by Richard Wakefield
Few philosophers have been the subject of as many biographies as William James. As the son of a philosopher, the brother of a novelist (and, as well, of Alice James, a woman who has recently come to be seen by many as the epitome of nineteenth century repressed womanhood), the friend of such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Henry Adams, and a dozen others, James would command our attention if he had done no more than carry on his voluminous correspondence. He did far more, of course, and it is a tribute to his unique place in American thought that his reputation remains as unsettled as our thinking about America itself. Like his nation, he was a work in progress, a work of which progress was an essential element.
"Always impatient with philosophers who created systems of abstractions, James rooted his philosophy in palpable experience," Linda Simon writes. To understand his philosophy, therefore, we must understand him as a human being immersed in the contingencies that he so celebrated and so refused to leave out of his writing and teaching. At Harvard he "urged his students to study men's lives, preferably men of genius," Simon tells us, "in order to learn about the possibilities of experience and the many perspectives from which individuals consider human problems." Genuine Reality carries out James's commandment admirably. Although the reader seeking a full introduction to James's work might turn to Gerald E. Myers's hefty William James: His Life and Thought (Yale, 1986), and anyone who would learn more of his influence on such important writers as Gertrude Stein and Robert Frost will have to go to more focused studies, Simon fully substantiates the claim made by James's wife shortly after his death: "'He was more than anything he did.'"
He was a man of amazing generosity, although not a generosity he always applied to himself. Open to almost any ideas, willing to pursue for years even the fringe sciences of psychic phenomena if only he was convinced of the claimants' sincerity, and a tireless booster of both friends and rivals, he doubted himself as he seems never to have doubted others. Until now, biographers have depicted him as inventing himself at the age of twenty-eight, liberating himself from the intellectual oppression of his father and the Spencerian determinism of his times by declaring his belief in free will: "'My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,'" he declared. He set out thereafter "'to cultivate a new habit: a sense of moral freedom,'" and Simon takes nothing away from his accomplishment when she reveals that his public success contrasted with a good deal of private self-doubt. For the remaining forty years of his life he fought periods of depression and morbidity; although he worked long and hard to achieve his Emersonian goal to "'posit life (the real, the good) in the self governing resistance of the ego to the world,'" he never shook the feeling, promulgated by the mind-cure movement of his times, that deep spiritual and moral inadequacies were the true cause of his physical ailments. The rest of us, perhaps, can find some consolation in knowing that a man of such accomplishments could have been beset by such self-doubts.
By 1880, as he embarked for one of his numerous European tours, James had spent seven years teaching anatomy and physiology at Harvard on the strength of his M.D. degree, even though he never practiced medicine. He had also managed to make the switch, less of a leap then than now, to philosophy, and had spent a year teaching and publishing in the field for which he was fully prepared by temperament and inheritance, if not by education. His half-dozen or so important articles would gain him equal footing with the thinkers he met in Europe, Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer among them.
In fact, he left his encounters with these illustrious figures newly assured that he himself belonged among them, perhaps even as one who could correct them. He had long believed, for example, that Spencer's application of Darwin's principles to history and society would never do, that in leaving out "the importance of singular individuals" he left out far too much; but after meeting him, James seems to have gained confidence in his own ability to offer an alternative view. The "amiable but self-satisfied" man who greeted him and chatted with him was transformed from a "powerful, daunting" intellect into simply another colleague. William James saw himself now as fully able to reveal the paucity of any thought that denied the primacy of the individual in the world.
By the time of his European tour of 1880, James's contract to write The Principles of Psychology was already two years old. It would age another ten before the completed, two-volume work saw print - plenty of time for his old habits of self-doubt to re-assert themselves. The work now resides upon the very short shelf of textbooks to remain in print after more than a century, and it is, more the miracle, still readable and still informative, but during the long decade of the 1880s, as he sought to fulfill the promise of his early notoriety, James foresaw none of that with any certainty, much as he desired it. He knew only that he had before him the task of defining a new discipline. More: of leaving his own indelible mark upon it.
True to Simon's portrait of a deeply insecure William James, even the prime years of his thirties, when he lived in that once-in-a-lifetime balance between accomplishments and promise, saw him the victim of insomnia, restlessness, and depression. Later, when the fame earned with his Psychology brought him into demand as a writer, teacher, and lecturer, he retained the uneasy fear that he had not fully expressed himself. His greatest works seems to have been written in a kind of desperate effort to get it straight once and for all: The Will to Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907). Yet getting it straight was the one thing his temperament and convictions precluded him from doing, and each new book led him to publish elaborations and corrections, explanations and defenses, as his critics and even his friends challenged him. Charles Peirce wrote after reading Pragmatism that his "'lingering wish'" was that James would "'try to learn to think with more exactitude.'" Even for a man who argued that philosophy could "not be divorced from temperament" and who claimed to have no time for the "'systematic theologians'" who would separate philosophy from "concrete, visceral, tangled reality," such a teacherly criticism from an old and respected colleague stung. The criticism showed, at the very least, that Peirce of all people had failed to understand James's most basic claim, that "exactitude" in philosophy is gained at the cost of usefulness.
Simon reports the outpouring of grief and praise that came with William James's death, in 1910. "'None of us will ever see a man like William James again,'" John Jay Chapman wrote; "'there is no doubt about that.'" If many of the details of his thinking are best sought elsewhere, Linda Simon's Genuine Reality nevertheless admirably persuades us that James deserved such praise and that his teachings are worth seeking.