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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. The grand categories of Hegelian and other rationalisms were to him like so much Wilhelmine furniture cluttering up stuffy rooms in European minds: open the windows to the common world so that we breathe freely in philosophy, he seemed to say, and send the overdecorated lumber upstairs to the lumber room, where Josiah Royce, his idealist colleague at Harvard, might cherish and polish it.

He was fully aware of his representative role, of being the ambassador to Europe from Harvard and the philosophical emblem of the hustling, upstart New World now on the move, ready to cast off the yoke of the decaying monarchies of the mind still surviving in Germany and in Oxford. Unlike Henry, he adopted a republican breeziness of tone that would appeal to nonphilosophers and to the common reader over the heads of the university elect. He knew that he could achieve this without losing the easy charm and the intellectual good manners that he always carried with him and that caused him to be so well received in the learned societies of France, Germany, and England.

He was cosmopolitan in his sympathies and connections and at the same time the authentic American abroad, rather as Turgenev had been the authentic Russian in Paris. He stood out against Henry’s opposing need for some density of experience only to be found in the inherited constraints of shared history in London, Paris, or Rome. Henry hoped to profit from social stability as a background that throws passions into relief; William could only profit from the rush of change, from new sciences, from new experiments in physiology, or from the new studies of spiritualism, or from investigations of religious mysticism. To both brothers European society seemed comparatively “static,” with its social and cultural divisions hallowed and almost permanent. Henry lived to see the illusion of stability destroyed in 1914, and the authority of Europe, as if it had been the authority of an older brother, destroyed forever.

William James’s metaphysical vision, which never faded until his death in 1910, recurs here in A Pluralistic Universe in the confident statement, “What really exists is not things made but things in the making.” This sentence is in several respects exactly characteristic not only of James but of that short period in European thought that runs, like this volume, from 1902 to 1910. It was the period in which Bergson’s élan vital, and the confusion of immediate subjective experience, uncategorized and uncategorizable, became commonplaces in philosophy, both in France and in England, and this Heraclitean philosophy spread unusually fast into literary and political circles. It touched a nerve, a reaction against scientific optimism, as if a shudder was felt before the coming earthquake of the war.

In Appearance and Reality F.H. Bradley, in a nightmare version of Hume’s skepticism, represented ordinary experience as riddled with contradiction and as defying all possible description in ordinary language and all adequate understanding. He was an Edwardian pessimist with a lofty contempt for Victorian progress, and he shared James’s sense of metaphysical instability and of the turbulent river of experience into which one can never step twice. Sorel in Reflections on Violence applied Bergson’s thought to revolutionary politics, which, he wrote, should be a continuous, unpredicted flow of general strikes and spontaneous uprisings rather than a series of rationally justified and rationally planned events. New philosophies of art in Italy called for direct representation of l’expérience vécu in all its uncharted flow, dynamism, and speed. The doctrine of l’expérience vécu, of the flow of immediate experience never to be captured by our concepts, was in Bergson a dike built to prevent the anticipated intrusion of quantitative science into the study of the human mind.

It was not hostility to science that caused James to revere Bergson for his polemic directed against “the conceptual decomposition of life,” as James called it. James had helped to establish the first physiology laboratory at Harvard, and he always pressed for the experimental method to be applied in psychology. Of his own work, he wrote to Henry: “As Psychologies go, it is a good one, but psychology is in such an anti-scientific condition that the whole present generation of them is pre-destined to become unreadable old medieval lumber, as soon as the first genuine tracks of insights are made.” He experimented with the effect of drugs on his own state of mind and he kept in touch with work in abnormal and clinical psychology.

In The Principles of Psychology he blended the results of contemporary experiment with a priori reasoning about the nature of the mind, and about its relation to the body, in a mixed mode that now often seems just confusing. His vision was of converging lines of inquiry that would ultimately lead to a glorious new science of the mind, including the chemistry of the brain and the physiology of the imagination and of the emotions. Were he to return to earth now, he would be surprised by the comparative lack of progress in the experimental sciences in illuminating the still mysterious relation between mind and body. The discovery and commercial marketing of aspirin after 1904 was probably as large a step forward in the sciences of personality as has occurred since that date, even though it was a technology unsupported by any adequate understanding of the mechanisms involved in the experience of pain.

James remained a scientific optimist, in opposition to the backward-looking “Hegelisms,” as he called them, of his time, even though for himself he preferred the pleasures of free speculation, and the pleasure of making his thought clear to large audiences, to the slow drudgery of experiment. He always liked to keep moving, in thought as in life: he did not have the necessary calmness of the dogged experimenter at the bench, and from the early years when he had hoped to be an artist he knew this.

His Heraclitean metaphysics is beautifully declared, among other places, in the lecture “Bergson and Intellectualism,” which is one of the Hibbert lectures delivered at Manchester College, Oxford, in May 1908. It is significant that the Hibbert lectures of that year attracted larger audiences than had ever appeared for a philosophy lecture in Oxford before. Audiences that appeared for philosophy lectures in Oxford by Bertrand Russell both before and after the Second World War may have been comparable, in both cases, in response to the anticipated escape from academic routines.

The philosophical enemy in the Hibbert lectures is “the block universe,” which includes Hegelian idealists, conspicuously Bradley, and also scientific determinists, followers of Laplace. In revulsion from the block universe and from metaphysical monism, a pluralist ought to believe that “What really exists is not things but things in the making.” Experience is the key that opens the door to reality, and experience in the sense of lived-through experience, the unstructured, but introspectable, confusion of thoughts, sensations, and images that makes up “the dramatic flux of personal life”: not experience in the sense of observation conducted with a view to arranging slices of reality tidily under fitting concepts. Not only is it a matter of experience that reality does not present itself sliced into ready-made pieces, but reality even makes itself felt as intrinsically unsliceable.

James, like other Heracliteans, finds hydraulic metaphors irresistible at this point. He asks, “Can you dip up water with a net, however finely meshed?” The net here is a conceptual scheme, hopelessly arranged to trap free-flowing reality, and to hold it in place, at a standstill, while we study it. Ideally, for the sake of easy communication and control, we like to freeze the river, and then to move the pieces around experimentally to discover the relations between them. This is the block universe, an essentially unchanging, static monolith, which we have substituted for the real river of experience in the interest of intellectual tidiness and ease of manipulation. We have preferred explanation and limited control to mere truth, a simplified and abstract model to the complexities of actual experience. The relations that we find among the frozen fragments abstracted from the river may have their uses, particularly for engineers and for other technologists; but we must not persuade ourselves that these relations between selected ice blocks survive unchanged in the freely flowing river of reality. That is impossible. Restored unfrozen into the river, the distinct blocks cease to be distinct, and their components are interfused in untraceable patterns with uncounted elements from other parts of the river.

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