In response to:
A Son and Brother from the June 29, 1967 issue
To the Editors:
…My principal question concerning Mr. Hampshire’s ardent Jacobinism—an enthusiasm which, incidentally, I share—relates to his assessment, also involving an assertion of priority, of the work of William James [NYR, June 29].
It is one aspect of the genius of James, and of his modernity, that to inquire into the psychological origins of his philosophy is not to imply even the smallest disrespect. He anticipated the inquiry. In a sense he was the first truly modern philosopher, because he hoped to understand the mechanisms by which philosophers, not excluding himself, project their inner conflicts and anxieties upon the universe, and because he was for this reason incapable of the pomposities which philosophers ordinarily use to protect themselves.
Granting William James’s eminence and, perhaps, preeminence, he seems to me to have been not “the first truly modern philosopher” with respect to the concerns noted in the foregoing quotation from Professor Hampshire but rather one who brought a great European philosophic tradition to a distinctively American expression. Hampshire’s account of William James’s achievement, particularly in The Principles of Psychology could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to many of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche—though in making the application one might want to acknowledge occasional “pomposities” in Nietzsche. If at all important this issue would have complications by reason of Nietzsche’s frequent attacks on the pomposities of professors—especially German professors—of philosophy. Yet when Nietzsche writes (in the final sentence of Chapter I, significantly entitled “Prejudices of Philosophers,” of Beyond Good and Evil) that “psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems” he is, it seems to me, in the philosophic tradition which William James developed rather than, pace Stuart Hampshire, established.
And what of Montaigne? A pedant might question the great essayist’s right to be included in the history of philosophy but I trust Professor Hampshire would not wish to support such pedantry and I hope he would agree with me that Montaigne was indeed a forerunner of William James. Examples of the tradition to which both, I think, made major contributions could readily be multiplied. Let me add but one whom Nietzsche recognized as his predecessor: Benedict Spinoza. As evidence, apart from the primary evidence of De Emendatione and the Ethics, I cite an admirable little book in the Pelican series: Spinoza by—Stuart Hampshire.
Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus
New York City