William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

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9780618919895: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

The definitive biography of the fascinating William James, whose life and writing put an indelible stamp on psychology, philosophy, teaching, and religion -- on modernism itself

Pivotal member of the Metaphysical Club, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, eldest sibling in the extraordinary James family, William emerges here as an immensely complex and curious man.

William James, ten years in the making, draws on a vast number of unpublished letters, journals, and family records to illuminate what James himself called the "buzzing blooming confusion" of his life. Richardson shows James struggling to achieve amid the domestic chaos and intellectual brilliance of his father, his brother Henry, and his sister Alice. There are portraits of James's early years as a student at the appallingly hidebound Harvard of the 1860s. And there are the harrowing suicidal episodes, after which James, still a young man, turns from depression to action with "a heave of will." Through impassioned scholarship, Richardson illuminates James's hugely influential works: the Varieties, Principles of Psychology, Talks to Teachers, and Pragmatism.

As a longtime professor James taught courage and risk-taking. He was W.E.B. Du Bois's adviser and teacher, and he told another of his students, Gertrude Stein, to reject nothing -- that rejecting anything was the beginning of the end for an intellectual. One of the great figures in mysticism, James coined the phrase "stream of consciousness."

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About the Author:

ROBERT D. RICHARDSON is the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire. He is the recipient of the Francis Parkman Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, among many other honors.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

He had not been sleeping well in Palo Alto all semester he suffered from angina and had recently been much troubled by gout and so William James was lying awake in bed a few minutes after five in the morning on April 18 when the great earthquake of 1906 struck. James was sixty-four, famous now as a teacher and for his work in psychology, philosophy, and religion. He was spending the year as a visiting professor at Stanford University, twenty- five miles south of San Francisco. His mission was to put Stanford on the map in philosophy.
Jesse Cook, a police sergeant on duty that morning in the San Francisco produce market, first noticed the horses panicking, then saw the earthquake start. There was a deep rumble, deep and terrible,” said Cook, and then I could actually see it coming up Washington Street. The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me.” John Barrett, city desk news editor of the Examiner, was already in his office when he heard a long low moaning sound that set buildings dancing on their foundations.” Barrett and his colleagues suddenly found themselves staggering. It was as though the earth was slipping . . . away under our feet. There was a sickening sway, and we were all flat on our faces.” Looking up, Barrett saw nearby buildings caught up in a macabre jig . . .They swayed out into the street, then rocked back, only to repeat the movement with even more determination.” James Hopper, a reporter for the Call, was home in his bed. He rushed to his window. I heard the roar of bricks coming down,” he wrote, and at the same time saw a pale crescent moon in the green sky. The St Francis hotel was waving to and fro with a swing as violent and exaggerated as a tree in a tempest. Then the rear of my building, for three stories upward, fell. The mass struck a series of little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs, the bricks passing through the roofs as though through tissue paper. I had this feeling of finality. This is death.” Out in the streets, trolley tracks were twisted, their wires down, wriggling like serpents, flashing blue sparks all the time.” Barrett saw that the street was gashed in any number of places. From some of the holes water was spurting; from others gas.” Astonished guests in the Palace Hotel looked out one of its few intact windows and saw a woman in a nightgown carrying a baby by its legs, as if it were a trussed turkey.” In the first moments after the quake there was total silence. The streets,” Hopper recalled, were full of people, half clad, disheveled, but silent, absolutely silent.” In San Jose, south of Palo Alto, along the line of the rip, the buildings of the state asylum at Agnews collapsed with a roar heard for miles, killing a hundred people, including eighty-seven inmates. Some of the more violent survivors rushed about, attacking anyone who came near. A doctor suggested that since there was no longer any place to put them, they should be tied up. Attendants brought ropes and tied the inmates hand and foot to those (small) trees that had been left standing.
In Palo Alto the stone quadrangle at Stanford was wrecked. Fourteen buildings fell; the ceiling of the church collapsed. The botanical garden was torn up as if by a giant plow. A statue of Louis Agassiz fell out of its niche and plunged to the pavement below, where it was photographed with its head in the ground and its feet in the air. Stanford was still on Easter vacation. Almost all the students were gone. One, however, was staying on the fourth floor of Encina Hall, a large stone dormitory. He sprang out of bed but was instantly thrown off his feet. Then, with an awful, sinister, grinding roar, everything gave way, and with chimneys, floorbeams, walls and all, he descended through the three lower stories of the building into the basement.” The student, who later told all this to James, added that he had felt no fear at the time, though he had felt, This is my end, this is my death.” The first thing William James noticed, as he lay awake in bed in the apartment he shared with his wife, Alice, on the Stanford campus, was that the bed [began] to waggle.” He sat up, inadvertently, he said, then tried to get on his knees, but was thrown down on his face as the earthquake shook the room, exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.” In a short piece of writing about the quake, written twenty-three days later, James recalled that everything that was on anything else slid off to the floor; over went bureau and chiffonier with a crash, as the fortissimo was reached, plaster cracked, an awful roaring noise seemed to fill the outer air, and in an instant all was still again, save the soft babble of human voices from far and near.” The thing was over in forty-eight seconds. James’s firsttttt unthinking response to the quake was, he tells us, one of glee,” admiration,” delight,” and welcome.” He felt, he said, no sense of fear whatever. Go it,” I almost cried aloud, and go it stronger.” The Marcus Aurelius whom James admired, and who had prayed, O Universe, I want what you want,” could scarcely have improved on James’s unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature. It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality, like Thoreau’s outburst on top of Mount Katahdin, like Emerson’s opening the coffin of his young dead wife, or like the climax of Robert Browning’s poem A Grammarian’s Funeral” (one of James’s favorites), in which 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! Let joy break with the storm.” James’s second response was to run to his wife’s room. Alice was unhurt, and had felt no fear either. Then James went with a young colleague, Lillien Martin, into the devastation of downtown San Francisco to search for her sister, who was also, it turned out, unhurt. James’s active sympathy and quick mobilization were characteristic, as was his third response to the event, which was to question everyone he saw about his or her feelings about the quake. His diary for the next day, April 19, says simply, Talked earthquake all day.” It was also entirely characteristic that he next wrote up and published a short account of the experience, in which he noted that it was almost impossible to avoid personifying the event, and that the disaster had called out the best energies of a great many people.
James’s care for his wife, his concern for his colleague, and his writing up what he learned seem usual enough; it is his initial, unexamined, unprompted response that opens a door for us. James possessed what has been called a great experiencing nature”; he was astonishingly, even alarmingly, open to new experiences. A student of his noted that he was at times a reckless experimenter with all sorts of untested drugs and gasses.
This risk-taking, this avidity for the widest possible range of conscious experience, predisposed him to embrace things that many of us might find unsettling. It has been suggested that the earthquake experience was for James the near equivalent of a war experience. It may have been that, and it may have been even more than that. He no longer believed if he ever had in a fixed world built on a solid foundation. The earthquake was for him a hint of the real condition of things, the real situation. The earthquake revealed a world (like James’s own conception of consciousness) that was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it.
James had four years to live after the earthquake of 1906, and his work was far from done. In 1909 he was still trying to make sense of some of his most challenging and sweeping ideas in a book called A Pluralistic Universe. Here he firmly rejects what he calls the stagnant felicity of the absolute’s own perfection.” He rejects, that is, the idea that everything will finally be seen to fit together in one grand, interlocked, necessary, benevolent system. For James there are many centers of the universe, many points of view, many systems, much conflict and evil, as well as much beauty and good. It is, he said, a universe of eaches.” James’s universe is unimaginably rich, infinitely full and variegated, unified only in that every bit of it is alive. Citing the German thinker Gustav Fechner for protective intellectual cover a common maneuver for the canny enthusiast whose intoxicated admiration extended outward to writers and thinkers in all directions James speaks approvingly of the daylight view of the world.” This is the view that the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and envelopments, is everywhere alive and conscious.” In Pragmatism, published a year after the quake, he wrote, I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.” James’s understanding of how each of us operates in the world is like George Eliot’s description of the pier glass and the candle in Middlemarch. Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel,” Eliot writes, rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable,” she concludes. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person.” For William James, too, the world as a whole is random, and each person makes a pattern, a different pattern, by a power and a focus of his own. There is no single overarching or connecting pattern, hidden or revealed. We carve out order,” James wrote, by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.” Eliot’s image also suggests something important about James’s own life. Just as his early career plans careened wildly from civil engineering to painting to chemistry to being a naturalist to becoming a physician or a researcher in physiology, so any biography that undertakes to locate or exhibit the central James, the real James, the essential James, or that tries to make a shapely five-act play out of his life, runs the risk of imposing more order than existed like the medieval hagiographer who gave the world what a modern scholar summarized as all and rather more than all that is known of the life of St. Neot.” We have at least three main reasons to remember William James. First, as a scientist, a medical doctor, and an empirical, laboratory-based, experimental physiologist and psychologist, he was a major force in developing the modern concept of consciousness, at the same time that Freud was developing the modern concept of the unconscious. James was interested in how the mind works; he believed mental states are always related to bodily states and that the connections between them could be shown empirically.
Second, as a philosopher (psychology, in James’s day, was a branch of philosophy and taught in the philosophy departments of universities), James is famous as one of the great figures in the movement called pragmatism, which is the belief that truth is something that happens to an idea, that the truth of something is the sum of all its actual results. It is not, as some cynics would have it, the mere belief that truth is whatever works for you. It must work for you and it must not contravene any known facts. James was interested more in the fruits than in the roots of ideas and feelings. He firmly believed in what he once wonderfully called stubborn, irreducible facts.” Written in readable prose intended for both the specialist and the general reader, James’s books, in the words of one colleague, make philosophy interesting to everybody.” Third, James is the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the founding text of the modern study of religion, a book so pervasive in religious studies that one hears occasional mutterings in the schools about King James and they don’t mean the Bible. James’s point in this book is that religious authority resides not in books, bibles, buildings, inherited creeds, or historical prophets, not in authoritative figures whether parish ministers, popes, or saints but in the actual religious experiences of individuals. Such experiences have some features in common; they also vary from person to person and from culture to culture. The Varieties of Religious Experience is also, and not least, the acknowledged inspiration for the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is James’s understanding of conversion that AA has found especially helpful.
In trying to specify the groundnote of James’s thought, his gifted student, colleague, and biographer Ralph Barton Perry pointed to the one germinal idea from which his whole thought grew, . . . the idea of the essentially active and interested character of the human mind.” The mind was never for James an organ, a faculty,” or any kind of fixed entity. There is a good deal of truth to the comment of Paul Conkin that if psychology lost its soul with Kant, it lost its mind with James. Mind for James was a process of brain function, involving neural pathways, receptors, and stimuli. Mind does not exist apart from the operations of the brain, the body, and the senses. Consciousness is not an entity either, but an unceasing flow or stream or field of impressions. James was convinced that no mental state once gone can recur and be identical with what was before . . . There is no proof that an incoming current ever gives us just the same bodily sensation twice.” James proposed that the elementary psychological fact . . . [is] not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought.” The process of mind, the actual stream of consciousness, is all there is. James throws down his challenge to Platonism: A permanently existing idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodic intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.” In place of the mythological world of fixed ideas, James has given us a world of hammering energies, strong but evanescent feelings, activity of thought, and a profound and relentless focus on life now. For all his grand accomplishments in canonical fields of learning, James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson. James’s best is urgent, direct, personal, and useful. Much of his writing came out of his teaching, and it has not yet lost the warmth of personal appeal, the sound of the man’s own voice. In one of his talks to teachers he said, Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion ...

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