernatural found latent in the natural... the miraculous in the common and everyday course of things.” Carlyle’s Natural Supernaturalism struck a chord with Emerson, Thoreau, and James. Natural Supernaturalism could be called Pantheism, or it could be called the immanent divinity in things.

In my chapter on genius, I wrote, “though genius is melancholy, it is also, paradoxically, cheerful. Cheerfulness can coexist with melancholy; as the French say, ‘sad heart, gay spirit (le coeur triste, l’esprit gai).’” James is a good example of this blend of melancholy and cheerfulness. Melancholy makes frequent appearances in his biography, but he was also “active, vivacious, humorous, playful... ‘eternally young.’”15

* * * * *

James’ Pragmatism emphasizes “fruits not roots” — that is, it emphasizes the effects of a belief on your life, rather than the origin of a belief. When James wrote about religious conversion, he was concerned with how conversion impacted your life, not with the source of conversion. James wrote about conversion in Varieties of Religious Experience, which was originally a series of lectures that James delivered in Edinburgh, Scotland. Richardson says that James

opposes the idea that the worth of a thing can be described by its origin, and he ends his account of conversion with an appeal: “If the fruits for life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealize and venerate it.” He cites many examples of the actual changes wrought by conversion. Just as the adequacy of Luther’s version of Christianity is attested by “its wildfire contagiousness when it was a new and quickening thing,” so James reports Jonathan Edwards’ feeling after his conversion, how “scarce anything among all the works of nature was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me.” Finally there is Billy Bray, who felt, after conversion, “I can’t help praising the Lord. As I go along the street, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say ‘Glory’; and I lift up the other, and it seems to say ‘Amen’: and so they keep on like that all the time I am walking.”

* * * * *

In 1878, James published “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence.” Richardson says, “This is James’s first important professional piece.... It marks James’ emergence as a philosopher with his own stance.” It could have been titled, “Remarks Against Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence.” James criticizes Spencer’s view that the mind is a passive tool, a passive mirror, whose purpose is to correspond to reality, adjust to reality, and help the organism to survive. James argues that the mind is active and creative; it shapes reality.

James says, “There belongs to mind from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote. It is in the game, and not a mere looker on.” The mind isn’t a mere collector of facts; it has feelings, passions, interests. “The reality of a thought is proportionate to the way it grasps us.” As Kierkegaard put it, “Only the truth that edifies is truth for thee.” Our view of what should be helps to create what is; ideals shape realities. Our goal is to live well, not collect facts, and life is often about convictions, not facts. James says, “Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for human action — action which to a great extent transforms the world — help to make the truth which they declare.”

What matters is not mere cognition, but will, resolve. The mind doesn’t mechanically serve a purpose, it creatively chooses a goal. As James said, consciousness

not only serves a final purpose, but brings a final purpose — posits, declares it. This purpose is not a mere hypothesis — “if survival is to occur, then brain must so perform,” etc. — but an imperative decree: “Survival shall occur, and, therefore, brain must so perform!”

James must have agreed with Goethe’s advice to “Live resolutely in the good, the whole, and the beautiful.” James must have understood why Goethe doesn’t mention truth. Life isn’t fundamentally an intellectual thing; the meaning of life is to feel “intensely active and alive,” not to collect facts. Our passions can shape facts.

Elsewhere I mentioned that one of James’ mentors was Chauncey Wright. I called Wright a Blockhead Rationalist, and I said that James took issue with Wright’s “nihilism.” Spencer could also be called a Blockhead Rationalist, and James took issue with Spencer, too. James was sympathetic to the occult view, which says “mind over matter.” James believed that mind can form and create, mind is a power in the world. Blockhead Rationalists like Spencer say “matter over mind,” mind is passive and reactive; what’s important, according to a Blockhead Rationalist, are things that can be seen, touched, and counted.

* * * * *

Even after he was married, James made trips to Europe alone. In 1882, while on sabbatical, he visited Prague, where he

met and spent an unforgettable four hours in conversation with the physicist Ernst Mach, with whom [James] felt an instant intellectual rapport. “I don’t think anyone ever gave me so strong an impression of pure intellectual genius,” he wrote [his wife] Alice. “He apparently has read everything and thought about everything, and has an absolute simplicity of manner and winningness of smile when his face lights up that are charming.”16

Mach was a psychologist and physiologist as well as a physicist.

During this trip, William’s father died. William had been notified that his father was ailing, and he wrote a last letter:

Darling old Father,
....In that mysterious gulf of the past, into which the present soon will fall and go back and back, yours is still for me the central figure. All my intellectual life I derive from you.... What my debt is to you goes beyond all my power of estimating — so early, so penetrating and so constant has been the influence.... It comes strangely over me in bidding you goodbye how a life is but a day... it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again — Farewell! A blessed Farewell!

When the letter reached Boston, Henry Sr. was already dead, so Henry Jr. read the letter aloud at his father’s grave.

* * * * *

On a later visit to Europe, William saw his sister, Alice, for the first time in five years. William and Alice had always been close. Alice appreciated William’s vivacity; she said he would “lend life and charm to a treadmill.” Alice’s description of William’s visit in her diary shows how she felt somewhat lost and disconnected in her later years, and how she looked back on her early years as a time when she was connected to the family:

What a strange experience it was, to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in the alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the illusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating-particle sense was lost for an hour or so in the illusion that what is forever shattered had sprung up anew, and existed outside our memories — where it is forever green.

* * * * *

In the 1890s, James immediately saw the significance of the work of Janet, Breuer, and Freud. Janet had become interested in hypnosis after hearing a lecture by Charcot. Janet tried to cure patients who had “fixed ideas” or hallucinations; Janet used hypnosis to bring what was unconscious to the surface, to consciousness, and thereby gain control over it. Janet took the first steps toward “modern dynamic psychology.”17

Breuer and Freud were influenced by Janet. They said that hysteria begins with a memory so painful that it’s repressed; the repressed memory returns as symptoms, obsessions, hallucinations, etc. James reviewed an early paper by Breuer and Freud:

Certain reminiscences of the [initial traumatizing] shock [James wrote] fall into the subliminal consciousness, where they can only be discovered in “hypnoid” states. If left there, they act as permanent “psychic traumata,” thorns in the spirit, so to speak. The cure is to draw them out in hypnotism, let them produce all their emotional effects, however violent, and work themselves off.

In the early 1890s, James devoted much time to abnormal psychology. He believed that “the best way to understand the normal is to study the abnormal.” He believed that there was no sharp line between the normal and the abnormal, the sane and the insane; everyone has something of both. “A life healthy on the whole,” he wrote, “must have some morbid elements.”

In 1896, James “twice gave a series of eight lectures on [abnormal psychology]. But he then pulled back, never published the lectures, and never tried to write a book on the subject.”18 Why did James turn away from abnormal psychology, a field that would soon produce the epoch-making work of Freud, Jung, etc.?

Richardson suggests several reasons. He says that James may have turned away from abnormal psychology because “the therapeutic picture was unclear.... there was no consensus about treatment.” Or James may have felt that abnormal psychology was dark and depressing, with patients who believed “evil and enemies were everywhere.” Or James may have been torn between the reductionist view of the unconscious, and the mystical view; he may have been torn between seeing the unconscious as a trash can for forbidden thoughts, and seeing it as a treasure chest containing deep wisdom.

Whatever the reason, James turned from abnormal psychology to religion, from “the varieties of witchcraft” to “the varieties of religious experience.”

* * * * *

Here is James’ description of “the deepest of all philosophic problems: Is the Kosmos an expression of intelligence rational in its inward nature, or a brute external fact pure and simple? If we find ourselves, in contemplating it, unable to banish the impression that it is a realm of final purposes, that it exists for the sake of something, we place intelligence at the heart of it and have a religion. If, on the contrary, in surveying its irremediable flux, we can think of the present only as so much mere mechanical sprouting from the past, occurring with no reference to the future, we are atheists and materialists.”

I agree with James that the general character of the universe is a key question in philosophy; it affects our feelings about the world, our attitudes, our actions. But I disagree that we must choose between a rational world and a mechanical world. It seems to me that the world has a non-rational intelligence, an unconscious intelligence. We see this non-rational intelligence in quantum physics and in Jungian synchronicity.

James isn’t as relevant to The Philosophy of Today as Jung is, James doesn’t help us to grasp non-rational intelligence, doesn’t help us to grasp the general character of the world. James has some understanding of the occult, but not as deep an understanding as Jung has. Perhaps James’ weaknesses are the result of simple chronology: he was born a decade before Freud, and three decades before Jung. Perhaps James couldn’t go as far as later thinkers went.

* * * * *

Is the essence of the universe akin to our own essence? James wanted a philosophy that connected us to the whole, that made us feel part of the universe. He wrote,

If we survey the field of history and ask what features all great periods of revival, of expansion of the human mind, display in common, we shall find, I think, simply this; that each and all of them have said to the human being, “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”19

I’ve argued that the essence of the universe is connectedness, the sort of connectedness that we see in the paired-particles experiment. This connectedness is also important in human nature, in our connectedness to other people and even to inanimate objects. We experience this connectedness in our daily life, and the facts of telepathy demonstrate this connectedness.

So I think James would have been keenly interested in Quantum Physics, which was developed around 1925, 15 years after James died. And I think James would have subscribed to what I call the Philosophy of Today, a philosophy that connects man to the universe via Quantum Physics, via occult phenomena, and via many other subjects.

James felt that Emerson championed the idea that the essence of the universe is also our essence. “Emerson’s creed,” wrote James, was that “everything that ever was or will be is here in the enveloping now; that man has but to obey himself — He who will rest in what he is, is a part of Destiny.” This idea is “an exorcism of all skepticism as to the pertinency of one’s natural faculties.”20

The highest achievement of philosophy, James argues, is to show that we’re akin to the rest of the universe.

The most successful, because most widely adopted, philosophy will contain an “assurance that my powers, such as they are, are not irrelevant to [the Universal Essence] but pertinent, that it speaks to them and will in some way recognize their reply.21

* * * * *

James was a fan of Gustav Fechner, a German thinker who was born in 1801. James said that Fechner belonged to “the true race of prophets.” One chapter of James’ Pluralistic Universe deals with Fechner; Robert Richardson says that this chapter is the “high point” of James’ book.22

Fechner is best known as a psychologist who made precise observations; he tried to connect “numerical values” to “psychological variables.” But Fechner didn’t stick to one field, “his ideas were wide-ranging and imaginative. He wrote on aesthetics [and] he wrote satires.” He had a scientific bent and also a mystical bent.

Like James, Fechner had wrestled with depression and various psychological problems. When he was 38, Fechner became “unable to bear light, he lived in a darkened room, going out only with metal cups he had made over his eyes, and communicating ‘with the family through a funnel-shaped opening in the door.’”

Fechner said he survived this ordeal because he “clung to the faith that clinging to faith would somehow or other work its reward.” His faith was rewarded, and eventually he reached ecstasy (“On a certain spring morning I went out to walk. The fields were green, the birds sang, the dew glistened, the smoke was rising, here and there a man appeared; a light as of transfiguration lay on all things”).

According to Wikipedia,

Fechner’s world-concept was highly animistic. He felt the thrill of life everywhere, in plants, earth, stars, the total universe.... In his last work Fechner, aged but full of hope, contrasts this joyous “daylight view” [Tagenansicht] of the world with the dead, dreary “night view” of materialism.

According to Richardson, “Fechner was influenced by Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.” Schelling was inclined toward animism. As Fechner was one generation older than James, so Schelling was one generation older than Fechner.

James viewed Fechner as a kindred spirit, James approved of Fechner’s optimistic Tagenansicht.

* * * * *

In earlier issues, I’ve discussed self-help literature — books that aim to improve your life by giving you confidence that you can improve your life. I discussed one of the pioneers of self-help literature, James Allen. And I discussed a recent author of self-help literature, M. Scott Peck. Self-help literature might also be called inspirational literature. It says that your will/intention/thought can shape circumstances. It says that mind has power over matter, hence it’s related to the occult. Self-help literature is at the intersection of ethics, psychotherapy, and the occult.

James often argues that our beliefs shape reality. He asks us,

to examine “a certain class of truths” that “cannot become true till our faith has made them so.” He asks us to consider a climber in the Alps who has worked himself “into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap.” With hope and confidence, he feels he can make the leap. But if “fear and mistrust preponderate,” he may hesitate until “at last, exhausted and trembling,” he launches out in a moment of despair, misses his footing, and falls into the abyss.”23

This aspect of James’ work — the self-help aspect — makes him more interesting, more relevant to modern readers. And it applies to public life as well as private life. Our political convictions, our sense of justice, shapes our actions, and our actions shape reality.

The course of destiny [James writes] may be altered by individuals.... Again and again, success depends on energy of act, energy again depends on faith that we shall not fail, and that faith in turn on the faith that we are right — which faith thus verifies itself.24

* * * * *

James often reminds me of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard criticized Hegel because Hegel’s abstract truths didn’t change your life, they weren’t “edifying.” James agreed with Kierkegaard, though he probably never heard of Kierkegaard. James thought truth should have an impact, should change your life. James was scornful of the Hegel Revival of his day. James said he opposed “all Hegelians except Hegel himself.” James said that the Hegel Movement was the first “of all mental turpitudes and rottennesses.... The worst of it is it makes an absolute sterility where it comes.” It encourages us to be spectators rather than participants, “to see the world good rather than to make it good.”25

I’ve argued that truth is contradictory, and that the chief contradiction in ethics is that we should accept ourselves as we are, but we should also try to make ourselves better. I disagree with James, who said that when two views contradict each other, “one is true, the other false.” I agree with Hegel that many views are half true. I would say that we should both see the world as good and also try to make it good. I emphasize “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Niels Bohr said there are two kinds of truths: “there are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right.”

Hegel deserves credit for understanding that truth is contradictory, just as he deserves credit for understanding that society is an organism. True, his philosophy is remote from daily life, but our general conception of the universe can impact our feelings and actions, indirectly if not directly. Furthermore, a philosopher can inspire others to build practical programs of education, ethics, etc. So perhaps we shouldn’t insist that every philosopher engage directly with daily life.

* * * * *

At one time, James enjoyed the stimulation of teaching. When he was about 60, however, James began to feel that he needed to go in a new direction, he needed to leave academia.

Greatly as I have been helped by my University business hitherto, the time has come when the remnant of my life must be passed in a different manner, contemplatively namely, and with leisure and simplification for the one remaining thing, which is to report in one book, at least, such impressions as my own intellect has received from the universe.26

The Confucian sage, active in the world, was retiring into Daoist solitude and contemplation.

But when he sent his resignation letter to the Harvard President (Charles William Eliot), “Eliot flatly refused to consider it, explaining that he did not want Harvard’s name separated from James’ in the public mind.” Eliot realized that James had become “the visible embodiment of the best of Harvard.” James had a reputation as a deep thinker and an independent spirit. James’ “outsider’s independence was, in many eyes, the essence of [Harvard].”

James saw himself as an outsider. When Harvard awarded him an honorary degree in 1903, James gave a speech in which he noted that, “I am not an alumnus of the college.... I have no right to vote for Overseers.” James was a champion of the independents and the loners and the eccentrics, a critic of “the club life and the social system.”27

James delivered his last lecture at Harvard in 1907, just three years before he died. In 1908, he gave a series of lectures at Oxford, a series that was later published as A Pluralistic Universe. When the lectures were over, James visited his brother at Lamb House in Rye. Richardson relates an anecdote from that visit, an anecdote that shows William’s boyish, cheeky manner, and Henry’s demure, proper manner:

H. G. Wells was in the neighborhood with his wife.... G. K. Chesterton was staying in the inn next door to Lamb House. William was intensely curious to see Chesterton, so he put a ladder against Henry’s garden wall one day and climbed up and peered over the wall to see if he could spot him. Henry objected strenuously: this sort of thing was just not done in England. At that moment the Wellses drove up.... Wells tells of meeting a “totally unnerved” Henry, who appealed to him to rule on whether or not William’s behavior was permissible.

Wells restored peace by taking William for a drive.

In 1910, Henry fell into illness and depression — “a major nervous collapse, the worst such episode of his life.” William’s son Harry visited Henry in England, then William and his wife joined them. Henry gradually recovered his spirits, and they returned to America together.

William’s heart trouble worsened until he could barely breathe or walk. He died with “no pain and no consciousness.” Henry wrote,

I sit heavily stricken and in darkness — for from far back in dimmest childhood he had been my ideal Elder Brother, and I still, through all the years, saw in him, even as a small timorous boy yet, my protector, my backer, my authority and my pride. His extinction changes the face of life for me — besides the mere missing of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him....

He did surely shed light to man, and gave, of his own great spirit and beautiful genius, with splendid generosity.28

2. Films

A. The Secret of the Grain (2007) is a captivating movie, but it doesn’t have a conclusion, it just breaks off. It has a good plot, but not much character or depth. It’s so naturalistic that you can’t tell if you’re watching real people or actors. It takes place in a town on the southern coast of France, the language is French, and the characters are mostly Arab/Tunisian. It’s long (150 minutes), and you often feel that it’s plodding into a dead end, but then it grabs you with another plot twist. Critics loved it, the public liked it. In Britain, it’s called Couscous, and in France it’s called La graine et le mulet.

B. My Octopus Teacher (2020) is a great movie, perhaps the best underwater documentary ever made. It shows how a man gradually wins the trust of an octopus, and they develop a relationship. It was made in South Africa by Craig Foster. It can be streamed on Netflix.

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1. Auschwitz, “The Price of Life,” by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, Univ. of N. Carolina, 1985 back
2. Here James is quoting “my friend William Salter.”

James seems to have come close to atheism in his early years. When he was 25, he wrote to his father that he could not

“attain to any such inexpugnable testimony of consciousness to my spiritual reality” as his father spoke of, and his own position was to reject the “spiritual” and the “divine”... William believed that the natural and the physical were what was real.... “Practically,” [William] wrote, “it seems to me that all tendencies must nowadays unite in Philanthropy: perhaps an atheistic tendency more than any, for sympathy is now so much developed in the human breast... We ourselves must be our own providence.”
3. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Ch. 3

Henry Sr. lost his leg as a result of an accident with a hot-air balloon. Perhaps his father was so preoccupied with business that he had no time or energy to spend on his children. Henry Sr.’s siblings died young, perhaps as a result of parental indifference; “Robert at twenty-four, Ellen at twenty-two, Ellen King at twenty-six, Jannet at twenty-eight, John Barber at forty, Edward at thirty-eight, Catharine at thirty-three.” back

4. See Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 1

Richardson says that Henry James (the novelist) “later looked back on the dreadful — and moving — futility of his father’s intellectual labors, on ‘the pathetic tragic ineffectualness of poor father’s lifelong effort, and the silence and oblivion that seems to have swallowed it up.’” back

5. See Richardson’s biography of William James, ch. 11. Henry James Sr. was a notoriously obscure writer; Peirce said that reading his Secret of Swedenborg was “terribly difficult.” back
6. Wikipedia. In my essay on genius, I said that mental instability is common in “genius families.”

Leon Edel is known for his 5-volume biography of Henry James, the novelist. Near the end of his career, Edel published a 1-volume version, Henry James: A Life. back

7. William praised two of Henry’s early stories, “Poor Richard” and “The Madonna of the Future.” back
8. Ch. 7. James wrote, “I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”(quoted in Erikson, Identity, IV, 2) back
9. Richardson, Ch. 8. Perhaps William’s scientific interests were always secondary to his interest in the human soul. When he was thinking about joining Agassiz’s expedition, William wrote in his journal, “in this excursion you will learn to know yourself and your resources somewhat more intimately than you do now, and will come back with your character considerably evolved and established.” I’m reminded of how Conrad’s journey to the Congo matured him; “before the Congo,” Conrad said, “I was just a mere animal.” back
10. I’m surprised that Maugham liked James’ Principles of Psychology, I find it rather dull. James also published Psychology: The Briefer Course; maybe this book is livelier.

While Maugham was a fan of William James, he was a sharp critic of Henry James’ fiction.

Richardson says that James read “a great deal of poetry... with huge enjoyment,” and read poetry “all his life.” One of the most beloved poets of James’ time was Robert Browning. James was especially fond of Browning’s “Grammarian’s Funeral.”

“It always strengthens my backbone to read it,” [James] wrote. He admired the poem’s advice to just do your work, day by routine day, and leave to posterity or eternity the troublesome task of justifying or recognizing the work.

At the climax of “A Grammarian’s Funeral,”

the funeral procession of the outwardly unremarkable but deeply dedicated scholar — whose patient work has ignited the renaissance of learning — climbs from the valley of commonplace life to the heroic alpine heights where his spirit belongs: “Here — here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form, Lightnings are loosened, Stars come and go!”

I’m reminded of the Chinese poem about the sage who has disappeared into the mountains, gathering herbs, “Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.” This Chinese poem is much briefer than Browning’s. Like Browning’s, it depicts a large soul by comparing the human spirit to nature, to “alpine heights.”

But the nature that we find in the Chinese poem is simpler, more “natural,” less dramatic. In the Chinese poem, we have a pine tree, clouds, herbs, mountain, and the sage is wandering alone in the mountain. In Browning’s poem, on the other hand, we have lightning, meteors, a soaring peak, a marching-and-singing band of disciples. Browning’s poem is as dramatic as a Wagner opera. The Chinese sage is immersed in nature, he loses himself in nature. For Browning’s hero, nature is a setting, a prop; the hero doesn’t lose himself in nature, he’s exalted by nature.

Browning’s hero is a bookish scholar, the Chinese sage reads the book of nature. The Chinese sage is “here now,” Browning’s scholar says, “Leave Now for dogs and apes, Man has Forever.” back

11. Richardson, Ch. 17, “Hitting Bottom,” quoting James

William’s father, Henry Sr., had a similar “terrible moment,” at about the same age. Henry Sr. called this experience his “vastation.” Like William, Henry Sr. had eye trouble after the experience. Richardson writes, “[William’s] eyes were affected (as his father’s had been after his experience), making it impossible for him for years at a time to read for more than three or four hours a day.”(Ch. 17) Henry Sr. described his “vastation” thus:

“‘One day... towards the close of May [1844], having eaten a comfortable dinner, I remained sitting at the table after the family had dispersed, idly gazing at the embers in the grate, thinking of nothing, and feeling only the exhilaration incident to a good digestion, when suddenly — in a lightning flash as it were — “fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.” To all appearance it was a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life. The thing had not lasted ten seconds before I felt myself a wreck.’ James added that the depression he felt in the wake of this experience took him two years to pull out of.”(Richardson, Ch. 2) back

12. The first two quotes in this paragraph (“struggle” and “prolonged”) are from Erikson, Ch. 4, #2. The third quote is Erikson quoting F. O. Matthiessen. The Kierkegaard quote is from Either/Or, Part II, “Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” The last quote is from Erikson, Ch. 4, #2. back
13. The Erikson quote and the Renouvier quotes can all be found in Richardson, Ch. 17.

Julien Benda used a quote from Renouvier as the epigraph for his book The Treason of the Intellectuals: “The world is suffering from lack of faith in a transcendental truth.” Perhaps Benda, Renouvier, and James were all looking to break free from materialism and determinism, to clear a space for human freedom and choice.

Renouvier had a particular interest in history, perhaps the philosophy of history. He called himself, the “Swedenborg of history” (does this imply that Renouvier believed that non-material forces, even occult forces, shaped history?). Among Renouvier’s books were Philosophie analytique de l’histoire. back

14. Website, quoting The Story of Psychology, by Morton Hunt, p. 165

Henry James Sr. seemed to have a special bond with William, his first child. William’s aunt said that his father’s affection for him was “very deep, a peculiar thing in its expression, but something unlike his feeling for his other children.”(Richardson, Ch. 3) Richardson says that “of Henry’s five children William alone made a serious and sustained effort to come to terms with their father intellectually.”

Richardson says that William was introduced to Alice, not by his father, but by one Thomas Davidson. back

15. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 69 back
16. Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 34 back
17. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 51 back
18. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 53 back
19. Rationality, Activity, and Faith.” Richardson calls this a “stirring essay,” and he says it contains the germs of James’ later books. It was later published in a volume of essays called The Will to Believe and Other Essays In Popular Philosophy, and it was given the title “The Sentiment of Rationality.” back
20. Quoted in Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 30 back
21. Richardson biography, Ch. 30 back
22. Richardson biography, Ch. 86. Apparently James never met Fechner. back
23. Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 30; Richardson is quoting James’ “Rationality, Activity, and Faith.”

Somerset Maugham described a dangerous leap in his story “Gigolo and Gigolette.” Like James, Maugham argues that you can make the leap if you believe you can make it. back

24. Quoted in Richardson’s biography, Ch. 30 back
25. See Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 32, “Hegel in Cambridge” back
26. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 72 back
27. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 73 back
28. See Richardson’s biography, Epilogue back