Wednesday, January 10, 2007

William James

I've been a casual fan of William James ever since discovering The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) about a dozen years ago. James is one of those philosophers whose writing and very thought give a concrete sense of the person behind them, the life force animating the thinking; his writing gives the feeling almost of being thought through as it's been presented to you--it's an active thought, alive with possibility. Take this, for example, from his lectures on pragmatism, as presented by Robert B. Richardson in his splendid new biography, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006):
Pragmatism, says James, accepts the possibility that the world is various, pluralistic, "made up of a lot of eaches." It accepts, too, the possibliity that all may not be at last right with the world. "I find myself," he says, "willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play' . . . I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers and no total preservation of all that is . . . When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind forever, but the possibility of what is poured off is enough to accept."

Richardson's biography is first and foremost an intellectual biography of James, an exploration of the way that his ideas evolved in the context of late-nineteenth century scientific and philosophical thought. But he also delivers a detailed, compelling account of James's life as well, woven thickly with quotations from his writings, speeches, diaries, and letters; what emerges is a portrait of a man who, despite constant physical ailments, neurotic exhaustion, and various forms of depression, was vibrantly alive to new ideas and new experiences, always willing to consider new ways of looking at the world. Fighting against received ideas and philosophies that would limit the validity of human experience in favor of a concept of a purpose or an absolute, James continually returned to the primacy of individual experience and our efforts to make sense of it.

The story of William James also necessarily involves a biographer in the fascinating, complicated story of the entire James family. Of his brother, novelist Henry, William once said, "he is a native of the James family, and has no other country," and that could, it seems, be said of the entire family. His sister Alice is known to us now largely through her diary; she has been taken up in recent decades as a feminist icon, her physical and emotional problems seen as resulting from the strictures placed on women in those days. But none of the James children came through the hothouse childhood atmosphere created by their self-involved, independently wealthy father entirely intact. William and Henry suffered physical and emotional problems all their lives, while Wilky and Bob led difficult, seemingly unhappy lives, neither one ever quite finding his place in the world.

Despite that, the bond among the siblings remains strong and fascinating after all these years--especially the one tying William and Henry and Alice. William's letters to Henry, always full of interesting thoughts and opinions, become remarkably entertaining every time William reads one of Henry's novels: he invariably scolds Henry for not being clear enough, suggesting that he try, just once, writing a straightforward story. It's impossible for me to imagine the outcome had Henry, whose very instruments were occlusion and indirection, taken up his brother's challenge.

The desire that thought be expressed straightforwardly and openly also comes through in the letter William wrote to his sister when he learned she had terminal cancer. In closing, after a frank discussion of her impending death and the uncertain prospect of immortality, he closes with
It may seem odd for me to talk to you in this cool way about your end; but . . if one has things present to one's mind, and I know they are present enough to your mind, why not speak them out"
It's the frankness of a philosopher and of a brother who knows his sister and her mind--and respects both utterly.

Richardson delivers that level of detail and nuance throughout William James. It's a tad too long, and he backtracks a bit too much, occasionally repeating examples, but it's all in service of giving as complete a picture as possible of the man behind the thought. And while Richardson doesn't whitewash James's faults, ultimately he presents a James who is admirable and inspiring. I put down the book seeing James's intellectual energy and openness to new ideas as a real goal to strive for; that, it seems to me, is surely the mark of a good biography.

Tomorrow, more on William James--but this time on James and spiritualism. That's right: ghost stories coming up.

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