William James
William James; drawing by David Levine

In 1890 both Principles of Psychology and The Tragic Muse were published. Professor Allen quotes William James’s remark to Henry—the year “will be known as the great epochal year in American literature.” He was not deceived. The two brothers had stepped outside the provincial setting into which they were born. They had both known that it was their mission to establish a full and distinct American presence in modern thought and literature. They had both felt constrained and diminished in that small, far-away corner of the world, Cambridge, where “life is about as lively as in the inner sepulchre.” Each was to make his escape, with some difficulties and slowly, from an excessive spiritual refinement and to affirm his independence; but they had different strategies. That William finally stayed and Henry went; that William made himself a national figure, was proud of native resources, and found a philosophy that looked peculiarly American, while Henry found his models in European masters and in European manners: these are the familiar facts. Now that we have Professor Allen’s well-documented and intensely readable biography alongside Mr. Edel’s volumes on Henry, both based on family sources, the story can be seen to be very complex.

A preliminary apology may be needed for thinking of William James in this Shem and Shaun setting, as part of a brotherhood and a family and not simply as an original philosopher standing by himself. At least part of my excuse is that Professor Allen is particularly thorough in giving an account of this aspect of James’s life. As a biographer, with access to new sources, he is evidently more interested in James’s family relationships and in his emotional development than in his philosophy. But there is a more personal reason, a bias. From the early 1930s onward Henry James’s novels and stories, and the concealed character that they half reveal, have been of almost obsessional interest to many Englishmen. When in 1934 a friend took me to see Jacques-Emile Blanche, the then aged portrait painter, who had known most of the great writers and painters of his time both in England and in France, he was surprised and irritated that two undergraduates should come from Oxford to ask him about Henry James. Everything about the family was, and still seems, relevant.

The reason for this curiosity is not obscure. Henry James was the first and most authoritative witness to be heard on “the international problem”: that is, on the elusive differences between American and European experience and manners, and the typical dislocations which occur at any point of close contact. The history of the James family and of their European journeys, and Henry’s stories and novels, together illustrate the first phase of the return of Americans to Europe to test and to measure themselves, and to find the true nature of their difference, in Europe. He was at once a modern artist and a modern prophet. The James family, with their second-generation wealth and educated confidence, were highly articulate harbingers of the future, which turned into our present.

The letters and journals quoted in this biography add the detail of journeys and reflections on journeys which are missing from Notes of a Son and Brother. While William hesitated between science and philosophy, Henry’s whole future was determined in these early family visits to Europe. He was to become more far-seeing, and less deceived, about the deeper differences between European and American attitudes than any writer before or since. Anyone who has been placed at a point of contact between American and European ambitions, and has felt the surface tensions and tried to understand the dynamics of them, can still find no better textbook from which to start than The Golden Bowl. The harsh realities of the balance of power, and of the balance of innocence and corruption, taking different forms on the two sides, are there summed up with an extraordinary prescience. Henry James saw both sides, because he was divided, and was mocked by his brother for being so divided.

William had little contact with the world of Mr. Verver, with the new American fortunes, with the hard little men who came to Europe to buy, bringing that narrow, sharp caution and control of impulse which would wear down their pleasure-loving adversaries. The contrast between the brothers, which fills their letters, was very far from simple. As Henry’s genteel circumlocutions concealed immense energies and a concern with the mechanisms of society and the power of possession and property, and concealed also an iron will to succeed, so William’s frank and breezy style concealed the most sensitive perceptions, metaphysical doubts and self-doubts. William descended to depths of brooding despondency and of loss of normal impulse which were unknown to Henry, who was less fastidious, less gentle and less vulnerable, and more sure of his vocation.


AS A YOUNG MAN William could write to a friend, “All last winter…I was on the continual verge of suicide.” Professor Allen describes a succession of nervous illnesses and a continuing hypochondria. James came to think of philosophy itself as a form of hypochondria, a diseased preoccupation with the possibility of finding a stable value in existence. Toward the end of his life, he was to say, “Healthy animality, what would I give to have been educated in it.” For him the existential problem had always been the relation of the mind to the body, the relation of thought and the will to the mechanical and chemical causes which physiologists study. He had two ideas of the self and of personal identity, both of which were irresistibly vivid to him, and which he could not put together without anxiety and a sense of conflict. His own efforts of will in overcoming his nervous weakness and moods of disgust were an undeniable reality, a datum of experience as primitive as anything to be observed in a laboratory. But the spiritual powers which seemed to govern his inner life could neither be plausibly identified with, nor disconnected from, the causal connections that a mature psychology would discover. Characteristically, he could allow his emotions to be identified with the perceptible dispositions and behavior that revealed them. But the inner core of personality, the struggling self that would contain and direct these passions, ought to be “something solid within my breast.”

He could often, and particularly in his later years, see himself, with his metaphysical anxieties and efforts of will, as being a representative case for clinical study. But he would turn around and, like his father, claim “the right to have a say about the deepest reasons of the universe”; and this seemed to presuppose some independent and superior vantage point within his mind. If the solid center within his breast was felt to give way and to melt into the sea of natural phenomena, ebbing and flowing according to its own unalterable laws, he would feel himself disintegrated and insane. This in fact happened in the crisis which is tentatively placed in the spring of 1870, when he was twenty-eight. This breakdown is probably described in a well-known passage of Varieties of Religious Experience as the experience of an unnamed Frenchman. He had looked into “that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life” and it was a revelation of an emptiness and powerlessness, of a missing mainspring. The anxiety lasted for some months, and could be described as “a horrible fear of my own existence.”

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. He knew that his symptoms of conflict had often been the occasion of religious conversions: how natural that, in the emancipated James household, they should prompt an obsession with the freedom of the will and with the problems of personal identity and dual personality. He could not press his self-analysis very far, if only because he had not even the outlines of a tested theory with which to work. His phenomenology of philosophical attitudes was largely guesswork and literary intuition.

This biography, like Notes of a Son and Brother, brings out the indecisiveness, the ineffectiveness, the enveloping spirituality, the damaged and amorphous personality of his father, together with his great nobility of mind, “in the stiff, stupid house” of James’s childhood as a severe witness described it; the sons and Professor Allen’s other sources thought of it as a house held together by women. The manly ideal that James set himself required that philosophy should take one into the open air and toward the frontiers of scientific exploration, and that the effort of discovery should be in the same mold as mountain-climbing in the Adirondacks. His lectures and teaching at Harvard imparted this manliness and strenuousness in discovery, which naturally appealed more to Gertrude Stein, his pupil, than to his colleague Santayana, who noticed principally “a pathetic sincerity.”

James turned away from the ineffective ruminations, the beautiful consolations which seemed to have separated tender philosophy from the positive sciences. Of Josiah Royce he remarked: “The subject is not really vital to him: it is just fancy work.” Royce is here made to represent the typical academic philosopher, with a fine edifice of theory to his credit, assured, admired, and intellectually bland: the serious philosopher. James never became, in this pejorative sense, a serious philosopher, and he was always fretting and restless within an academic setting. He had no time for “the cool, dry, thin-edged men who now abound,” a typical phrase which reveals his distrust of those who “made a business of philosophy.” He recognized the uncomfortable genius of Peirce, the greatest of American philosophers, and did what he could to help him. Professor Allen constructs, principally by quotation, a coherent picture of his greatness as a teacher who inspired independent inquiry and who lent a new dignity to his profession in America.


AS A PHILOSOPHER his originality lay in having converted a very specific demand, which traditionally had been the starting point of metaphysics, into a demand laid upon psychology. He had to find “some stable reality to lean upon” which would remain constant in the flow of his experience; this was his “strongest craving,” but it was to be satisfied only within a setting of strict naturalism. His conscience would not allow him an appeal to some special form of knowledge or access to reality, unknown to the sciences, which is the ordinary path taken by those who, like Maine de Biran, had craved for some guarantee of a stable self.

The Principles of Psychology is a masterpiece which remains entirely readable because of this tension and connecting theme, and because of the directness, absence of pretense, almost naiveté, with which he exposes his difficulties. The Augustinian search for the center of mental activity is pursued in a light, experimental, entirely modern tone which is almost the tone of conversation. The book was also very well organized, and its chapters fixed distinct topics of inquiry for some generations ahead. It carries the weight of dead psychological and physiological theory, and survives. Like Portrait of a Lady, which contains very similar reflections on personal identity, its language is unforced and easy and is enjoyed even by those who dislike Jamesian bravura. Varieties of Religious Experience of 1902 seems to me a rather more superficial work, looking back to the cultivated opinion of the last century rather than forward to the philosophical concerns of our own time, to George Eliot rather than to the contemporary philosophy of mind. Professor Allen shows that in the later years, after 1902, James had “a feverish, personal ambition” to achieve a philosophical synthesis. He failed. Lacking a hard logical structure, his later philosophy may be valued as suggestive and lively essay writing.

PROFESSOR ALLEN concentrates attention upon the intricate relationships within the James family, and upon William’s efforts to overcome depressions, vacillations, and psychosomatic illnesses. But he is not overemphatic and is content to present the facts from the family papers without thrusting explanations on the reader. He illustrates James’s immense charm, his shrewdness, wit, impatience, and integrity by wonderful quotations from letters, and James emerges as an irresistibly amiable and serious man. His comments on popular lecturing recall The Bostonians. He found himself “meeting minds so earnest and helpless that it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to its immediately next neighbour” and then “they lie down on it…like a cow on a door-mat, so that you can get neither in nor out with them.” He felt like saying to his eager audiences, “Smooth out your voices if you want to be saved.” The note of aristocratic impatience here was common to the family, who must have felt themselves to be a first family of the mind, centrally placed in Cambridge, facing toward Europe and away from the uncouth settlements further West, where Mr. Verver was making his millions and getting ready to buy beautiful things and beautiful thoughts.

Professor Allen suggests why the word “experience” was for both William and Henry, sons of a genteel house, a sacred word: as if, in pursuit of that which they would each count as experience, they were invalids finding their way out of a dim sick-room into the sun, from a banal and settled virtue toward the discovery of uncertainty. It is sometimes thought strange that William James could spend a lifetime thinking about the relation between mind and body and about the emotions, without inquiring into the nature of sexuality, which intuitively might seem to be the central case of this relation. But he was contemporary only with the beginnings of this inquiry, and he was at least open-minded about Freud’s suggestions and in touch with experiments in medicine. He remained until his death open to any new range of experience, believing, in his brother’s words, that “experience is never limited, and it is never complete”; the value resides in the process rather than in the product. He said finally of philosophy exactly what his brother would say of the art of fiction, “there are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.” If fortunes are to be told, and advice given, this must be the work of his earlier profession: experimental psychology, which is a branch of medicine.

This Issue

June 29, 1967