PROFESSOR JAMES ON THE PODIUM
a review of Manuscript Lectures

William James, who was born in 1842, began his career as a philosopher and psychologist in the Victorian era, and he ended it, when he died in 1910, as a prophet of modernity. He was raised in privileged circumstances and traveled throughout Europe and became multilingual at an early age. But mostly he was educated at the family dinner table by his father, Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy, eccentric, one-legged religious philosopher who preached Emanuel Swedenborg's doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity to the Concord transcendentalists. Through him, William James became heir to the transcendentalist and Swedenborgian literary legacy. But his father promoted an intuitive psychology of character formation which the son was forced to square with the more rigorous dictates of the newly burgeoning sciences. Thus, William's own pursuit became the scientific study of consciousness, the psychology of individuals and the philosophy of pure experience.

Through his father's literary connections, he entered the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard in 1861 without any prior formal schooling and he received a doctorate in medicine in 1869, the only degree he ever earned. He then embarked on a teaching career that lasted 35 years, conferring graduate and undergraduate degrees without having one himself. Nevertheless, his ideas eventually helped to shape the course of the social sciences and touched the humanities and the arts; his conceptions defined the dialogue between religion and science in an era when they were thought to be at war; and his wide professional contacts and outstanding gifts of literary expression made an important link between the culture of the Old World and the New. For a generation of intellectuals in the 19th century, William James became the single most important embodiment of Emerson's American scholar.

He had entered Harvard just as the theory of natural selection was being most hotly debated and he sided with the Darwinians against the creationist theories of Louis Agassiz. While the arguments followed biological and theological lines, James addressed the problem of how individual choice - and thus personal consciousness - can be an efficacious force in the process of biological evolution. In this he later became an implacable foe of the social Darwinists, who argued that evolution favors the preservation of the species, not the individual.

With Charles S. Peirce, Chauncey Wright, Nicholas St. John Green, John Fiske and others, James became involved in meetings of the Cambridge Metaphysical Club in the early 1870's. Through their ''intellectual boxing matches,'' James concluded that the basic data of all philosophy is raw human experience, before the differentiation of subject and object. He was later responsible for reawakening the moribund tradition of British Empiricism along the lines of Locke, Hume, Berkeley and Mill. His reputation was made when, after 1898, he enunciated his version of pragmatism, the idea that truth is tested by its effects. Thereafter, in the hands of F. C. S. Schiller at Oxford, Henri Bergson in France and Giovanni Papini in Italy, pragmatism became the first American philosophical movement to have international consequences.

Beginning in the 1870's, James was instrumental in wresting control of psychology away from the abstract philosophers and placing it within the domain of the natural sciences. He opened the first experimental laboratory in psychology in the world which was available to students for course credit; he taught the first course in physiological psychology in an American university; and he gave the first American Ph.D. in psychology to G. Stanley Hall in 1878. He argued for the dependence of the mind on brain processes, but without reducing psychology to the language of physiology. He showed how the ''blooming, buzzing, mass of confusion'' presented to the senses is transformed into perception and conceptual order in a way that still shapes modern research, and he promulgated a controversial theory of the emotions that was dominant for almost three decades. But James is best known for his ''Principles of Psychology'' (1890), a two-volume classic that led historians to crown him the father of American psychology.

With a handful of colleagues in the United States, France, Italy and Switzerland, James also helped inaugurate experimental psychopathology. Their efforts made Boston the center of developments in scientific psychotherapy in the English-speaking world from 1880 to 1910, long before psychoanalysis became prominent. In fact, in the 1880's James imported from France the experimental psychology of the subconscious that was being explored there and he was the first to introduce the work of Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud to Americans in 1894. Eventually, James and the so-called Boston School of Psychotherapy would become the taproot for developments in personality and in social, clinical and abnormal psychology.

James was also a staunch defender of mental healers and an avid psychic researcher. He was a co-founder and leader of the American Society for Psychical Research. He investigated numerous claims of the paranormal and studied the use of mediums and hypnosis as keys to understanding dynamic processes of the subconscious. He was also a pioneer in the modern psychology of religion. He established that beliefs have an important function in preserving mental health and that faith allows the world to be re-created anew from moment to moment. Moreover, he said, the truths of any spiritual awakening must be tested, not by where they come from, but by their fruits for promoting the moral and esthetic life. Through his ''Varieties of Religious Experience'' (1902), James became influential in establishing modern pastoral counseling and later this work figured prominently in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

James was also nationally known as an educator. He lectured widely and became known for his plea that schools should teach character development as well as academic subjects. James was critical of the testing mania in schools, and of the stranglehold of ''the Ph.D. octopus'' at the graduate level, believing instead that education should speak to the life of the spirit as well as the mind. He was a teacher, counselor, adviser and friend to generations of Harvard and Radcliffe students. Page Smith, the intellectual historian, has said that Harvard was great at the turn of the century because William James was great. For many people, James became the only person in American higher education who understood that esthetic quality in personality development is more important than churning out scientific data or defining professional boundaries.

Today James is best remembered for his philosophy of pragmatism, his idea of the stream of consciousness and his view that the source of spiritual life is located not in books and churches, but within the individual. His reputation, however, has long been overshadowed by the novels of his more widely read younger brother, Henry. Now, with the completion of ''Manuscript Lectures,'' the 19th volume and 17th title of ''The Works of William James,'' scholars have the opportunity to delve into nearly the entire corpus of his published and unpublished writings. As a result, a new industry of James is under way.

Originally conceived by John J. McDermott, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, who made a name for himself by showing that radical empiricism was the core of James's philosophy, the project to publish ''The Works of William James'' has been sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through a distinguished board of philosophers and English professors (but no psychologists), the text in each volume has been painfully reconstructed as James originally intended.

''Manuscript Lectures,'' actually a companion volume to James's ''Manuscript Essays and Notes,'' is largely a chronicle of what James taught at Harvard from 1872 to 1907. One of the editors, Ignas K. Skrupskelis, opens the volume with an introduction that reviews the chronology of those years. Then James's lectures, part in outline, part in fully developed narrative, are reproduced. His notes for his public lectures come first, including his unpublished Lowell lectures of 1878 and 1896, as well as his Harvard Summer School of Theology lectures of 1902. The lectures are followed by James's course notes on a great array of topics - physiology, social Darwinism, the British Empiricists and modern German philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and scientific psychology.

In the lecture notes we sometimes get the germ of a thought before it was later developed into an essay or a book chapter. In one place we see how James constructed his argument when several conflicting viewpoints were involved. In another we see his characteristic approach to a philosopher's ideas through biography. In all, the reader is struck by the extraordinary range of James's analyses, which also include forays into physics and mathematics. But we can never get more than a glimpse of James lecturing because ample evidence suggests that he often delivered his talks without more than a glance at his notes.

James aficionados will be deeply indebted to Frederick H. Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers, the general editor and textual editor of ''The Works of William James,'' for textual criticism, and to Mr. Skrupskelis for the almost flawless archival digging that produced James's original sources throughout the project. Although the collection may not supply the definitive word on certain details, as the gargantuan task draws to a close the picture is largely complete. We now eagerly await the separate collection of letters that has been promised under Mr. McDermott's editorship. With all of James's writings, added to the works of authors such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Josiah Royce, Peirce and John Dewey, we may have the necessary ingredients to celebrate our intellectual heritage, and the material to stimulate a much-needed and long-sought transformation of American thought.

by Eugene Taylor - research historian at the Harvard Medical School, author of William James on Exceptional Mental States.'

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
Review appeared April 16, 1989

MANUSCRIPT LECTURES
by William James.
686 pp. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Return to William James page.