Amiable Genius

William James: Writings 1902–1910

edited by Bruce Kuklick
The Library of America, 1,379 pp., $27.50

William James wrote two masterworks that have permanent places in the history of thought. They have been read and continuously studied all over the world, from their date of publication until the present day: The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). The latter is the first work included in Bruce Kuklick’s Library of America volume, along with Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, The Meaning of Truth, Some Problems of Philosophy, and shorter works under the heading “Essays,” including “Address on the Philippine Question,” James’s protest against American jingoism and expansion.

James was one of the two most generally amiable, I think, of all the philosophers of genius, the other being David Hume. His own style, the surviving records from his friends and his family, and quoted comments of his from different stages of his life convey an impression, both vivid and sharply defined, of extraordinary openness, of generosity, vulnerability, of intense but uncertain energy, of unprotected human feeling and responsiveness to the thought and sciences of his time, as well as to the politics and the social changes around him. While his brother Henry hoarded himself and his energies for the sake of the work, ultimately for the New York Edition, which would stand on library shelves forever, William scattered himself in the intellectual business of his time. It is always delightful to come across further instances of his literary exuberance and of his enjoyment of his own phrase-making, an enjoyment that he directly communicates to the reader.

The peculiarity of his style is that he preserves in writing, even in his more formal philosophical works, the direct address of the born lecturer, confident of his ability to lend the right tone to his voice, and to vary the syntax of his sentences, in such a way as both to command the affection of his audience and to anticipate the boredom that attends abstract thinking. The solitary reader feels that he is being wooed and enticed along the difficult paths of thought by amusing metaphors, and he may even feel that the author is smiling at him through the prose. From Pragmatism: “[The pragmatist’s] world [say the rationalists] would not be respectable philosophically. It is a trunk without a tag, a dog without a collar, in the eyes of most professors of philosophy.”

This was a trick of James’s. It came from his overwhelming desire to be a cause of movement in men’s minds, to produce a public effect, to stir up the waters and prevent stagnation. Stasis and static were horror words for him. “The essence of life is its continuously changing character,” he said. This vision of a Heraclitean flux, and of the wonderful transience of things, is present in all the changing phases of his thought, and it animates his personal style. It also fits his vocation as the foremost American philosopher of his time standing in exemplary opposition to the heavy, second-generation Hegelianism of the Old World …

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