A PASSIONATE COMMITMENT TO EXPERIENCE?

A review of A Stroll with William James, by Jacques Barzun.
by Robert Coles, Harvard University

America never had - and may never enjoy again - another pair like William and Henry James. The brothers' combined genius appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, in the last third of the 19th century as evidence of a young nation's cultural distinction and a reminder to Europe (where Henry lived for so long and to which William frequently traveled) that the forbidding forests of the New World had indeed been tamed.

Henry's prose offered all the social and cultural sophistication anyone might want - yet, ironically, his heroes and (especially) heroines were often Americans whose innocence showed up Europe's jaded smugness. William, older by 15 months, dared contest established Continental thinking in his psychological investigations; with gusto and shrewdness he disputed German idealist philosophers and even pushed the British empiricists, to whom he was more sympathetic. At his death in 1910, he had earned the attention (inevitably a mixture of awe and envious derision) of the loftiest foreign minds. America's cranky individualism - the individual as more than the dictates of any paradigm or formulation - had obtained in him a commanding voice.

Their reputations were hardly impaired by the passage of time. Indeed, by their centenaries in 1942-43, Ralph Barton Perry's twovolume biography of William had recently been published (1935), and ''The James Family'' by F.O. Matthiessen was not far ahead (1947). Later came the admiring attention Leon Edel gave in volume after volume devoted to Henry's life and work. Mr. Edel's efforts were preceded by the writing advocacy of Jacques Barzun. Forty years ago the historian and later provost of Columbia University saw how desperately a nation obsessed with I.Q. scores, child development schedules and personality tests required the immense, cautionary subtlety that a whole range of novels, from ''The Portrait of a Lady'' to ''The Wings of the Dove,'' brought to late 19th- and early 20th-century psychology, not to mention literature.

We learn in Mr. Barzun's latest book that his sympathies have extended to both brothers. He believes their contribution was a collective one, a statement both powerful and tactful: the mind as the repository of a life's secrets to be fathomed through suggestive stories or literate essays rather than the mind as an excuse for ambitious, overwrought conceptual performances, if not hanky panky. The use of ''stroll'' in his title is no mere conceit or selling device; the author wants to make an immediate statement about the nature of his literary involvement with a particular historical personality -an enjoyable, active encounter.

Mr. Barzun gives plenty of biographical details, but his primary interest is in William James's work rather than the events in his life. The point of the exercise is an engagement of two congenial human beings - thus the presence of generous quotes from ''The Principles of Psychology,'' ''Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life's Ideals,'' ''The Varieties of Religious Experience,'' ''A Pluralistic Universe'' and the posthumous ''Essays in Radical Empiricism,'' as well as from letters and anecdotal remarks. This manner of exposition, also used by Matthiessen, is an edifying act of affection toward a man who loved frank and animated intellectual exchanges and mocked pedantry. As Mr. Barzun keeps emphasizing, James had no interest in lording his ideas over friends, colleagues, students. He was open-minded and kindly; he invited criticism - even, to the consternation of some, pursued it. He had an innate generosity of spirit, an inclination to share his ideas with others, and so his writing naturally favors a response like the conversation through quotation that Mr. Barzun has sought with him.

Certain themes recur. James had an analytic sensibility, whose wizardry he deeply distrusted. Like Simone Weil and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was a philosopher who had undergone rigorous intellectual training but worried about the possible excesses of that training: the distortions and deceptions of language; the presumptuous arrogance of theories that ignore, even disdain, the concreteness of mere fact. At a certain moment, James knew, renunciation is in order, lest all life, all history get sucked into an Explanation, the Word made God.

''A person's character is known by the concepts he keeps,'' Mr. Barzun observes and then reminds us that James declared himself ''never able to forget'' what he called ''the difference between all possible abstractionists and all livers in the light of the world's concrete fullness.'' On the same page Mr. Barzun insists that ''history is the realm in which the particular is the center of interest.'' He pointedly adds: ''Generalities help to organize and relate, but reification -making agents or forces out of generalities - is the unforgivable fault.'' (This is Alred North Whitehead's ''fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'')

There is some marvelous polemic in this book. James energizes Mr. Barzun, although their dialectic is not quite Hegel's. James: ''From every point of view the overwhelming and portentous character ascribed to universal conceptions is surprising. ... The only value of universal characters is that they help us, by reasoning, to know new truths about individual things.'' Barzun: ''The ladder of increasing generality is traveled up and down in the mind a dozen times an hour without one's noticing it. If from love of abstraction new conceptual terms are substituted for common ones, it often happens that the power of words to direct thought approaches zero. 'Serious love affair' used to be a good enough phrase to indicate a whole range of feelings and actions. We have substituted 'meaningful relationship,' which is so indefinite that it could cover the association of a hunter and his dog - or even that of oxygen and hydrogen in water.''

James shunned reductionist thinking. He was comfortable - eerily so, many felt - with life's confusions, contradictions, inconsistencies, ironies, ambiguities. In a marvelously compact, knowing summary, Mr. Barzun has his spiritual kinsman regarding the human mind as ''a stream running after some half sensed goal, yet capable of attention, forming objects like an artist and concepts like a geometrician, while the whole organism, acting like a sounding-board, generates the emotions that reason is meant to serve.'' Such a view is, of course, inadequate for many of us who find behaviorist or psychoanalytic imagery (often called ''scientific'') more appealing.

But James was no stranger either to experimental psychology or Freud's theoretical writing. He had studied in Germany, and he devoted 200 pages of his ''Principles of Psychology'' to a discussion of the work of Helmholtz, Fechner and Wundt. He was a physician, keenly interest in neurology and physiology. Moreover, in 1909 he was at Clark University in Massachusetts to welcome Freud and Jung and wish them well -though he quickly noticed the stubborn ideological assertiveness of those two fellow physicians, a willingness to be (he put it) ''obsessed with a fixed idea.'' The contrast with his own relaxed, self-critical point of view is instructive: ''We should not treat our classification with too much respect.'' For such, however, there is a price: There have been few self-declared Jamesians.

ON that score, Mr. Barzun is very loyal; he refuses to turn his hero into yet another doctrinal disciplinarian insistent on the letter of a given series of laws. He reminds us that James possessed an artistic temperament; he studied painting with William Morris Hunt, and John La Farge was a fellow student. Mr. Barzun also notes that James was an adventurer of sorts who boldly interrupted his studies at Harvard Medical School to accompany Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon. James's strong interest in religious matters, in the so-called psychical, was abiding. He was an eager but tolerant observer, wary of absolutes, always willing to take a metaphysical chance, though no one's fool. In pragmatism, with its emphasis on the practical consequences of any interpretive foray, he offered a way of looking rather than a tidy bundle of rules. His passion was experience: the rendering of its complex texture.

William James was a survivor who went from youthful neurasthenic gloom to a willful recovery, then an outburst of research and writing. He was able to enjoy the contrariness of his emotions, his perceptions. He loved teaching yet hated the gossipy egotism that can tempt academics, among others. He loved the play of his mind yet worried over its excesses of pride. He found truth in immanence yet understood the compelling attraction of transcendence.

In many respects he anticipated the second half of the 20th century; relativism and urgent existentialism are more than implicit in his thinking. However, he was also an old-fashioned Yankee stoic, skeptical but always yearning for a faith he knew he would never really have. In this book he emerges as a friend to a distinguished contemporary historian - Jacques Barzun's intellectual guide and moral example. Somewhere in the universe the ardent, robust walker William James must be quietly delighted at receiving this eloquent and wise testimonial from a longtime traveling companion.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
Review appeared May 29, 1983

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